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Politics, parochialism undercut purported history of women's music

Respect: A Century of Women in Music
Respect: A Century of Women in Music
By various artists

Rhino Records: 1999

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This review first appeared in the January 1, 2000 edition of the American Reporter.

Just what is this latest box set? A themed collection of music, an academic study of sociology, or a partisan political statement? Repeated listenings to Rhino's new five-disc "Respect: A Century of Women in Music" do little to answer that question.

That alone is a reflection of the haphazard nature of this box set, of the lack of an overarching theme to tie it all together into a larger whole.

To be sure, there are some truly historic and influential recordings included here – as well as some incredible music. Start with blues pioneers Ma Rainey's "See See Rider Blues" and Bessie Smith's "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." Add in early country stars Patsy Montana and Rose Maddox, and a who's who of '50s and '60s R&B stars, all singing some of their best-known songs, and you can make a good argument for the academic merits of this collection.

However, other artists who were just as iconic are represented with tracks that do not accurately reflect either their import or impact: Etta James has certainly done far better than "The Wallflower"; the same goes for Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit."

And then there is Ella Fitzgerald, who is summed up here with "A-Tisket, A-Tasket" – given the immense wealth of her later recordings, especially her incomparable songbooks dedicated to songwriters like George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Irving Berlin, why include a silly novelty song? Sure, it was her first hit, but it's hardly anywhere near the top of her artistry and makes a mockery of what she accomplished.

Any academic weight attached to this project pretty much evaporates when you include lightweights like Teresa Brewer or Donna Summer. Why not throw in Anne Murray or Karen Carpenter if there is no artistic standard behind the collection?

And those aren't the worst of it – there is some absolute dross here, artists and songs of such insignificant impact that their inclusion can only increase the suspicion that politics more than sociology or art drove this collection. When Madonna, who has whored female sexuality every bit as much as any gangsta rapper or heavy metal band, is passed off as an example of female strength – well, just what are we celebrating here anyway? Yoko Ono? What on earth is she supposed to represent other than the fact than in the age of Warhol, a lack of talent presented few barriers to financial success in the arts?

The point of all this is not to get into a name by name argument over who ought to have been included instead of who is here; it's their compilation, and no two people will ever agree on who should have been included in any compilation.

It's just that there are so many lightweight tracks here, so many inclusions of questionable importance that it has the effect of diminishing the overall value of the collection.

And did no foreign women record this century? The subtitle of this collection is "A Century of Women in Music," not "A Century of American Women in Music." No Edith Piaf, France's beloved "Little Sparrow." None of the great tango singers from Argentina, none of Portugal's wondrous fado singers, no flamenco artists from Spain. Where's Germany's Marlene Dietrich? South Africa's Miriam Makeba? Women in these countries were recording nearly as early as those in America, beginning in the 1920s and before. In many ways, women in these male-dominated societies were making greater breakthroughs than their less-oppressed American sisters, yet none of them are included here.

T he non-Americans are few and far between. Britain's Kate Bush and Christine McVie. Canada's Sarah McLachlan. Brazil's Carmen Miranda. Ireland's Sinead O'Connor. And all of the non-Americans outside Miranda are from the modern era; all except Bush and O'Connor have found their greatest success in the United States.

Nor are there any overtly Christian artists (Amy Grant, maybe?), conservatives (Gloria Estefan certainly threw open some doors) or pro-lifers (the Raspberries' Dolores O'Riordan, say?). What we get instead of variety are the predictably conformist, which doesn't do much to capture the truly diverse breadth of opinions and philosophies held by female recording artists.

There also aren't any classical artists. No baroque, no opera.

There are, of course, two entire discs devoted to the last twenty years – all right off the pop charts, with the final disc sounding as if it were culled from Lilith Fair.

It all combines to make for a rather narrow listening experience, and undercuts the collection's premise of being comprehensive.

As mentioned, there is some great music here, with wonderful recordings by everyone from Joan Baez to Wanda Jackson, Emmylou Harris to Patti Page. But over the course of the five discs, there is far too much uneven material, far too much filler to make this any more listenable than it is authoritative.