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The Women Who Built Grunge

Four women — members of rock band L7 — pose on a park bench wearing sunglasses.
L7 in 1992. Photo: Martyn Goodacre/Getty Images


Lisa Whittington-Hill | Longreads | June 2022 | 16 minutes (4,445 words)

Jennifer Finch is smiling, but she’s clearly frustrated. “Everywhere I go, everywhere I turn, I see this fucking face,” says the bassist for Los Angeles band L7. “Frankly, I’m sick of it.” Finch is holding a copy of the January 1992 issue of Spin, which happens to be Nirvana’s first national magazine cover; the face in question belongs to her ex-boyfriend, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl. 

The scene appears in the 2016 documentary L7: Pretend We’re Dead, but the sentiment dates back much farther. When the magazine was published, Finch and her L7 bandmates were in the studio recording their third album, Bricks Are Heavy. L7 had formed in 1985, two years before Nirvana was in bloom, and the two bands had toured England together in 1990. Yet, with Nirvana’s breakthrough 1991 album, Nevermind, Grohl, bassist Krist Novoselic, and lead singer/guitarist Kurt Cobain had seemingly gone from obscurity to ubiquity overnight: Nevermind was selling upwards of 300,000 copies a week, and was about to knock Michael Jackson’s Dangerous off the top of the Billboard charts. 

Nevermind was not the only seminal grunge album released in 1991. Pearl Jam’s Ten hit the record store at your local mall in August 1991 and Soundgarden’s Badmotorfinger in October. By the time L7’s Bricks Are Heavy was released in April 1992, grunge had exploded: You could buy Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell’s look at your local Walmart, rusty cage not included. But as Finch and her bandmates would find, not everyone in the grunge scene was granted the same success; despite glowing reviews, Bricks Are Heavy topped out at #160 on the Billboard 200.

From the return of jelly shoes to the pop culture nostalgia of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, the ’90s are back. Chuck Klosterman’s latest essay collection, The Nineties: A Book, chronicles what the author calls “the last decade with a fully formed and recognizable culture of its own”; Vice’s series The Dark Side of the 90s revisits the Gulf War, the Viper Room, and the dating history of Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz (a Gen X Pete Davidson if ever there was one). And with 30th anniversaries this summer of albums from Sonic Youth’s Dirty to Screaming Trees’ Sweet Oblivion — not to mention the Singles soundtrack, which 30 years ago this week packaged the “Seattle sound” for a mainstream audience — our desire to revisit and re-consume the decade that brought us Baywatch, Beavis and Butt-Head, and Beanie Babies shows no signs of slowing down. 

But not everything is cause for celebration. While the alternative and grunge scene of the early to mid-’90s celebrated opposition to the mainstream, it was also a very white, very male scene that downplayed the significant contributions of artists who didn’t fit that description. Female bands like 7 Year Bitch and Babes in Toyland sold significantly fewer records than their male counterparts, generated fewer bidding wars, and received less press. When not ignored, women were objectified by the media and marginalized by an industry that treated them like a fad, promoting only a handful of female musicians and only for a brief period. As we revisit the decade that gave us grunge, rather than be all apologies, it’s the perfect time to reexamine, reevaluate, and rewrite history — especially for the women who made up the scene. 

* * *

“If you look at any history of that time, you’d think almost no women were making music,” Gretta Harley told Seattle magazine in 2013 of Seattle’s early grunge music scene. Harley, a punk rock guitarist, had moved to Seattle in 1990 just as grunge was changing the city and putting it on the musical map; she formed the group Maxi Badd (which would become the Danger Gens) with drummer Dave Parnes and bassist Tess. Lotta. But when Nevermind’s 20th anniversary in 2011 prompted a rush of tributes to Nirvana and its influential album, she realized that none of them accurately reflected the Seattle scene — or women’s role in it. 

That inspired Harley, along with actress and writer Sarah Rudinoff and playwright Elizabeth Kenny, to write the 2013 play These Streets. “We started looking at the books that were written by different authors, and the women were absent, almost completely absent,” said Harley.

“[W]hen a 250-page history of Seattle’s rock heyday … only includes a page and a half on the women of the era — calling it ‘The Female Presence’ — something feels … wrong,” wrote Laura Dannen in a preview of the play for Seattle Met magazine. “Like a female guitarist was some kind of elusive Bengal tiger, caught only briefly on tape.” These Streets explored the experiences of women in grunge in the late ’80s and early ’90s, drawing on interviews with more than 40 women in the scene. From Carrie Akre of Hammerbox and Kim Warnick of The Fastbacks to Lazy Susan’s Kim Virant and 7 Year Bitch’s Valerie Agnew and Elizabeth Davis-Simpson, These Streets shined a light on the contributions that so many histories had ignored. 

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Even those who managed to break through to wider renown, though, found themselves consistently undervalued. Like Nirvana, L7 had released one of indie label Sub Pop’s Singles of the Month, 1990’s “Shove/Packin’ a Rod.” After its second studio album, 1990’s Smell the Magic, was also released on Sub Pop, the band signed to Warner Bros. subsidiary Slash Records — for what is described in the documentary Pretend We’re Dead as a “shit deal” — at a time when major labels were scrambling to sign any band with a guitar and proximity to the Space Needle. Even when L7 finally got its own Spin cover in 1993, the compliment was backhanded: Next to the band’s photo was the coverline “More Than Babes in Boyland.” 

The Spin coverline embodied everything L7 was against. It wasn’t just sexist; it also manufactured a rivalry between L7 and Babes in Toyland, another female band at the time, flattening both to a girl-group trope. L7 often avoided group interviews and refused to be part of “women in music” special issues because the band felt they deserved their own article and didn’t want to be classified by their gender. “When we were naming our band, we did not want a gender-specific name,” said singer and guitarist Donita Sparks in a 2012 Spin oral history. “I wanted people to listen to our music and go, ‘Who the fuck is this?’ I didn’t really want to be lumped in with anybody. Us being women wasn’t a political platform.”

The uneven treatment of women in the scene was even more pronounced if you were a woman of color making music. Tina Bell, a Black woman, formed Seattle band Bam Bam with her husband, guitarist Tommy Martin, in 1983; she was the frontwoman and principal songwriter. Bam Bam would perform with The Melvins, Soundgarden, and Alice in Chains, and were named KCMU/KEXP’s “Best NW Band.” Its 1984 EP Villains (Also Wear White) preceded Green River’s album Come on Down, often regarded as the first grunge album. Yet, while Bell is often referred to as the “Godmother of Grunge,” she’s also left out of most histories of the scene.

The Spin coverline embodied everything L7 was against. It wasn’t just sexist; it also manufactured a rivalry between L7 and Babes in Toyland, another female band at the time, flattening both to a girl-group trope.

“This modern genre’s sound was, in many ways, molded by a Black woman,” wrote Stephanie Siek in a 2021 Zora article about Bell’s legacy. “The reason she is mostly unknown has everything to do with racism and misogyny. Looking back at the beginnings of grunge, with the preconception that ‘everybody involved’ was White and/or male, means ignoring the Black woman who was standing at the front of the line.” 

For more: Lisa Whittington-Hill unpacked Courtney Love’s legacy in 2019. Read that piece here.

