Women Who Rock the page: Jane Scott

Friday, July 8: 12:45 p.m.
Posted by Daphne Carr

Daphne Carr is a Women Who Rocks and electric bass instructor for the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls, a PhD candidate in ethnomusicology at Columbia University, and the series editor of Best Music Writing. She co-wrote the afterward for Out of the Vinyl Deeps: The Rock Writing of Ellen Willis (University of Minnesota Press 2011), with Rolling Stone.com’s managing editor Evie Nagy and is the co-founder of GirlGroup, a listserv devoted to discussion about women music scholars, critics, journalists, and writers. She recently attended the Rock Hall’s Summer Teacher Institute and visited the Women Who Rock exhibit.
 
One of the things we teach our girls at the Willie Mae Rock Camp for Girls is that “rock” is a verb, and that you can rock anything if you give it your soul, passion, and time. We encourage the girls not just to rock their instruments, but to become passionate listeners and critics of the music and musical culture they have around them, to become brilliant, even-handed and confident in their assessments of what makes music great, and to not unnecessarily shut down others who rock differently.

There may be no greater role model for that kind of criticism than Cleveland’s own Jane Scott, who passed away July 4, 2011 at the age of 92. It is time that history remembers her as well as the city of Cleveland will.

The first rock critic at a daily newspaper, she was a pioneer in the field and its longest practitioner. Scott went from teen reporter to world-renowned critic in her fifty-year career (1952-2002) at the Cleveland Plain Dealer. She was known for her warmth, incredible ability to put artists at ease, and her constant check-in with fans and other listeners, making sure she told a broad story of the music she heard.

Scott was a pure product of Ohio, and an indelible part of the history of American popular music. She gave her life, long and well, to rock 'n' roll. She graduated from Lakewood High School in 1937 and started as a society reporter at Plain Dealer on March 24, 1952, an assignment that bucked against her egalitarian spirit. She then moved up to two more “unimportant” beats, the senior citizen section and teen page, the latter of which afforded her a unique glimpse into the immense changes in youth culture of the time. Seeing girls screaming for the Beatles in 1964 convinced her of her section’s future, and her own. She made rock her beat, and therefore made it a subject worthy of criticism and reporting. She was the first.

But, as Anastasia Pantsios, who worked with Scott at the Plain Dealer in the '80s, told rock criticism historian Elizabeth Weinstein: “In the 1960s, writing about rock music was still considered writing about nothing. It was not taken seriously by the grown-ups.” Robert Christgau, famed rock critic and historian of the American field, says that Scott's passion for teen culture was, at the time, what set her apart. "That was a much bigger deal for someone born circa 1930 than it is today and one of the reasons I admire her. Scott reached across the generational divide in a way no one born after 1940 has to, because in 1955 things really did change--and for those who were born after 1950, so that they were teenagers when Beatlemania began, the adjustments are even easier."

As Scott moved through her career, her biographers often made light of her style. Rolling Stone wrote in 1979 that she was an “amateur handwriting analyst, Sunday school teacher, often engaged single woman and palm reader-is the pop/rock writer for Ohio's largest daily newspaper.” The Wall Street Journal commented that “she never takes herself too seriously” (Stricharchuk 1987) and many focused on her as “the world’s oldest teenager,” what could be a double whammy of age-ism and sexism or a celebration of her fan-like approach to writing.

She was even left out of the 1995 anthology of women’s writing about music, Rock She Wrote, which co-editor Evelyn McDonnell told Weinstein she regretted. Co-editor Ann Powers, now at NPR, agreed. "When we put the book together, Evelyn and I were young enough to believe that our way of writing about music was the right (if not only way), and Scott's work didn't fit our paradigm. We...valued a form of criticism informed by both academia and New Journalism. Scott lived in the Midwest and had written for a daily paper for years, crafting her way of thinking and writing to appeal to a wide audience of readers, very few of whom gave a flying fig about 'identity politics' or postmodern theory. Now, I think Evelyn and I both recognize that writers do their best when creating a dialogue with their readers, whom ever those readers are." Weinstein wrote a chapter about Scott in her 2006 Master’s thesis on women's role in music journalism (published later in Journalism History Journal), said that Scott’s continual reliance on fan-perspective made her a target of male critics who thought she relied too much on other people’s opinions rather than her own. “It got to be kind of a standing joke about Jane Scott putting down where everybody went to high school.”

