Dave Grohl's Sonic Highways Systematically Erases Women in Music


Last month, the Foo Fighters released their eighth album, Sonic Highways, which the band recorded under a simple, perhaps noble concept: travel to eight cities in the United States, explore the unique musical culture that sprung up there, and with that history in mind, record a new song inspired by each locale.

Documenting this journey is Foo leader Dave Grohl himself, who created an eight-part special for HBO that delves into the musical legacies of Chicago, Washington DC, Nashville, Los Angeles, Austin, Seattle, and New York City—while simultaneously showing behind-the-scenes footage of the Foo Fighters working on Sonic Highways, the album. HBO’s Sonic Highways, which concludes this week, is theoretically a fascinating effort—these locales aren’t under-represented in American musical history, but it’s not often that documentaries exploring underground music scenes reach as potentially wide an audience as HBO offers. In each episode, Grohl speaks with musicians both underground and very famous, reflecting his own experience as a drummer weaned on DC’s underground punk scene (Scream) and catapulted into the biggest band since the Beatles (Nirvana).

Sonic Highways is meant to reflect Grohl’s own fandom and musical upbringing—but it also positions itself as a type of definitive oral history of each city’s music scene. And with each episode, it becomes more dismaying, and much clearer, that Grohl’s version of that history begins and ends with men almost entirely.

As Sonic Highways tells it, women’s involvement in American music has been cursory, at best, with a the amount of women musicians allowed to speak in any given episode topping out at around three, regardless of how prominent these women might be. Furthermore, no women of color have a chance to speak in any of the seven episodes that have aired (the eighth and final episode, set in New York City and at least touching on hip-hop, airs Sunday, and will hopefully remedy that).

Granted, the series was never going to be anything but a rockist-dad summation of Grohl’s memories; in the 20 years since Foo Fighters have been a band, formed in the wake of a devastated Nirvana, Grohl has shown himself increasingly to be not much more than a rock and roll formalist, the type of man who is a dying breed: guitars and drums subsume all other instruments, where the riff is king and the rock blocks are fully cocked. In 2012, he famously accepted Foo Fighters’ Best Rock Grammy with a speech that sounded like a barking father, wagging his disappointed pick-finger at a generation lost on computers and perfection. After being harangued by the internet, he clarified that he did not mean he hated electronic music (#NotAllGrohls), but that he is concerned only with the amount of heart a musician devotes to his tunes, and that he himself enjoys artists “from Kyuss to Kraftwerk, Pinetop Perkins to Prodigy, Dead Kennedys to Deadmau5.”

Sonic Highways, though, so far has proven otherwise; its Chicago episode, for instance, included nary a mention of house music, or of R&B. Kanye West, an artist as complicated, heart-driven, and relevant as Nirvana ever was, is seen in a short clip at the beginning, near the credits, but is not mentioned thereafter. Women-wise, the Chicago episode is a boon: not only is Bonnie Raitt allowed more talking airtime than basically any other woman in the series (even Joan Jett!), but Dave’s cousin Tracie, a former punk, reminisces about her life in the underground clubs of Chi-town during the 1980s.

Each episode begins with Grohl making lofty bon mots about the creative process, all of which lend clout to the idea that Sonic Highways is meant to be more than just an eight-hour-long album documentary. “The environment in which you make a record,” he says, “ultimately influences the end result.” And: “Every city has its past. You have to know your past to know your future.” But what if said past is willfully scrubbed of women musicians, acknowledging only the most famous to tell their stories (Raitt, Jett, Emmylou Harris) while honoring even the most arcane of the men in an arcane scene?

