Norma Coates – Antenna Responses to Media and Culture Thu, 30 Mar 2017 23:48:47 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Honoring Hilmes: “An Advisor is Forever” – Passing It On Tue, 19 May 2015 13:00:37 +0000 Post by Norma Coates, University of Western Ontario

This is the eleventh post in our “Honoring Hilmes”series, celebrating the career and legacy of Michele Hilmes on the occasion of her retirement. 

“An advisor is forever,” Michele Hilmes said to me soon after I received my PhD. I probably responded with “bwah hah hah.” I had accepted a job at UW-Whitewater because of my family’s desire to stay in Madison. And, now it can be told, my separation anxiety. How would I survive in academia away from Madison and MCS, and away from Michele’s sage advice and calming presence? As it turns out, I found that perhaps you can go home again – home being your graduate school – but you should leave for a while first. Michele knew that, and probably did not think that mine was the best decision, no matter how much I rationalized it to her and to myself. She never said anything negative about it – not to my face. She smiled her inscrutable smile and, as she had through my dissertation writing, let me make my own mistakes. My dream of continuing to attend colloquiums and to run my work and ideas by Michele for her critique and suggestions – that is, to maintain our grad school advisee/advisor relationship – evaporated quickly as I dealt with a 4/4 teaching load, a two-hour round-trip commute, a toddler, and a department with no like-minded thinkers. More to the point, Michele could no longer give me that type of attention nor, I think, did she want to. Logistics and workload aside, I learned from Michele that advising is much more than reviewing chapter drafts.

Like Michele, I have too many advisees. I now understand the demands that all of her advisees, including (especially?) me, made on her time – time that is far more precious than grad students know until they, too, join the professoriate. I now understand the haunted look that greeted me when I knocked on her shut door to have one of my periodic meltdowns. (Michele says that she could predict them.) Advising is much more than picking out courses, reading and commenting upon work, and eventually writing letters of recommendation for your (and other) students. Advising is being willing to put aside your own writing to work on your advisees – even when you’re not willing. If she minded, she did not show it.

Michele taught me that advising is about the advisee, not the advisor. From her, I learned to try to not impose my vision of what the student should do or say, but to get the student to express her voice and her ideas. She also showed me building the advisee’s confidence and leading her to trust her instincts is as important as going through her work. Whenever I work with an advisee who has gone down a rabbit hole or who is too snarled up in a thicket of what she thinks she “should” do instead of what she wants to do, I remember Michele’s patience with a few of my dissertation detours. She waited for, and trusted, me to find my way out on my own, sometimes gently suggesting me toward a better path. A great advisor, like Michele, teaches the advisee to listen to, and more importantly trust, her own voice.

grad_tassel14_1777From Michele, I learned that an advisor is also a midwife at the birth of an academic career. She taught me that an advisor encourages her advisees to establish a professional profile early and often. An advisor does not hide from her graduate students at conferences, even if she wants to, but introduces them to others working in their area. An advisor finds opportunities for her advisees to provide research assistance for her projects, or to contribute to their writing. An advisor continues to take an interest, and even help promote, her advisees’ careers long after the dissertation is finished. And sometimes, the advisor will continue to socialize with the advisee, and even host them for a stay when they return to town.

Michele’s advice is always with me, in the ways I described above and in the form of questions as I write, think, and plan my scholarship. I pose similar questions to my advisees. Am I asking the right questions? Am I clear? Do I have enough evidence? What am I really trying to say? Is this historicized enough? Do I believe in what I am arguing? Why is this here? Am I making the right connections? And the biggest one of all, what would Michele think of this? After all, an advisor is forever.


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An Incomplete History: “Women Who Rock” at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Thu, 01 Mar 2012 14:20:15 +0000 I found myself in Cleveland last week.  My friend Amy Rigby, a musician who plies her trade in one of the parallel music industries that I talked about in my recent post about the Grammy Awards, had things to do in Cleveland.  I’d been threatening for months to take advantage of being on sabbatical to see the “Women Who Rock” exhibit at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a few hours from where I live, before it closed on February 26, although the thought of it made me queasy.  A road trip was born and Amy and I visited the exhibit.  It was all that I expected, which is to say, not much.

