When searching a bookstore for music memoirs, it’s likely that the shelves are packed with men such as Kurt Cobain, Johnny Cash and Keith Richards. While it may seem that there are fewer books written by or about women musicians, they are growing in numbers. Women in the music industry refuse to be silenced, and, in these 20 books, they ensure their side of the story, as well as their experiences, are widely known.
From blues musicians such as Billie Holiday to riot grrrl groups such as Sleater-Kinney, the stories of women are being spread like wildfire to ensure they aren’t forgotten. It must be noted that many of the artists on this list have spent the majority of their careers as political activists. As such, these books have the capabilities to serve as tools of remembrance or even models of lyrical and instrumental activism. Without further ado, here are the 20 best books written by or about women musicians.
Girl In A Band by Kim Gordon
As a founding member of Sonic Youth, Kim Gordon spent approximately three decades wielding a bass guitar and showcasing her vocal talents with hits such as “Bull In The Heather” from their eighth album, Experimental Jet Set, Trash And No Star. In her memoir, Girl In A Band, Gordon details her experience as a woman in the music industry. She speaks of her childhood and the ways that she grew into adulthood as Sonic Youth grew into popularity.
Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh
From Throwing Muses to 50 Foot Wave to a solo career, Kristin Hersh has spanned the alternative music genre as a singer, songwriter and guitarist. In Rat Girl, she offers readers an in-depth look at her life as a musician. At 15 years old, Hersh and her bandmates in Throwing Muses were beginning to see the fruits of their labor come to life with a possible major-label signing. When she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, everything changed for her. With Rat Girl, Hersh delivers an unapologetic story about being a woman in the music industry while juggling her mental health and growing into adulthood.
Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein
Carrie Brownstein, alongside her bandmates in Sleater-Kinney, were deeply influential to the riot grrrl movement. In Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, Brownstein discusses how her identity as a fan of the women-led punk movement changed as she became a pioneering guitarist. She draws attention to the underground world of punk to the mainstream image fans are familiar with today.
Neon Angel: A Memoir Of A Runaway by Cherie Currie
a Joan Jett was recognized for being the leader of the Runaways, Cherie Currie offered her vocals to hit songs such as “Cherry Bomb.” In Neon Angel, Currie delves into her teenage years as well as her experiences as a member of the iconic punk band and her departure from it. She tells all in Neon Angel, spotlighting the highs and lows of the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
In her book Just Kids, Patti Smith tells the story of her relationships in New York City that led to the creation of her powerful and inspiring album Horses, which launched her to fame in 1975. It’s a deeply personal account that sheds light on one of the world’s most integral musicians.
Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine
The Slits’ Viv Albertine reveals her experiences in a male-dominated industry in Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys. She’s often recognized for altering musical discourse and opening it up to include women, especially women in punk. It features her friendship with Sid Vicious as the two formed a band together, which led to her joining the Slits as a well-established and well-known punk rocker who went on to inspire Kurt Cobain and Carrie Brownstein.
Celia: My Life by Celia Cruz
Celia Cruz was an incredible musician who was widely celebrated for her talents in the guaracha genre. In Celia: My Life, she sheds light on the trials and tribulations of being a Cuban woman artist and musician in the 1950s whose career spanned several decades. The “Queen of Salsa” tells the world her life story from beginning to end, with insight into her personal and professional struggles.
My Love Story by Tina Turner
Tina Turner is one of the world’s most formidable musicians, whose powerful pop songs launched her to the top of the charts on numerous occasions. Her life has been publicized in movies and television (most recently on a stunning HBO documentary), but her book My Love Story gives her fans insight on the inner workings of her artistry. Turner documents her life as a barrier-breaking artist who was never afraid of a challenge, delivering her story with just as much heart as she did when performing her songs for the world.
Girls To The Front: The True Story Of The Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus
For a definitive history of the riot grrrl movement, look no further than Sara Marcus’ Girls To The Front: The True Story Of The Riot Grrrl Revolution. In the text, Marcus traces the early beginnings of the woman-led punk movement as they fought for equality and challenged the patriarchal structures of society. With bands such as Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, this history of the riot grrrl movement gives an all-new light to the triumphs of women who recognized that enough was enough—it was time for a revolution.
Cinderella’s Big Score: Women Of The Punk And Indie Underground by Maria Raha
Maria Raha is a talented journalist who compiled profiles of major women artists and musicians into her book titled Cinderella’s Big Score: Women Of The Punk And Indie Underground. Starting in the ’70s, Raha traces the history of women in punk with musicians such as Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex while offering social context to each decade. She features artists such as Peaches, L7, and more. It offers an extensive history of women in punk while providing an in-depth look at some of the most influential bands of each decade.
