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The Billboard

Longreads Pick

When artist Stephanie Montgomery told the police that she was raped at work, neither they nor her manager helped, so she sought justice her way.

Published: May 30, 2019
Length: 33 minutes (8,330 words)

The Power of the Still: The Photography Behind the Scenes

Longreads Pick

There’s an art and process to capturing iconic and marketable images from films. Director Jane Campion and her unit stills photographer Kirsty Griffin — along with David Lowery, Eric Zachanowich, Joachim Trier, and Christian Belgaux — talk about behind-the-scenes photography during the filming of The Power of the Dog.

There’s just something about the eye of a photographer, their relationship with an actor, their ability to read the room, and their understanding of what works on a billboard or a magazine cover. The industry is also full of post-production stories about unit photographers delivering graded stills, only for that grade to inform the color grade of the film itself. It is a deeply symbiotic relationship.

Source: Letterboxd
Published: Mar 19, 2022
Length: 14 minutes (3,632 words)

The Number Ones: Crazy Town’s “Butterfly”

Longreads Pick

A delicious deep dive into a rap-rock anthem by a one-hit wonder:

“Butterfly” is the band’s only song that ever appeared on the Billboard Hot 100 in any capacity. But “Butterfly” also represents a kind of culmination. “Butterfly” is the only song that ever came out of the late-’90s rap-rock wave and topped the Hot 100. The biggest bands from that genre sold millions of records and packed arenas for years, but none of them — not Korn, not Limp Bizkit, not Kid Rock, not Papa Roach, not even Linkin Park — ever made it to #1. During that same era, the Creed-style post-grunge yarlers did a lot better on the pop charts. Rap-rock seemed to dominate the universe for three or four years, but as far as the Hot 100 is concerned, “Butterfly” is the only hit of its kind. It flutters alone.

Rap-rock was inevitable. By the late ’80s, plenty of rock bands had noticed that they were no longer the coolest or most revolutionary musicians on the scene. They had been usurped; rappers were the new cultural leaders. The two genres didn’t exist in isolation; they’d been in conversation ever since rap first arrived in popular consciouness. Kurtis Blow had a Bachman-Turner Overdrive cover on his first album, and the Clash imitated Grandmaster Flash’s Furious Five on “The Magnificent Seven” and then booked the actual Furious Five to open for them in New York. (The rappers got booed offstage.) The Beastie Boys were a punk band that improbably became the biggest rap group in the world. As the ’80s went on, more and more rock bands made clumsily spirited attempts at something resembling rap: Anthrax on “I’m The Man,” Faith No More on “We Care A Lot,” the Red Hot Chili Peppers on a whole lot of bullshit.
Source: Stereogum
Published: Sep 14, 2022
Length: 12 minutes (3,036 words)

I Will Always Love You: A Dolly Parton Reading List

Dolly Parton attends the 61st Annual GRAMMY Awards at the Staples Center on February 10, 2019, in Los Angeles. (Photo by Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic via Getty Images)

Central Florida doesn’t do glamour. I know because I was born and raised in Lakeland, Florida, the birthplace of Publix supermarkets and where Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson, died in a nursing home. Growing up, my sister Abby and I had a never-named game where we’d see a figure skater, Vanna White, anyone, wearing a pretty dress on television, and then we’d passionately bicker over who got to have the rhinestoned, beaded, or sequined costume. We knew what glamour looked like, and we wanted it. By the time I’d graduated high school, I knew glamour in real life. I’d seen it in person three times.

My high school band competed in an annual competition up in Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Each year, when the music part of the trip was over, we’d go to Dolly Parton’s dinner theater show one night, and spend a day at her theme park, Dollywood. And inside Dollywood, inside Chasing Rainbows, a museum dedicated to telling Dolly’s life story, was my pilgrimage: a collection of Dolly’s rhinestoned, beaded, and sequined costumes, more beautiful and breathtaking than anything I’d ever bickered over in the never-named game of my childhood.

Two years after high school, I moved to New York City and dug my heels into culture shock. Five years in, I got into a Dolly Parton-themed holiday party put on by a fancy New York PR firm. I glided through the night among the well-dressed and well-heeled. I sipped moonshine and peach iced tea with a party-themed name like it was mother’s milk. I danced to Kylie Minogue performing Dolly covers. And I held my head up high all night because I’d long already seen the installation in the front room, a sparkling display of Dolly’s costumes on loan from Dollywood.