Bell eventually left the band and quit music; tragically, she died in 2012, shortly before a scheduled reunion of the band. However, when Bam Bam is referenced in accounts of the scene, it is sometimes referred to as a three-piece, removing Bell and her legacy completely. When she does receive a mention, it’s often in the context of Kurt Cobain being rumored to be a fan of Bell and the band. (Cobain had discovered them while he was a roadie for The Melvins.) 

Female musicians are often granted legitimacy based on their proximity to more successful, male musicians, and Bell is no exception. If you were a woman making music and Cobain name-checked you, you were automatically cool. (Sadly, Courtney Love remains one of the only exceptions to this rule.) “In general, in most histories, women’s participation has been disregarded from the get-go or cut from the narrative after-the-fact,” wrote Jen B. Larson in a tribute to Bell on the website Please Kill. “Though women have played key roles in musical innovations over time, we tend to notice them in hindsight, and only if dedicated crate-diggers are meticulous in excavating the past. The motif is especially apparent for Black women.” 

* * *

For a 2016 issue celebrating the 25th anniversary of grunge, British music magazine Q published a special package that included insiders and musicians talking about the scene. Not surprisingly, the piece features no women. Hole’s 1994 record Live Through This is the only entry from a band featuring women on a list of the 25 most influential grunge albums. Mojo’s “Early Grunge Classics” and Revolver’s “Flyin’ the Flannel” both feature no entries by women. There are also no women on Rolling Stone’s readers’ poll of the best grunge albums of all time. 

When the media covered women in the grunge and alternative scene, it treated them like a genre unto itself. This genre, though, received almost no in-depth profiles or features. Instead, women were given the listicle treatment: an easy way for an outlet to appear to cover female musicians, without the hard work of devoting actual words and thought to them. From “5 Female-Led Bands That Channelled the Fearless Ferocity of Grunge” to “10 Essential Alternative ’90s Bands Fronted by Women You Should Know,” the facile format signaled that a magazine didn’t deem their work or musical contribution worthy of serious consideration. 

If music and talent weren’t the subject of the listicle, you can probably guess what was: appearance and sex appeal. In 2011, SF Weekly somehow managed to use a listicle to objectify women and celebrate male bands at the same time: “As Nirvana’s Nevermind turns 20 this week, and Pearl Jam celebrates two decades of being a band, we think it’s time to look back on the top 10 hottest women in grunge,” reads the introduction to “The Top 11 Hottest Women in Grunge.”  

When the media covered women in the grunge and alternative scene, it treated them like a genre unto itself. This genre, though, received almost no in-depth profiles or features.

As for the lists themselves, they often highlighted artists who had little in common except their gender.’s “10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s” includes L7’s Donita Sparks, Björk, and Juliana Hatfield — all women, yes, but all women making quite different music. (Garbage and Gwen Stefani on the same list? Why not! They both wrote songs with “Girl” in the title.) Not only do listicles reduce gender to a genre, but they also pit women against each other as they compete for the number one spot, or any spot at all. There are already too many competitive situations for women in music; we didn’t need a Spin top 10 to fuel yet another.

And then there were the “women in music” packages and special issues. These may have devoted more space to the acts in question, but they again flattened these women into a single monolithic group. “The all-women’s issue. The women in rock. This ghetto that they put us in. You get the one issue a year. People always compare us to bands with female singers. Not that we don’t love those bands, but it seems so narrow-minded to me,” said former Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss in an interview with Broad City co-creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson.

“Women in music” issues reached their tragic peak in 1997. First came Spin’s “The Girl Issue,” the cover of which featured Fiona Apple alongside the headline, “She’s Been a Bad, Bad Girl.” Inside, the accompanying profile included the line, “Fiona Apple is a pop star trapped in the body of a pretty teenage girl.” (The profile seems unable to stop reminding readers of Apple’s gender, comparing her to other female musicians and repeatedly talking about her looks and “sexy and girlish” outfits.) Not to be outdone, Rolling Stone published its own “Girl Issue” later that year, with a cover featuring the random-seeming combination of Madonna, Courtney Love, and Tina Turner. Magazines thought they were celebrating women, without realizing that the very nature of the celebration accomplished exactly the opposite. Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger punctured the tradition perfectly with its satirical “men who rock” special issues in 2012 and 2015 — complete with sexy-pose photoshoots and inane interview questions.

Portrait of grunge band L7 sitting in a sauna, photographed in the early 1990's.

L7 (and a mystery woman) in a photoshoot typical of media coverage at the time. Photo: AJ Barratt/Avalon/Getty Images

When women in the ’90s received coverage, interview questions focused exclusively on the idea that a woman making music was a novelty. Women were repeatedly asked to recount tales of the sexism they experienced, feed into fake feuds with other female musicians, or talk about their looks, fashion choices, or who they were dating — all things that would rarely be asked of a man, except maybe in a parody issue of The Stranger. “When you’re a woman working in a man’s world, your gender is acknowledged constantly,” wrote Jillian Mapes in a Flavorwire piece on women rock musicians. “At times it can feel empowering, this sense of taking up richly deserved space in a man’s world. But at a certain point, gender-defined underdog status and tokenization grows old, even if it’s positioned as a necessary breath of fresh air in the press or among fans.”

When not objectifying them (“Spanks for the Memory,” reads the headline of a 1990 Melody Maker piece on Babes in Toyland), coverage focused on female musicians’ behavior over their music. Like L7’s Donita Sparks throwing her used tampon into the audience at 1992’s Reading Festival after the crowd hurled mud at the band. Or Alanis Morissette talking about going down on a Full House cast member in a theater. Or anything Courtney Love did. (“Love ripped through the grunge scene like a hurricane, marrying its prom king and becoming as notorious for her public antics as for her music,” reads the entry for Love on’s list of the “10 Best Female Rockers of the ’90s,” which echoed most of the pieces written about her in that decade.) 

* * *

In the early ’90s, grunge was often associated with riot grrrl, the name taken by Olympia, Washington’s underground feminist movement. On the surface, the two scenes took a similar form. Both originated in the Pacific Northwest, had their roots in punk, and shared a DIY ethic. Grunge and riot grrrl bands often played shows together, signed to the same record labels, and formed friendships. 

But not everyone agreed with the affiliation. “There was a sexist shock-value imagery with grunge,” said Allison Wolfe, a member of riot grrrl act Bratmobile, in a 2021 Guardian piece on the 30th anniversary of the record label Kill Rock Stars. “Especially from Sub Pop bands. It didn’t speak to us. I’m not that naked woman on the cover with blood dripping all over me [in Dwarves’ 1990 single “Drug Store”]. It was about forging a path to have a voice and knowing even if we didn’t have the musical skills that we had something to say that would be more interesting than half the shit these guys are saying.” 

Female musicians were often labeled by journalists as riot grrrls, regardless of whether they self-identified as such. Not only was it lazy and disrespectful, but it highlighted the limited vocabulary and reference points that existed when talking about women making music. “Riot grrrl” became a catch-all to easily categorize and compartmentalize women. 

Meanwhile, riot grrrl bands routinely met ridicule and dismissal from the media. Rarely, if ever, did journalists or critics engage with the substance of the music. Instead, articles focused on the physical appearances and fashion choices of the girls or wondered whether Chelsea Clinton would become a riot grrrl when she moved to Washington. A Melody Maker piece suggested that “the best thing any Riot Grrrl could do is to go away and do some reading and I don’t mean a grubby little fanzine,” and Newsweek called riot grrrl “feminism with a loud happy face dotting the ‘i.’” 