I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography Of Nina Simone by Nina Simone
Nina Simone never shied away from speaking the truth, whether it was about her personal life or her political beliefs. In I Put A Spell On You: The Autobiography Of Nina Simone, the singer-songwriter and pianist retells the story of her life from the very beginning. As one of the most inspiring and influential musicians of the civil rights movement, her song “Mississippi Goddam” and her rendition of “Strange Fruit” are influential to countless artists and musicians today.
Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout by Laura Jane Grace and Dan Ozzi
Against Me! leader Laura Jane Grace tells the story of her experiences as a musician who was navigating the industry while struggling to find herself. In Tranny: Confessions Of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout, she narrates her story the way she performs: unapologetically and with gut-punching honesty. Grace’s book tells an important history in the world of rock, as she begins with the formation of Against Me! and traces her path of self-discovery that led up to the public announcement of coming out as a transgender woman. It’s powerful, jaw-dropping and, inarguably, one of the most important books about women in music.
Words Will Break Cement: The Passion Of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen
Pussy Riot have become synonymous with the revival of the riot grrrl movement in the 2010s. After their performance at Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Savior, they faced a series of arrests and became political outlaws in Russia. They actively speak against sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia and the patriarchy, especially in regards to political leadership. In Words Will Break Cement: The Passion Of Pussy Riot by Masha Gessen, Pussy Riot’s beginnings in political activism are highlighted alongside the cruelty they have faced by their own government for speaking out against injustices.
Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer For Freedom by Pussy Riot
If Words Will Break Cement: The Passion Of Pussy Riot leaves any room for questions, Pussy Riot! A Punk Prayer For Freedom answers them. With letters from prison, songs and courtroom statements, this book gives readers an inside look at the members’ court proceedings and the phrasing used against them by the judicial system. It’s one of the most important books in understanding their motives and how they were able to overcome imprisonment. Plus, according to Goodreads, each eBook purchase goes to support Pussy Riot’s legal team.
Women Who Rock edited by Evelyn McDonnell
Evelyn McDonnell’s Women Who Rock includes 104 women who have made a statement through their musical talents. With excerpts about Beyoncé, Amy Winehouse and Madonna, McDonnell leaves no stone unturned in documenting women in the music industry. While it’s not exhaustive, it’s an extremely important book that provides the world with the opportunity to learn about numerous women musicians who deserve recognition for their game-changing lyricism, instrumentation and overall talent.
Imagine John Yoko by Yoko Ono
Fans of the Beatles may recognize Yoko Ono in a very specific way, but in terms of her effect on art and music, she was deeply inspiring and influential to women everywhere. In Imagine John Yoko, she tells the story of how she and her partner John Lennon came together to craft their album. Ono disrupts speculation by offering the truth with never-before-seen photos and documents from her time with Lennon in Imagine John Yoko.
Between A Heart And A Rock Place: A Memoir by Pat Benatar
Between a Heart And A Rock Place: A Memoir tells the story of pop and rock sensation Pat Benatar as she rose to fame and mainstream popularity. Her musical anthems captivated and influenced women everywhere. In her memoir, she unfurls the truth behind her stardom, how her songs were created and her life in the spotlight. With a deeply personal voice, Benatar delivers her life story as one fueled by individuality, self-expression and evolution.
No Walls And The Recurring Dream: A Memoir by Ani DiFranco
With a mixture of political activism and feminism, Ani DiFranco recounts her experiences in the music industry in her memoir No Walls And The Recurring Dream: A Memoir. As she rose to fame as an 18-year-old musician, she was faced with her own set of hardships, but she overcame them by starting her own label, Righteous Babe Records, and embracing her music as a form of activism. Her memoir uncovers a wealth of information on her personal life while drawing attention to the fact that her role as a woman musician was always driven by the desire to make change.
Lady Sings The Blues by Billie Holiday and William Dufty
Billie Holiday was a Black jazz musician who challenged the white male dominated industry of the mid-20th century. As her music grew in popularity among Black and white audiences alike, she faced racism, sexism, and egregious threats made by law enforcement and hate groups. In 2021, Hulu released a film titled The United States Vs. Billie Holiday which draws from her real-life experiences as a Black woman musician who was under the harsh microscope of American society as she rose to fame. Her autobiography, Lady Sings the Blues, features her side of the story as well as her experiences as a Black woman musician pre-Civil Rights Movement.
k.d. lang: All You Get Is Me by Victoria Starr
Canadian pop and country musician k.d. lang is the star of k.d. lang: All You Get Is Me written by Victoria Starr. It’s an integral book to the history of a lesbian artist whose music was banned by numerous United States radio stations and was scrutinized for being unapologetically herself. Driven by activism and music, lang was unwavering in her commitments to gay rights and human rights throughout her career. In k.d. lang: All You Get Is Me, her experiences and emotions are highlighted by Starr to create the definitive biography of one of the most influential Canadian pop and country stars in the industry’s history.