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How Notions Of Sex, Power And Consent Are Changing On College Campuses

Blurred Lines author Vanessa Grigoriadis says female college students were once told to protect themselves from sexual assault by learning self defense. Now, the focus is on changing men's behavior.


Other segments from the episode on October 11, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, October 11, 2018: Interview with Vanessa Girogoriatis; Review of CD 'Sing Me Back Home,' Review of film 'First Man.'



This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation raised the question again, how do we decide who to believe when a woman says she was sexually assaulted by someone she knows behind a closed door and the man denies it? That's an issue universities have been grappling with.

My guest Vanessa Grigoriadis is the author of "Blurred Lines: Sex, Power And Consent On Campus." Over the course of three years, she interviewed 120 students from 20 universities, spoke with nearly 80 administrators and experts and read dozens of case reports. She says that while writing the book, she witnessed a historic moment when survivors moved from the shadows to the spotlight, first on campus, and then nationwide with the #MeToo movement. Grigoriadis is a contributing editor at The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair and has won a National Magazine Award. Vanessa Grigoriadis, welcome to FRESH AIR.

You know, you write in your book that there's a new understanding of what rape and sexual assault means that started on college campuses, but with the #MeToo movement, it spread beyond campuses. What did the Kavanaugh hearings and confirmation tell you about how far that new understanding has spread? I guess what I'm asking you is this. If the Republican senators in the Judiciary Committee had gone to college campuses, what do you think some of the things are they would've been told about what to take into consideration before voting - things that they might not have thought of...


GROSS: ...In part because the Republicans on the judiciary were men. A lot of them were older men. If - you know, their college days were very different in terms of thinking about sexual assault.

GRIGORIADIS: Yeah. If those senators had been on college campuses as presidents or administrators or Title IX officers, they would've had a completely different set of questions - right? - because they would have already known what college campuses know about sexual assault, which is very few women make it up. Very few women are excited to get there and report and feel like this is their moment in the limelight. Something like not having reported for many years is not a big deal. Most sexual assault survivors don't actually report for a while. And they would know that they might not actually get a lot of evidence because there's very rarely good evidence in many of these cases, particularly those that happened 36 years ago. So they have to look at the credibility of each person.

GROSS: Last Tuesday, while the FBI investigation was still going on into Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump spoke to reporters on the South Lawn of the White House before boarding a flight. This was October 2. And so this was before the Senate voted on the Kavanaugh nomination for the Supreme Court - before they confirmed him. So this is President Trump.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Well, I say that it's a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something that you may not be guilty of, which is a very, very - this is a very difficult time. What's happening here has much more to do than even the appointment of a Supreme Court justice. It really does. You could be somebody that was perfect your entire life, and somebody could accuse you of something - doesn't necessarily have to be a woman, as everybody says. But somebody could accuse you of something, and you're automatically guilty. But in this realm, you are truly guilty until proven innocent. That's one of the very, very bad things that's taking place right now.

GROSS: President Trump has, you know, kind of made fun of Blasey Ford, and he said that her accusations were a hoax - a Democratic hoax. So this is interpretation here. But what message do you think that is sending women who have been harassed, assaulted or raped? And I wonder if you've been talking to students - if you've gone back to any of the students who you interviewed for your book and asked them about the impact of the Kavanaugh hearings?

GRIGORIADIS: Yeah. I have spoken to students that were in my book, and the survivors are absolutely devastated, horrified by what Trump said. I think that they've found a lot of the Trump presidency to be, in their word, triggering, and this is certainly part of it. To watch a woman be just cast to the side, just waved away when she went to the Senate - I think that that is their personal worst nightmares - that I would sit there and be publicly humiliated.

Remember; there's so much shame that a lot of survivors carry about what happened to them. And this historic moment that we're in is about raising the demons, casting off the shame. You know, it's a real, like, exorcism for them. So to have it be so publicly that the clock turned back has been extremely upsetting.