I won’t say Dolly Parton changed my life. I’ve only just read her 1994 memoir “Dolly: My Life and Other Unfinished Business,” loaned it to three people, gave it as a wedding present, and have the first and only edition in paperback and hardcover. I recently got the first Christmas album Dolly recorded with Kenny Rogers, “Once Upon A Christmas.” I’m pretty proud of that. I don’t own any Dolly T-shirts or anything like that (maybe I should), I just think she’s a gift to humanity — a living, breathing embodiment of dreams. Maybe you agree, maybe you don’t. Dolly would say, “It’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world.” Maybe she’s not for you, even though she’s for everyone. But, hey, don’t take my word for it.

1. “Outta That Holler” (Sarah Smarsh, Slate, October 2020)

In this excerpt from her 2020 book, “She Come By It Natural: Dolly Parton and the Women Who Lived Her Songs,” journalist Sarah Smarsh describes Parton’s brand of implicit feminism. By harnessing the value of economic agency and sexual power to overcome the poverty that defined her childhood — born the fourth of 12 children, “wearing dresses made of feed sacks” and “dyeing her lips with iodine from the family medicine cabinet for lack of lipstick” — Parton has shaped the person she is today.

She reminds her audiences that, no matter where they came from, everyone can identify with being shamed one way or another, and no one deserves it. Never be ashamed of your home, your family, yourself, your religion, she says, and adoring crowds applaud. One need look no further than her immense LGBTQ following to know that Parton’s transformation from a slut-shamed, talented teenage bumpkin to entertainment superstar contains a universal struggle that has less to do with being Appalachian than with being human. If her presence and the appreciation it instills in people could be whittled to a phrase, it’s “be what you are.”

2. “The Grit and Glory of Dolly Parton” (Emily Lordi, T: The New York Times Style Magazine, November 2020)

The person and brand that is Dolly Parton did not just happen overnight. Emily Lordi provides an overview of Parton’s decades-long career, illustrating how it’s been furthered not by reinvention, but through the reintroduction of Parton and her music, all while Parton herself engages with the times. Lordi first interviewed Parton over the phone, then in person after providing a negative COVID-19 test.

People want her gifts, her glow, her time; and Parton, who, as she says, “loves everybody and wants everybody to love me,” is often happy to oblige. She can’t sit still anyway — and early on in the pandemic, she decided to keep working, as long as her team could do so safely. Last May, she released “When Life Is Good Again,” a song of reassurance that justifies the journalist Melinda Newman’s claim, in Billboard, that, during the coronavirus crisis, Parton seems to have appointed herself America’s “comforter in chief”: “When everything is on the mend, / I’ll even drink with my old friends, / Sing and play my mandolin … And it’s gonna be good again.”

3. “Dolly Parton Steers Her Empire Through the Pandemic — and Keeps It Growing” (Melinda Newman, Billboard, August 2020)

The daughter of an industrious sharecropper father and a musically inclined mother, Parton is a savvy businesswoman whose earliest and latest decisions in the music industry are only the core of her empire. As Melinda Newman writes, “Her legendary body of music is just the start of what makes her Dolly. …”

She sounds surprisingly giddy as she talks about the next chapter of her career as if it’s her first. “I’m touched and honored that I’m still around and that I’m able to still be important in the business,” she says. “I honestly feel like I’m just getting started. I know that sounds crazy but I really feel like I might have a big music career, record career. Who knows?”

4. “Dolly Parton on How to Be More Like Dolly Parton” (Anna Moeslein, Glamour, November 2019)

In an interview with Parton, Anna Moeslein and Parton review “Heartstrings,” a Netflix series in which each episode is based on a different Parton song. They also discuss emotions and Parton’s position on what people can do to bring “a little Dolly in their own lives,” as well as fashion and beauty.

Well, I think it’s always important for us to be allowed to be who we are, all that we are, and appreciate that. And I know being a woman in this world…I’ve always been proud that I was born a woman, and I’ve joked that if I wasn’t, I would have been a drag queen. That’s my favorite line, but it’s probably true. I love being able to express myself, and I want to be seen and appreciated for who I am. So I’ve always appreciated and loved people for who they are. Because we don’t need to all be the same.

