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'More A Conversation Than A Canon:' How Do We Decide Greatness In The Present Tense?

Lady Gaga performs in Los Angeles. Two of her songs — "Bad Romance" and "Born This Way" — are included in NPR's list of the greatest songs by 21st-century women and non-binary artists.
Michael Buckner
Getty Images
Lady Gaga performs in Los Angeles. Two of her songs — "Bad Romance" and "Born This Way" — are included in NPR's list of the greatest songs by 21st-century women and non-binary artists.

This is my favorite part. The conversation part. The talking about what songs and artists mean to us as individuals, and what that might say about the moment we inhabit part. Looking through the list of the 200 Greatest Songs By 21st Century Women+ as chosen by more than 70 women and non-binary writers, and reading the way these songs were written about, one commonality emerges: Our voters believed most in songs that didn't simply make them feel something, but songs that made them feel something was possible.

Last week, to celebrate the launch of the list, we assembled a panel of contributors at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts for a listening party and discussion. In the aforementioned spirit of possibility, I asked each contributor to bring a song from the list that represented a personal revelation or a paradigm shift. I was so grateful to all our panelists for taking that request seriously, and sharing the ear-opening, mind-changing and heart-widening perspectives that stem from their individual and diverse experiences with music in the 21st century. You can read excerpts from this conversation below.

I also want to note that Ann Powers, co-creator of Turning the Tables and one of the most important critical voices of our time in music, would have been the natural and obvious choice to moderate this panel as she did so brilliantly during the list's first incarnation last year. When Ann asked me to moderate in her place, she explained she wanted this conversation to belong to the generation the list represents. I'm grateful to Ann for handing over the mic on this night, and for getting so very many vital conversations started herself.

On what it means to make a canon based on the present moment

Cyrena Touros: I took this process really seriously. I was thinking about how all of these songs came out when I was of a certain age and I was wondering: Do I still think that they're the greatest songs ever? I took great responsibility in the fact that my voice was part of this process. One of the questions Ann [Powers] had for us was: When people look back in 15, 20, 30 years, what are they going to think was important? We are in the process of writing that and establishing what will be important. I don't think my taste is all that unique — I think it's reflective of my generation (shout out to Gen Z). So I wanted things that were important to me to be part of that canon.

Marissa Lorusso: I think that's part of the project of Turning the Tables: Believing that the people who are "supposed" to be making the canon are doing it wrong; they're not reflecting the point of view of people like Cyrena, or the people on this panel, or our voters more broadly, or whomever. And so maybe it's worth it to have a bunch of different canons.

Lindsay Zoladz: I think a lot about whether the idea of canonization and list-making itself is inherently male and inherently kind of oppressive in a certain way, and so I like thinking of this more as a conversation than a canon. Growing up and being a person interested in music, and writing about music and ranking it — that hobby felt very male to me, of commodifying things down to numbers. It felt like something I was excluded from participating in socially because it was assumed that I did not know the right numbers, or something like that.

I think lists are more popular than ever on the Internet now. So I think the idea of putting lists and canons under some sort of scrutiny — that feels like a feminist project to me, too. I'm glad we're able to have conversations like this, and complicate the more straightforward history.

On Ivy Queen's "Quiero Bailar" (No. 60 on the Turning the Tables list) as a feminist intervention

Suzy Exposito: Ivy Queen was part of this collective in San Juan in the '90s called The Noise and they were really trailblazers in developing reggaeton in Puerto Rico. (It's very hotly contested between Puerto Ricans and Panamanians who can take the credit for inventing reggaeton — so that's why I'd specify Puerto Rican reggaeton.) A lot of people maybe just discovered reggaeton last year with "Despacito;" they may have discovered it much earlier than that, in 2004, when Daddy Yankee's "Gasolina" came out. But Ivy Queen's breakout song preceded "Gasolina" by a year.

"Quiero Bailar" is a manifesto for women who just want to go to the club and don't want to get messed with. She's saying, "I love this scene. I love being at the club. I just want to dance. Don't think that me dancing with you means I'm going to go home with you." ... It was a really political song for the time ... She really stood up for autonomy.

