NPR producer Alex Goldman has a collection of 1,500 LPs stacked in 15 boxes in the home he shares with writer Sarah O’Holla. In the Tumblr “My Husband’s Stupid Record Collection,” O’Holla sets out to listen to, and review, every single one. Her thoughts on Adam and the Ants’ Prince Charming provide a taste of the blend of condescension and wonder with which O’Holla approaches the exercise. “This is the kind of music that would be played on a cheeky weird cruise for men and women of all sexualities who are into fashion and love drinking pina coladas to relax,” she writes. “HOLD ON. ‘Ant Rap’ just came on.”
O’Holla’s blog blew up this week, earning praise from a colleague of Goldman’s at NPR, the music writers at Gigwise, and proud record snobs on Twitter. But as more and more outsiders engaged with O’Holla’s project, some women felt like they were becoming the butt of the joke. Flavorwire’s Judy Berman initially appreciated the blog’s charm, but then, “as acquaintance after acquaintance—almost all of them men—enthusiastically shared the blog, I noticed a more powerful, gendered slant to their appreciation of it,” she wrote. The “subtext couldn’t have been more clear: The people who love music, are frighteningly knowledgeable about it, and accumulate enormous record collections are dudes.”
Is O’Holla’s Tumblr, or the love for her Tumblr, sexist? I think my answers to those two questions are: No, and it depends. O’Holla’s Tumblr subtly mocks the arcane knowledge that is deeply important to a certain segment of people (music nerds) but is nevertheless inscrutable and potentially annoying to those who are forced to coexist with it (chiefly, their spouses). In that sense, it is a part of the comedic tradition of people who have never seen Lost reviewing the show’s finale (“Wait. Their real life is heaven. Or something”), Harry Potter virgins parsing the final installment (“wand warfare seems really lame to me”), and white grandmothers examining the lyrics to Beyoncé’s “Drunk in Love.” (“We never talked when we had sex. What’s all this talking?”). But whether you find this brand of humor hilarious or offensive depends on your cultural perspective on the naïve reviewer and her status in relationship to the content she critiques.
Seen one way, O’Holla’s reviews are doubly hilarious because she is a woman who is kindly yet pointedly critiquing a specific aspect of nerd-dom—vintage record collecting—that has been established as a very serious pursuit in large part because it has been traditionally dominated by dudes. When O’Holla reviews an Anthrax album by writing, “Okay, yes, they’re saying ‘murder’ over and over again, next is ‘hatred.’ AHHH!!!!! I’m so scared!!!,” she’s throwing an elbow straight to the belly of the music bro. But seen another way, her exercise is not very funny at all, because it helps those same music-nerd dudes who have boxed women out of the subculture—keeping them on the periphery in the roles of wives and girlfriends—to share the link as confirmation that women just don’t get it.
Female music writers Annie Zaleski, Maura Johnston, and Ann Powers have pushed back against the blog’s conceit, arguing that it reinforces negative stereotypes about the role of women in the music world. Playing up her own naiveté allows O’Holla to heighten the contrast between her disinterest and Goldman’s obsession in pursuit of humor, but it also places her in the tenuous position of the ignorant wife. At one point, O’Holla spies a different style of LP packaging and announces, “it’s an open-y,” and Goldman swoops in to instruct her that it’s called a gatefold. Are we meant to see Goldman’s record collection as stupid or O’Holla’s lack of knowledge? If you’re a man inside the culture or a woman happily outside of it, it’s easy to find humor one way or another. If you’re a woman trying to get in, though, it’s harder to laugh. (Of course all women aren’t outside, and all men aren’t inside. What if you’re a man outside the culture or a woman inside of it? The answer is: We can’t address everyone here, so let’s move on!)
O’Holla couldn’t have predicted that her husband’s personal record collection would suddenly become so political. As Goldman put it on Twitter: “Not trying to perpetuate stereotypes. Just being who we are.” O’Holla’s blog is also part of a time-honored tradition of poking fun at your spouse’s eccentricities, and that’s a premise that will persist regardless of the cultural state of gender relations. After O’Holla’s Tumblr blew up on the Internet, Johnston asked:
I would. This would be the most perfect blog—it would manage to highlight the inherent ridiculousness of a vaunted nerd-dom, while also acknowledging that many women have the capacity to engage with it as a legitimate pursuit, plus adding in a little spousal humor for good measure. But as a woman/person who can’t tell an open-y LP from a close-y one, that means that the current blog strikes me as pretty funny, too. I can see how women who are constantly forced to defend their music knowledge against men who dismiss them wouldn’t love it, though.