GROSS: So there's been two times when the Judiciary Committee and then all of Congress have had to vote about whether the woman who accused the man of sexual harassment or assault was lying or telling the truth and if there is enough evidence to prevent the Supreme Court nominee from becoming confirmed. So there was the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas case and now the Blasey Ford-Brett Kavanaugh case. And in both cases, judiciary and Congress voted for the man and against the woman making the accusations.

Let's look at how colleges handle accusations. You write about how colleges have developed their own system of helping to bring some kind of justice when accusations - when women come forward to accuse a fellow student of sexual assault or rape. They're not courts per se, but they are some forms of proceedings. Can you give us a couple of examples of colleges that are doing this and how they do it - like what their procedures are?

GRIGORIADIS: Well, all colleges have to be doing it. It's the rule. You've got to have a Title IX office, and the Title IX office has to take any claims of sexual assault or misconduct or groping or violent rape very seriously. And they have been since 2011, when Obama kind of laid down the law and said, I want all of you to pursue this. I want girls to have an equal access to education, and they can't if they're, you know, dealing with trauma from a sexual assault. And that's totally true and great.

Since then, as many people know, universities have had a hard time putting these courts together. Obama's guidance was good, but he almost didn't tell them enough about what they should do. You know, what do their courts look like? Who should sit on the court? He did say that he'd like everybody to use a standard of the preponderance of the evidence, so it's more likely than not that the act occurred. It's so hard to prove so many of these cases that I think a lower standard is appropriate here, although many attorneys do not agree with that.

GROSS: So what are these proceedings like? Do they bring people in who will support their point of view? Is there an investigation? How does it work?

GRIGORIADIS: You know, the No. 1 thing to understand is that across the country, all of these courts are different, and they're different according to whether the university wants to take this super seriously or not and if the university has the funds to take it seriously. So real investigations are happening for sure.

Now, universities don't have subpoena power. So whichever students are going to talk to them, they'll send a letter to the accused and say, you're being brought up on this. They'll, you know, say, OK, well, we're going to probably have our case in a couple of months, so get everything ready. And, you know, there's no real system to help the accused in a lot of cases, and the boys rarely call their parents.

GROSS: Right.

GRIGORIADIS: They're on their own. They're at school. They're afraid. They ask somebody's, you know, older brother, who sets them up with some attorney who may or may not have an idea of how to actually help this boy. Then there'll be some sort of proceeding. And you might have a fisheries professor who is the person who's going to judge your case, or you might have, actually, a former prosecutor. It's completely random who is going to decide your fate.

GROSS: Part of the reason why these college systems have developed to deal with charges of a sexual assault is because President Obama sent out, basically, a letter of guidance, right? It wasn't a law, but it was a letter of guidance about how colleges should go about trying to handle accusations of sexual assault. And this was built on Title IX. And so explain what Title IX is, which was passed as a small part of a larger piece of legislation and signed by President Nixon in 1972.

GRIGORIADIS: So Title IX is just a short law that nobody in a university should be discriminated against on the basis of gender. And I knew it in the '90s as a law that would protect women's sports, which, of course, it doesn't. And this argument about whether Title IX should cover sexual assault has been going on for many years.

GROSS: President Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is changing the guidelines for sexual assault on campus. And tell us about the changes that she's making or is on the verge of making.

GRIGORIADIS: Betsy DeVos has been very concerned about the due process in campus courts. She has also made it fairly clear that she is aligned with Trump in believing that this is a scarier time for boys. So she is quite concerned about the accused students and thinks that, you know, I mean, you just had - her deputy said it to The New York Times. You know, 90 percent of the cases that they're seeing involve just regretted sex.

So DeVos is concerned about due process, right? She's concerned about false accusations. She's also concerned that Obama imposed these mandates by fiat even though they were guidance. He really did have the Office for Civil Rights try to go to universities and say, open up your books; I want to see how you've been deciding these sexual assault cases, and I'm here now and this is serious. So she's really backed off of sending the OCR out.