On how Robyn's "Dancing On My Own" (No. 49 on the Turning the Tables list) explores autonomy

Lindsay Zoladz: What I love about Robyn's music, and what I think is embodied in this song in particular, is the sense of self-sufficiency and, like you're saying, agency. It starts out sounding like it's a heartbreak song and a breakup ballad, which is a pretty traditional form. But then she really turns it on its head and makes it a love song about herself, and about how doesn't really need a man or another person in her life. I think that's something that really resonates about her music and that makes it feel really empowering: that idea of self that you get from her and kind of an independence.

On Lady Gaga and the legacy of sexual liberation

Cyrena Touros: It was so interesting to me to look back at the songs that came out in the formative period of my life. There was really great New York Times article last year about how around 12 to 14 — during puberty — is the most formative period of our life when it comes to listening to music. The Fame came out when I was about 12 — so, right in my sweet spot. When I think about The Fame but also The Fame Monster and "Bad Romance" I think about how my mom was in college when Madonna was at her creative peak in the '80s. (Although you may argue her creative peak was in the '90s!) And my mom is a really sweet but kind of uptight Catholic lady and she hated Madonna... She really didn't embrace that wave of sexual liberation that I think Madonna ushered in. But for me, at 12, watching Lady Gaga go for it I was like: This is interesting.

And I am also a kind of uptight Catholic lady, but I think that Lady Gaga brought this new idea of what it means to be a pop star — you know, egg shells on red carpets and meat suits and all that. It speaks to a certain form of femininity, especially the video for "Bad Romance." On one hand it's beautiful visuals — there's a stark white room and she's dancing in this beautiful red outfit — but then on the other hand, there's these shadowy shots: Her back is all spiky, like she's a dinosaur or something. And I really think that speaks to the idea that women aren't one thing, and we're not here to be looked at and femininity can be dark and creepy, too. I mean, sexual liberation wasn't like, it happened once, one time, and now we're all free. It's something that happens every generation. And she was really a pinnacle for me in terms of thinking about that sort of stuff at that age.

On artists who challenge our assumptions about who gets to tell which stories

Lara Pellegrinelli: It's been interesting for me to see different places where music is pushing back and reclaiming things from a minstrel past. It's not just happening in roots music; it's happening a little bit in jazz, too. People are starting to have conversations in places where you wouldn't expect, reclaiming some of that black past. It's hard to imagine, 10 years ago, a black artist [like Giddens] playing banjo and singing stuff that comes from the 19th century. One other song [on our list] is by jazz singer René Marie, where she sings an arrangement of "Dixie," the Confederate anthem, and pairs it with the anti-lynching song "Strange Fruit." It's an incredibly powerful thing.

I think men get a lot of credit for being provocateurs; like, if we look at "This Is America," right? Everyone saw that video; I think lots of people have clued in to the fact that it's playing off minstrelsy. But there are other women artists, too, who are also tackling, and kind of going back to reclaim, that past... I think we owe it to ourselves to be looking at the past, and to be uncomfortable about it and see where it takes us musically.

Laina Dawes: I covered Valerie June's first performance [in Toronto]. I had heard the album and as somebody who was not very aware of Americana music, of roots music, I was blown away by this young African-American woman playing this music.

So I went to see the show. At that time, she didn't have a full band — it was just her and the guitarist. And the crowd, I'll never forget: The crowd just did not know how to deal with her. You have this woman who has long locs and she was wearing kind of this eccentric country outfit — a long skirt and boots – and the crowd was almost, at points, hostile because her physical aesthetic did not match the music. They did not know what to do... As the night went on, people in the audience were yelling things out at her that were trying to position her as a diva/soul/hip-hop queen — and not the Americana artist that she actually is... It really made me wonder, can we ever break these racial barriers within the music industry about who is expected to do what?

On Holly Herndon's "Chorus" (No. 154 on the Turning the Tables list) and critical optimism

Liz Pelly: The samples in "Chorus" are all sounds that [Herndon] recorded of herself browsing the Internet. So it's the sounds of Skype and YouTube and other social media websites that she used as one of the raw materials in putting this song together. To me, what's interesting about her music is how it considers our increasingly digital lives and the future of our increasingly digital lives in a way that is both really critical but also really beautiful and optimistic... Listening to Herndon's 2015 album Platform, interviewing her about the album and reading about what motivated it really made me think about our relationships with digital tools, and the role of digital tools in music-making, and what it means to really criticize the platforms as part of the work itself.

