Feminism, Much Music and being Fearless as Possible
Images Courtesy of Lisa MacIntosh
If you are reading this, chances are you grew up watching Much Music. This storied music institution was the backbone of youth culture in Canada from the late ’80s to the early aughts. the newspaper had the opportunity to meet with Denise Donlon to talk about her new book Fearless as Possible (Under The Circumstances). Donlon is a past host and producer of Much Music’s The NewMusic. After hosting and producing, Donlon moved up through Much Music, becoming its vice president and general manager. Much Music is only one of the many impressive feats Donlon has accomplished as she has worked her way through Canada’s music industry. Prior to Much Music, Donlon promoted bands and even had the opportunity to tour with White Snake in 1984. After Much Music she went on to become the president of Sony Music Canada. She was then named the executive director of CBC Radio’s English language services. She has had an unique career that has allowed her to careen from one intriguing job to another. the newspaper sat down and chatted with her about the early days at Much Music, feminism, activism and how she found her voice.
the newspaper: How did you transition your love of music from a hobby into something that you wanted to pursue as a career? What was that experience like?
Denise Donlon: Not planned! That’s what it was like. In your life doors either open for you (and you have to make a decision [about] whether or not you are going to walk through them) or there will be other doors you have to kick open. So becoming interested in music and becoming a music journalist was just one of those doors that opened. I was very reluctant at the beginning because I was ... 6’1”, lispy and I didn’t think I was very presentable in anyway. But Much Music was one of those magic places where they didn’t want stereotypes. They wanted people who knew about the business and at that point I knew a little bit about a lot of things. For me the impetus was that if I were to ever be in a position where I saw some talent that needed help, I needed to know a lot so that I could maybe one day help somebody.
TN: You talk about how in high school, you got into music kind of as a way to connect with boys. So, when did you find in your own career trajectory that that began to change and you found your own voice or interest?
DD: It was really in the early ’80s at Much Music. It was a time of great artist activism and I love the fact that I could talk to artists about music for sure but more so about substance versus style. The artists that had something to say about politics or the environment or gender issues or racism, they were the ones that I was besotted with because I loved that culture could be a voice for social change. It is not new—music has been a powerful force in everything from the apartheid to the abolishment of slavery. It has always had a real big part to play and that’s one of the reasons I value it so much.
TN: In the past couple years, I’ve heard some comments from different rap artists and such who say that it is not necessarily their place to have to speak on political issues. What would you say to that?
DD: I would say that if your voice is authentic and if the issue or the subject matter is something that moves you, then you should absolutely pull it into your music because the music that speaks to people, that compels us to listen, that changes our perspective, that's the music that’s going to have longevity. We can all write about love or boy meets girl, or we can write about ya know, the beats, but at the end of the day its substance that will actually go the distance.
TN: I recently read an article that basically said that at times of political unrest, historically, we have seen some incredibly influential art as a result. Which is an interesting takeaway for our current situation.
DD: Ya, but I haven’t heard a good protest song in a while.
TN: There are a few artists in the U.S. who have been putting out collective albums in response to Trump’s presidency.
DD: They need to be on a bigger world stage then.
TN: Yes, they need to have a bigger platform for sure. (Check some of them out here, folks!)
DD: You know, journalists like yourself can help empower these artists.
TN: I also want to talk to you about being a woman in the music industry. Even as a writer, I find that I battle a lot of notions that I am “a groupie” or that my intentions are illegitimate. Did you ever deal with sexism in this way? If so, how did you handle it?
DD: Well, I never felt like a groupie so much, and mostly that was my own self-consciousness surrounding myself. I think it was probably because I am 6’1”, so I think my height definitely had something to do with it, which is kind of hilarious because it is the thing that made me so self-conscious as a child and it came to be a part of my power as an adult. The other thing is that it took me a while to come to grips with being a feminist. I think I was working so hard and trying so hard to succeed in my own right that I may have been absolutely oblivious to the stuff that might have been obvious today. Those kinds of slights or those kinds of expectations. I was probably oblivious.
TN: Do you think that that served you well? Or how would you reflect on that?