Critiquing it is like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s just too easy.  The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reflects the worldview of Rolling Stone magazine and major players in the commercial music industry.  The “meta” issue at play is how to put rock and roll, or any type of music, in a museum.  What good is looking and reading about music when you haven’t heard it?  Posting individual listening stations at each display would make progress through any exhibit impossibly slow, compromising an institution’s ability to remain financially solvent.  Curators have to assume that we know what the music, at least some of it, sounds like.  The cultural authorization that results from exhibits of this type is also problematic, as are issues of inclusion and exclusion.  Who gets recognized, who doesn’t, and why?

These problems are especially germane to an exhibit about women and rock.  I imagine that although some of the people who saw the exhibit were music nerds like me and Amy, most were not.  Those of us who are already familiar with the music could “play” it in our heads.  What would everyone else do? We were there on the President’s Day holiday, and the majority of visitors in the galleries were either middle-aged couples or moms with their pre- or just-teen daughters.  The solution proffered by the Rock Hall was to focus on performers who visitors might be familiar with.  Hence a couple of displays devoted to Lady Gaga (the meat dress!), pop stars from the 80s on, the most well-known punk, new wave and “alternative” acts, several rap, hip-hop, and nouveau girl group artists, and some appropriately reverential educational videos about early blueswomen and R&B singers from the 50s and 60s.  Emphasis was on singers.  “Wait,” you may say, “I thought you were talking about rock?” Indeed.  “Rock” here is stretched so thin as to be a meaningless term – a common discursive move.  “Rock,” the exhibit claimed, is an attitude, and apparently these selected artists all have it.

We were a bit amazed by some of the performers who were barely recognized, or left out entirely. Wither the Slits? The Raincoats? Poly Styrene?  Patsy Cline? Emmylou Harris? Exene? Mo Tucker?  Oh yeah, listed in a paragraph on a small sign, maybe.  Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Kim Gordon, Kathleen Hanna, and Liz Phair were there, but where were the rest of the women from the 70s to the 90s and beyond who made or continue to toil in the rock trenches? Where were the non-Americans? (Joni Mitchell was included, but she’s lived south of the 49th parallel for a long time.) Pioneering female rock group Fanny was represented with a group photo on a swinging door that led to a side exhibit; Amy and I were relieved that it was not the entrance to the restroom, which is what it looked like.

After a while, it seemed that artists who were able to donate “stuff,” usually in the form of stage attire identified by the name of the designer, were the de facto focal points of the exhibit.  That wasn’t necessarily the case, as it turns out.  Upon my return, I asked June Millington of Fanny whether she’d been contacted about the exhibit. She hadn’t, although she knew that her photo was being used and that the curatorial staff had her contact information.  Too bad, as Millington has plenty of stuff, in the way of guitars, other instruments, and memorabilia that I’m sure she’d have been happy to lend and that could have formed part of more interesting exhibits. (I also emailed one of the Raincoats with the same question; if I get a response I’ll post her answer in the comments to this piece.)

The exhibit was accompanied by a PBS documentary, so upon my return home I watched that, hoping that it would fill in some blanks.  I’m sorry to say that it did not.  (It streams here: Although narrated by leading male and female critics, and hosted by Cindy Lauper, it omitted even more artists in order to create a smooth narrative from Bessie Smith to Janelle Monae, culminating in an implied celebration of “poptimism,” currently a vogue amongst writers, bloggers and some academics who think critically about popular music.  I think that the critical turn to poptimism is well intentioned, as it attempts to break down hackneyed binaries that as much as we don’t want them to continue to inform discussions of popular music (e.g., authentic/commercial, male/female, white/black, rock/pop), but believe it does not deal adequately with other things, for example: the political economy of the industries; entrenched sexism; the tyranny of playlists, Pitchfork, and tightly constructed radio formats that shut down possibilities for artists like Amy, a long-time critical favorite whose music has always fallen between the cracks; the tracking of women away from rock and into softer or more “appropriate” pop listening practices as they age; the myth of the “middle-class musician” who can actually afford things like health care and a guarantee of a decent living; and the politics of representation and identity in their myriad configurations.[1]

Calling it all “rock” does not attenuate or explore these and other issues.  Ultimately, the story of “women who rock” is not all about clothes and good feelings. Writing so much and so many out of what could, because of its institutional status, become the foundation of the sanctioned and commonsense history of women and rock threatens to erase or trivialize their past, present and future contributions.  We scholars and critics have our work cut out for us if we want to capture the more inclusive and nuanced history that the subject deserves.

[1] Yes, this is a bit of a shameless advertisement for Amy, a woman who most definitely rocks yet is, in my opinion, criminally unknown.  Check out her music and blog at, or legally download her albums from or iTunes.