“I think it was deliberate that we were made to look like we were just ridiculous girls parading around in our underwear,” said Corin Tucker, of Sleater-Kinney and Heavens to Betsy, in an interview for Riot Grrrl Retrospectives, a 1999 video project by Seattle’s Museum of Pop Culture. “They refused to do serious interviews with us, they misprinted what we had to say; they would take our articles and our fanzines and our essays and take them out of context. We wrote a lot about sexual abuse and sexual assault for teenagers and young women. I think those are really important concepts that the media never addressed.”

A black and white photo of an all-female band performing on stage.

Sleater Kinney performs at the Riot Grrrl Convention in Los Angeles in 1995. (Photo: Lindsay Brice/Getty Images)

Nowhere was there any mention of the musicians who had influenced riot grrrl acts like Bratmobile and Bikini Kill. It was as though Kim Gordon had never co-founded Sonic Youth, as though The Slits had never existed. Women making music were treated like a novelty — each group of female musicians treated like the first, their history erased and their connection to the future denied. “There were a lot of very important ideas that I think the mainstream media couldn’t handle, so it was easier to focus on the fact that these were girls who were wearing barrettes in their hair or writing ‘slut’ on their stomach,” said Sharon Cheslow, who formed Chalk Circle, Washington D.C.’s first all-female punk band in 1981, in another Riot Grrrl Retrospectives interview. Riot grrrl eventually declared a media boycott in 1992 over growing concerns that their messages were being misinterpreted, diluted, and trivialized. 

And just as with “women in music” special issues, female artists were seen as disposable and automatically compared to each other. “PJ Harvey‘s record-breaking contributions to indie rock are redoubtable, but rock’s one-in one-out policy for women has made her an inescapable comparison for any rock woman standing alone with a six string and toe pressed to a distortion pedal,” wrote Charlotte Richardson Andrews in a 2012 Guardian piece

One-in and one-out also applied to radio airplay and concert bills. If there was already a woman on a festival lineup or in radio rotation in the ’90s, there was resistance to adding another. I remember attending Lollapalooza in 1992, disappointed there was only one band featuring women on the bill — British band Lush — especially because the festival prided itself on its diversity. (I also accidentally locked myself in a port-a-potty and missed all of Pearl Jam’s performance, which has led to a lifelong fear of both the band and portable toilets, but that’s a different piece.)

Lilith Fair launched in 1997 to counter the lack of women on festival lineups and offer support and exposure for female artists — not to mention all the Biore pore strips audiences wanted. The event grossed $16 million its first year, making it the top-grossing touring festival, but not everyone was happy. “The latest trend in rock and roll: women,” announced ABC News’s Elizabeth Vargas, opening a segment about Lilith Fair. Sleater-Kinney declined to join Lilith Fair; Garbage’s Shirley Manson, among others, criticized it for its lack of diversity. Lilith Fair also helped contribute to the misbelief that music made by women had to be personal, had to be polite, and had to include an acoustic guitar. It also reinforced the idea that women’s music is only for women audiences.

Lilith Fair represented a more mainstream, commercial approach to feminism than the political action and activism of the riot grrrls, but both contributed to the idea of the ’90s as an encouraging and supportive utopia for female-fronted acts which gave the illusion of gender equality in music. While women musicians achieved undeniable success during the decade, Revolution Girl Style was far from over.

* * *

Grunge benefitted from its connection to riot grrrrl because it made the male-dominated scene seem more feminist, more progressive, and less sexist than it was. When women took Sharpies to their skin, the media dismissed them; when Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder did it, it somehow became cool and subversive. During a performance of the band’s song “Porch” on their 1992 MTV Unplugged show, Vedder wrote “PRO-CHOICE!!!” on his arm with a black marker; later that year, he appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a T-shirt with a wire hanger and a pro-choice slogan on it. He also penned a 1992 op-ed on abortion for Spin. The mainstream media could handle politics in its music — as long as it was men doing the talking.

Whereas riot grrrl’s anger had scared journalists, resulting in misrepresentation and mockery, Vedder was allowed to be angry. “All the Rage,” read the cover of Time’s 1993 issue about how this new breed of angry male rockers was expressing the “passions and fears of a generation.” Both Vedder and Kurt Cobain declined to be interviewed for the story, but Vedder ended up on the cover anyway. This trend continued through the ’90s: men being lauded for their anger while women like Alanis Morissette were policed for it, accused of manufacturing outrage as a marketing strategy. Female musicians like Morissette had to be just angry enough to sell records, but not angry enough to risk offending anyone.

But male grunge bands also promoted a progressive, feminist stance, and changed the tone from the machismo and sexism associated with Mötley Crüe and other ’80s bands. They helped to bring gender politics to the mainstream, and regularly challenged sexism in their song lyrics, interviews, and videos. They championed feminist organizations, causes, and musicians, helping to bring them to a larger, more mainstream audience. I’d grown up watching ’80s hair-metal bands on MTV; male musicians promoting the idea that women were something other than bangable flesh trophies blew me away more than a RATT video’s pyrotechnics ever could.

I’d grown up watching ’80s hair-metal bands on MTV; male musicians promoting the idea that women were something other than bangable flesh trophies blew me away more than a RATT video’s pyrotechnics ever could.

In interviews, Cobain regularly supported and name-checked female musicians, from Shonen Knife to The Breeders, expanding the audience for these artists. In some cases, as with L7, these bands had been making music for longer than Nirvana, but unfortunately, it took a man championing them to bring the girls to the (fore)front. Cobain and Vedder also supported female musicians by bringing them on tour or joining them on the bill for benefits in support of a variety of causes, including Rock for Choice and Rock Against Rape. I remember a male friend praising Vedder for organizing Rock for Choice. He assumed the singer was responsible for it after he saw a picture in a music magazine of Vedder sporting a shirt for the benefit concerts. (He didn’t; that was L7 and Sue Cummings, a senior editor for LA Weekly.) Bands from Rage Against the Machine to Mudhoney played Rock for Choice concerts during the ’90s and while Vedder wearing the shirt helped to raise the cause’s profile, it also overshadowed the important work L7, and other female musicians did. 

What’s often overlooked, and important to remember, is that female musicians influenced Cobain’s feminist message — notably Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna and Tobi Vail — as did the the formative time Nirvana spent in Olympia. Cobain’s activism didn’t come from nowhere; it came from his proximity to, and association, with riot grrrl. “From the very beginning, he was aware of the gender issue,” said NPR music critic Ann Powers in a Daily Beast story about Nirvana’s legacy. Cobain may have promoted Bikini Kill and riot grrrl in interviews, but he wouldn’t have had his feminism without them.

This year marks the 28th anniversary of Cobain’s death. Each year the music media commemorates the occasion with tribute articles, think pieces, and reminders of all the conspiracy theories that still surround Cobain’s death. “10 Years After His Tragic Death: Why The Man And His Music Still Matter” reads the cover of an April 2004 issue of Spin. The “special collector’s issue” includes a history of grunge, a list of 30 essential Nirvana recordings and other media, and musicians from The Strokes to Soundgarden sharing their memories of Cobain. Similar tributes mark the anniversary of the deaths of Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell, who died by suicide in May 2017, and Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley, who died of a drug overdose in April 2002. 

