Courtney E. Smith made her name in the music industry as a programmer for MTV, working on shows like Subterranean and helping break bands like Death Cab for Cutie, Fall Out Boy, and Vampire Weekend. Given the ascendance of female industry insiders like music supervisors Alexandra Patsavas and Liza Richardson alongside the popularity of music geek memoirs from Rob Sheffield and Julie Klausner, I was interested that Smith wrote a book about her own music fandom, tying it to gender and professional experience. I wish I could endorse Record Collecting for Girls, but I can’t.
Prior to reading Record Collecting, I heard some rumblings that this book is all about boys. I originally dismissed such criticism as sexist. High Fidelity is really about girls. Frankly, I wouldn’t have minded Smith using relationships as the lens through which she evaluates the significance music has in her life if it weren’t the only one. But it is pretty disconcerting that heterosexual romance seems to be the primary way she relates to music. It would have been nice if she had focused more on industrial concerns, specifically the collapse of distinctions between indie and mainstream. And for a book that Megan Jasper and Melissa Locker endorse for its girls’ night candor, Smith has little interest in exploring how music informs her relationships with women, much less platonic male friends.
Heteronormativity is a considerable blind spot in Record Collecting. Apart from her fixation on ex-boyfriends and a relative lack of consideration for the homosocial dimensions of female music fandom, she dismisses Smiths fans as potential romantic partners while failing to note the band’s sizable, intergenerational queer following. As the cult of Morrissey is also kept alive by pockets of Chicano youth, any real consideration for the racial dimensions of popular music would have also been welcome. Such concerns are unchallenged here, as are the cultural biases that go into Smith’s musical preferences. She admits to enjoying the Pussycat Dolls as a guilty pleasure, but doesn’t acknowledge that poptimism and related strands of music criticism explode such notions and genre biases in popular music. Smith is a rock fan, making minor allowances for hybrid artists M.I.A. and some pop acts. But much of the music she claims here, including all of the artists in her top five, is made by white rock musicians. This goes unchallenged, as does her own white female privilege.
My biggest problem with Record Collecting is that I don’t know who this book is supposed to serve. What is its larger purpose? Is this book a feminist project? Is it a guide for young women? I also stumble over her definition of “girls”. Despite hailing them in the title, Smith doesn’t seem especially interested in actual girls. The closest she comes to discussing issues related to age is in the chapter where she considers if there could ever be another Madonna. She doesn’t offer any insight into the music industry adult women are passing down to girls. She mentions a dearth of all-female bands in this contemporary moment, but overlooks efforts like Girls Rock Camp entirely. This is truly a lost opportunity, as the most poignant moment in the book is when Smith recalls going to a music shop as a preteen because she was interested in playing the drums. The male sales clerk assumed she was looking for a clarinet.
Perhaps I’m asking too much of this book. Maybe Smith just wanted to write a zippy memoir and I should judge it as such. Sheffield’s Talking to Girls About Duran Duran is quite flip at times, but I wasn’t disappointed that it didn’t represent loftier societal and political goals. He wasn’t speaking on behalf of dudes, so why should I expect Smith to be an ambassador for women and girls? However, Sheffield tempers his witty, quotational style with moving passages about how his music fandom developed in relation to adolescence, his sisters, his late wife, and his dying grandfather. Smith probably doesn’t want her work compared to a memoir from an established male music journalist, and I wouldn’t blame her. Smith is a professional, and helped establish many of the artists Sheffield and his colleagues cover. I would love to read the book that examines this with greater depth. But unfortunately, Record Collecting could have been so much more than what I got off the page.