5. “Is Dolly Parton the Voice of America?” (Rachel Riederer, The New Republic, December 2020)

Citing Jad Abumrad’s Radiolab podcast (“Dolly Parton’s America”), Parton’s Netflix series, shoutouts from Nicki Minaj and Drake, and even a history course at the University of Tennessee, Rachel Riederer discusses the latest Dolly Parton renaissance. And, given the political landscape of the U.S., Riederer wonders if there’s a place for Parton’s enduring position to sidestep politics — which Abumrad refers to as “Dollitics.”

You cannot talk about sharecropping without talking about politics, and to say more would not be her style. She was not shy about her desire to sell books or to present her life as a fairy tale, and you sell a fairy tale by focusing on the romance and adventures of the rising princess, not the conditions that made her a scullery maid.

6. “Springtime for the Confederacy” (Aisha Harris, Slate, August 2017)

When I mentioned Dolly’s “dinner theater show” above, I was intentionally vague. Despite my setup, I know Dolly is human. And humans are complicated. Dolly’s dinner show seems complicated, too, but really, it’s not. The show, known until 2018 as “Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede,” is performed before an arena split into the “North” versus the “South,” where the audience, feasting on a four-course dinner eaten without cutlery, cheers on white-washed narratives of colonization, then the Antebellum South, then a performance competition between the North and the South. As a high schooler attending the show, I sat and watched from the North side, not fully grasping how problematic the programming was. I suppose I could do what Parton did in the Billboard article above: plead “innocent ignorance.” As an adult, I know better.

The last time I saw the show was in 2006. Aisha Harris reviewed the show in 2017, after watching it the same week as Unite the Right, a white supremacist rally, descended on Charlottesville, Virginia. At the rally, a neo-Nazi intentionally drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing an innocent woman, Heather Heyer, and injuring others. (The president notably remarked in the aftermath that there “were very fine people, on both sides.”) Harris recorded the experience of the dinner show from start to finish, without holding back.

While the show makes zero mention of slavery, that’s not to say there were no references to the Civil War. The war was alluded to both in the overarching North-versus-South conceit and through details both subtle (the gray and blue color schemes on each side) and blatant: The racing piglets were named after Abraham Lincoln, Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, and Scarlett O’Hara. Dolly says that the show is about bringing back “those good old times,” referring to her childhood, but of course she wasn’t around during the days of Grant and Lee.

Harris wrote a follow-up to this piece after the show responded to her initial review, and again in April 2018, when the show dropped “Dixie” from its name.

7. “Living with Dolly Parton” (Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads, October 2018)

Jessica Wilkerson, who grew up in East Tennessee, where Dollywood is located, confronts the worldviews of her upbringing with those acquired as an adult after moving away from home for graduate school in New York. Weighing the socioeconomic implications of Dollywood’s hiring practices and confronting “Dolly Parton’s blinding, dazzling whiteness,” Wilkerson strikes a reluctant balance, compartmentalizing more than one version of Dolly Parton.

But the aftermath of Dollywood left me low-spirited. I was nestled into a cozy room in the log house my dad built on top of a ridge, where we lived. From the peak of that ridge, I could stand and see the Smoky Mountains, where Dolly Parton grew up and where she built a simulacrum of her mountain childhood. Hers felt more real than mine. I was sad, but jealous, too. I lived in the real world of Appalachia. A world of layaway stores and packaged foods, bleary-eyed workers and stressed-out mothers. I longed for the simulation.

Alison Fishburn is an American writer living in Paris, Ontario.

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Close up of orange seaweed on fine sandy beach seen from above.
Close up of orange seaweed on fine sandy beach seen from above. Horizontal composition.

