From The Fader:
Gayle Wald, a professor of English at George Washington University in Washington, DC, has spent a good part of her career writing and teaching about popular music (including to this magazine’s editor-in-chief and style editor, both GWU alumni). Though the bulk of English courses offered at the university are about literature traditionally defined, Wald stands out with syllabi that pair Billie Holiday biographies with Walter Benjamin essays and Nina Simone albums. Here, she tells us about how her days hosting a women’s-only radio show in the riot grrrl early ’90s led her to see music in a different light, ultimately inspiring an academic career largely dedicated to the power of music.
I would not have taken seriously the idea that I could write and teach about music had I not encountered feminist theory in graduate school. It was the early 1990s, and like a lot of English grad students, I was reading Luce Irigaray, Judith Butler, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa. My studies were exhilarating, full of revelations, but I hadn’t yet translated these to sound. My “aha” moment came when I was listening to a local “women’s music” radio program and realized the songs were, without exception, acoustic, lyrical and, for lack of a better word, pretty. Fired up, I somehow found the courage to march over to the college radio station, an overstuffed bunker in one of the undergraduate dorms, to ask if I could have my own women’s music show. Apparently it was station protocol to give prospective DJs a written test of their musical knowledge. I could quote from Paradise Lost and had an informed opinion about postmodernism, but I didn’t know what a 4AD was or whether Dischord was a band or a label. The programming director must have been desperate for a female DJ, or he took pity on me, because he gave me a show.
Within a month, and with a friend in tow (after the test and a look at the mess of equipment in the sound booth, my bravado had flagged and I needed help), I was hosting Ladies First, christened in homage to Queen Latifah’s breakout hit, itself a brilliant musical expression of gender trouble. In time-honored college-radio fashion, each week we concocted a mash of blues, rap, folk, punk, rock and jazz. Playing music for an unseen audience was a kick—we knew we had listeners because the studio phone would miraculously ring during ticket giveaways!—but to be perfectly honest, I was choosing songs because I wanted to hear them through my headphones. We had no rules about what we could or would play, as long as women were involved with the music. We were only diehards about that one requirement, though it was better if the music was polemical or somehow iconoclastic. The much-excoriated Yoko Ono fit neatly into this aesthetic, but so did Labelle and Sonic Youth (both Nona Hendryx and Kim Gordon were our idols). After the first Kill Rock Stars compilation arrived at the station, we had Bikini Kill’s “Feels Blind” in high rotation, Kathleen Hanna’s ferocity a jolt to the heart and the gut. The same with PJ Harvey’s Dry, when it showed up the next spring. We knew the “Women in [fill in the blank]” designation was clumsy, but it gave us license to create our own stories with the music. I never considered myself a part of riot grrrl, but, following the music’s DIY example, at some point it was nearly impossible to listen and not be inspired to think about creating something of your own. Scholarship is often pegged as the squelching of self-expression, but I found my own creative outlet in thinking and writing about popular music.
Continue reading the rest of the story on The Fader