But for the students, really, the most important thing is that she may change this definition of sexual assault, which had previously been something kind of vague about unwelcome contact. And, you know, various colleges had interpreted what sexual assault was on their own. And now she's interested in saying, OK, well, what would count? It needs to be something that is severe and pervasive enough to deprive a student of education. So what would happen if it was a one-off sexual assault, like Blasey Ford described? A pawing over clothes, a hand on a mouth, quote-unquote "nothing happened," even though here she is thinking about it years later.

GROSS: Well, she was afraid she'd be smothered to death.

GRIGORIADIS: She was afraid that she was going to be killed.

GROSS: Unintentionally. Unintentionally smothered to death.


GROSS: And she was prevented from leaving. So is Betsy DeVos trying to say Title IX, which mandates against gender discrimination on campus, needs to be applied to discrimination against men because so many men are being wrongfully accused? Is that her case?

GRIGORIADIS: That is exactly what she's saying. Yeah. She's interested in this idea of gender discrimination going both ways.

GROSS: So have her guidelines taken effect yet?

GRIGORIADIS: No. They haven't. They were leaked to The New York Times. There will be a notice-and-comment period. You know, we have to see also if she's going to put these out. These were a draft that The Times got their hands on.

GROSS: My guest is Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of the new book, "Blurred Lines: Sex, Power, And Consent On Campus." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of the new book, "Blurred Lines: Sex, Power, And Consent On Campus."

So let's talk about the definition of sexual assault and how that is maybe changing. What was the kind of common understanding of the definition of sexual assault in the three years you were talking to people on college campuses?

GRIGORIADIS: There was a huge shift in the definition of sexual assault from, like, 2014 to '17 while I was there, and I watched as it happened. Many students said to me that they weren't sure if groping counted as sexual assault. Maybe it had to be penetration. By the end of those three years, that idea was completely blown out of the water. And I even had students say to me, you know, sexual assault is maybe even the way you speak to people, the way you aggress on people in speech and make them feel, like, just dirty, like a sexual object. I mean, they were thinking through this idea, how far can we actually take this?

GROSS: So is there no commonly held understanding of what the definition of sexual assault is now?

GRIGORIADIS: I don't think that there's a national understanding of what the definition of sexual assault is. I think that people who are enlightened about this issue understand that it doesn't have to include penetration. But I think that part of why a good part of the country is in line with Trump on this issue is that we don't have a national definition.

GROSS: So you also say that the definition of consent is being redefined. And the slogan used to be no means no, but now it's yes means yes. What's the difference between no means no and yes means yes?

GRIGORIADIS: Well, there's a huge difference. Something like yes means yes is, OK, until you get some sort of yes, you don't really have permission to touch somebody. Now, a yes, you know, in the college definition could be verbal, or it could be - they like to call it acts unmistakable in their meaning, which I suppose means a moan or a groan or pulling off clothes, et cetera. And from looking at this and researching it, I didn't agree with this at the outset, but I came convinced that this is a really good standard for young people and perhaps for older people, as well. Certainly, anybody who's in a workplace who might have a crush on somebody else, you know, you've got to ask a question 'cause you could be misinterpreting signals. People do that all the time.

GROSS: So why were you resistant to this yes means yes standard, and why did you change your mind?

GRIGORIADIS: Well, I'm an adult. You know, I'm in my 40s. And I know that that's not the way sex usually happens. I mean, sex is something that is unspoken, that's kind of energy between people and more exciting, in some ways, when it's like that. You know, we see a lot of young people who are having sex with people that they met on dating apps. They barely know these people. That's part of the titillation, part of the charge.

