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Girls with an Axl to grind

ROCK SHE WROTE ed Evelyn McDonnell and Ann Powers, Plexus pounds 12.99
THIS 500-page doorstop does not look encouraging. Before reading it you have to get past the pseudo-Sex Pistols cover, with its torn strips of text glued over an out-of-focus, angry young guitar-wielding woman: copyright, every second Women In Rock Book that's published. Still, we all know what you shouldn't judge a book by. This is not a WIRB, but an anthology of rock criticism by female writers from the Sixties to the Nineties. "Essential reading for all women who love music," announces the blurb. "Essential reading for all people who love to read about music" would be considerably more accurate.

So what's the point of an exclusively female anthology? Is it merely separatism? In a few pieces the gender issue is irrelevant: there's no reason why they couldn't have been written by a man. In others, a feminist voice makes the odd call for attention, prompted by the sight of Motley Crue's groupies or of the comparatively celibate Fela Kuti's 27 wives.

But the best pieces engage with the man's man's man's world of pop bravely and honestly, detailing the paradox of "loving a double dose of what's supposed to be bad for you: on the one hand, a pop fantasy that can dehumanise; on the other a feminist ideology that declares dangerous what most attracts you". Rather than condemning or ignoring sexist lyrics, the book tackles the more difficult task of investigating why women continue to buy records that are stuffed with them. Ice Cube's misogyny is scrutinised (or rather, the listener's relationship with it), and Mary Gaitskill contributes a controversial defence of Guns N' Roses, a band who have nearly run out of oppressed minorities to abuse. "I imagine that girls, even more so than boys, could look at Axl Rose and feel intense delight at seeing him embody their unexpressed ferocity, and experience it temporarily through him."

It's refreshing to read a book as much about the appreciator as the appreciated. Intuitive and intellectual, subjective and analytical, it examines the role of the fan with a respect customarily reserved for famous personalities. For all their merits, the most dispensable pieces are the straightforward profiles of Juliana Hatfield and kd lang. Articles like this are the staple of a WIRB. What makes Rock She Wrote such a pleasure is that they are the exception, not the rule.

The almost entirely American content of the book works in its favour when it documents scenes and genres that would otherwise be unknown in Britain - Gretchen Phillips on the delights of being a radical lesbian punk at Michigan's Womyn's [sic] Music Festival being just one example. And if you've ever wondered about the historical difficulties of being a female jazz musician, a backing vocalist or a critic on a male-dominated music magazine, wonder no more. Savour, too, an analysis of Madonna's "plantation mistress" tendencies by the black feminist writer - and another sworn enemy of capital letters - bell hooks; learn "Why I Want to Rape Olivia Newton-John"; ponder the airbrushed heavy metal teen dreams, Nelson. The Cambridge Eng Lit department is not the only place where a canon established by respectable male critics is revised and re-evaluated.

The tremendous scope is thanks to McDonnell and Powers' commendable efforts in scouring such venerable publications as Fiz, Jigsaw, Sassy, Puncture, Bitch and Microphone Fiends, as well as the more recognised sources of Creem, Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy, the New Yorker and the Village Voice. And rather than resting there, they have added poetry, academic papers and press releases, and memoirs by artistes from Marianne Faithfull to Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth. The obligatory interview with Courtney Love is present and correct, of course, but it's a well-chosen one, by Pamela Des Barres, author of the definitive groupie autobiography, I'm With the Band.

So what is the point of an exclusively female anthology? If these writers have been excluded from other rock bibles, that's reason enough for them to be reprinted here, in one of the most stimulating collections of music writing I've ever read.