Published on The Daily Femme – Monday, Nov. 15, 2010
Contributed by Annamarya
Throughout her extensive career as a music journalist, DJ and show promoter, Sara Sherr, a Philadelphia-based writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, has been a fierce advocate of and champion for female artists. So much so that, in 2001, Sherr, who cities her grandmother, Nette Soskin, sociologist/writer Donna Gaines, and the late Ari Up of the legendary punk group the Slits as her idols, started Sugar Town, a monthly music showcase held at Tritone in Philadelphia that is dedicated to females musicians, performers and DJs. But her work to promote creative women doesn’t end there: She also teaches a History of Women in Music class for Girls Rock Philly, a yearly week-long summer camp for girls ages 9-17 that teaches all aspects of musicianship, in addition to promoting female empowerment and positive self-esteem building. Annamarya recently had the chance to chat with Sherr about the current state of women in music and journalism, how female musicians and writers are viewed and treated in the mainstream, and the importance of continuing the feminist dialogue.
How did you come to choose a career in music journalism?
Writing always came naturally when music did not. I was always a music nerd growing up. There was always rock music in the house. From the time I was very little, my dad would take me into record stores and ask me which songs the bands should learn and what I thought about them. I had a babysitter who would make lists of her favorite songs and write down when they got played on the radio. I’d play the game along with her even when she wasn’t babysitting. After my parents divorced and my mother first started dating my stepfather, he was bringing records to the house too. In junior high, I would stay up on Sunday nights and listen to Casey Kasem to find out what the number one single was. I’d write everything down week to week. In high school, I remember being really proud when I started beating my know-it-all male friends at this rock trivia game. (Working in record stores helped). All of these things are preparation for being a music critic but I just didn’t know it yet.
So I went to school for Journalism at Temple University. I graduated in 1992 in the middle of the last recession and took a job at Tower Records. A year later, I was at a bar with a co-worker and she introduced me to her roommate, who was the music editor at the time of the Welcomat (which later turned into the Philadelphia Weekly). I was going out to the Khyber (when that was the center of indie rock in Philadelphia) to see bands every night of the week, and I wanted to write about them. There was no Internet at the time, so there was all this opportunity. I really had no idea what I was doing. It was a lucky break.
While there are more female journalists today than there were a decade or two ago, they are still pretty scarce, especially in music journalism. Why do you think the profession is still male-dominated?
I think there are lots of female writers but fewer outlets for everyone as the magazine and newspaper businesses are really struggling. On the magazine end, it seems that the staffers tend to be men and the freelancers tend to be women but there are exceptions – and the women are much lower down on the masthead than the men. And when there is the squeeze, the women seem to get squeezed out. As far as newspapers, the first things they cut is arts coverage, so I think both genders are equally disadvantaged there.
How can women shift that balance, if not to have majority but at least some equal footing? Is it a matter of how many female journalists are out there, changing how female writers are perceived/treated or both?
I think that blogs and websites are where the equal footing is. It’s opened up the doors to all kinds of voices. Pitchfork might have more male than female editors but their news editor is a woman, Amy Phillips. In general, women just have to continue to pitch, pitch, pitch to anyone and everyone, and not give up. If no one publishes you, start a blog.
In the past, you said that as you started your writing career, you wanted to make sure you weren’t “just a token young female writer.” What did you do to make sure that it didn’t happen? And what should other female writers do to make sure they’re not pigeonholed?
I wanted to do everything I could be to be a good writer and researcher. So much criticism is good research and that seems to be lost today, ironically in the age of the Internet where everything is supposedly available. Music nerds are furious when you get something wrong.
You’ve mentioned also that a lot of men have helped you along the way when you started writing professionally. In what ways did they help and do you think it was necessary for you to get that help in such a male-dominated field?
Working as a freelancer can be a very solitary experience, so it is just good to have positive feedback from people and some sort of social interaction.
What impact do you think the election wins of many ultra-conservative women, who are regarded by feminists as the “anti-women women,” will have on the future of feminism? Do you foresee a tougher fight to secure and gain women’s rights since now we’re not only fighting men in office?