But - and I'm not so doctrinaire that I think that you should have to say yes to each escalating base or sexual act, which is the way a lot of people think of yes means yes. I do think that a question is not that big a deal. In Gen X, we had the question, you know, should I get a condom? Which was always kind of a question about protection, but it was really a permission question. There really has to be an extra question.

GROSS: You write that the strongest argument for affirmative consent for yes means yes is that it frees girls from the cage of socialized politeness. What do you mean?

GRIGORIADIS: Well, one of the complexities of sexual assault is that girls don't always say no. They certainly don't say it that way - no, get away from me, I'm pushing you away. Right? They say, well, maybe another time, I don't think I want to do this tonight - until they end up giving up. You know, some of the most interesting work that's being done now in terms of trying to fix this problem is about girls understanding the signals from people who might intend them harm and removing themselves from the room before anything actually happens. Because people understand once they're in the room, it's really hard to get out.

GROSS: Well, you know, the thing about yes means yes is, a lot of people say, that's so awkward to kind of have these, like, rules, like, almost like a questionnaire. Like, I authorize you to, like, you know, take off my shirt, or whatever. But it's equally awkward, I think, for the woman to be in the place where the man is making all these advances and you have to say no, no, no. Stop. No. I really mean stop. No. Ok. I'll leave. No. It just puts all of the responsibility on her, and it makes it, like, really awkward. And it's not a shared awkwardness. It's, like, one person having the full burden of the awkwardness.

GRIGORIADIS: Exactly. So this is a little dorky. OK. But it definitely changes things. I mean, I went to a dance party - I like to go out and dance at night - recently. You know, guys try to come up and dance with you, and you try to get away. And this guy came up, and he was about to put his arm around me, and then he said, is it OK if I put my arm around you? And I said, no. (Laughter) You know? 'Cause I didn't want his arm around me. And he said, yeah, I get it. Consent. I totally get it. I understand. I'm glad I asked.

GROSS: Was that the first time that happened to you?

GRIGORIADIS: That was definitely the first time (laughter) that'd happened to me. I mean, yeah. I didn't think that that man intended me harm, but I didn't want his arm around me. I had no interest in him. I'm married. I was just there with my girlfriends having a good night and dancing. So I think that's a great thing to have that happen and to have young girls who truly, you know, are in nightclubs or at dance parties a lot, understand, like, this is my body. I own it. People have to ask permission to touch it.

GROSS: My guest is Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of "Blurred Lines: Sex, Power, And Consent On Campus." We'll talk more after a break. Ken Tucker will review an early recording by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, who brought a feminist perspective to bluegrass. And Justin Chang will review "First Man" starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Vanessa Grigoriadis, author of "Blurred Lines: Sex, Power, And Consent On Campus." Over the course of three years, she interviewed 120 students from 20 universities, spoke with nearly 80 administrators and experts, and read dozens of case reports. Grigoriadis is a contributing editor at The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair and has won a National Magazine Award. Part of her book is about the culture of fraternities and the frat parties that often lead to binge drinking.

One of the fraternities you write about in your book is Delta Kappa Epsilon, known as Deke, DKE, which is at Yale. George W. Bush was part of that fraternity, and so was Brett Kavanaugh. Why did you decide to look at Deke, and what did you learn about it in terms of the sexual environment?

GRIGORIADIS: Well, I think that Deke, at the time that Kavanaugh was there, was actually a pretty uncool thing to be part of. It was a repository of future power. And people like the ones you just described were in it, but nobody who wasn't in Deke cared about Deke. But over the years, since the '80s, frats have become very popular on American campuses. You know, millennials, they like to join things. Your social network is so important right now in terms of moving forward, getting a job. Being Deke from Yale, that could maybe really help you. You know, we're seeing students really join up with the Greek system. So the famous story with DKE is the story in the early 2010s, where a group of pledges were marching across campus and went to the Women's Center whereupon they chanted, no means yes, yes means anal.

