New York, NY- That wasn’t just sweat on the faces of Lincoln Center concertgoers on a balmy Monday night — those were genuine tears of joy in seeing legends like Roberta Flack and Ronnie Spector from a mere arm’s length away, commanding the stage and reminding us of their roles in music history.
NPR Music, in collaboration with Lincoln Center Out of Doors, presented a star-studded event to honor the pioneering women of the “classic album” era. The evening kicked off with Rickie Lee Jones playing Pirates in its entirety. Accompanied by horns, guitars, and percussion, Rickie Lee treated the hundreds-strong crowd to what she dubbed an “incredibly experimental version” of the 1981 album, showing that the intervening decades has not slowed down her ability to push the sonic envelope.
Then came the tributes—covers hand-picked from NPR’s list of 150 greatest albums made by women between 1964 and the present.
Powerhouse hip-hop artist Lizzo got the crowd singing along to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” Gaby Moreno dazzled with a version of Roberta Flack’s “Angelitos Negros,” and Torres (Mackenzie Scott) took on Kate Bush’s “Cloudbusting,” set against celestial animation. Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra did Selena proud on “Como la Flor.” Nona Hendryx performed Labelle’s “Nightbirds,” and returned later in the set with Mavis Staple’s powerful message of self-empowerment and dignity, “Respect Yourself.”
It was a special night indeed – a chance for contemporary stars to honor the women who laid the groundwork, whose music inspired them – and, flipping the script, for the legends from prior eras to bring their perspective to contemporary songwriting. Each performance built on the creative, kinetic energy of the last, a cross-pollination of genres and decades. Wrapping up the evening, Ronnie Spector — the original bad girl of rock ‘n roll — sent chills down our spines with Amy Winehouse’s “Back to Black.” And this is just a sampling of a luminous evening of music (full setlist below).
Joe McGinty (whose collaborators include Ryan Adams, The Ramones, and Nada Surf), led the band from behind a piano all night, with other guests on backing vocals, guitars, and drums.
“Turning the Tables” is about an intervention, a remedy, a correction of the historical record, and the start of a new conversation. As NPR Music’s Ann Powers, who emceed the evening, put it: “I’m officially tired [of] writing about music that recognizes women when gender is the topic, but when music itself is the topic, almost always returns its focus to men.
And here’s where I will get a bit more personal and opine on the sociopolitical (feel free to skip to the end if you’re here for the setlist and photos). When Ms. Powers writes about the marginalization of women, I can imagine your exasperated sighs. I can hear you thinking the things that men have said to me when I try to speak frankly about the gendered nature of the music industry: Oh, people are oversensitive. Seems like so-and-so is playing the gender card (and you can sub in “race” or “LGBT” there, too). It’s all about safe spaces and everyone has to be so politically correct.
Yes, identity politics is a fraught subject, and our interactions are informed by all sorts of things, from individual histories and personalities to identifiers of gender, orientation, race, class, disability, and so on. But the bottom line is that just because you do not personally have experiences that leave you wondering whether you were treated a certain way because of how you look, doesn’t mean that other people don’t experience such things. It’s tempting to dismiss the reality of continued marginalization when you don’t experience the subtle but pervasive culture that undergirds interactions and assumptions in the industry, whether on stage (which I cannot speak to) or in the photo pit. Yes, we’ve come quite a ways. But no, the work isn’t nearly finished. And that is why it is important to acknowledge the marginalization, call it what it is, and work to reframe the conversation.
I’m a member of a global collective of women photographers, and many of us focus on music photography. One of the purposes of the collective is simply to share art – to be creative together and seek inspiration in each other’s work. But we also support each other through challenges. Almost everyone has a story of a venue security guard trying to take liberties, a musician who makes repeated, unwanted advances, a publicist who slyly suggests a quid pro quo – the list goes on. We work too hard and care about the art form too much to be told that we’re trying to sleep our way up the ladder. And this is just photography – what must it be like to be a woman musician?
Earlier this summer, a band was kicked off the Vans Warped Tour, in part for its frontman’s shouting of derogatory, violent remarks at a woman in the audience. (I won’t repeat the statements here, but it’s documented, and it makes our President look eloquent and restrained by comparison.) I wasn’t at the show, and I’m not familiar with this band. There’s plenty of vocal advocates on both sides of this debate. But one response I’ve seen – both on social media generally and from some male friends who are embedded in this particular world of LA punk, is that audience members know that shocking language is part of this band’s stage persona and fans should know what they’re getting into. To put it simply, people can elect not to go to a show.
But why should exclusion, whether by institutional fiat or self-imposed, be the answer, the end of the conversation? It’s not simply about fundamental First Amendment rights, which I will defend to my last breath. It’s about condoning norms and power structures.
I’ll close with a couple of factual observations. First, Roberta Flack’s performance on Monday night prompted the audience – which was diverse in both age and ethnicity – to leave their seats and rush right up against the barricade, clapping, hollering. She remains the only solo artist who has won the Grammy for Record of the Year in two consecutive years (“The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1973 and “Killing Me Softly with His Song” in 1974).
Second, the Staple Singers’ 1971 song, “Respect Yourself” (performed earlier in the night by Nona Hendryx), was a song born in a church that became a civil rights anthem.
Music creates a gathering place and is a vehicle of communication and expression, particularly important for those who are not given a voice in boardrooms or halls of government. The way we treat each other as artists and fans informs, and is informed by, the larger social fabric. And so whether we are complicit—by ignoring or excusing bad behavior—or, god forbid, actual direct offenders—it’s a choice. We can choose to brush warped norms under the dressing room rug, or we can choose to start a conversation.
NPR’s Turning the Tables is about starting new conversations. And I’m all for that— especially when the soundtrack to the conversation is so damn good.
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