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. Love and Longing in the Seaweed Album

Sasha Archibald | The Public Domain Review | March 9th, 2022 | 2,500 words

The news of 2022 is like an anvil weighing down on our collective psyche. This week, I found myself hungry for a read that felt like a relief — a collection of words that would inspire delight, not despair. This essay delivered. It’s the quintessential example of a factoid-filled piece you read and then find yourself immediately (and perhaps annoyingly) telling people about. Me to a friend: “Did you know that seaweed collecting in 19th-century England was a feminist activity?” Also me: “It’s possible that seaweed collecting inspired George Eliot to start writing fiction.” Me again: “Tweens once exchanged seaweed albums like kids now trade Pokemon cards!” Sasha Archibald writes with grace and humor, and she shows how, far more than just a charming pastime, the bygone practice of seaweed collecting intersected with the wider currents of history. It’s a breath of sea air. —SD

2. Night Shifts

Michael W. Clune | Harper’s Magazine | March 4th, 2022 | 6,731 words

I’ve always been fascinated by my dreams. I’ve made attempts to become more attuned to them over the years, but the books on lucid dreaming I’ve bought or the notepads I’ve kept on my nightstand to jot down middle-of-the-night notes end up collecting dust. These days, I’ve given up viewing sleep as a state I can control: my experiences with sleep paralysis — and my sleep apnea, whose treatment requires bulky hardware — make me feel completely powerless. So I read Michael W. Clune’s essay on dream incubation, the shaping of dreams according to a dreamer’s chosen words or images, with great interest. Clune takes us along for the ride as he tries a prototype of the Dormio, a device that enables you to shape the images that appear during hypnagogia, the transitional state between wakefulness and sleep. He explores thought-provoking questions about the mind and its potential for creativity once we’ve lost conscious control of our own thoughts, and what this might mean for the future — including more dystopian possibilities. I’ll end with a line I haven’t stopped thinking about: “Just below the surface of wakeful awareness, just a minute or two under it, everything is change.”—CLR

3. What Lies Beneath Hip-Hop’s Swagger

Danyel Smith | The New York Times Magazine | March 11th, 2022 | 2,391 words

The NYT Magazine‘s annual music issue hit a special gear this year, from Hanif Abdurraqib’s “sad bangers” paean to Jody Rosen’s exegesis of scam rap. However, one piece in particular was so dialed in, so sleek and powerful, that I had to get up and walk it off once I’d gotten to the end — and I’m not speaking metaphorically. Danyel Smith’s bonafides have long been indisputable: from running Vibe and Billboard to the recent Black Girl Songbook podcast, she’s been part of the music journalism firmament for more than 30 years. And here, she takes the measure of aggression and identity within hip-hop (“I am a fan, and I want all the smoke,” she writes early on), tracing it from today’s young nihilists back to her own early engagements with the genre. The magic isn’t simply in the threads she extends, yarn-mapping Moneybagg Yo and Kash Doll to Golden Age artists like LL Cool J and Queen Latifah, but in how she traces the underlying terrain that made that map necessary. “Spoiler alert: The bombast is a response, a defense, a pose, a stance,” she writes. “It’s magic, and it seduces. But it’s labor. Under threat of a variety of harms, you have to camouflage your soul. So if I’m tired — of always staying ready, so I never have to get ready — imagine the music-makers themselves.” Make time today. —PR

4. The Shape Of Walking

Victoria Livingstone | Joyland | March 15th, 2022 | 1,524 words

As Victoria Livingstone recounts the early days of the pandemic and the uncertainties about being around people — even outdoors — she retraces the many steps she took in a local park, observing others as they too navigated a familiar communal space that at the time, felt like uncharted territory. As the pandemic continued, Livingstone walks and walks. As her young daughter emerges from a stroller to take her own first tentative steps, Livingstone mulls the varying shapes and directions her essay could take as well as the simple and oh-so-necessary pleasures of discovery: “By spring of 2021, when pandemic restrictions briefly eased, she was running: a bouncing toddler run, more up and down than forward. She ran towards the swing-set or to the dandelions or to someone walking a dog or to a park bench or to a piece of trash that looked like a treasure or to the geese sitting in the middle of the field. Her direction was often impossible to predict…I struggled to write this essay even when I believed I was the singular author. Now my daughter continually reminds me that our steps intersect with the movements of those around us in illegible patterns. The rhetoric of walking resists order.” —KS