1984 All Over Again: The 2012 Grammy Awards Telecast Wed, 15 Feb 2012 14:48:28 +0000 Bon IverI’m going to say this up front:  I’m a music snob, and I hate the very idea of the Grammy Awards.  If you’re looking for dispassionate analysis, stop reading now.

Why do I hate the Grammys so?  In large part because the Recording Academy, the name used by the organization that presents the annual telecast, purports to speak for the music industry writ large.  It doesn’t.  There isn’t a music industry, there are several parallel and unequal music industries.  The Recording Academy limned out one of these parallel industries this year when they eliminated almost half of their awards, including a substantial number that presented Grammys in more “ethnic” categories, including several Latin awards, large and growing potential audience or not.

The Grammy Awards celebrate the big Music Industry, the one that has the lock on radio formats and televised singing contests, and that still manages to move lots of hard copies of recorded products. I could call it mainstream, but I think it’s an idea of mainstream more than a material mainstream. Or, I could call it the “residual” music industry, but there are ways in which it is still dominant, at least in theory.  The Grammy Awards are one of the ways that it maintains that fiction.  Throw a big, glossy celebration on television, feature bands that people like me wouldn’t know if they stopped us on the street and gave us a special performance, allow a controlled amount of crossover from one of the parallel music industries (sorry, Justin Vernon, that you showed up to receive your award at all kind of cancels out your reluctant acceptance speech), and call it Music’s Biggest Night. This year it kind of worked, as the telecast drew its best ratings since 1984.  But the show may have drawn that audience only because of the death of one of the self-proclaimed Music Industry’s most representative artists, Whitney Houston, the day before.  That, and the hype about Adele, who as predicted swept the Grammy table, taking home six of them.

For a while it seemed like the broadcast was hastily re-engineered into a Whitney-fest, squeezing in “Grammy moments” featuring Houston.  The evening’s host, LL Cool J, led the audience in the Staples Center and presumably, those at home, in a prayer for Houston.  Many artists and presenters said kind words about Houston throughout the evening, and Jennifer Hudson’s rendition of “I Will Always Love You” was moving and for a program riddled with overblown (Nicki Minaj) or underthought (whatever that dance tribute to Don Cornelius was) routines, nicely conceived.

Overall the program felt like a transmission from 1984 or 1985, before digital technologies ravaged the Music Industry’s bottom line, but with modern set design and technological trickery.  In this vision of 1984, wife or partner abuse hadn’t yet emerged as an important social and cultural problem, so the Recording Academy presented us with three appearances by Chris Brown, even as his victim, Rihanna, participated in the proceedings.  In this 1984, rock, or rawk, still rools!  Especially Brooce!  Bruce Springsteen opened, singing a populist anthem about how “we take care of our own.”  Perhaps he should write a check to the many musicians in one of the parallel music industries who are living without healthcare, or otherwise scraping by. I stopped counting after the four shots of Paul McCartney and his wife in the first ten minutes.  James Brown, er, Bruno Mars followed dressed for the Apollo even further back, circa 1964.

As much as I don’t want to, during this telecast I found myself agreeing with Simon Reynolds.  Retromania has taken over music, there’s nothing new going on.  Then again, in the Grammy’s Music Industry, there’s no retromania because the record-selling/reissuing oldsters haven’t gone away.  The list of aging performers included what’s left of the Beach Boys, Glen Campbell, Paul McCartney (twice), the Foo Fighters (twice) and Tony Bennett.  Several very bland newer bands, reminding me of some of the white mainstream of the 1980s (remember Christopher Cross, anyone?) also performed.  Country was represented in several rather conservatively staged numbers, and yet another Taylor Swift diss of Kanye West (a no-show). Oh, Bonnie Raitt was half of a too-short tribute to Etta James.  In this parallel universe represented by the Grammy Awards, women don’t rock or do much beyond dance and dress up as smurfs in bondage gear (yes, I’m talking about you, Katy Perry).  Or they do the obligatory “I’ve reached the point in my career in which I must take on the Catholic Church” number (Nicki Minaj) that seems de rigeur for every pop artist in since Madonna in, you guessed it, the mid-1980s.

