Here’s how NPR Music is Turning the Tables on musical greatness during Women’s History Month

Listen to the conversation with NPR Music editor Marissa Lorusso

Since this is Women’s History Month, it is an especially good time to consider how we chronicle and celebrate the musical accomplishments of women and non-binary folks. You know, since the history of rock has so often been told with white men at the center of it. That is not the case with the Turning the Table, the NPR Music series originally conceived by Ann Powers that released a new podcast this month. Marissa Lorusso is the editor who steered it to completion.

Jewly Hight: Now, for anyone who is not familiar, what is Turning the Tables? What is the vision behind it?

Marissa Lorusso: It is NPR Music’s series about musical greatness and the popular music canon. It was co-founded by Ann Powers, who is NPR Music’s critic and correspondent. And basically, our goal is to think about musical greatness and the pop music canon, but to challenge the sexism and the exclusion that have been a big part of mainstream conversations about those topics.

Part of how we do that is by centering the voices and stories of women and other folks who have been marginalized from from the canon, from the consideration of greatness. In previous seasons, we’ve done things like we made a list of the 150 greatest albums made by women. We made a list of the 200 best songs by 21st century women musicians. And we also did a season where we dove into the origins of American popular music and looked at eight women from the early and mid-20th century who who created American popular music and without whom we wouldn’t have like any of the sounds that we know and love today as popular music. So that’s kind of turning the tables in a nutshell.

JH: Speaking of lists, that is something that is very familiar to music lovers. Everyone has certainly seen those lists that are the greatest records of of all time, that kind of thing. Last year, you edited a series of essays that held up albums by women as landmark, life-changing works. How were you offering a different approach with that series?

ML: We wanted to think about music on a personal level, because records aren’t just important because they’re on the top of a list or they’re not just important because they represent some big musical achievement, although those are really meaningful reasons. Records matter to us because they matter to us in personal ways, because they help us understand ourselves, understand each other, figure out how we want to be, who we want to be. And so we wanted to kind of dig into those questions about, “How do we decide what music matters to us? How do we even make decisions about musical greatness when we’re thinking about our own personal experiences and we’re thinking about institutional pressures and we’re thinking about history? How do we kind of develop our own taste in the face of all of that?”

So we did that by asking 12 women and non-binary critics to tell us about a record that changed their life by a woman artist. And we wanted to position these albums as life-changing. It’s not just The Beatles or the Rolling Stones that can change your life. Women artists make life-changing work. They make work that’s like crucial to how we understand ourselves. They speak to things that are larger than our personal experiences.

Another big part of the Turning the Tables mission is not just about what music we’re celebrating, but who gets to celebrate it. So that is why we were asking women and non-binary critics to write about these records, because we wanted to create an archive of writing about these albums by marginalized voices that center the work of marginalized artists that anyone could go back to at any point and say, “Oh, here’s a different perspective on this important record.”

JH: You and Ann Powers just released the first podcast in a new series growing out of those essays. How do these recorded conversations expand on the writing that was done in that series last year?

ML: Basically, we’re taking the writers who wrote for that series last year and pairing them together to talk about their essays and to talk about the records that they wrote about. The episodes are coming out every Wednesday on the All Songs Considered podcast. The goal is conversation, putting people together to talk about their experiences and creating a space where women and other marginalized folks can talk to each other, you know, without being the token woman on a panel or having to necessarily represent a non-binary point of view or a woman’s point of view, but to just speak from our own experience to each other, to people who get it, or maybe someone who’s coming from a different perspective, but has something to say that speaks to what this other essay said.

JH: I did see that a beloved band out of Nashville is going to be one of the subjects taken up in the future episode of the podcast. What artist does the series focus on? And who are the voices that we’ll hear speaking about them?

ML: Something that I love about the series is that we really got a range of records, from really big names to smaller, niche scenes and got to represent a really wide range of taste in the series.

There is a beloved Nashville artist in the series: Paramore. A writer named Alex Ramos wrote this beautiful essay about listening to Paramore and how that helped them navigate their religious upbringing and make decisions about the role that they wanted that to play in their life. And we have paired Alex with a writer [named Francesca Royster] who wrote about Tracy Chapman’s amazing self-titled album and how that how Tracy was really a queer icon to her as she was navigating her own identity. I’m excited about that episode.

We also have episodes about what it means to kind of figure out your own critical perspective as a person who writes about music that features an album by PJ Harvey and a twee album by the band Tiger Trap. Another episode is about the impact of music on us as teenagers, like, such a pivotal moment when you’re falling in love with music, that includes Beyoncé and Fiona Apple and Salt-N-Pepa. And there’s even more stuff. That’s just kind of like a taste of what’s happening in the series

JH: Why is it important to you that this series also have that function and maybe welcome in a new generation of musical thinkers?

ML: I think something that Ann Powers has made really central to this project since it started is that, of course, we want to be highlighting established voices in the in the music journalism and criticism space. There are so many amazing women writers and critics and scholars who are doing really groundbreaking work and and it’s really important to highlight their contributions. But I think it’s also been really central to the series to make sure that that we’re highlighting emerging voices too, and that there’s new generations of amazing women and non-binary critics and writers who deserve space and deserve to have their voices heard.

I think the podcast series is a big part of that too, because we are pairing together folks who maybe have different backgrounds or different levels of experience as writers or come from different scenes, and they’re learning from each other. It’s not necessarily supposed to be like this one critic who’s so established and knows everything is like teaching a younger person about how to care about music. It really is a dialog between people. We want it to feel intergenerational. So that’s really important to us, too.

I think in terms of the larger project of Turning the Tables, something that we thought about a lot is that we want to make a lot of different ways in. Because I think the idea of challenging patriarchal conventions of canon-making can sound pretty intimidating. And we don’t think it has to be at all. If you just want to know, “What are some of the most amazing records that women artists have made?” we have a list of the greatest albums. But if you want to dig in to the life of one particular artist or to one scene, we have these very in-depth, scholarly features that really explore the lives of important artists or scenes or moments in music history. We just want to make a lot of pathways into this conversation, so that it’s not just replacing one hierarchy with a different hierarchy.

JH: What have you learned about the best, most effective, most constructive ways of recognizing underappreciated voices and underappreciated work over the years?

ML: The big thing that I’ve taken away from working on this project is questioning what we think about as great, what we think about as being the most or the least celebrated, appreciated or underappreciated. I think there’s a very real impulse to challenge sexist conventions by being like, “Oh, you made a list of the greatest albums of all time, and it has, like, three women on it. OK, well, we’re going to make a list of the greatest albums of all time, and it’s all women.” But then I also feel like something that I’ve taken from this project, and that maybe speaks to your question, is we could actually question why those lists are even important.

Is an album great and worthy of appreciation because a bunch of people voted it onto a list? Or is it maybe great because it speaks to a really particular experience that maybe isn’t my experience, maybe isn’t your experience, but is so meaningful to the people for whom it resonates? Is an artist important and worthy of appreciation because they stand alone as the singular, unique artist who stands the test of time? Or is someone important because they connected a bunch of different scenes? Maybe everyone doesn’t know their name, but they planted seeds that bloomed later and we’re appreciating today.

So it doesn’t feel like we’re just pulling underappreciated artists into a preexisting way of thinking. But we are moving the center to a different place and saying, “What does the whole world look like if you’re looking at it from over here?”