And some of the students who were at Yale at the time really thought that this was the straw that broke the camel's back for them in terms of the way girls were being treated on the campus. And they ended up filing a Title IX complaint with the Office for Civil Rights about Yale and particularly DKE. And it was the first one that was filed during this kind of 2011 Obama time when Obama said, yes, students, tell us what's happening. We want to hear from you. What's going on on your campuses? So it was a very important part of that history.

GROSS: What are some of the ways colleges, college administrators are trying to deal with fraternities and with the binge drinking at fraternity parties?

GRIGORIADIS: There are some universities who have moved pledging either into January, or they've moved it to sophomore year entirely because they realize that, you know, having kids start to pledge in September when the sexual assault risk is the highest is just madness, right? Now you have kids pledging a frat. And who knows what kind of dares they're going to be told to take? And they're going to be getting wasted every night as they're hazed. I mean, this is just hideous. So I think there are some frats that are trying to bring in courses about sexual assault, trying to be more enlightened about it. I wrote...

GROSS: The fraternities are doing that.

GRIGORIADIS: ...Extensively - sure. There are some fraternities that are doing that. Yeah, definitely. I wrote extensively about Wesleyan, where I went to school, which is, you know, not exactly known as a frat haven. But there were a bunch of frats there. And while I was reporting the book, they - Wesleyan decided to shut all of those frats down.

GROSS: So, you know, I didn't know this till I read your book, but sororities are - by the Greek code or whatever it is - sororities aren't allowed to serve alcohol at their parties. Only fraternities can do that. And that's a kind of unequal status right there because it means that it's the men on campus who are going to control of the party atmosphere since people expect alcohol at parties.

GRIGORIADIS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, this is the key issue that universities have. Boys still really dominate the social scene on college campuses. Not only are 1 in 6 American boys who go to four-year colleges are in frats now, which is a population that's up by half in the last decade, guys get the kegs, right? Guys buy the drugs. You can't even have parties at sororities in America. That's the Panhellenic rule. So the guys get to have the parties at their houses. And they set the rules. And they set the costume theme. And the theme is always something like "Little Mermaid," for the girls to come really scantily clothed.

So I was just kind of shocked that the "Animal House" ethos, which we used to think was just a small sliver of the American college experience and almost a joke, has really spread out across America, where you can just do whatever you want to do. And then when it's over, it's all scrubbed. And it's just that crazy thing you did in college. Well, no, actually, because there's a lot of girls coming out of here with a lot of traumatic experiences.

GROSS: You know, some women are saying now what we really need to do in order to, like, stop or at least diminish the amount of sexual assault on campus is to stop rape culture. What is meant by that?

GRIGORIADIS: So rape culture is a term that really just tries to connect the dots between an American society that turns this blind eye to sexual assault and the true experience of girls, which is that they are experiencing a lot of sexual assault. So, you know, this rape culture is a culture where there are rape myths that a woman's outfit or her alcohol consumption has caused her rape. And nobody questions these attitudes that box in the victim.

Like, nobody says, it doesn't matter that you were dressed a certain way or it doesn't matter how much you drank. They say, well, victims are kind of weak. And they can lie. And maybe they're just crazy or maybe they're gold diggers. There's all these reasons why a woman would make up this story. Maybe she's just trying to lie so she doesn't get in trouble with her boyfriend, et cetera.

So what we really see about - among this young generation is this refusal to participate in that culture. And also, very differently than the '90s, when I was in college - back then, of course, we talked about sexual assault a lot in the early '90s during, you know, that PC era. But what we were taught is carry mace, go to a self-defense class, right? Protect yourself because boys will be boys. And the best you can do is make sure that you're safe on your own. Now these girls are saying, no. It's not our problem. It's your problem, right? And their signs will say things like, don't get raped, and then they'll cross out some of the words so it's, don't rape. No, it's boys who have to change. It's the institutions that have to change. This is about institutional accountability.