Sadly, the deaths of female musicians don’t receive nearly the same level of media attention. The anniversary of the death of Mia Zapata, lead singer of The Gits, who was murdered and brutally raped in July 1993, deserves more tributes. The deaths of Hole bassist Kristen Pfaff, who died two months after Cobain, or 7 Year Bitch lead singer Stefanie Sargent, who died in 1992, should also not be overshadowed by the deaths of male musicians.     

Deaths are not the only occasions that are marked. When Nevermind turned 30 last year, the anniversary was marked by special commemorative issues of Uncut and Mojo. There was a 30th anniversary reissue box set, online tributes, social media shoutouts, and an endless-seeming parade of dudes telling you where they were the first time they heard “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Similar tributes happened with the album’s 10- and 20-year anniversaries. When we think about nostalgia, it’s important to notice whose legacy is remembered, who gets the anniversary covers, whose cultural significance is celebrated — and whose isn’t.

* * *

Grunge is far from the only musical scene to marginalize women’s contributions. In a 2014 Guardian article about the punk scene’s misogyny, writer Charlotte Richardson Andrews argued that women had to fight for visibility in a scene where men held all the power. Women were too often excluded from an industry that only promoted “the lucky few to whom industry gatekeepers deign to give a platform.” The piece could just have easily been describing grunge. 

Or hip-hop, for that matter. Starting in the late ’80s, female hip-hop artists like Queen Latifah and MC Lyte achieved undeniable success. In 1988, Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” was one of the first hip-hop singles to be nominated for a Grammy. Latifah’s most successful album, 1993’s Black Reign, was certified gold, and its Grammy-winning single “U.N.I.T.Y.” explicitly celebrated women’s rights. Their music defined the genre as they spoke out against assault, discrimination, and misogyny. But like women in grunge, this perspective didn’t receive as much attention as it should have: Songs like “Ladies First” existed within a male-dominated genre and culture where, as Jeff Chang wrote in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, “scantily-clad dancers seemed in endless supply, while women rappers were scarce.” At least in grunge, Eddie Vedder wasn’t pulling a 2 Live Crew and singing about someone blowing him, as much as he may have wanted Ticketmaster to.

In 1999, Billboard named pop singer Mariah Carey the artist of the decade. For those who had grown up with grunge, it seemed a fate worse than whatever Y2K had planned. By then, grunge bands were long gone, replaced by mass-produced boy bands and pop princesses, as well as the burning (literally) mess that was Woodstock ’99. Riot grrrl’s girl-power message had been co-opted and commercialized to sell pencil cases and baby tees. Smelling like Teen Spirit had been replaced by actual teen spirit as preteen girls flocked to The Backstreet Boys, *NSYNC, and The Spice Girls. 

But, thankfully, yesterday’s pioneers refuse to stay in the background. After six studio albums, L7 went on indefinite hiatus in 2001 — only to reform in 2014 and tour with its original lineup for the first time in 20 years. Later this year, they’ll tour again to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Bricks Are Heavy. Sleater-Kinney, who released their 10th studio album Path of Wellness in 2021, also returns to the stage this summer. Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon is back with This Women’s Work: Essays on Music, an anthology she edited with music journalist Sinead Gibson. “‘What’s it like to be a girl in a band?’ The often-repeated question throughout my career as a musician made me feel disrupted, a freak or that we are all the same,” wrote Gordon in an Instagram post promoting the book. “I once asked my boyfriend what it was like to have a penis? To me they are sort of equivalent questions. Hopefully, this book begins an unravelling of this myth that if you’re a female musician you are ready-made, easily digestible.”

It’s long overdue.

* * *

Lisa Whittington-Hill is the Publisher of This MagazineHer writing has appeared in LongreadsThe Walrus, Hazlitt, and more. She is currently writing a book for the 33 1/3 music series on Beauty and the Beat by The Go-Go’s to be published in 2023. Girls, Interrupted, her collection of essays on how pop culture is failing women, will be published by Montreal’s Vehicule Press in Fall 2023. You can find her on Twitter at @nerdygirly.

Editor: Peter Rubin

Copy Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands

Fact checker: Sky Patterson


All the Stories Nominated for the 2022 National Magazine Awards

A man unpacking boxes of magazines to stock a newsstand
Liz Hafalia/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Creative awards aren’t limited to that entertainment tetrad known as the EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). Advertising professionals dream of Clios; the off-Broadway theater world, Obies. And in the world of magazines and longform journalism, there’s the National Magazine Awards, commonly known as the Ellies.

While the winners of the NMAs are announced in an April ceremony each year, the American Society of Magazine Editors announced this year’s finalists yesterday — and honestly, around here this is the day we wait for. Not only does the larger slate represent more of the stories we read and loved last year, but they tend to encompass a wider breadth of publications, from city magazines (5280) to smaller literary outlets (Catapult) to brand-new upstarts (Pipe Wrench). This year brought an even nicer surprise: The Atavist, our sister publication, was named a finalist in two categories (Profile Writing and Video)!

We’ve rounded up all the relevant categories below, including those for fiction, photography, and illustration, all of whom announced their winners as well as their finalists. Consider it a reminder of some of last year’s best reads … and a guide to some you may have missed. Once you’ve combed through Longreads‘ own Best of 2021 package, of course.

Public Interest

• The Atlantic: Ed Yong, “Delta Is Driving a Wedge Through Missouri”; “How the Pandemic Ends”; “We’re Already Barreling Toward the Next Pandemic”
• Bloomberg Green: Zachary R. Mider, “The Methane Hunters”; Zachary R. Mider and Rachel Adams-Heard, “An Empire of Dying Wells”; Aaron Clark and Matt Campbell, “Turkmenistan’s Dirty Secret”
• BuzzFeed News: Heidi Blake and Katie J.M. Baker, “Beyond Britney: Abuse, Exploitation, and Death Inside America’s Guardianship Industry”; “They Both Fought to Break Free From Guardianship. Only One Escaped”; “‘My Human Rights Are Being Violated’: Fighting A Family Conservatorship”
• New York Times Magazine: Azmat Khan, “Hidden Files Bare Military Failures in Deadly Strikes”; “The Human Toll of America’s Air Wars”
• New Yorker: Sarah Stillman, “Storm Chasers”
• ProPublica: Lylla Younes, Ava Kofman, Al Shaw and Lisa Song, “Poison in the Air”; Al Shaw and Lylla Younes, “The Most Detailed Map of Cancer-Causing Industrial Air Pollution in the U.S.”; Max Blau and Lylla Younes, “The Dirty Secret of America’s Clean Dishes”
• Virginia Quarterly Review: Lois Parshley, “Cold War, Hot Mess”

Essays and Criticism

• Audobon: J. Drew Lanham, “What Do We Do About John James Audubon?”
• Bloomberg Businessweek: Esmé E. Deprez, “How I Helped My Dad Die”
• Harper’s: Vivan Gornick, “Put on the Diamonds”
• New York: Angelica Jade Bastién, Them Is Pure Degradation Porn”; The Underground Railroad Is the Cinematic Event of the Year”; Cruella Is the Girl-Bossification of the Madwoman”
• New York Times Magazine: Carina del Valle Schorske, “Bodies on the Line”
• Yale Review: Jeremy Atherton Lin, “The Wrong Daddy”

Profile Writing

• The Atavist: Maddy Crowell, “Invisible Kid”
• Bicycling: Carvell Wallace, “Justin Williams Can See the Future”
• ESPN: Dotun Akintoye, “Is Jake Paul bad for boxing? Next question”
• New York: E. Alex Jung, “Infinite Self”
• New Yorker: Rachel Aviv, “Past Imperfect”
• Pipe Wrench: Shanna B. Tiayon, “If We Can Soar: What Birmingham Roller Pigeons Offer the Men of South Central”
• ProPublica: Lizzie Presser, “The Child Care Industry Was Collapsing. Mrs. Jackie Bet Everything on an Impossible Dream to Save It.”