5. Under The Big Sky

Drew Magary | Defector | March 7th, 2022 | 2,443 words

As a teenager, I loved the Baz Luhrmann song “Everyone’s Free to Wear Sunscreen,” but it was not until much later that I learned to appreciate the line, “Be kind to your knees, you’ll miss them when they are gone.” A couple of ski accidents and a knee surgery later, I sure do miss those springy youthful knees. These lyrics were in my head reading this beautiful essay. Like the song, it is a lesson on how to get the most out of life — even when your body does not work in the way it once did. It’s a gentle piece — Drew Magary simply reminiscing about skiing with his Dad, his friends, and his family — but the writing draws you in, letting you share his happiness. Over the years, this joy becomes peppered with frustrations as new limitations appear: “I could feel my thighs and spine ready to burst as I held crucial turns. When I felt myself going too fast, I reflexively dragged my poles behind me, as if that would slow me down any. Skiing will expose you like that.” But, even while dragging his poles, Magary is still awed by simply being on a mountain and declares he will keep skiing even as his body and ability deteriorate, “It’s not about conquering the mountain. It’s simply about going there. A mountain is a god.” A sentiment with which I concur — even with my dodgy knees, I also still ski. —CW

The Gymnast’s Position

Illustration by Homestead

Dvora Meyers | Longreads | June 2019 | 25 minutes (6,257 words)

More than two decades ago, a billboard went up in Salt Lake City near the 600 South exit of the I-15. It featured a young woman in repose clad in a sleeveless black leotard, her back to the viewer and her head tilted up. The weight of her upper body rested on her right arm, which was extended behind her; her left arm lay languidly on her bent left knee. Her right leg was extended straight in front of her, its foot arch, creating the appearance of a straight line from hip to toe.

The angle of the woman’s head seemingly bathed her face in light, her long curly blonde hair falling freely down her neck. The pose was reminiscent of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, only inverted.

Passersby unable to make out the words printed in small text beneath the image would be forgiven for not knowing what exactly the billboard was advertising. Was it selling a dance performance or was it an ad for workout apparel or a photography exhibit at a local gallery? Visually, there were few clues.
Read more…

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 Me. “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. Diffuser.fm’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 Diffuser.fm’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 guitarist 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

 

How One Artist Publicly Dealt With the Aftermath of Her Rape

Photograph by Isadora Kosofsky for The California Sunday Magazine

An artist named Stephanie Montgomery was raped at the LA strip club where she worked. Montgomery worked at the strip club to help fund her creative pursuits, and during slow times at work, she often sketched customers and coworkers. After, her manager and the rapist denied the assault took place, and the police failed to do more than collect a chillingly detailed account of the assault, so Montgomery used her talents and painted the grizzly story of her assault on a 48-by-14 feet billboard at the entrance of one of LA’s busiest freeways. Journalist Kathy Dobie tells Montgomery’s story at The California Sunday Magazine. Montgomery’s is the story of female talent getting thwarted, of male violence and female credibility, of men betraying their female coworkers, and of how little help there is for women to deal with the aftermath of sexual assault.

Stephanie came to realize she’d reached the dead end of a road she had never wanted to be on in the first place. Nothing was going to happen. No justice, just another rape, the world moved on. The #MeToo movement had opened up the conversation, sure, and it had also spurred men into hyperdefensiveness and aggression, but when the smoke cleared, had anything really changed? Where were the arrests, the convictions? Did a stripper have a bigger voice, a better shot at justice than she would’ve two or five or twenty years ago?

As the months passed, something boiled and wept inside her; she couldn’t live with the silence, couldn’t let the rape go unanswered or pretend it never happened, as she had first hoped to do. An idea began to take hold. She was going to paint something, something huge, something public, and call out the rapist, the strip club, the LAPD.

Read the story

Editor’s Roundtable: Shorthand, Looking Away, Getting It Wrong (Podcast)

Trisha Meile
Trisha Meile, the Central Park jogger. (Duane Braley/Star Tribune via Getty Images)

On our June 7, 2019 roundtable episode of the Longreads Podcast, Essays Editor Sari Botton, Contributing Editor Aaron Gilbreath, and Senior Editor Kelly Stout share what they’ve been reading and nominate stories for the Weekly Top 5 Longreads.

This week, the editors discuss stories in The Cut, The New Yorker, and The California Sunday Magazine.


Subscribe and listen now everywhere you get your podcasts.