GROSS: Let's talk about the message that young men and women are getting from pop feminism. And I'll use Beyonce as an example here. I mean, she is a symbol of empowerment to so many women. And so many men and women just, I mean, adore her, understandably. At the same time, in so many of her concerts over the years, she's dressed in very sexualized clothing. And a lot of the clothing, it's - and this is true of a lot of women like pop stars and hip-hop stars. It's very sexualized and kind of designed to call attention to the most sexual areas of the body.

So, you know, you could see it one way, like it's a sign of my sexual empowerment, or you could see it another way, I'm offering myself to you as an object, as a sexual - as somebody - I want you to look at me sexually. I want you to see my power as being sexual power or at least partly sexual power. And I am inviting you to really focus your gaze on the most sexual parts of my body. And, again, you can see that as empowerment or you could see that as objectification. And I'm just wondering if you have any thoughts about that or if that's an issue that came up a lot when talking to young women on campuses.

GRIGORIADIS: Well, it's certainly not an issue that came up when I spoke with the young women because they completely believe it's empowering. But it's an issue that came up a lot for me because I found myself really torn between those two ideas. Is this empowering or is this denigrating? And, you know, being somebody who comes from second-wave feminism, I - my knee-jerk reaction is, like, you guys are calling this self-objectification. Isn't that just a ruse? Isn't that just some way you're justifying this kind of way that you're presenting yourself?

But after speaking to so many of these students, I truly changed my mind about that because I realized, like, this is how they grew up. You know, these kids that I interviewed in college just graduating now, you know, Britney Spears was like - they were just tiny when Britney Spears was out. The culture has been so saturated with sex the entire time that they've been growing up. They've been growing up around pornography, around fashion and that is much, much scantier than anything that I grew up with.

So they don't have the same ideas about, oh, if I dress this way, it makes me look like a slut because this is the way people dress now. There's such a casual way. And you're right. In a lot of concerts of Beyonce or Katy Perry, Rhianna, you know, it's crossing a line away from scanty to something extremely sexual. But this is what they believe is empowering to them. Now, we have all sorts of data also saying that they have a huge amount of nervousness about it. And they feel anxious and depressed if guys don't like their social media posts, et cetera. So there's a flip side to that. But they were adamant with me that this was only to the good that they were presenting themselves.

GROSS: So you write in your book, we're in the process of developing new power dynamics in the bedroom, an area where feminism has previously not been able to reach. So just explain what you mean by that.

GRIGORIADIS: Well, I think this raising of demons that has been going on through the #MeToo era is allowing women not only to say, these are the things that happened to me in the past that I might call sexual assault or I might just call things I was extremely uncomfortable with, and now going into the future, I want to be treated differently in the bedroom. I want to be asked what I want. I want to be able to say no tonight and have that actually be heard. I think that behavior always kind of lags behind attitude shift. We're definitely in the attitude shift now. But I truly believe that that kind of most private act is beginning to shift.

GROSS: Vanessa Grigoriadis, thank you so much for talking with us.

GRIGORIADIS: Thank you so much, Terry.

GROSS: Vanessa Grigoriadis is the author of "Blurred Lines: Sex, Power And Consent On Campus" (ph). After a break, Ken Tucker will review a new album by Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard, who brought a feminist perspective to bluegrass. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard each had a successful folk music career before they started recording together the country and bluegrass music they loved. Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Naomi Judd have all cited Dickens and Gerrard as inspirational performers. And now we can hear the birth of their musical partnership on "Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969." Rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.


HAZEL DICKENS AND ALICE GERRARD: (Singing) Are you all alone with a memory? Now that I am gone, darling, are you missing me?

ALICE GERRARD: (Singing) The day that I kissed you and told you goodbye, your lips told me that you would wait. But your lips deceived me and told me a lie while your heart was sealing my fate.

DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) Are you all...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Alice Gerrard's voice lifts and rises from the bottomless despair of "Are You All Alone." And Hazel Dickens' vocal joins her in the chorus to affirm a unity through loneliness. The song was written and recorded by the Louvin Brothers in the 1950s. Unlike Charlie and Ira Louvin, connected by blood, Dickens and Gerrard were a bit of an odd couple.

Dickens, raised poor in the coal mining territory of West Virginia, and Gerrard, a classically trained singer approaching music from a rather more academic angle, were separated by a decade in age when they began running into each other in the lively folk scenes of Baltimore and Washington, D.C., in the '60s. They found that their voices meshed well and that they shared an eclectic approach to the music that they enjoyed singing.


DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) Bye bye, love. Bye bye, happiness. Hello, loneliness. I think I'm going to cry. Bye bye, love. Bye bye, sweet caress. Hello, emptiness. I feel like I could die. Bye bye, my love, goodbye.

TUCKER: That's "Bye Bye Love," a big pop hit for The Everly Brothers in 1957. It suggests the range of music to be found in "Sing Me Back Home: The DC Tapes, 1965-1969," previously unreleased recordings of Dickens and Gerrard, the two of them sitting in a studio, working out the harmonies and playing, at various times, guitar, autoharp and banjo.


DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) I got a bale of flour, Lord, I got a bucket of lard. I got a bale of flour, Lord, I got a bucket of lard. I ain't got no blues, got chickens in my back yard. Got corn in my crib...

TUCKER: That's "No Hard Times," written by Jimmie Rodgers, frequently called the father of country music. It's a song Gerrard refers to as being re-genderized by her and Dickens. Both were highly aware of being women making music in a predominantly male music scene, and their close study of the songs they admired also required that they think about what it meant to interpret first-person male points of view. In a 1987 FRESH AIR interview with Dickens, who died in 2011, she told Terry that she was, quote, "the only woman writing songs for women to sing that she was aware of." One of the high points of this album is their interpretation of a song written by another musical feminist, Dolly Parton, on "In The Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)."


DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) We'd get up before sun-up to get the work done up. We'd work in the fields till the sun had gone down. We've stood and we've cried as we helplessly watched a hailstorm beating our crops to the ground. We've gone to bed hungry many nights in the past in the good old days, when times were bad.

TUCKER: One of the accomplishments of the music here is the way Dickens and Gerrard appropriated the tradition of duo singing - until this point, primarily the province of brother acts like The Louvin Brothers, The Stanley Brothers, Jim & Jesse and Bill and Charley Monroe. Listen to the title song, Merle Haggard's then-current hit, "Sing Me Back Home." Here, Dickens and Gerrard's voices achieve a thrillingly piercing harmony that echoes Gerrard's autoharp.


DICKENS AND GERRARD: (Singing) I recall last Sunday morning when a choir from off the street came in to sing a few old gospel songs. And I heard him tell the singers, there's a song my momma sang. Won't you sing it once before you move along? Won't you sing me back home?

TUCKER: In their more formal, commercially released albums issued in the 1970s, Dickens and Gerrard were backed by traditional bluegrass units. On "The DC Tapes," you hear them unvarnished, or as Gerrard describes it - unplugged, unproduced, unaccompanied except by ourselves, warts and all, wailing our hearts out.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic-at-large for Yahoo TV. After we take a short break, film critic Justin Chang will review "First Man" starring Ryan Gosling as astronaut Neil Armstrong. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. The new movie "First Man" dramatizes the long buildup to the Apollo 11 moon landing from the perspective of Neil Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling. The ensemble cast also includes Claire Foy, Jason Clarke and Kyle Chandler. It's the latest picture from Damien Chazelle, who won an Oscar two years ago for directing the musical "La La Land." Film critic Justin Chang has this review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: "First Man" might be one of the noisiest, clunkiest, most inelegant movies about space travel ever made, and I mean that in a good way. The film, adapted from James R. Hansen's biography of Neil Armstrong, returns us to a time when NASA technology was in its early stages. We first meet Armstrong, played by Ryan Gosling, as a test pilot in 1961 flying a small fighter jet over Southern California at an altitude of around 140,000 feet. The director, Damien Chazelle, doesn't give us anything so beautiful as an exterior shot of the plane soaring through the sky. He locks us inside the cockpit. The engine noise is deafening. The image is blurry and disorienting.

