Reversing MusesWomen, Music, and Podcasts

Within hours of each other, announcements were made in late September about the latest episodes of Reversal of the Muse and The Talkhouse, both of which are podcasts in which musicians talk to other musicians about making music. (The Talkhouse also explores film.) Both episodes were comprised entirely of women in conversation with other women, and at least one of those women was Dolly Parton, so indeed: it’s been a very good month for women, music, and podcasts.

Reversal of the Muse was started by Mercury-nominated artist Laura Marling this past summer as an exploration of feminine creativity and gender imbalances in recording studios especially. Marling describes it as:

conversations between friends about female creativity. In reversing the muse it became an experiment. As a small part of the global conversation about women in the arts, it became an obsession. It occurred to me that in 10 years of making records I had only come across two female engineers working in studios. Starting from my experience of being a woman I began to ask myself what difference it might have made had I had more women around, if any. I wanted to know why progress has been so slow in this area and what effect it would have on music.

The finale of the first season of RotM features Marling in conversation with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, as the pair were preparing for the reissue of their classic 1986 record Trio, recorded with Linda Ronstadt. Earlier episodes of Marling’s show dove into more specifics of gender imbalances in recording and producing music, but her conversation with Parton and Harris makes clear that neither of her subjects particularly took the bait. Parton insists that she feels like “one of the boys” when recording, as she’s known her all-male band for decades, and Harris says it never bothered her, being outnumbered, unlike in Congress, she says, “where we should have more women.” Marling admits in her intro to the episode that she was too twitterpated by her company to push back or delve much deeper into those responses, which is both disappointing and relatable. What makes this conversation so interesting is precisely how it differs from the other conversations in the series. Parton and Harris are of another generation, and talk about their place in music-making as conflict-free; both insist they’ve never felt disadvantaged by their gender. It’s optimism, but it can also come across as tin-eared to any woman who is disadvantaged by her gender on a daily basis.

Generation gaps come up again in the second excellent women-in-music podcast episode released recently, as Kathleen Hanna of Le Tigre, The Julie Ruin and Bikini Kill joined Perfect Pussy’s Meredith Graves in conversation for The Talkhouse. It’s a much longer conversation than Marling’s, which reads as further evidence of the cultural differences between the two interviews. Hanna and Graves are chatty; Parton and Harris were kind, but left no wiggle room in their responses, and brushed off lines of questioning that didn’t go where they wanted to. The takeaway from the Reversal of the Muse conversation is that Harris and Parton are of an era of womanhood in which the best way to get by was to do unassailable work, and hope to be seen and respected to the same degree as men in the same positions. Conversely, Graves and Hanna are both established radical feminists whose works have called for outright revolution; for the complete dismantling of the systems in which Parton and Harris were apparently comfortable being the only one in the room.

In an episode of RotM in which Marling interviews the band HAIM, she wonders aloud, “What joys await us when we understand more about feminine creativity?” In many ways, this could have been the question guiding Graves and Hanna in their talk, as well. They discuss their experiences as women and as feminists trying to live authentic lives and work for change in their profession and beyond. They are working from the assumption that the art that they’ve each made, though some of it decades apart, was cathartic and productive not just for them, but for others struggling similarly. Which means, of course, that they are assuming a struggle is taking place. Hanna and Graves find their common ground in the sharing of each other’s trials as women musicians, while Harris and Parton find theirs in a shared dismissal, ignorance, or genuine obliviousness to anything of the kind. These podcasts are fascinating on their own, but are even more compelling when placed in conversation with each other. How would Dolly Parton respond to Kathleen Hanna’s story of being stalked? And how would Meredith Graves follow up on Emmylous Harris saying there should be more women in government, but not necessarily in the studio? Laura Marling’s questions about feminine creativity might not be answered, per se, but they would make for one hell of a podcast episode.

You can hear the original episodes here (Reversal of the Muse) and here (The Talkhouse).



by Katie Presley
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Katie Presley is a writer and editor currently based on the East Coast (help, how did this happen??). She's been with Bitch in one form or another since 2010, when she started as a New Media Intern, and most recently served as Bitch's first and only Music Editor, from 2016-2017. Past resume lines include Assistant Producer for All Songs Considered at NPR Music, panelist on Pop Culture Happy Hour, and bylines at NPR and Ms. Katie is also a doula and herbalist, and writes a blog on herbal medicine, "The Herbal Apprentice." She also co-founded the first full-spectrum doula organization in Texas, The Bridge Collective. She is also a late-comer to being a Dog Person, but currently lives with four cats. 

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