Again, I understand that Grohl was locating musicians who have influenced his specific music at this moment, but it’s telling that barely any of them are women. In the episode about Washington, DC, he retreads the iconic punk scene from whence he came, talking to key players like Ian MacKaye (Dischord Records, Fugazi, etc) and Don Zientara, the producer responsible for recording most of those bands. Amy Pickering, who headed up punk band Fire Party and started the scene’s legendary “Revolution Summer” essentially in solidarity with apartheid protesters, gets a decent amount of airtime, but mostly about politics (and, at one point, the camera cuts in to her convo with Grohl for the sole purpose of showing her laugh at a joke Grohl makes). Sure, maybe DC’s early punk scene wasn’t overly flourishing with women, but it sure was as it went on—Slant 6 or Kim Colletta from Jawbox were Dischord bands; what about Bratmobile, activists and musicians alike? Maybe he wasn’t influenced by them, but his musical upbringing wasn’t influenced by the younger male punks he featured, either, and they’re still in there. Also, if you’re so enamored of rock and roll, why not like, interview DC native and longtime badass guitar noodler Mary Timony? Why not just make an effort to ask a few more women musicians about their contributions to each city, even just a little bit?

More egregious is the Seattle episode, though it is probably the most interesting of all for obvious Nirvana-related reasons. (Also, it includes the least amount of clips of actual recording/engineering shit which, even for a person who is interested in that, is WILD boring to watch in practice unless it’s your own band doing it.) Of course there is a focus on Heart, one of the biggest rock bands ever to emerge from Seattle, and Nancy Wilson gets ample speaking time (as does excellent footage of her shredding on riffs). But the episode spends a majority of time on the local punk rock scene of the ’80s and ’90s, and the music that would eventually be called grunge. Sub Pop Records’ Megan Jasper gets some cursory airtime, but beyond that, there is not even a sole mention of women in the scene, other than Grohl cheesing that he was shocked that women in Seattle actually went to these shows. GUESS WHAT GROHL, it wasn’t just because there was more melody, or that you know, Chris Cornell and Kurt were cute. It was because there were plenty of women bands who were completely crucial to the scene, including 7 Year Bitch and The Gits, of whom I am assuming he is aware because, when Gits singer Mia Zapata was raped and murdered, Grohl’s band Nirvana donated money to hire a private investigator to find her killer.

Hole is not mentioned.

Nor is Bikini Kill, who were not from Seattle but were integral to the actual existence of Nirvana, the band—Tobi Vail dated Kurt and turned him on to feminism, while Kathleen Hanna coined the title of their biggest hit by writing “Kurt Smells Like Teen Spirit” on the mirror at a party. Oh and also, Hanna actually DATED Grohl. (Allegedly.) Also, they were punk as fuck, a musical tenet Grohl apparently values above all others.

Sonic Highways practically had to go out of its way to make these exclusions, to make concessions to focus on Macklemore, of all people, but barely any of the women who created the spaces in which independent music could exist. Why are we listening to a choked up Ben Gibbard reminisce about where he was when he heard Kurt had died (high school; didn’t know him)? Why, on the LA episode, is there a lengthy interlude about the desert outside the city because Queens of the Stone Age once recorded there, but can’t even make a gesture towards Olympia, the college town 45 minutes outside Seattle where Kurt Cobain lived and that shaped his entire existence? It’s angering, but at the same time, the willful, dunderheaded ignorance surrounding it is just more dull bumbling from a male rock musician who cannot see outside of his own six-string. Imagine if Dave Grohl played his guitar with no pants on, and he just shredded while his naked pink dick just flapped around? That is Sonic Highways.

Honestly, while I fault Grohl and his team for this ridiculous oversight, I don’t completely center the problem on him: he can do whatever he wants with his dumb self-aggrandizing album documentary, and for decades, he’s been operating in a larger music industry that usually values women only when they’re working within pop music, or within R&B. Joan Jett talks about starting The Runaways, and how the male-centric scene reacted to four teenage women playing badass rock—they called them sluts, dykes, every name in the book women have ever been called for asserting ourselves in a space that has been traditionally male by design. It’s been this way for decades. But it’s 2014, and I’m fucking tired of it.

Image via HBO.

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