Feature Writing

• Harper’s: Ann Patchett, “These Precious Days”
• New York: Kerry Howley, “Gina. Rosanne. Guy.”
• New York Times Magazine: Susan Dominus, “‘I Feel Like I’m Just Drowning'”; Imani Perry, “Searching for Gayl Jones”
New Yorker: Rachel Aviv, “The Kentler Experiment”
• ProPublica and Nashville Public Radio: Meribah Knight and Ken Armstrong, “Black Children Were Jailed for a Crime That Doesn’t Exist. Almost Nothing Happened to the Adults in Charge.”
Texas Monthly: Christian Wallace, “The Resurrection of Bass Reeves”


• Harper’s: Caroline Lester, “The Lightning Farm”
The Hollywood Reporter: Tatiana Siegel, “Scott Rudin: ‘Unhinged'”; “Shielding Scott Rudin”
• New York Times Magazine: Matthieu Aikins, “The Collapse”
New Yorker with The Outlaw Ocean Project: Ian Urbina, “The Secretive Prisons That Keep Migrants Out of Europe”
Quanta: Natalie Wolchover, “The Webb Space Telescope Will Rewrite Cosmic History. If It Works”
Texas Observer: Michael Barajas and Sophie Novack, “Locked Up and Left to Die”
Undark: James Dinneen and Alexander Kennedy, “Below Aging U.S. Dams, a Potential Toxic Calamity”

Lifestyle Journalism

• 5280: Lindsay B. King, “The Beginner’s Guide to Winter Camping”
AARP: Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, “The Games We Play”; as told to Jon Saraceno, “The Barrier Breakers”
Eater: “Filling Up”
Insider: “259 LGBTQ characters in cartoons that bust the myth that kids can’t handle inclusion”
New York: Stella Bugbee, “Thank You, Dr. Zizmor”
New Yorker: Helen Rosner, “How to Cook With Your Microwave”; “The Timeless Fantasy of Stanley Tucci Eating Italian Food”; “How to Get a Table at Carbone”
Texas Highways: Katie Gutierrez, “The Original Cowboys”; Sarah Hepola, “The Evolution of the Texas Cowgirl”; W.K. Stratton, “Fight or Flight”

Service Journalism

• 5280: Lindsay B. King, “Shattered Minds”
AARP: Mike Zimmerman, “The Back-to-Normal Health Plan” (print only)
New York: “Natural Hair, Now” (print only)
Self: “Black Women and Breast Cancer”
Women’s Health: Kristin Canning, “We Need to Change How We Talk About Abortion”


Essence: Lorna Simpson, “Of Earth & Sky” (print only)
• National Geographic: Charlie Hamilton James, “Swam” (print only)
Poetry: Sandro Miller, “From ‘Crowns'” (poems by Patricia Smith)
Stranger’s Guide: Kike Arnal, “El Chocó” (print only); Nicolò Filippo Rosso, “Exodus”; David Estrada Larrañeta, “Reggaeton”
Time: “The Cost”


Emergence: “They Carry Us With Them: The Great Tree Migration”
• Fast Company: “The Most Creative People in Business 2021”
McSweeney’s: McSweeney’s 64: The Audio Issue”
National Geographic: “Solar System in Action”; “Small Wonder” (print only)
New York: “All Work, No Pay”; “Before, During, After January 6”; “Reckoning With a Reckoning”


The Atavist: Three videos from “A Feast For Lost Souls” — “Manqui,” “Juana,” and “Blanca” — directed by Zahara Gómez Lucini
• Epicurious: “How to Serve Every Cheese”
New Yorker: Luke Mogelson, “A Reporter’s Video from Inside the Capitol Siege”
ProPublica with Time, Truly CA, and Univision: Mauricio Rodríguez Pons and Liz Weil, “Unlivable Oasis”
Time: “Milk Factory,” directed by Corinne May Botz; “My Name is Mookie,” directed by Francesca Trianni

Best Fiction

Georgia Review: Nishanth Injam, “Come With Me”; Aryn Kyle, “Copper Queen”; Eloghosa Osunde, “After God, Fear Women” 

Harper’s: Hermione Hoby, “Greensleeves”; Tony Earley, “Place of Safety”; Rebecca Makkai, “Women Corinne Does Not Actually Know”
• McSweeney’s: Kevin Moffett, “Bears Among the Living”; Mikkel Rosengaard, “The Mating Call”; Samanta Schweblin (translated by Megan McDowell), “An Unlucky Man” (print only)
• The New Yorker: Souvankham Thammavongsa, “Good-Looking”; Sterling HolyWhiteMountain, “Featherweight”; hurmat kazmi, “Selection Week”
• Strangers Guide: Saïd Sayrafiezadeh, “A Beginner’s Guide to Estrangement”; Kjell Askildsen (translated by Seán Kinsella), “A Sudden Liberating Thought”; Malerie Willens, “King of the Tyrant Lizards” (print only)

Best News and Entertainment Photograph

The New Yorker: Balazs Gardi, from “The Long Prologue to the Capitol Hill Riot”

1843 Magazine (The Economist): Wolfgang Schwan, from “They stormed the Capitol, then posed for selfies”
• National Geographic: Kris Graves, from “2020: 71 Photographs From an Unforgettable Year”
• The New Yorker: Mark Peterson, from “Knicks Fans Are Together Again, for Better and Worse”
• Time: Ruddy Roye, from “George Floyd’s Family Reacted to the Verdict With an Uncontrollable Cry. That Sound Echoes Through Black America”

Best Service and Lifestyle Photograph

National Geographic: Nichole Sobecki, from “Cheetahs for Sale”

• New York: Joe Lingeman, from “55 Truly Surprising, Strange and Immensely Pleasing Gifts Over $200”
• New York: Rob Frogoso, from “Best Bets: Sweat”

Best Profile Photograph

InStyle: Camila Falquez, from “The First”

• New York: Ashley Peña, from “I Should Have Quit Way Before Tokyo”
• Rolling Stone: Dario Calmese, from “John David Washington Does the Right Thing”
• Time: Wynne Neilly, from “Elliot Page Is Ready for This Moment”
• Vanity Fair: Bruce Gilden, from “Postcards From the Edge”

Best Conceptual Photograph

New York: Bobby Doherty, from “New Yawk Style”

National Geographic: Elliot Ross, from “L.A.’s Tree Canopy Reflects Urban Inequity” (print only)
• New Yorker: Kyoko Hamada, from “Acorn”

Best News and Entertainment Story (Photo)

New York: Daniel Arnold and Daniel Galicia, from “What’s Going On in Washington Square Park?”

