Women in Music: Carolyn Hanson on authencity and identity

Carolyn Hanson

Happy International Women’s Day! To celebrate yet another Women’s History Month, we wanted to showcase all the hardworking women in the industry. This year, we are focusing on young women who may still be in college or recently graduated and have landed some awesome dream jobs. First up is Carolyn Hanson.

“It’s okay, and fun, and normal, to want to construct your own identity.” Meredith Graves, MTV News correspondent and vocalist of the band Perfect Pussy, wrote in an email to my “Writing About Music: Stage and Floor” class yesterday, and it’s been ringing in my head since I heard it.

I know bits and pieces of my identity: I’m an NYU Gallatin student originally from California, I built my own major to be “Cultural Criticism with a Focus on Music,” and I’ve written for places like Nylon, IndieShuffle, and The Wild Honey Pie. I’ve been writing about music since I was 12, or so, when I attended a journalism camp (almost exclusively because I wanted to meet famous people) and the combination of music and writing, two things I loved, stuck with me. I’m 19 now, and still the most culturally influential artist I’ve interviewed was Ziggy Marley, when I was 14. I’ve had four internships during my going-on-two-year tenure at NYU: one at a major music agency, two at publications, and one at a concert booking and promotional company.

I like to think of myself as a cultural critic, and have luckily written and published enough to be viewed as such by some people. That said, there are plenty of people more established than me who look at what I do and roll their eyes. A lot of what I do is exclusively for exposure, so I do it for free. Album reviews, interviews, song premieres–right now I’m in a place where I’m focusing on getting as good as I possibly can at what I do, and so I take nearly every chance I get to write about something, even if I don’t think it will be read by a large group of people. It sounds ridiculously obvious, but I have found it to be true that the better I get, the more opportunities I am able to seek out, and the more I am able to establish my identity, in the world, as a critic.

But these are the things I feel that I know solidly about myself. Tangible things I can point to as having done. What eludes me about my identity still is the intangible. As a writer, I often find myself falling prey to “impostor syndrome,” or the concept that somehow my (admittedly minute) success is fraudulent. I wonder if I deserve to call myself a music lover, a critic, a culture writer. I wonder if I have the knowledge base and experience to do so. Often, I feel like I don’t.

Which brings me back to Meredith Graves. At 2015’s CMJ Festival, I was presented with the opportunity to see her speak on an entirely-female panel about “Breaking the Glass Ceiling,” moderated by a key member of the organization Women in Music. Although Graves was by far the youngest person on the panel, I found myself rabidly scribbling down everything she was saying–far more so than any of the other panelists. She was so eloquent, and spoke with a fierce calm that was as invigorating as it was inspiring. She spoke on many topics, but the one that stood out as by far the most important was women being constantly tested regarding their knowledge within the music industry. She spoke on how women are forced to fight tooth and claw to prove that they also deserve to be in spaces that men easily occupy. Just as she did in that email a few days ago, she said something there that struck my barely-18-year-old self, enough that still I have it written down in a notebook almost two years later: “Take up as much space as you can. And don’t pretend to like stuff for dudes. Ever.”

I think of that statement whenever I’m confronted with someone in the music industry who feels as though me calling myself a critic gives them a right to interrogate me on my knowledge. More often than not, the interrogation is coming from a male, but I would be lying if I said I hadn’t experienced it with females as well. The truth is that music is such a vast field, there will always be something you don’t know, always something someone can catch you up on. And it doesn’t make you any less of a fan, or a critic, or a writer, for not having heard the demo version of Elvis Costello’s “Green Shirt.” Nobody gets to decide whether you are any of those things but you. And if you don’t feel you’re there yet, don’t fret–just do what you feel it takes to get there. Make space for yourself, even if you start in a place where you feel there isn’t any. And never, ever let somebody tell you who you are or where you belong.

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