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Kevin Dettmar

Kevin Dettmar is W. M. Keck Professor and Chair of English at Pomona College. He is past editor of the Journal of Popular Music Studies; co-editor of Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 series; editor of The Cambridge Companion to Bob Dylan; co-editor (with Jonathan Lethem) of Shake It Up: Great American Writing on Rock and Pop from Elvis to Jay-Z; and author of Is Rock Dead? and Gang of Four, “Entertainment!” (33 1/3).

“Born of the Gossip Pages: Jane Scott, Lillian Roxon, and Rock Writing in/on the Margins”
Women like Ellen Willis were doing important rock writing from the beginning, even though their voices are largely absent from our histories. But it’s a long way down from Willis’s perch as the New Yorker’s first pop critic (a spot now held by Amanda Petrusich) to the humble beginnings of two who began sooner: Jane Scott and Lillian Roxon. Scott got her start—and made her finish—at the Cleveland Plain Dealer; Roxon pushed her way into the Australian rag trade before decamping for New York. Scott and Roxon both came to rock writing under the (tawdry) sign of gossip, and its taint was something they were never entirely able to shake. Scott, after many failed attempts, was finally taken onboard at the Plain Dealer on the society page—gossip of the moneyed classes; Roxon began by writing for tabloids so seamy her mother was embarrassed to tell her friends. In the early 60s, when both got their start, this was the primary avenue open to women journalists, and they were eager to drive the camel of their ambition through that needle’s eye. But it left its mark: Scott and Roxon consistently wrote from a “human interest” angle shaped by their gossipy start, and in consequence, their writing is summarily dismissed—when it’s remembered at all—as “lightweight” i9n comparison with the think pieces being produced by the likes of Willis and Greil Marcus. But this is a very superficial reading, encouraged in both cases by the very short form in which they were constrained to work (Scott, the 350-word review or celebrity interview/profile; Roxon, the Christgau-sized nuggets assembled in her Rock Encyclopedia). Scratch the surface, though, and there’s a witty intelligence buzzing just beneath the surface of both—intelligence we’d be well served to rediscover and to celebrate.