Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls: Women, Music and Fame'

Book: 'Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls.'
Lisa Robinson's book 'Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls: Women, Music, and Fame.' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

As Entertainment Weekly pointed out, the new Billie Eilish film The World's a Little Blurry is the continuation of a trend away from long-form magazine profiles and towards deep-dive authorized documentaries that allow artists to explore the same depth of storytelling — but on their own terms (and, not incidentally, to benefit their own bottom lines).

If that trend continues, and there's no reason to think it won't, Lisa Robinson will remain one of the last journalists to have just casually hung out with Beyoncé. Oh, and Stevie Nicks. And Rihanna, Katy Perry, Janelle Monáe, Adele, Joni Mitchell, Lady Gaga, Madonna, Tina Turner, Bette Midler, Alanis Morissette, Courtney Love, Annie Lennox, Fiona Apple, Gwen Stefani, and Chrissie Hynde. Iggy Azalea, on the other hand, may remain accessible.

Robinson's also hung out with the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, the Who, and Van Halen...but she's spent enough time talking about those guys, she writes in the prologue to her aptly-titled book Nobody Ever Asked Me About the Girls (buy now). As a contributing editor at Vanity Fair, Robinson has been to plenty of cocktail parties (the book's photo section is full of evidence), and it seems that given a few minutes over a martini, all people want to know is what it was like in Keith Richards's hotel room. Robinson decided it was time to talk about "the girls."

So she does, at 242 pages' length. She's not here to make any grand arguments, though; the author's not an academic, and she recognizes that she has quite a peculiar sample for any kind of research study. Instead, the book simply and effectively delivers on the promise of its title: Robinson talks about the girls (or the women, rather). In a series of thematic chapters drawing on her decades of conversations with many of music's biggest stars, she writes about their thoughts, experiences, hopes, and disappointments.

These weren't casual conversations, and in many cases they weren't one-offs. Robinson became a friend or, at least, trusted acquaintance of many of her interview subjects. She introduced Chrissie Hynde to Ray Davies ("when Chrissie, who usually wore jeans or black leather pants and a motorcycle jacket, arrived at the club wearing a skirt, I knew there'd be trouble"). She was one of the last journalists to talk with John Lennon and Yoko Ono together. Who knows where she landed in the rarified list of journalists who got Beyoncé profiles, but there weren't too many after her.

Across the board, Robinson's subjects told her, stardom is different for women.

- Touring productions are not set up to provide them with nightly opportunities for casual sex (Linda Ronstadt on famously hooking up with male music stars: "Who are you going to date, the dentist?"); Belinda Carlisle told Robinson that at the height of the Go-Go's fame, they were ready and waiting for male groupies that just never materialized.

- Women are expected to maintain an entire team to handle their hair and makeup; if you're playing the Grammys, you'll need three distinct looks (red carpet, on stage, afterparty).

- The men in your family will try to run your career, no matter how underqualified they might be. Robinson cites the distressing examples of Britney Spears and Tina Turner. Janet Jackson declared her father "works for me," but Robinson suggests that her childhood aspirations to follow a non-musical path may have been doomed from the outset. Beyoncé told Robinson that her father was no Joe Jackson (in a good way), and yet she ultimately had to publicly split with him as her professional manager.

- Parenthood is, unlike with typical male stars, a potentially career-changing development. Adele told Robinson about struggling with post-partum depression and the challenges of bringing a young child on tour ("I'm not having that much fun in my life"); women artists are often actively engaged in their kids' upbringing, whereas, Robinson say, the only male artist ever to speak to her in any detail about the specifics of a child's day-to-day life was John Lennon, who spent much of the '70s raising his son Sean while his wife Yoko Ono ran (in Lennon's words) "the family business."

And, of course, rock stardom offers no immunity from abuse. Robinson notes that many women arrive at stardom burdened with a history of sexual assault (among them Fiona Apple, Tori Amos, Lady Gaga, and Madonna), while others experience sexual violence even as their stars rise (among them Carole King, Kesha, and Rihanna). Even if your face is famous, you're still subject to the improprieties of powerful men who can bury your next album; Atlantic Records CEO Ahmet Ertegun "would just casually slip his hand under my blouse," writes Robinson, in an assaultive gesture he didn't fail to extend to music icons up to and including Yoko Ono.

One of Robinson's most searing interview subjects was Tina Turner, who articulated much of what Maureen Mahon described in her recent book about Black women in rock: climbing the white rock Mount Rushmore took decades, and left its scars. Turner remembers singing onstage with a mouthful of blood after her husband Ike broke her jaw backstage; then she went solo, but was consigned to years of relative obscurity before her breakout with Private Dancer. "The competition that I had to move out of the way to get up there," she described to Robinson in that era. "Look how long I've been going. And I still don't have the fans that the Rolling Stones or Michael Jackson does."

Turner credits Janis Joplin's ability, but also observed that white woman quickly achieve a stature that was not accorded Turner and other Black women. "I think if I was a white woman I would have gotten here much faster," said Turner, battling both racism and sexism. "I've said why did God make me a woman so someone could beat me up? That's not fair."

Even as Joplin was buoyed by a music establishment that centered whiteness even in a Black art form, she also struggled against stereotypes of what a woman star's figure should look like. While stars today are starting to challenge those stereotypes as never before (and fans are responding), they've remained in force for decades. "Weight wise," writes Robinson, "Mariah Carey has been up and down for years, but so has Bono." Whose weight changes make headlines? Need you ask?

Amid all these challenges, there is support and inspiration. Adele, who says she hates it when people are so overcome meeting her that they burst into tears, admits doing exactly that when she was invited backstage to meet Stevie Nicks. Robinson is close with Joni Mitchell, a maverick whose undeniable gifts have always inspired admiration and, sometimes, envy.

When Robinson attended a screening of Martin Scorsese's recent Rolling Thunder Revue film, she noted the crowd's spontaneous applause for Joni Mitchell's performance of "Coyote." She called Mitchell, then recovering from a stroke, to tell her about the reaction, which made her think of what Nicks said about Mitchell: she struck fear into the hearts of her male peers, who found themselves thinking dumbfoundedly, "She's better than us."

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Upcoming Rock and Roll Book Club picks

Tune in to The Current at 8:30 a.m. (Central) every Thursday morning to hear Jay Gabler and Jill Riley talk about a new book. Also, find Jay's reviews online.

March 11: Gorillaz Almanac (buy now)

March 18: Nothin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion by Tom Beaujour and Richard Bienstock (buy now)

March 25: Levon: From Down in the Delta to the Birth of the Band and Beyond by Sandra B. Tooze (buy now)

April 1: Beeswing: Losing My Way and Finding My Voice 1967-1975 by Richard Thompson

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