Indeed when Rolling Stone, Creem, and other rock-oriented publications started popping up, their need to legitimate rock as art and desire to seem of the counterculture lent to an often braggadocio filled, swaggering style that attempted to be as  hip as the mostly male rock bands they covered. Many came from English departments at elite universities, and their attempts at new criticism (and new journalism) placed distance between the artist, the fan, and the more “objective” critic. Scott never did that. She was a reporter of what happened at a concert, and what exactly made it so that others loved the music. She was not skeptical, but, as McDonnell said, empathetic.

Scott was often decades older than the people she interviewed, and came to inhabit the hip grandmother archetype with aplomb. This, like her icebreakers, was both a genuine part of her character and a shrewd strategy for disarming the increasingly media-wary stars who crossed her path. She did indeed read palms, and talked about partners, children, and other “domestic” matters that her male colleagues thought irrelevant to the artists’ lives. These, as we now know, are the very spaces that feminist writers find the most revealing, and allow journalists to tell stories about the real world problems that celebrities have in ways that can shed light on our own human condition. (Would we prefer that Rihanna’s story of partner abuse a “private matter” or, as we say in camp, “a teachable moment.”) She was absolutely unconcerned with seeming hip or needing her artists to be. For this, she was treated similarly humanly, and became a favorite of legendary musicians who would open their stories, news, and hearts to her after horrible or long gigs, while exhausted. Even Lou Reed liked Jane. Powers says that this is the revolutionary aspect of Scott as a woman practicing in a mostly male field and among mostly male artist, the "tacit insistence that she deserved to be accepted as a peer. [It] was apparently unwavering."

Scott’s long run as a pop critic is especially impressive when you consider the demands of going to concerts for a living. The Plain Dealer’s Michael Heaton spoke the truth about criticism as labor when he talked to Weinstein in 2005: "People think it sounds like a lot of fun, but after a while it can be challenging to keep up your energy and enthusiasm for it. That never flagged with her… “ [It] was not uncommon to see Jane at 2 a.m. at her desk at the Plain Dealer, hammering out a review. It didn't hurt that she was single. She never married. She was married to rock and roll."

This is the kind of story that is both heart warming and breaking, a story that you will see repeated in the halls of the Women Who Rock exhibit at the Rock Hall this summer and winter. Historically, women had to make choices between career and traditional roles within the family, often at the expense of love, child rearing, or any domestic stability. This is something we try to discuss with our girls at camp without being idealist or too damning, because we really do believe that times have changed for professional women in the music industry as musicians and as writers, managers, label executives, and other workers. No one can have it all, but women are increasingly able to have more public success given the change in partner responsibilities and childcare expectations in the last few decades.

Part of the reason that Scott's personal life comes into play, Powers suggests, is the still existing resistance to taking pop seriously as a career, something Scott did from the word go, and something many women still have to face when pursuing the dream of being musicians, recording engineers, or label personnel. "A woman who remains single and puts her career first often earns pity, not admiration, in our society, now as it did in the 1960s, when Scott began her rock and roll odyssey. But I do wonder -- if Scott had pursued a more 'serious' subject, would the fact that she was not also a wife and mother have been so often discussed? I respect Scott for taking fun seriously, and for remaining loyal to an art form many still consider ephemeral."

Cleveland native writer Holly Gleason published a tribute to the critic on the LA Times blog that highlights the importance of women in the spotlight, of female role models, and the importance of intergenerational exchange that is foundational to camp and is evident in each step of the Women Who Rock exhibit. It also shows that Jane did have children. I am one of them, as is Gleason and several decades of women who rock the page. She writes: “Growing up in Cleveland, I devoured every word she wrote: about Jackson Browne, Gil Scott Heron, Springsteen, the Ramones, the Stray Cats and Heart. She made me feel like I knew them, because she did. Not only did she, she got the very best out of exhausted, often cranky, certainly entitled stars. Because she could -- and did with unwavering dignity -- I believed I could too.”

Many thanks to Elizabeth Weinstein for her piece “Married to Rock and Roll: Jane Scott, Grandmother of Rock Journalism” in Journalism History, October 2006.



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