Linda Ronstadt’s life and legacy are celebrated in the new documentary film, The Sound of My Voice. Highly entertaining, and inspirational, the film honors Ronstadt by depicting her as one of the first female pioneers in the rough and tumble world of rock music. It is a world that was, and remains largely dominated by men, both on stage and behind the scenes. But she flourished in that testosterone-driven environment, despite the the unfair disadvantage it imposed on her. Her feisty spirit, discipline and profound talent are the qualities that propelled her to worldwide fame and allowed her to forge her own path as a singer, never merely relegating herself to a mere pretty chanteuse in service to an all-male band.
While the film rightfully highlights her accomplishments, her mastery of not only rock music, but country, mariachi and musical theater as well, it only briefly touches upon the unique experience and challenges of being a female rock singer during the tumultuous era of the late 1960s and 1970s. The feminist movement of that era, referred to as Second Wave Feminism, was ushering in revolutionary change to American culture on a wide variety of issues, including dismantling the barriers that had been enacted to exclude women from the workforce. But, frustratingly, the entertainment industry always seems to lag behind in meaningful progressive change. It seems that the monetary profits, fame and considerable power of its largely male participants have protected and inoculated them from the harsh reality of discrimination and needed social change to right this wrong.
Ironically, what is missing from this account of her life is the voice of Ronstadt. There is a portion of an archival interview where she states, “The rock and roll culture seems to be dominated by hostility against women. What happens is that they lose the ability to focus on themselves as a person, rather than as an image.” What specific hostility is she speaking of? What were her unique experiences that made her conclude that the rock industry was one that was hostile to women? How did she overcome this hostility and thrive in a business so dismissive and disinterested in women recording artists?
In a recent interview with ROLLING STONE, she admits she experienced sexism, and that “it was in everything.” But what I want to know is how then did she triumph as a woman in an industry rife with sexism when so many others have failed? The documentary does not provide these answers which is a missed opportunity to say the least, and the viewer is only left with a sense that Ronstadt faced challenges that the filmmakers didn’t deem interesting or important enough to delve into in a serious, more thoughtful manner. Perhaps, a female filmmaker would have understood the great significance of her comments and have explored it in greater detail by interviewing Ronstadt about the exact nature of the hostility she endured.
The #Metoo movement dawned almost two years ago with revelations regarding the criminal sexual predatory behavior of film producer Harvey Weinstein. For the first time, women in the film industry and beyond felt empowered to collectively come forward and publicly share their horror stories of sexual assault and harassment at the hands of some of the most well-known and powerful men in American life. It was a remarkable moment in American culture and a shocking wake up call regarding the inequities in the entertainment industry—specifically, the lack of women in powerful positions, discrimination in hiring practices, dearth of female roles, lack of women’s stories on the big screen; and the list goes on and on. Going forward, the success of this movement hinges on women continuing to speak out against injustice while it is happening, while there is still time to confront it. The music and film business must not be exempt from our changing culture and the progressive, feminist ideals that will only serve to make these industries more creatively vibrant and yes, profitable.
Ms. Ronstadt is now seventy years old and retired as a performer due to a diagnosis of Parkinsons disease which has robbed her of her ability to sing to her perfectionist standards. The #Metoo movement comes decades after her heyday, after she became what was then the highest paid female singer in rock history. After seeing The Sound of My Voice, I thought of the #Metoo movement and how she and her female colleagues at that time were only able to benefit from the sound of their voices, but not from the stories their voices could tell us regarding the hostile treatment that Ronstadt mentions in the earlier interview. The documentary indicates that these women did the best they could under the challenging circumstances, and that because there were so few of them working in the music industry, they were able to form a supportive community based on genuine friendship. Ms Ronstadt briefly discusses the #Metoo movement, but in ROLLING STONE expresses her reservations regarding the treatment of Al Franken who resigned after allegations of sexual misconduct. Her words may disappoint some, but she is ultimately supportive of a movement that comes too late to have benefited either herself or other female singers of that era.
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