Actually, women, both conservative and liberal, were the big losers this election cycle. I was just reading an NPR article that the number of women in Congress is at its lowest in 30 years. I believe it’s at 17 percent. The pendulum does swing back and forth and the fight is not over. Democrats did not turn out to vote as much as they could have, and a lot of them were younger voters. And that extends to different generations of feminists reaching out to each other as well, or young women embracing feminism when they are reluctant. And I still don’t know exactly how to do that.
The bigger question in that is why do you think so many women are latching onto such an extreme form of politics that, as you’ve said, sets back what feminists of yore fought to achieve?
I think the conservatives co-opted the language of feminism (and liberalism in general) without its actual substance and they were able to get a new generation of young conservative women behind them who are impressionable, privileged and sheltered. They don’t think that they will ever go without. It’s a very selfish movement. I don’t think it’s all women, but it’s just a very vocal minority.
On the other hand, while there is a strong wave of feminism out there today, many young women, as you’ve pointed out, believe that all our battles are won. Why do you think that is? Could it be due to an inherent, brainwashed complacency?
Each generation that hasn’t experienced any kind of discrimination due to being a woman will think the battle is over until they experience it themselves.
What inspired you to start Sugar Town, a monthly night dedicated to female musicians?
I’d already been a music critic for a decade championing female artists and wanted another avenue to do it. A lot of the more popular rock bands and DJ nights in Philadelphia were men. At that time, I was also inspired by all the Ladyfests springing up all over the country, so I wanted to do a smaller monthly Philly version of that.
While there are a lot of female musicians making an imprint on the indie and punk music scenes, they are still underrepresented in the mainstream rock scene, even though their R&B and pop counterparts dominate the charts. Why is that?
The mainstream rock scene is so stale and resistant to any kind of change. There are all kinds of interesting artists, both male and female, who are overlooked. The traditional music business is dying, and so they grasp on to what works, and when the money runs out, the choices get more conservative, so the unusual voices get squeezed out.
Would it be far-fetched to say that mainstream rock is still viewed as a primarily masculine thing? Do you think this viewpoint turns a majority of women away from pursuing rock music or is it more that, because they’re just not given a chance or taken seriously, they tend to give up?
I would say so but I think that is changing. If you are not a huge rock star, being in a band is thankless job for anyone, especially the rigors of touring, setting up shows, etc. It really is a labor of love. But just like all careers, I think having children still affects women more than men. Having a child is a major lifestyle changer, and rock and kids frequently don’t mix. I was hanging in rock clubs when I was eight but most people would not want that for their children.
Women in rock music are often judged on their sexuality, then on their talent such as Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and, for a more current reference, Gossip Girl’s Taylor Momsen, who plays in The Pretty Reckless. While Momsen’s talent may be disputable, there’s more talk about her age, fashion and sexuality than there is her music. Why does the media continue to use sexuality as a basis for judging female musicians?
Sex sells and pretty faces sell magazines and make more clicks for websites. And then there’s also the tricky thing that one of the best part of rock is its sexuality and both men and women playing part in that. For women, it’s always a double-edged sword. Madonna wrote the book on being sexy and powerful, but female artists still struggle with that dichotomy today.
You also teach History of Women in Music at the Girls Rock Philly camp. How did you get involved with that?
I wanted to be involved with Girls Rock Philly when it started and volunteered to do that since I’ve spent years studying it as a rock critic and music fan.
What is it like working with the young girls that attend Girls Rock Philly? What is the overall attitude of the girls who attend the camp?
It’s really awe-inspiring to plant seeds of knowledge and self-esteem for these girls, especially the teenagers. They are really excited to be there.
How important is it to you to keep the dialogue-be it verbal, written or performed-going about women’s achievements and talents?
So important! I did a Sugar Town [on November 6] where [author of Girls to the Front: The True Story of the RIOT GRRRL Revolution] Sara Marcus was talking about being part of riot grrrl in 1991 as a teenager and then Amy Klein of Titus Andronicus, who is all of 24, read a piece about her own anxieties about being a women in rock and roll. It’s like nothing has changed! But I felt good that I made place for this dialogue to occur. A man was there with his 17-year-old son. One of my performers, Attia Taylor is about to turn 21 and she was a Girls Rock Philly camper, and the women in Bells Bells Bells are in their late 20s and early 30s, and they were all really tuned into the same thing.
What would happen if that dialogue stopped?
I don’t think you can stop it. There are too many women with stories to tell.