"Just a little bit..."

Oct 20, 1999 at 12:00 am
Here we are, nearing the end of the millennium. We’re making lists and comparing notes on "best-ofs," "worst-ofs" and "most importants." We’re getting nostalgic. A&E’s "100 Most Influential People." NPR’s "100 Most Significant Moments in Music." The media appeal to our demand for retrospective and our desire for synthesis. Tapping into this craving, Rhino Records offers a 5-CD anthology, R-E-S-P-E-C-T: A Century of Women in Music. The mission of this box set is to "set the record straight" by providing a chronicle of women in 20th century American popular music.

But the compilers acknowledge a controversy inherent in their project: Is the category "women in music" pro- or anti-feminist? In the accompanying book, Holly George-Warren explains their intentions: "Women frequently have been excluded from radio airplay, record label rosters and subsequent best-of packages." She asks, "Why shouldn’t an anthology of historical significance such as this single out and honor women for their achievements?" But we’re candidly told that many performers — including Joni Mitchell — declined to be included because they object to women-specific collections.

It’s a tricky issue. Author Monica Kendrick has criticized "special" women-focused issues of Spin magazine and Rolling Stone. Responding to the 1997 "Year of the Woman" hype, Kendrick explains, "there’s … a fine line between special recognition and marginalization."

But this is where the R-E-S-P-E-C-T collection succeeds. It’s a comprehensive, historical tour through a century of American music.

The five-CD set begins in the early 1900s with recordings by Ada Jones, Mamie Smith and Fanny Brice. The first disc, "Broadway, Blues and Truth," resembles the archival tone of Harry Smith’s acclaimed Anthology of American Folk Music. The next stop on the R-E-S-P-E-C-T tour is "Torch, Twang and Swing," the most aesthetically successful of all the discs. Mingling lesser-known artists with all-time greats, this disc gives us Judy Garland’s incomparable "Over the Rainbow," Billie Holiday’s dramatic "Strange Fruit," Lena Horne’s wistful "Stormy Weather" and Rosemary Clooney’s brilliantly seductive "Come-on a My House," the standout track on the disc and perhaps the most memorable in the entire anthology.

From there, we move along to the third disc, "Shoop-Shoop, Motown, Get Down, Sister," then we travel to the fourth disc, "Rock to Electric Shock," and finish our journey with "Hip-Hop, Pop and Passion." Along the way, an 80-page booklet guides the listener by providing a brief outline of women in numerous genres from jazz to country and western, gospel to hard rock.

In addition, the continuity between the discs is excellent. Feminist politics, for example, emerges as one of the repeated themes. The 1916 suffragette ditty "She’s Good Enough to be Your Baby’s Mother and She’s Good Enough to Vote With You" is complemented by Loretta Lynn’s endearingly dated song, "The Pill" (1975), an enthusiastic thank you to sexual liberation and modern contraceptives.

What’s more, throughout the collection the compilers have interspersed "bonus sound bytes" — brief comments by women such as Amelia Earhart, Grandma Moses and Shirley Chisolm — on a variety of subjects. Most of the time, these are carefully and thoughtfully sequenced. On the final disc, for instance, Anita Hill explains why she delayed coming forward about alleged sexual harassment by Clarence Thomas, a clever segue to the track that follows: Tori Amos’ "Silent All These Years."

Given the compilation’s title — R-E-S-P-E-C-T — the biggest disappointment is packaging that ludicrously recycles conventional images of women. The dark burgundy velvet box, tied inside with satin ribbon, has the unmistakable odor of a Victoria’s Secret catalog. On top of the box is a picture frame cut-out, an implied peep-show containing an image of a female nude. Her torso is shaped like a guitar, complete with a sound-hole at her navel and strings leading from her neck to her genitals. Perpetuating the objectification of the female body that many feminists have struggled to free themselves from, this image by artist Christine Haberstock suggests that women are subjects of, not creators of art.

It’s a shame that the collection was marketed this way. It detracts from the credibility of the anthology and undermines the explicit mission of the compilers. Not only that, but it validates the reasoning of artists who opt to steer clear of such ventures.

We may do well to look back and assess how far we’ve come. But it’s clear that women in music still haven’t received all the respect that they have earned. Audrey Becker is a Detroit-based freelance writer and