National Geographic: Lynsey Addario, from “A War on Itself”
• New Yorker: Piczo, from “Height of Glamour”
• Time: Ruddy Roye, from “George Floyd’s Family Reacted to the Verdict With an Uncontrollable Cry. That Sound Echoes Through Black America”
• Wall Street Journal: Dario Catellani, from “Why Sesame Street Is More Vital Than Ever”

Best Service and Lifestyle Story (Photo)

Southern Living: Antonis Achilleos, from “The Magic of Meringue” (print only)

• New York: Delphine Diallo, from “Natural Hair, Now” (print only)
• Saveur: Paola + Murray, from “Meet Manhattan’s New Guard of Wine Pros”
Stat: Bethany Mollenkof, from “Distanced”
• Time: Nina Riggio, from “A Year in a School Bus”

Best Photo Portfolio

New Yorker: Brendan George Ko, from “Saving the Butterfly Forest”

• Noema: Emily Garthwaite, from “The Last of the Marsh Arabs”
• Texas Monthly: Richard Sharum, from “The Unsheltered”
• Time: Adam Ferguson, from “An American Emergency”
• Virginia Quarterly Review: Dina Litovsky, from “Dark City”

Best Print Illustration

Rolling Stone: Brian Stauffer, from “The Enemy Within”

• Grow by Ginkgo: Debora Cheyenne Cruchon, from “A Feeling for the Organism”
• New York: Pablo Rochat, from “The Lunacy of Text-Based Therapy”
• New Yorker: Javier Jaén, from “My Gentle Region”
• Texas Monthly: Mercedes deBellard, from “Why Selena Still Matters” (print only)

Best Digital Illustration

The Verge: Micha Huigen, from “Verge 10”

• New York: Pedro Nekoi, from “‘I Got Ghosted. Big Time'”
• New Yorker: Debora Cheyenne, from “Medicine’s Wellness Conundrum”
• Noema: Noah Campeau, from “Making Common Sense”
• Politico: Arn0, from “Caitlyn Jenner Wants to Turn Celebrity Into Power. But Why?”

Best Illustrated Story

Catapult: Shing Yin Khor, “I Do Not Want to Write Today: A Comic”

• The Believer: Kathy Macleod, “The Places We Lost”
Kazoo: MariNaomi, “Spirit of the Arts” (print only)
• Marshall Project: Danica Novgorodoff, Kayla Salisbury, Hannah Buckman and Acacio Ortas, “How We Survived COVID-19 in Prison”
• The Verge: Kristen Radtke, “What The Verge Covered in Our First 10,000 Stories”

Impersonation Nation: A Very Scammy Reading List

A woman with patches of colored felt obscuring her face
Tara Moore/Getty Images

If the 21st century has been great for one thing, it’s scams. That’s not to say that the last few have been scam-free; 1700s grifter Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy made off with a massive diamond necklace by pretending to be friends with Marie Antoinette, and the 1800s boasted so many charlatans that it gave us the phrase “con man.” But the art of the personal hoax — specifically, claiming to be something or someone you’re not, for personal gain that may not even be monetary — has truly entered a golden age.

The impulse, as in any discussion around causes and effects, might be to blame the internet. And in many cases that might actually be true. Distributed communication already rewards persona over personality, and for some the temptation to try on and discard different selves is undeniable. I’m not convinced, though, that the tools alone induce the trespass. I certainly expected them to be the culprit, especially after documentaries like Catfish and debacles like Fyre Festival, both of which hinged on social media’s ability to elasticize and obscure identity. But as I revisited some of my favorite stories and discovered new ones, I realized that the most compelling tales of grift aren’t the ones that depend on technology: the bottomless library of fraud-ready photos; the platforms that let anyone claim to be an epidemiologist or electoral fraud whistleblower; the software that can plop your face onto another person’s. 

No, the tales that captivate us most almost always reveal a person’s longing. A longing for acceptance, or escape, or prestige, or some other intangible reward. In fact, some of the stories collected below only touch our online lives insofar as that’s how we first learned about them. (Where were you when you first heard about Rachel Dolezal? Probably Twitter.) It’s true that the internet has given us all the power to tell our own stories, and more than a few have twisted that power along with their story. But the reason we’re living in a flood of scams isn’t because we can reach strangers across distance — it’s because we’re feeling that distance more acutely than ever before.

Who is JT LeRoy? The True Identity of a Great Literary Hustler (Stephen Beachy, October 7, 2005, New York Magazine)

If there’s a handier generational lit-world litmus test than “remember JT LeRoy?” I don’t want to know about it. Since the late ’90s, LeRoy had long been an enigma — a runaway teen sex worker turned writer who collected famous friends and co-signs like merit badges, yet never spoke in public. But Beachy, who hailed from the same San Francisco neighborhood that spawned LeRoy’s fiction career, did the journalistic due diligence that up to then had only surfaced as whisper and innuendo. The final dominoes fell mere months later, and other outlets would re-tell the tale (repeatedly) over the years, but the story crumbled in large part because of the dots Beachy connected.

Over time, his publishing friends experienced his transformation from a stammering, freaked-out child to a “cocky, sassy, ambition-driven megalomaniac,” as one literary contact put it. But how had a homeless teen developed both the writing skills and that endless ambition? How could somebody so pathologically shy be working as a prostitute? And how did he manage to send those faxes?

The Hipster Grifter (Doree Shafrir, April 15, 2009, The Observer)

The joy of a good scammer story isn’t in the sentences or structure. It’s in the details. And the details Shafrir uncovered electrified the media world, from Kari Ferrell’s bizarre come-on lines to her increasingly graphic cancer story. This wasn’t a feature that punctured a myth; in Ferrell’s case, the jig was already up. But extensive interviews with the friends and exes she’d ensnared made for a jaw-dropping tale of deceit — and minted a legend of the Gawker Era. 

Within the space of a half-hour, Ms. Ferrell was peppering him with questions about his sexual history—how many women he’d slept with and so on. “She was coming on to me, and I was super into it for the first part of it,” he said. “I realized I could have fun after work—but then I was like, ‘Let me check this girl out.’” He Googled her. Up popped a photo of his flirtatious new co-worker on the Salt Lake City Police Department’s Most Wanted list, wanted on five different warrants, including passing $60,000 in bad checks, forgery and retail theft.

The Heart of Whiteness (Ijeoma Oluo, April 19, 2017, The Stranger)

Sometimes all it takes is two words to make someone laugh, roll their eyes, or storm off in anger: “Rachel Dolezal.” In 2015, a Spokane, Washington, news station confronted the city’s local NAACP chapter president with evidence that she was a white woman presenting herself as Black, and a punchline (and polemic punching bag) was born. But nearly two years after the controversy burned itself out, Dolezal changed her name — to Nkechi Amare Diallo — and Oluo found herself on a plane to Spokane.

Not that she particularly wanted to go. “For two years, I, like many other black women who talk or write about racial justice, have tried to avoid Rachel Dolezal — but she follows us wherever we go,” wrote Oluo. “So if I couldn’t get away from her, I was going to at least try to figure out why. I surprised myself by agreeing to the interview.” The result is an interview, yes, but it’s also much more: a scorching interplay between text and subtext that allows Oluo the space to unpack the very conversation that Dolezal resisted.

There was a moment before meeting Dolezal and reading her book that I thought that she genuinely loves black people but took it a little too far. But now I can see this is not the case. This is not a love gone mad. Something else, something even sinister is at work in her relationship and understanding of blackness.