0:53 Before, and After, the Jogger (Sarah Weinman, June 3, 2019, The Cut

“It’s so important to push through your discomfort and watch these things and read these stories. It’s important for us to have episodes like this where we’re paying attention to heavy stories about other people’s difficulties that we don’t have.” —Sari Botton

The Cut revisits the story of The Central Park Five with a look at the experiences of the nine women who were raped, assaulted, and one, murdered, by Matias Reyes. Reyes only admitted to the crime years after Manhattan District Attorney Linda Fairstein had, in 1989, charged five innocent young boys with the crimes.

The team discusses the complicity of Fairstein, the police, and the press in vilifying the wrong people, and the way that the womens’ stories, central to everything, were never properly told. They also talk about Ava Duvernet’s When They See Us Netflix series and how it humanizes the boys from a similarly overdue angle. They address the responsibility we have to engage with tough stories, and how a story like this, about racism and misogyny, has reach far beyond New York City.

9:57 R. Kelly and the Damage Done. (, June 3, 2019, The New Yorker)

“To read these two pieces side by side disturbed me further, because on the one hand, you have somebody who’s being falsely accused of rape, and on the other hand, you have somebody saying I was raped, and not being believed.”  —Kelly Stout

The editors respond to Jim DeRogatis’s memoir of reporting on R. Kelly’s alleged victims, as well as his acknowledgement of his failures, prejudices, and the perspective that he lacked as a white member of the press.

The team discusses the blind spots of whiteness, and how white people fail to see what is directly in front of us when it comes to realities non-white communities have long dealt with. Additionally, they look at how in this particular case, information about R. Kelly’s actions was available for years and ignored by reporters. They also address the way members of privileged communities create scapegoats to recalibrate a sense of security after horrible incidents, including hanging on to the idea that the justice system provides protection more than it exacerbates harm.

25:28 The Billboard (Kathy Dobie, May 30, 2019, The California Sunday Magazine)

“Shorthand isn’t enough… victims don’t get the privilege of shorthand.” —Aaron Gilbreath

Artist Stephanie Montgomery was working in a club in Los Angeles, dancing and trying to get her career started, when one of the customers raped her. She told management and the police, but no one did anything. This is a story about the aftermath of that rape, and how Montgomery went on to tell her story by painting a billboard on the I-10 Freeway.

The team continues their conversation about the shortcomings of law enforcement and the media, as well as the meaning and weight of the word victim. They touch on the importance of permitting people who have suffered a trauma to forge their own path to healing. They reiterate the need for details and going beyond shorthand terms like ‘sexual assault’ in these stories. Readers may not want to read or hear these details, but they need to learn them if anything is going to change.

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Produced by Longreads and Charts & Leisure.

Analyzing the ‘Bimbo’: A Reading List on Hollywood Blondes

Marilyn Monroe laying on a lawn smiling
PALM SPRINGS, CA - 1954: Actress Marilyn Monroe poses for a portrait laying on the grass in 1954 in Palm Springs, California. (Photo by Baron/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

By Sascha Cohen

I once saw Britney Spears at Jerry’s Deli in Westwood. I was 20, and the two of us were in line for the bathroom. I cannot tell you a single detail about what she was wearing, the expression on her face, or how tall she seemed. My brain could only process two things: the jolt of recognition at beholding a celebrity who had defined pop culture during my adolescence, and her golden blonde hair, which made her look like a whole sunbeam, a glowing flashbulb, too bright to stare at too closely. 

I had been lightening my own hair since age 14, first with sprays of Sun In and later sitting in a salon chair on Melrose Avenue, while a stylist dabbed bleach on sections and folded them into foils. I flipped through Cosmo and People as the color processed, looking at photos of blonde celebrities: women like Holly Madison and Jessica Simpson imitating the style of women like Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield — all of us, in the Baudrillardian sense, copies of copies of copies. Hollywood blondes never really go out of fashion — they only shapeshift to meet the psychic and aesthetic needs of each generation. 

Our current moment has us revisiting an array of platinum icons from both the distant and more recent past. Documentaries, podcasts, and television shows, about figures from Traci Lords to Pamela Anderson, attempt to tease truth from artifice and interrogate the figure of the “bimbo” more broadly — to varying degrees of success. The best of these projects rehabilitate the Hollywood blonde, who has been historically maligned as a ditz or a slut, without necessarily rewriting her as a legible feminist in the modern sense. 

