Ann Powers is critic and correspondent for NPR Music. She was formerly the chief pop critic at the Los Angeles Times and a critic for the New York Times, among other publications. She has published three books and edited two anthologies, including (with Evelyn McDonnell) Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop and Rap. Her latest book, Good Booty: Sex and Love, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music, was published in August 2017 and was called a "classic" by USA Today.
Why do different critical voices matter?
The critic is a conduit through which the meaning of an artwork flows – but not an empty vessel. Her own subjectivity, constructed over a lifetime of processing particular experiences, allows her to notice and interpret elements of the work that others might not grasp. This is true whatever gender the critic, but for years, decades, criticism was usually assumed to represent a view that aimed to be universal – a gold standard of judgment uninfluenced by “the personal.” In fact, that standard was gendered male (and raced white). The best women critics were always important because they were great at what they did, whether or not they foregrounded their gender – most didn’t before the 1960s, because they want ed to be taken seriously rather than being banished to the “women’s pages” of their publications. After feminism’s second wave took the culture’s awareness of sexism mainstream, feminist critics emerged in both academia and the popular press to show what it meant like to think and write “as a woman.” These women -- Ellen Willis writing on rock music; Molly Haskell on film; the Combahee River Collective and Sandra Gilbert/Susan Gubar on literature – threw light on the power structures that had historically put men at the center of every shared story while also excavating and highlighting women’s work. What they pointed out made it impossible for anyone who read him to accept a fake universal standard again. Old power structures die hard, though. In both academia and the popular press, the old idea that criticism was somehow naturally gender-neutral persisted. Women continued to fight to correct this misconception. New forms arose – punk zines that combatted sexism in rock music; high theory that analyzed cinema’s “male gaze” and championed alternatives to it. Yet especially in the mainstream press, some (mostly men) protested that feminist criticism was elitist, narrow-minded and hard to understand. Men had something to protect – an authority that kept women in a certain placed – and some actively fought against greater diversity, while others simply did little to promote it. With the advent of the Internet came a toppling of hierarchies that suddenly meant anyone with a writing voice and the luxury of time could present her work to the world. This great development also meant that women and people of color could find and interact with each other, and communities began to form. This has been a hugely beneficial development for criticism, which now flowers in myriad forms, from the memoiristic to the deeply historical to the quick take. Social media has also made clear how writing about the arts can be a form of activism, as movements like #metoo have gained steam and profoundly affected the entertainment industries. At the same time, the viewpoints of women and people of color are still too often associated with protest, quirky individuality and other forms of “otherness,” just as they are in the arts themselves. We need to cultivate an understanding of creative expression as fundamentally various and complex; we need to grasp that multiple viewpoints can coexist and be equally valid. That will only ever happen if the critics and curators connecting the work and the world are themselves equally multifarious.
What inspired you to be a critic?
I loved rock and roll; I loved writing. So (as a teenager) I found a way to do both at once. Also, because I was a girl and I didn’t want to be a performer, I often felt that I needed some kind of special passport to be enter the rock and roll scene. Girls who just “hung out” were rarely embraced simply as fans, much less so as experts; they must be groupies, many guys though. Being a writer gave me a reason that was also a kind of magic cloak.
What music are you excited about right now?
What I’m excited about in music changes weekly, because my job is very oriented around discovery. But right now two trends stand out for me. In my hometown of Nashville, and in fact throughout the South and the West, there’s a young cohort of singer-songwriters refreshing old traditions from country to blues to the Lauren Canyon confessional style. And in the imaginary kingdom of punk and indie rock, women are asserting themselves in all kinds of fascinating ways, making the best music in those genres. Also, I’m always interested to hear an album by anyone over 60. I think older people free of the psychic need to be popular can make extraordinary work.
What “hidden gem” do you think deserves more attention?
There’s so much music released now, virtually everything beyond the pop charts is a hidden gem on some level. I’ll call attention to Mary Gauthier’s remarkable album Rifles & Rosary Beads. Mary is a longtime favorite in the Nashville singer-songwriter community. She made this album in workshops with soldiers, about their experiences in war in the Middle East. It’s incredibly powerful to hear what she and these sensitive, insightful heroes made together.