Not Fuzz (David Mark Simpson, July 2017, The Atavist)

Some children want to be police officers when they grow up; to grow up into an adult who habitually impersonates police officers (along with firefighters and federal agents) is rarer. But that’s exactly what happened with Steve Farzam, a California man who represented himself as “a former cop” and lived much of his life like one. As the years went by, though, and Farzam’s actions became more troubling and erratic — flashing forged federal credentials, keeping tactical equipment in his car, claiming he’d won a Medal of Valor — his friend and fellow police-head Christopher Darcel realized Farzam’s quirks weren’t entertaining anymore. We’ve all met people who play-acted for power, but in Simpson’s story we meet a man who redefines that phenomenon. When you’re done, check out Simpson’s 2020 postscript for a chilling follow-up.

McChesney, the former Santa Barbara cop, said that to his layman’s eye, Farzam suffered from a “self-identity crisis”—a need to “create this other persona just because he doesn’t like himself or he needs to feel like he’s somebody.” An investigator who worked a case against Farzam, speaking on condition of anonymity, told me, “He’s like a mosaic. You can’t understand him by looking at any one incident, but over the years, patterns emerge.”

The Amazing 30-Year Odyssey of a Counterfeit Saudi Prince (Mark Seal, November 2018, Vanity Fair)

Since the story doesn’t make you wait long for the truth, I won’t either: The man who for decades had claimed to be His Royal Highness Khalid bin al-Saud, son of the king of Saudi Arabia, was actually Anthony Enrique Gignac, a Michigan man who had been adopted as a Colombian orphan when he was a child. Seal unspools Gignac’s early life and long criminal career in luxurious detail, from his earliest grade-school lies to his increasingly ambitious scams. Hotels, car companies, boutiques: No one was safe from Gignac’s motor mouth and unshakeable kayfabe. Even American Express issued the guy a card with a $200 million credit line. Ultimately, of course, Gignac crossed the wrong person — a Miami billionaire whose lawyers worked up an intelligence dossier and delivered the imposter to federal agencies. If you’re looking for chutzpah on a global scale, you can’t do better than this.

“You mean the fake prince of Fisher Island?” the man told me. “To play the role he played so well for so long, he had to believe the lie. He actually believes he is Khalid, the prince of Saudi Arabia. I was sucked into absolute mayhem. He dangled such a carrot. Even though you knew he was full of shit, the carrot was so big, and there was a 2.2 percent chance that there was some truth in his asinine lies, that you kept going. He was so talented, and pulled off so much shit, I don’t even know where to begin.”

Announcing the 2021 Longreads Member Drive

Longreads logo with the text "Member Drive 2021"

Working at Longreads is continually gratifying, largely because our readers believe in our work as much as we do. It’s in that spirit that we’re coming to you now. To celebrate the launch of our annual Best Of project, we’re returning to another tradition: a Membership Drive. Between now and the end of the month, we’re asking our readers — asking you — to contribute to Longreads’ story fund via paid subscription or a one-time donation.

As always, 100% of reader contributions funds work from writers, photographers, and illustrators from all around the world. Additionally, and our parent company Automattic match every dollar we receive — effectively tripling your donation. Not a bad deal.

Yes, I’d like to contribute!

We’ve grown a lot since our 2009 origin as a Twitter hashtag that enabled people to share their favorite longform stories with a wider community. We began publishing our own award-winning essays and criticism while still recommending the best nonfiction writing each week. We were joined at Automattic by our sister publication, The Atavist, which produces one deeply reported feature each month. But while we’ve evolved, the core of our work remains the same: we recognize exceptional journalism and celebrate thought-provoking memoir and commentary that are at once relevant and timeless.

And we continue to evolve.

The core values that we share with Automattic and WordPress — the value of the open web, the democratization of publishing, and the belief that people should own what they create — have never been more important. Social media platforms prize volume over nuance. Walled-garden ecosystems trap your attention. All the while, local newspapers are withering, and print magazines are shuttering.

The stories we love are still out there. But they don’t come only from the titans of the publishing world. That’s why we seek out and surface the best work from small journals and magazines, writing from across various cultural diasporas, and emerging voices turning out compelling work — not to mention the local and regional outlets, interest-driven publications, and any other place that contributes to the very best of nonfiction.

We also remember that the best stories don’t spill onto the page fully formed. Nonfiction writing is an art and a craft, and we celebrate the process as much as the finished product. The time and attention it demands, the curiosity and conversation it elicits. So we also want Longreads to feel like a salon: a place you come to discover and savor great writing, yes, but also a place to think about and discuss what you’re reading.

Here, you’ll find essays and criticism that are engaging, unexpected, even surprising. While everyone rushes to push out hot takes about trending topics, we’d rather look in another direction to find the story that outlasts them all. The story that pulls you in. The story that you find yourself thinking about months later — or maybe never stopped thinking about at all.

We’re fortunate to receive generous financial support from Automattic — but that support is predicated on our readers. We continue to be gratified by people’s willingness to help fund the work they care about. You’re why we’re still here, and you’re why we’re still growing. Thanks for reading.

The Longreads Team
(Cheri Lucas Rowlands, Peter Rubin, Krista Stevens, and Carolyn Wells)

Make a contribution

A New Leaf: A Post-Legalization Cannabis Reading List

neon marijuana symbol with the word "legal" below

By Peter Rubin

If you were a pot-smoking teenager in the ’90s, chances are you heard the same urban legend I did. Marlboro’s just waiting for weed to be legalized, man. They’ve got the tobacco fields ready to repurpose; they’ll even use their green menthol pack when they start selling joints. Someone’s sister knew a guy whose college professor had seen the mockups! What’s weird about this particular wish-fulfillment conversation isn’t how dumb it was; it’s that even a stoned 16-year-old could grok the conflict brewing in the fantasy. Sure, the idea of walking into a store to buy a spliff seemed so far-fetched that imagining it was akin to arguing about who would win a fight between Batman and Boba Fett. But if that day ever did come, we sensed, it would become a commercial battlefield.

Surprise: that’s exactly what happened. After California allowed medicinal use of marijuana in 1996 — and then truly after 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis for recreational use — a new industry sprouted. The “green rush,” as it immediately became known, wasn’t just a financial opportunity; it nurtured the best and worst that U.S. capitalism had to offer. For every underdog, a huckster; for every scrappy botanist, a shadowy billion-dollar concern; for every newly minted entrepreneur, a stinging reminder that even legal cannabis has a way of perpetuating inequities. Whether or not the devil’s lettuce ever becomes legalized at a federal level (and Marlboro finally gets involved), the journalism compiled below makes clear that the stories of post-legalization America are in many ways the stories of the nation itself.

1) The Great Pot Monopoly Mystery (Amanda Chicago Lewis, GQ, August 2017)

Few journalists have been covering the weed beat longer or better than Lewis; she’s knowledgeable, well-sourced, and has reported on everything from how Black entrepreneurs have been shut out of the cannabis boom to how the company Weedmaps has cultivated a booming business with a selective attention to legality. But my favorite work of hers might just be this feverish jaunt down the rabbit hole of BioTech Institute, a company that reportedly struck fear into the heart of the industry by trying to issue utility patents on the cannabis plant itself. Sounds dry? Not when it feels like the plot of a noir movie, with Lewis as the dogged detective:

Outside of these patents, BioTech Institute barely exists. The company has no website, manufactures no products, and owns no pot shops. Public records for BioTech Institute turned up two Los Angeles addresses—a leafy office park an hour northwest of downtown and a suite in a Westside skyscraper—both of which led to lawyers who didn’t want to talk.