Essayists and journalists anticipated this trend starting a few years ago. Some gave us dark fables of doomed blondes thrown upon the merciless gears and levers of the show business machine. Others wrote triumphant American stories of metamorphosis, of the second act, of the potent mingling of beauty with commerce. Part of the fun of reading about Hollywood blondes is immersing oneself in the language of glamour, sex, fantasy, and occasionally transgression. The pieces on this list explore themes of “eroticized stupidity,” feminine excess, and the crafting of public personas. Like their subjects, they seduce and confound.

“Looking at Photographs of Marilyn Monroe Reading,” (Audrey Wollen, Affidavit, February 2019)

Marilyn Monroe’s iconography includes the infamous Playboy nudes, the billowing white dress from The Seven Year Itch, and several photographs of the actress posed with open books like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. What to make of the pictures of Marilyn reading? They suggest a depth and intelligence starkly opposed by the image of her in our popular imagination: the breathy, empty-headed sexpot whose body telegraphed post-war desire. Like Whitman, she contained multitudes. In 1955, she broke her 20th Century Fox contract and settled into a community of Jewish New York intellectuals, while the FBI kept tabs on her leftist politics. Audrey Wollen’s essay explores this paradox, describing Marilyn’s “passage from pop culture to high culture.”

She fled the castle, or she kept conquering territory, depending on who you ask. From the height of Hollywood, she went to the theatrical stage; from the beloved baseball star, she went to the acerbic playwright; from the front page tell-all interview, she went to the psychoanalytic couch. The press, the public, and the studios all thought she had gone crazy. In the United States, in 1955 and now, nothing screams insanity like shacking up with a Marxist, believing Freud, and reading Dostoevsky. 

“Get the Idea, Boys? Mae West’s Shoes,” (Sabina Stent, Majuscule, December 2019)

For a further look into the Hollywood bombshell, explore Camile Paglia’s, “The Death of the Hollywood Sex Symbol,” The Hollywood Reporter, 2019.

Mae West, whom the press called “the Babe Ruth of stage prosties,” inspired at least two Cole Porter songs and Salvador Dali designed a sofa based on her lips. But the voluptuous blonde with the quotable come-ons (“is that a gun in your pocket or…”) was also an artist in her own right. She wrote and starred in risqué plays that landed her in jail on morals charges, and wielded the notoriety to her advantage. Sabina Stent writes about the way West walked — or rather, prowled and shimmied — in a bespoke pair of nine-inch heels. Just as West’s long, glittering, fishtail gowns concealed her secret “double-decker” shoes, her razzle-dazzle flirtations disguised a certain shrewdness about men.

She saunters on stage, hand on hip, purring to her leering audience. “No wisecracks, now,” she says. “A penny for your thoughts …get the idea, boys…ya follow me?” The power of burlesque, the dance of illusion. West gives them the show they want while remaining entirely in control. West sends out an innuendo-laced invitation to chase her, but she knows her value as a commodity, and how to play this gullible crowd at their own game. “Am I makin’ myself clear, boys?” she states, sauntering her way offstage. “Suckers,” she smirks under her breath.

“The Mystery of L.A. Billboard Diva Angelyne’s Real Identity is Finally Solved,” (Gary Baum, The Hollywood Reporter, August 2017)

California’s recent gubernatorial recall election was a total bore until Angelyne entered the race on a platform of mandatory Bubble Bath Day. She lost the vote but won the hearts of Angelenos, who know her as the woman that invented “being famous for being famous” — long before Kim Kardashian was a twinkle in Kris Jenner’s eye. For no small fee, the camp icon, now in her 70s will take a photo with you in front of her Benadryl-pink Corvette and upsell you autographed T-shirts. Few people knew of Angelyne’s unlikely backstory until genealogical research revealed she was born Ronia Tamar Goldberg, the Polish Jewish daughter of Holocaust survivors. Making the most of Tinseltown’s penchant for reinvention and self-mythology, she donned full “shiksa drag.”

Goldberg had purely committed to the fundamental principle of Hollywood — escapism — by inhabiting the character she conjured to the point of no return. Like many dreamers, she adopted a stage name and altered her body and behavior to better position a prospective entertainment career that, like many dreamers, never panned out quite as intended. Nevertheless, far more than most, by any definition of success, she truly became the person she was pretending to be.

