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A Look Back at the Decade in Music: Why Rolling Stone Magazine Should Be Ashamed

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"It's a Man's Man's Man's World" - or so James Brown sang in 1966. With lyrics by Betty Jean Newsome and a cinematic orchestral arrangement, that song's characterization of traditional male-female relationships make it a classic relic from a pivotal era in the history of rock and roll. How quickly things changed. In 1965, Petula Clark's "Downtown" was the biggest-charting song by a female. Two years later, in 1967's Summer of Love, women weren't only burning bras, they were making like Grace Slick and becoming rock stars. And, somewhere, women were writing about the music they loved. But probably not often in the pages of a brand new publication called Rolling Stone.

Now, more than forty years later, no one might have guessed "It's a Man's Man's Man's World" would still describe the world's most famous music magazine. (Not even Rolling Stone itself, which ironically called Brown's song "biblically chauvinistic" in a 2004 review). Or that the stalwart rag would remain almost completely devoid of female bylines.

These days, Rolling Stone soldiers on as the go-to music magazine in America, in part because its competition has either disappeared (bare-boob Blender went online-only), fills the indie niche (like the smart and tasty Paste), or appeals to a younger crowd (Spin). And also because RS has, on occasion in its 43-year history, proven sociologically indispensable in mirroring the heart and soul of our popular, rock-and-roll-loving culture (thank you, Annie Liebovitz, you awesome female photographer, you!). To its credit, Rolling Stone has given voice to some great female music journalists over the years (Lorraine Ali and Jancee Dunn among them), yet page for page, it has fewer bylines by women than any other music magazine I could find on the stands this month. As we near both the end of 2009 and the decade in which we got closer than ever before to having a female President of the United States, that's just plain wrong.

I don't hate Rolling Stone (on the contrary: two of my favorite music writers, David Browne and Rob Sheffield, both write for the mag), but I do hate the fact that its latest issue (RS 1094/1095) boasts "The Decade's Best Songs and Albums" as voted upon by a distinguished panel of "the most knowledgeable people about music we could think of" (according to Managing Editor Will Dana in a behind-the-scenes video from the magazine's website), when that said panel includes very few women. Of the 100 names listed in the magazine as "The Voters," only nine are women (excuse me if I mistook any gender-neutral names for being male). What's more, even though the entire 102-page issue appears to be a collaborative effort by the RS staff and very few individual bylines were credited, I could only find one woman's name (Nicole Frehsee) beneath an article.

It may have seemed so in the early-1960s, but (esoteric differences about the definition of the genre aside) rock and roll is in fact not a man's world. Especially not now. According to Billboard magazine, four out of the five top-charting artists of 2009 are women (five out of five, if you count Fergie as the lead singer of the Black Eyed Peas). So why aren't more women writing about the women that dominate the music industry?

If I had the wherewithall to research the numbers, I'm sure I'd find disparities in the percentage of female bylines across the board in every type of publication, so I'm not going to tackle the overall issue of gender inequality in journalism in this blog. But music is a sore spot for me - one, because I love it so much, and two, because music journalism simply should not be gender-driven. Unlike a made-for-women's magazine (Oprah's O, for example), which might cover the latest cosmetics line and assign the story to a female writer because it's a product meant primarily for females, Rolling Stone - or any other magazine - has no right to assume that male writers know more, care more, or can write mo' better about the product of music, regardless of reader demographics. Music belongs to all of us, no matter our gender, and we should all have a say in deciding what's "best."

As for Rolling Stone, I hope it eventually joins the 21st century and realizes the the true value (and marketability) of female music journalists.

As for me, you may not be reading my stuff in the pages of RS anytime soon (who knows?), but for starters, here's my own take on the year's - and the decade's - best music.

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