A source familiar with BioTech Institute’s patenting process estimated that the company had spent at least $250,000 in research and legal fees on each of its patents. I knew that if I could figure out who was paying for the patents, I might learn who held the keys to the future of the marijuana industry. But I hardly knew where to start.

There’s no definitive aha twist in this movie — no moment that the camera skews to a Dutch angle and the violins screech in the score — but its shagginess is kind of the point. Watching a reporter follow bum leads, spool out her own thinking, and otherwise externalize her shoeleather fact-finding turns this from a Shadowy Conspiracy saga to something somehow far more satisfying: a process story.

2) Half Baked: How a Would-Be Cannabis Empire Went up in Smoke (Michael Rubino, Julia Spalding & Derek Robertson, Indianapolis Monthly, August 2021)

In November 2020, Indianapolis Monthly ran a small item on Rebecca Raffle, a woman who had moved to town and opened two CBD bakeries in the city. A few fact-checking bumps aside, the piece was uneventful, the kind of local-business profile that pops up in two dozen city magazines every month of the year. But as 2020 turned into 2021, those fact-checking bumps turned out to be the first in a long saga of upheaval and deception, exhaustively recounted here by a team of journalists that would expose Raffle’s business talk for what it truly was: talk. 

None of this seemed in line with the chill entrepreneur with the bubbly personality and perpetual ear-to-ear smile. A gay, Jewish, California-transplanted working mom, Raffle conveyed an endearing underdog quality and a compelling girl-boss backstory. A lot of people bought right into it.

We bought right into it.

Self-mythologizing is nothing new; people often believe what you tell them, and many a business owner has scraped through the lean times by acting as though their aspirations are already reality. But the meta-wrinkle in this particular story — the writers grappling throughout with the role they and their magazine played in elevating this particular mythologist — makes “Half Baked” much more than an exercise in grifter-gets-caught schadenfreude. Whether Raffle’s a Fyre Fest-level charlatan or just a woman whose ambitions outpaced her expertise, you won’t get to the end without a hefty sense of emotional conflict.

3) The Willy Wonka of Pot (Jason Fagone, Grantland, October 2013)

Once upon a time, weed strains were like broadcast TV networks: there weren’t many, and everyone knew all of them. But nothing Acapulco Gold can stay. These days, Maui Wowie and Panama Red have given way to Blueberry Kush, F-13, Azure Haze, and a seemingly infinite repository of other strains — and a great many of them, it turns out, originated with a press-shy breeder from Oregon named DJ Short. In this shining gem of a ridealong feature, Jason Fagone connects with Short at what might just be the apotheosis of his long and accomplished career: the first Seattle Hempfest held after Washington legalized recreational cannabis.

“DJ Short’s here!” said a large man in a tie-dyed tank top. He was sitting next to Short on the dais at Hempfest. His name card said STINKBUD. “I was growin’ his Blueberry back in the ’80s,” Stinkbud said. “One of the most famous guys in the entire world! DJ Short! This guy’s a legend.”

The panel’s moderator, a Canadian researcher, said, “I’ve been moderating this panel for seven or eight years. I’ve never seen Stinkbud so humbled.”

It’s not all stoner sycophancy, though. Fagone portrays Short as a man who knows how much he’s contributed to the current state of the cannabis world — and yet finds himself unable to stop that world from roaring by, leaving him behind in its rush to monetize his lifelong passion. Whimsical headline aside, there’s a real melancholy lurking here, even as Short accepts his laurels. A portrait of the artist as a forgotten craftsman.

4) Is Cannabis Equity Reparations for the War on Drugs? (Donnell Alexander, Capital & Main x Fast Company, April 2018)

A 2020 study by the ACLU found that in the U.S., Black Americans are 3.64 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession. That same year, 94% of those arrested for cannabis offenses in New York City were people of color. Clearly, legalization has not alleviated the disproportionate burden that low-level drug enforcement has historically placed on the Black community, nor has it prevented Black entrepreneurs from getting shut out of the space. That’s why, in California, a number of cities have attempted to enact cannabis equity, reserving up to half of their marijuana business permits for those living under the median income line or who have a previous cannabis conviction — and in this piece, Alexander chronicles how Oakland’s equity program can set a model for others.

No state has a relationship dynamic remotely like the one between California and marijuana. We officially consume 2.5 million pounds of the drug each year, more than any other state. California produces more than 13 million pounds annually. This means that, even before dipping its toes into the uncharted waters of restorative justice, the legal weed market must contend with vast market and political forces. 

Those forces culminated in a near-failure for Oakland’s program; while the city had set aside millions in no-interest funding for these startups, it was having a difficult time facilitating the necessary partnerships between white and Black applicants. The solutions — or people, as the best solutions tend to be — don’t provide much in the way of narrative tension, but they do offer a necessary perspective on what it’s really like trying to change the system in a fundamental way.

5)  Inside the Underground Weed Workforce (Lee Hawks, The Walrus, October 2018)

Legal or not, all the cannabis that enters the supply chain starts with the same thing: human labor. Trimmers, those who take scissors to plant to free the psychogenic flower, have long been the backbone of the industry. Yet, as the workforce swells and legalization drives prices down, the livelihood isn’t as dependable as it once was. A blend of reportage and the pseudonymous Hawks’ own experience — numerous trips from Canada to work California’s harvest season — makes his account of “scissor drifter” culture an urgent one. 

In 2017, when Willow last went to work in California, trimmers were expected to buy and cook all their own food. There was one outhouse and an outdoor shower, and she slept in a tent. She was paid $150 (US) per pound. When she checked around, she discovered this was the new status quo. In fact, there were rumours of trimmers being paid as low as $100 per pound. Some trimmers will work in exchange for weed and are just happy to have a place to stay and be fed. Every year, there’s a new crop of trimmigrants with lower and lower expectations. Unfortunately for Willow, the harvest was subpar, and she struggled to finish a pound per day. She left after two weeks, staying just long enough to recuperate her costs. A poor crop can make any situation intolerable.

Deeper Than Pixels: A Reading List on Video Games

The traces of a car's taillights driving into a surreal digital landscape
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Some childhood sense memories emerge unbidden; others resist excavation, no matter how hard you dig. And my first video game, whatever it is, lies safely interred in that latter category. Sure, I could tick off the titles I loved, the ones I tithed with whatever quarters I could scrounge — Centipede, Bump ’n’ Jump, Moon Patrol — even the smells and sounds of the arcades I played them in. But the origin point of my fascination is nowhere to be found. Not that it matters, at this point. Even if the bulk of my game-playing these days happens on my phone, the activity is one of the few true constants in my life. That hasn’t always been for the best, as anyone familiar with such attachments can tell you. Video games manage to be possibility and punishment, outlet and opiate, either or both. Thankfully, as games have evolved and grown — as experiences, as art, as a field — so, too, has the writing about them. Criticism, essay, profile; there’s no one type of story that feels particularly right for games, largely because games have drifted as far from their own origin point as I have from mine. The best writing about games is as vast and varied as games themselves.

If I had to, I could give you some contrived reason why now is the right time to compile some of my favorite pieces of writing about games. It’s the 40th anniversary of Tempest! Hey, when did we all get so old? But honestly, I’d rather do it just because. Because these pieces, from various points over the past decade or so, all moved something within me. Because they help underscore the fact that no other narrative media is quite as personal as a game. And because if we’re not thinking about games as a valid muse for joyous, staggering, important writing, then it’s no one’s fault but our own. Read more…