“The Bimbo’s Laugh,” (Marlowe Granados, The Baffler, July 2021)

For another take on the concept of the bimbo, read Alana Levinson’s “Justice for the Bimbo,” The Cut, 2022.

Not all blondes are bimbos, and not all bimbos are blondes, but the two are often linked: during the ’90s, a wave of “dumb blonde” jokes cemented the stereotype in our collective consciousness. These days, the bimbo (hair color and even gender notwithstanding) has been enjoying something of a renaissance among TikTok zoomers drawn to fluffy frivolity during what increasingly feels like the end times. The bimbo is sugar-sweet, but not altogether guileless — as Elle Woods proved at Harvard Law — and to fret that she caters to the Male Gaze now reads as hopelessly second-wave. In 2022, we can walk and snap our bubblegum at the same time.

Historically speaking, the archetypal bimbo is enthusiastic and good-natured. Bimboism does not necessarily require passivity; it is just not in the bimbo to be cruel. She only punches up. She pursues hyper-femininity to the extreme—at times to the point of drag. She’s glossy, voluminous, and kind. The bimbo counters the assumption that we would opt out of femininity if we could; in fact, she embraces it. Ultimately the desire to absorb the identity of the bimbo comes from the fact the bimbo is unburdened—whether or not this is a performance. Her respite is covetable, especially when the internet often feels like it lives in the grips of irascible snark.

“How Anna Nicole Smith Became America’s Punchline,” (Sarah Marshall, Buzzfeed Reader, February 2017)

Another rags to riches story, Anna Nicole Smith grew up poor like Marilyn Monroe. But no matter how much fame she secured (the covers and centerfolds, the Guess Jeans modeling contract, the bit movie parts), Smith could never shed her humble class background and its attendant signifiers in the eyes of Americans who deemed her “white trash.” She elicited that combustible alchemy of fascination and revulsion that makes a woman perfect tabloid and reality TV fodder. But it was Smith’s status as an unrepentant gold-digger that cast her tragic downfall as the just desserts for her larger-than-life appetites.

The woman rose up, made powerful by beauty, and then found herself falling, her beauty fading, her power eroding, her ugliness as she tried to cope with this loss providing spectators with the reassuring feeling that such power is never really worth having, if losing it looks like this. And the only person more deserving of this humiliation than the cluelessly beautiful woman is the beautiful woman who, even more unforgivably, knows she is beautiful: the woman who knows she is worth something to the world, and leverages her value to escape a life she can no longer stand. The woman who looks back at a world that always wants something from her, and asks, How bad do you want it? How much are you willing to pay?

“It’s Britney, B*tch,” (Lili Anolik, Air Mail, February 2021) 

What about a ’90s icon? Rachel Rabbit White considers Pamela Anderson in “Who’s Afraid of Pamela Anderson?” Vulture, 2022 .

More than anyone else, Britney Spears was the blueprint for Y2K vocal-fry teen girlhood. She was no spindly heiress like Paris Hilton; in the early years of her career, she offered something a bit more accessible. As Lili Anolik explains, “you could find half a dozen of her wandering the food court of any shopping mall in America.” If her look was ordinary, her dancing was remarkable — even better than Madonna’s. She may be best understood as the spiritual successor to Elvis, another poor white Southerner who made good, another entertainer with moves meant to titillate. If you were a high school girl at the turn of the millennium, Britney may have helped you discover the frisson of performing sexuality that you didn’t wholly mean — oops! — and that you could always coyly deny. Above all, the pop star was a study in contrasts.

Britney communicated in two ways. She talked with her mouth, and what she said was soft, flat, polite, girlish, self-effacing, devoid of nuance or interest or force. And she talked with her body, and what she said was assertive, aggressive, teasing, taunting, cruel verging on sadistic, and full of raw female power. The second voice was the louder and more insistent, and it tended to drown out the first, though not always and never entirely. And so the disparate elements that made up Britney Spears—part sweetheart, part rebel, part angel, part whore, part artist, part exhibitionist—fused together. Until they didn’t.

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Sascha Cohen is a Boston based writer who grew up in Los Angeles.

Editor: Carolyn Wells