A man I met once during college casually mentioned that he “didn’t read female novelists.” No offense intended, he explained, he’d just never come across any that he found particularly interesting. He had either the absolute confidence or the absolute death wish to say this at a reception at a women’s college and I seem to remember that we all stared at him, genuinely confused. What could he possibly mean? Had he never read Octavia Butler? I’ve been surprised how many times I’ve heard this sentiment repeated over the years, without embarrassment - and how grateful I’ve been that it was mostly repeated by people who worked in insurance or pharmaceuticals or some other field where the art they chose to consume, or not consume, really didn’t impact anybody but themselves.
Jann Wenner. Sigh.
Jann Wenner is a man whose taste, preferences and artistic consumption most certainly does have impact: he was the founder of Rolling Stone. And on Friday, the New York Times published an incredible interview with him.
The subject of the interview was Wenner’s new book, “The Masters,” which consists of long-ranging conversations between Wenner and the musicians he finds to be giants in their field, plucked from several decades of Wenner’s tenure at Rolling Stone. Luminaries like Bruce Springsteen, Bono, Jerry Garcia.
The “masters” are all White men. Not a woman or person of color among them. That in itself is noteworthy, but the eye-popping part of the New York Times article happened when the interviewer asked Wenner to explain why.
“Insofar as the women,” Wenner responded, “just none of them were as articulate enough on this intellectual level.”
The interviewer - David Marchese, doing fantastic work - pushed back hard on this, but Wenner refused to budge. He was looking for musicians who were “philosophers of rock,” he explained, and women and Black artists “just didn’t articulate at that level.” What could he possibly mean? Had he never heard Carole King? He supposed, in retrospect, that he could have “gone and found one Black and one woman artist to include here that didn’t measure up to that same historical standard, just to avert this kind of criticism,” but he didn’t because, I guess, he refuses to compromise his self-defined standards.
The backlash set in swiftly over the weekend, led by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame - with which Wenner has been associated since it was first conceived 40 years ago - announcing that it was removing him from its board of directors.
It’s fine to like what you like. But if you are Jann Wenner, a man who has been in the position to guide conversations about American pop culture for fifty years, how sad is it that it turns out that all of the musicians you find most worthy happen to be musicians who look like you?
Not articulate enough on an intellectual level? Cheese and rice, my dude, usually you have to trudge through an incel forum to find that sentiment spoken so loudly. While he did admit that female musicians might be “creative geniuses,” his main complaint seemed to be that they couldn’t talk about their art in a way that he found compelling or intellectually stimulating: “Joni [Mitchell] was not a philosopher of rock ‘n’ roll. She didn’t, in my mind, meet that test.”
It was truly disappointing to read Wenner recycling the tired, harmful idea that including a Black woman in a list celebrating excellence would only be to appease woke crowds, rather than because she deserves to be there. Had he never heard of Tina Turner? It was truly baffling to read him explaining that women artists were simply not articulate. Patti Smith? Stevie Nicks?
And as a journalist, the most noteworthy part of all of this was the fact that it didn’t seem to occur to him that maybe it’s him, he’s the problem. Had he never heard of Taylor Swift? That, if he found brilliant women’s answers to be boring, then perhaps he wasn’t asking the right questions. That, if he understood “articulate” to mean one particular thing - a thing only embodied by White male artists - then maybe that, in itself, is a boring way to go about understanding music. That historically, artists have been considered great because certain gatekeepers have decided they are great.
Jann Wenner was one of those gatekeepers, shaping culture but also being shaped by culture - a product of his times, and a prisoner of his biases. A guy who had his finger on the pulse of culture, in a certain era, when it was more acceptable for exclusively White men to be rock gods, and exclusively White men to be their high priests.
It would be one thing if Wenner had shrugged and said, look, I like what I like and this book isn’t for everyone, and left it that.
It’s another kind of another thing to blame the people you’ve excluded for not being intellectually captivating enough to hold your interest.
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