Writing about Women Make Noise: Girl Bands from Motown to the Modern, edited by Julia Downes, is tricky. On the one hand, it’s a very good feminist history—inspiring, frustrating and exhaustive. On the other, it occasionally veers into territory too academic for pleasure reading and its commitment to shining the light on obscure girl bands can feel like a bit of a slog.
Starting with all-woman bands playing American Old-Time and Country music in the 1920s-1940s, going through girl bands of the ‘50s and ‘60s up through punk, post-punk, queercore, riot grrl and finishing up with Pussy Riot the authors paint a picture of the challenge girl groups face(d) in a very male-dominated industry, as well as the ways that women subverted gendered expectations and norms.
From the Ronettes of the ’60s navigating race and gender to ‘70s punk bad Ova opening a community music studio in order to “make music and music-making an accessible, demystified activity available to women as an empowering tool for social change” (p.120) to the Rock Girl Camps of the 21st century Women Make Noise provides a forgotten history of the intersections of music and activism.
Tales of race riots, intimidation and abuse by male music fans and management, and inspiring moments of in-your-face activism provide fascinating background to some of your favourite bands (and many you’ve never heard of). The greatest strength of Women Make Noise is that many of the contributors were themselves part of the bands they’re chronicling. These women offer up inspiring, funny and enraging stories of being radical activists and prolific musicians in a world that worked constantly to push them down.
This is not a book for a casual music fan, it’s a book for lovers of music who want a deeper, richer history; for those who want to explore bands and feminism and the tiny and huge revolutions that women created by picking up guitars, learning how to care for and fix their own equipment, and being unapologetic in their demands to be taken seriously as musicians.