DD: I think it probably did because I think there was […] enough to deal with, and if I had added that layer on top it probably would've pulled the rug out from under me. It’s interesting now because I see a lot of women who are standing up and saying no more staying quiet and [that] you have to open your eyes as a women and be very cognisant of those little slights that you come across and you have to stand up to it. You have to. It works even in terms of women in so many areas from politics to boardrooms to being CEOs. I mean, the numbers are deplorable. I remember being on boards myself and constantly saying like a broken record (which is an outdated concept), “We need more women on the board, we need more diverse voices on this board.” At the end of the day, if you are in a room of only old white men, you’re only ever going to get those ideas. You need the diversity, you need that creativity, that innovation and that imagination that comes from a broader scope or a broader perspective. There is a quote from Margaret Mead that says, “Everytime we liberate a woman we liberate a man,” and it's true. It doesn’t hurt anybody. It's only better for everybody.
TN: One of the stories that stuck with me in the book as one of the “mistakes” that you made was when you showed up at a party dressed in a Playboy Bunny costume. Will you tell me more about this?
DD: That was at my friend Sam Feldman’s. Sam manages Diana Krall and James Taylor and a bunch of other artists. I was working with him. I had my own company, but I was also dealing largely with his acts. He was having a party at his house and asked if I would help out. I took it as him wanting me to serve coffee and drinks, so I thought, “If that’s the way you see me, then I am actually going to show up that way.” So ya, I rented a Playboy Bunny outfit and showed up at his party wearing [it]. It was right out of Bridget Jones’s Diary. He just looked at me, because that wasn’t his intent at all. He was like, “What are you doing?” But he went with it and we had a big laugh about it. Sometimes your expectations aren’t what is being put out there.
TN: So what did you learn from that experience in hindsight?
DD:That I needed to be a little bit more aware and also that you can’t go off half-cocked. You need an emotional intelligence as well as a intellectual intelligence. [I’ve found for] things that you react to viscerally, you need to bring your head into where your heart is and actually see the situation for what it is.
TN: If you could go back and give yourself advice when you were starting the tour with the Headpins or Doug and the Slugs, what would you tell yourself?
DD: I did a pretty good job at projecting an image that I did not feel. I tried to look more confident and act more confident than I actually was. I think I would have given myself a little lecture saying, “You are enough.” The only person that really matters is yourself at the end of the day. Are you doing a good job? Are you there for the right reasons? Are you being as authentic as you can be? It doesn’t really matter what other people think. You can hobble yourself by being too judgemental. You lose some of your power that way.
TN: How did you come to make that realization? Would you say it's something that came naturally or something you had to work towards?
DD: It’s something I learned while travelling to those post-conflict zones and I started to meet women and children who have been through horrendous [circumstances]; where women are being used as a weapon of war or where they have to find their bravery. I found my courage through them. It made me more grateful and aware of everything that we have here and how we have to protect everything that we have. We still have a long ways to go, especially in terms of the numbers, so we can't afford to slip back. You have to be activist, you really do. If you’re not going to do it, than no one is going to do it for you.
TN: Have you seen the situation for women in media, specifically music journalism, change since you started in it? What work do you think still needs to be done?
DD: Well, there is a lot of work that still needs to be done. There is a great video that is specific to the film industry, called Make It Fair (#Makeitfair). It talks about the film industry specifically, but the women take a stance where it's like, “Oh, the men only have 86 per cent of director jobs, we have to make it fair.” The numbers are shockingly low still. Media can be a very powerful force in terms of social change. For example, I talk in my book about gay rights. It wasn’t until we started to see Will and Grace and Ellen DeGeneres and other pop culture figures that the legislation around same-sex marriage began being influenced by pop culture. People started to see themselves and others love who they loved and had every right to do so. When they started to see gay portrayal[s], people saw that it was okay [and] that the zeitgeist was changing. The more women directors, the more storylines about strong women [and] the more books that feature strong women, the more its going to become part of the overall zeitgeist and start to affect more change. [The] more voices the better.
TN: How did you deal with the emphasis of appearance on women in journalism and media?