Unless they’re Adele.  I like Adele, and Rolling in the Deep is the rare ubiquitous song whose enduring earworm is not at all annoying.  I like her look, and the fact that she’s zaftig and proud of it. Her sound is at the same time a throwback and contemporary.  It’s a true crossover, much like Houston’s 25 years earlier.  And it sells lots and lots of records.  As deserving as she is, I fear that Adele’s coronation as the new Queen of Pop could decrease the volume of other, more adventurous, more diverse voices on the pop scene.  (Scepter or not, Lady Gaga was a non-presence at this year’s awards.) Then again, the Grammy’s celebrate those who still move large quantities of recorded product, and that more than any other agenda will continue to drive their award ceremony for years to come.  I don’t think I’ll be watching.


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Playing Like a Girl: Feminist Praxis as Feminist Pragmatics Wed, 30 Nov 2011 22:03:10 +0000 Rolling Stone magazine just issued, seemingly for the umpteenth time, a list of the “100 best rock guitarists.” Jimi Hendrix, of course, topped the list. Very few names from after the 1970s made it at all. Women didn’t show up until #75, Joni Mitchell, and #89, Bonnie Raitt. This doesn’t matter, right? Rolling Stone isn’t taken seriously by any music aficionado worth her or his vinyl record collection, and hasn’t been since, say, 1972. Even so, its list of “100 Greatest Guitarists” will filter through other mainstream media outlets, once again reinforcing rock music as a masculine space. Which makes it even more horrible that June Millington isn’t on the list.

Who is June Millington? To start, she’s a lead guitarist who wields a mean Les Paul. Filipino-American Millington, and her sister Jean, a bassist, started what would become the group Fanny, a group still known to few, while in high school in Sacramento in the 1960s. Fanny was the second female group ever signed to a major label, scoring a contract with Reprise Records, an imprint of Warner Brothers during the period when it was the hottest rock label going. Fanny achieved chart success with “Charity Ball” in 1971, and recorded their third album, Fanny Hill, at Apple Studios in London. They worked with such esteemed produced as Richard Perry and Geoff Emerick, better known as the engineer on many Beatles’ albums. After she left Fanny, June Millington went on to be a founding mother of the Women’s Music movement of the 1970s.

June Millington’s most significant achievement is something else that few have heard of. Twenty-five years ago, Millington and her life partner Ann Hackler founded the Institute for Musical Arts (IMA), “a nonprofit teaching, performing and recording facility supporting women and girls in music-related businesses.” (1)  Originally located in Bodega, California, IMA is now located in Goshen, Massachusetts on a 25-acre property outside of Northampton, Massachusetts. IMA, described by Hackler as “the love child of an educational activist and a rocker,” (2) provides performance space for concerts by established musicians, residential summer camps for girls who range from pre-teens through college, and a state-of-the-art recording studio.

Hackler is a long-time social activist who was running Hampshire College’s Women’s Center when she first met Millington in 1981. Millington was not an activist like Hackler, but was very attuned to the limitations of the music industry for women, and to the empowering possibilities of playing in a band with other women. For Millington, musicianship was key, as well as understanding and having access to the recording studio.

2002 saw the first of IMA’s summer rock and roll camps for girls. The program has now grown to several camps a summer, including a studio intensive for older teens. (Full disclosure: my 13-year-old daughter attended one of the teen sessions this summer.) Parents, even those who study and write about gender and popular music for a living (ahem), are banned from the grounds until the final concert. The girls live together in yurts or bunk in the barn/performance space/recording studio, take lessons, and have access to all of the instruments and many of the teachers, including Millington, throughout the day and night. They learn, among other things, how to run a sound system, how to write and arrange music, how to record, engineer, and mix, how to collaborate as members of a band; how to write songs, how to run a band rehearsal, and more. That is, what young men learn when they start bands in their early teens (3). Several ex-campers are now pursuing careers in their own right. One, Sonya Kitchell, toured with Joni Mitchell.

Inspired by her work with the camp, June and Jean Millington, along with Jean’s son, drummer Lee Madeloni, recorded and released a new album, Play Like A Girl, earlier this summer. A Kickstarter campaign brought in enough donations to take it on the road. The title song includes the voices of campers, and a few performed with the Millington sisters on the road. They also took their pedagogy along, holding workshops for girls when possible.

IMA is motivated by, in Hackler’s words, a lesbian-feminist analysis (4). Hackler’s analysis may stem from a second-wave feminist foundation, but steers away from the excesses of identity politics while incorporating strong elements of multiculturalism and other elements more associated with the so-called third wave of feminist theory. Most of all, IMA’s work is feminist praxis as feminist pragmatics. Rather than focusing too much on getting the name of the theory right and articulating it to a particular wave or generation, Millington and Hackler forged a solution to a problem: teach girls the tools that will help them make it in the music industry, let them have at it, and have a lot of fun while doing it. So far, it seems to be working. Perhaps there’s a lesson in this for all of our pedagogy.