On Against Me!'s "Transgender Dysphoria Blues" (No. 31 on the Turning the Tables list) as a feminist anthem

Marissa Lorusso: This song came out on the first record Against Me! put out after Laura Jane Grace came out as transgender. So it was kind of her first artistic statement as an out trans woman. I find this song so powerful because Laura Jane Grace is talking about wanting the world to see her as who she knows she is, to be able to portray herself in a way that feels authentic. I think that's a theme that runs across music by all kinds of women — but to hear it in this punk context, as something that feels simultaneously so strong and so vulnerable and so real, is really moving and beautiful.

On gender inclusivity and canon-making

Marissa Lorusso: Last year, when we when we did the first iteration of Turning the Tables, it was meant to be a project about women's music. We made a list of the 150 greatest albums by women, and it was meant to consider the way that sexism and patriarchy impacts canon. When we started talking about this iteration of Turning the Tables, and doing it in the present tense, it was important to reckon with the fact that the conversation about gender in this moment, and especially gender and canon, is more complex than, "Men get to be on the list and women don't get to be on the list." That binary doesn't really hold true for a lot of people's experiences.

So from the start we knew that our definition of woman was going to include everyone who identifies as a woman, so that means also including trans women artists. And during the voting process, there were songs that were voted onto the list by non-binary artists. So we reached out to one non-binary artist and asked, "How would it feel to you to be on a list that's titled 'women,' if that doesn't feel consistent with your identity?" We had a great conversation with them about how maybe they would want to be on this list, but that doesn't necessarily speak for the perspective of all non-binary people — and they suggested to us that it would be possible to change the name of the list to reflect the fact that this is a list about women, but it's also about other people who get left out of the canon-making process because of the effects of patriarchy. That's how we ended up adding a plus sign on the end of the word "women" in the title. And it was not a perfect solution; we definitely heard criticism and feedback about what it means to include non-binary folks in a plus sign. Does that associate non-binary identity with womanhood? Is it useful to talk about women and non-binary people in one category, when those are extremely different lived experiences? And what is the best way to use language to honor folks who get left out, or to honor the desire to make a different kind of canon? It's a really complicated question — and definitely one that I hope we get to talk more about, and that we continue to be challenged on. We want to challenge the canon-making process, to look at it a different way, but our way is one way of doing that — and maybe a way that had some unintended consequences. So what are other ways of breaking the canon to make it better?

Liz Pelly: I think that, in general, transparency with the contributors about the changing nature of the list would have been really awesome. Hopefully in the future, the parameters of the list could be established early on, instead of after the fact. But I do think that ultimately, for all the difficulty that always arises in trying to do [projects] like this, I do think they're important, because we're living in a time where so much falls through the cracks.

Suzy Exposito: This list brought up feelings about how the concept of womanhood has really evolved so much in our lifetimes... I was thinking about how, if we had attempted this list this time last year, we wouldn't have been able to include the singer-producer Sophie, because she hadn't come out yet at that point. [Gender itself] is shifting all of the time.

Maybe the attempt of this list was to establish the fact that the existing canon has skewed so male... white [and] cisgender — and these groups still dominate the music industry, especially music journalism. But cis women, non-binary and binary trans people (including trans men, who are screwed over by cispatriarchy in their own way) — the thing that brings us together is that we're all excluded from canons of all kinds... I think that this list should be [more of] a living organism, that just keeps changing and changing as the 21st century goes on. Give it a year and I'm sure it'll look pretty different.

Copyright 2018 XPN

Talia Schlanger hosts World Cafe, which is distributed by NPR and produced by WXPN, the public radio service of the University of Pennsylvania. She got her start in broadcasting at the CBC, Canada's national public broadcaster. She hosted CBC Radio 2 Weekend Mornings on radio and was the on-camera host for two seasons of the television series CBC Music: Backstage, as well as several prime-time music TV specials for CBC, including the Quietest Concert Ever: On Fundy's Ocean Floor. Schlanger also guest hosted various flagship shows on CBC Radio One, including As It Happens, Day 6 and Because News. Schlanger also won a Canadian Screen Award as a producer for CBC Music Presents: The Beetle Roadtrip Sessions, a cross-country rock 'n' roll road trip.