DD: The way I dealt with it was by never watching myself on television. I loved doing the work. I loved doing the research. I loved doing the interviews. I loved being on the road. I loved being in an editing bay, just staying there all night and crafting something that could go on TV, but I would never watch myself on air. I would do anything to avoid seeing myself on air. So that's how I coped with it. I am still self-concious about it. There are other people, [for example] the pick-me generation, who can’t wait to be on air. In the book, I talk about hiring VJ’s, [and] I would always ask them, “Why do you want to be a VJ?” They would respond, “I want to be famous.” [I would ask,] “What would you do with your power?” So few of them knew how to answer that. If I had 10 people and I was looking at all of them, I was going to pick the person who actually feels like they want to use their powers for good.
TN: You said you were in some ways oblivious to the sexism you may have experienced. Do you have any memories of working with me who I guess give you “bad vibes”? Did you have to deal with that? What advice would you give towards young women dealing with these sorts of situations?
DD: Oh ya, all the time. I talk a lot about the Ghomeshi case and I wrestled with it a lot in the book. When it happened I was writing the book and I was out of [the] CBC […] when we heard the news. First of all, I was curled up in a ball because my own assault came full frontal. I remembered it, I remembered the smell of the upholstery, so I couldn’t deal with what was going on there until I confronted my own [trauma]. I sent out a friends and family letter—part of it is in the book—and I laid out what I knew: I wish that girl who had said he wanted to “hate fuck” her had come to my office because I am sure that I would have reacted like a mother bear. I then talked about my own situation and I sent it out to friends and family. Well, it got shared, and the number of women that wrote back to me of their own experiences was unbelievable. Many of them [we]re people that I knew really well but had never talked to, and all of us had stories. Practically every single woman I know talked about their encounters. One woman told me that she had been raped and that she never told and he went on to rape and murder someone else. She was living with her own aftermath and her own trauma and [on top of that, the] guilt that had she told, she could have prevented someone else's [trauma]. At the time, Antonia Zerbisias put out the [hashtag] #beenrapedneverreported and it went viral with eight million women on that site. Eight million. It’s the walking wounded out there.
We watched the trial. I have friends of mine that are women lawyers and friends of mine who have been raped and as we watched the trial we tried to come to grips with what happened in that case. As I said in the book, there was a study done in 2012 by a professor at the University of Ottawa that said that of 1000 assault cases in Canada, 33 were reported and three were convicted. How is that not a fail? That is a fail. I understand the burden of truth and I get innocent [until] proven guilty, and [that] the burden of proof must be high, because that's our criminal justice system. [But] it is a fail.
How, if we aren’t doing better in North America with the rights and freedoms we have [...] can we ever be a credible voice for women around the world who don’t have any of the rights and freedoms we have? We have to do better. The justice system has to do better. All of the actors from the police to the bench have to be better educated and sensitized to what sexual assault is. We just HAVE to do better. Maybe we are more vigilant now, maybe we are more compassionate, maybe we are less afraid to stand up. That trial and other high profile cases [...] feel like a moment of great empowerment but that moment passed.
TN: I think it's very important and empowering that you talk about your experience in your book and talk about speaking up. It creates a space for people coming up in the industry to know that they can, should and need to address these issues. It’s very powerful.
DD: It’s hard, I didn’t tell, and my dad was a detective sergeant, [so] there is no reason he would not been fierce about it. We have to do better.
TN: What initiatives have you taken to help women in media and help raise them up?
DD: You just do whatever you can. I hope that I am aware enough of young women with talent and see it when it's there, … encourage and mentor it and celebrate, motivate and inspire. It’s the Edison quote, “one percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.” You just got to do the work and women do have to run faster and jump higher and dance as fast as we can. For a while I was going to call the book Backwards and in High Heels, based off the quote about Ginger Rogers saying that she did everything Fred did, except she did it backwards and in high heels. But when I thought about it, first off, I seldom wear high heels. [Second, …] she did do everything that he did backwards and in high heels, but the one thing she never did was lead, and that's what we have do now. We have to lead.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.