1. IMA website,
2. “Women in Industry #11: Ann Hackler,” Wears the Trousers,, retrieved 11/28/11.
3. Mary Ann Clawson, “Masculinity and Skill Acquisition in the Adolescent Rock Band,” Popular Music (1999), 18: pp. 99-114.
4. Conversation with the author in the IMA kitchen, July 17, 2011.


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Blame Your HVAC Fri, 28 May 2010 12:00:00 +0000 American Idol?]]> Enough with the evil midwestern ‘tween meme already!

Yes, for those of us who fancy that we have more sophisticated taste in music than the great hoi polloi that actually watch American Idol without irony, or because we have to because it’s our job , the obvious reason why Lee DeWyze won the 9th season over Crystal Bowersox, the far superior singer, is those damned little girls and their cell phones. There can’t be any other reason, can there? After all, ‘tween or early-teenage girls have been ruining “good” music for almost fifty years, ever since they used prehistoric communications media, or small weaponry, to tell Dick Clark to go fabricate some teen idols for them to swoon over. Don’t forget that their behavior made the Beatles stop touring – poor George was black and blue all over from the impact of jelly beans launched at him at high velocity. And let’s not forget that network meeting when a band of rebel 12-year-olds commandeered an NBC conference room and made executives fabricate the Monkees, or that period in the 1970s when they apparently made all programming decisions and brought us The Partridge Family and anything starring Bobby Sherman. At the same time, they were terrorizing executives at record companies, little Lilliputians tying up the Gullivers who normally held those positions. Yes, little girls have been ruining music for fifty years running.

That paragraph is absurd (well, most of it) but I am increasingly disturbed by the number of times I’ve seen ‘tween girls, and their forty-something moms, blamed for the sorry state of American Idol this season.   Salon blogger Steven Axelrod, for example, refers to the “Midwestern tween speed-dial monsters.”  Some block-texting likely occurred, but on this scale? Seriously? Little girls have been blamed for the sorry state of popular music, especially any depicted on network television, since Fabian and Bobby Rydell warbled on American Bandstand. The very first issue of Crawdaddy, arguably the first American journal of rock criticism, took pains to distinguish what would appear in its pages from the “what color socks does your idol wear?” discourse of fan magazines. Blaming little girls and their moms enables their continued marginalization in popular music realms, and supports ideologies that prop up the mythologies that are supposed to make us think that “good” popular music is authentic and non-commercial. I’ve written about this at great length elsewhere so won’t belabor the point, but I do want to suggest, no insist, that it’s time to put the blame for DeWyze and his ilk, many of whom were on American Idol last night, elsewhere.

That elsewhere is your HVAC system. Let me explain. Where do we most often hear American Idol-like music? In offices – business offices, doctor’s offices, dentist’s offices, and waiting rooms of all varieties.  What do we hear? The Doobie Brothers, Chicago, the Bee Gees, Hall and Oates and the like … that is, groups  trotted out last night on American Idol. Put them all together on soft rock radio and you have a nice, hum, one that does not require the least bit of attention but does provide a bit of distraction from the tedium of an office job, or sitting in a waiting room. You can learn to tune it out, like you tune out your appliances. DeWyze’s voice fits into the hum perfectly. It’s pleasant but doesn’t make any demands on the listener. Bowersox’s voice, with its rougher edges, stands out too much. That’s why the Idol judges started to prepare the audience for DeWyze’s win a few weeks ago.

This is not to start blaming another group of (primarily) women: secretaries, receptionists, and so on.  Not in the least. It is to argue that as scholars, we should question why “soft rock” exists, how it came to be the “approved” grease that keeps aspects of capitalism and society moving and distracted, but not too much to interfere with business as usual. We also need to study its naturalized position as appropriate music for grown-up women.  That is, we should investigate the power driving the hum.

It’s time to stop blaming female ‘tweens for “bad” popular music.  They’re about as responsible for it as your HVAC system. After all, twelve is the age where they’re supposed to be losing their self-esteem and starting to grapple with their hormones.  The combination of American Idol and unfettered cellphone access doesn’t suddenly turn them into a crazed horde that can subvert the top-ranked television program. Instead, blame your utilities.

(Addendum:  My 12-year-old daughter, who does not have a cell phone, had me text in a vote for Crystal. So there.)


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