The tense close-ups of Armstrong's eyes and the rattling motions of the aircraft remind you of the irrationality of human flight, the sheer violence of defying the laws of physics. You learn a lot about Armstrong in this scene alone. He doesn't say much, and he's very, very good at his job. Even back on terra firma, the camera has a lingering case of the jitters. There's a hand-held roughness to the scenes of Neil at home with his wife, Janet, played by an excellent Claire Foy, and their children. Tragedy strikes early on. The Armstrongs lose their 2-year-old daughter, Karen, to cancer. Neil is devastated and throws himself into his work. Seeking a fresh start, he moves the family to Houston and enters NASA's Gemini astronaut training program.

Although gorgeously scored by Chazelle's longtime composer, Justin Hurwitz, "First Man" looks and sounds nothing like their musicals, "Whiplash" and "La La Land." But it has the same outsized ambition. The movie captures the flux and upheaval of the '60s, when NASA found itself caught between the pressures of the Cold War, with its mandate to beat the Russians by any means, and the resistance of a public unhappy with the program, which cost millions of taxpayer dollars and several astronauts' lives.

Against this tumultuous backdrop, Chazelle and his screenwriter, Josh Singer, set themselves the tricky task of dramatizing the inner life of an American hero known for his lack of flash or pretension. In one scene, Neil is interviewed by a NASA panel, and he responds to even a probing personal question in a stoic, professional way.


RYAN GOSLING: (As Neil Armstrong) I don't know what space exploration will uncover, but I don't think it'll exploration just for the sake of exploration. I think it'll be more of the fact that it allows us to see things that maybe we should have seen in a long time ago but just haven't been able to until now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Does anyone have anything else?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Yeah. Yeah. I was sorry to hear about your daughter.

GOSLING: I'm sorry. Is there a question?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) What I mean is, do you think it will have an effect?

GOSLING: (As Neil Armstrong) I think it would be unreasonable to assume that it wouldn't have some effect.

CHANG: Given how carefully Armstrong guarded his privacy, before and especially after the moon landing, there's something a bit invasive about the way "First Man" keeps returning to Karen's death, linking family tragedy and professional triumph. But for the most part, Chazelle and Gosling respect Armstrong's reticence, his unwillingness to speak unless absolutely necessary. His home life predictably suffers as he becomes emotionally withdrawn from Janet and their two sons. But he develops a balance of warm camaraderie and unspoken rivalry with his fellow pilots, played by actors including Jason Clarke, Patrick Fugit, Ethan Embry and Christopher Abbott. Corey Stoll gives an amusingly loudmouth performance as Buzz Aldrin, with whom Neil will share his history-making Apollo 11 moment.

There were points in "First Man" when the disjointedness of the filmmaking drove me to distraction - the leaps forward in time, the twitchy close-ups, the stubborn refusal to let us get our bearings. But after a while, those surface ruptures begin to make dramatic and psychological sense. You come to understand what it must have been like to be Armstrong, thrown from one hurdle to the next, navigating endless chaos, losing friends and colleagues, plotting a course to the moon driven by little more than wild flights of risk and instinct.

Finally, July 1969 arrives, and Chazelle stages the moon landing with a stillness and sublimity that feels like both an antidote and an answer to all the preceding chaos. It's a sequence of hushed and otherworldly grandeur that demands to be seen in IMAX if possible. For several minutes, we really do seem to have left Planet Earth behind, transported to a landscape of dust, desolation and wonder.

Some dust was stirred up shortly after "First Man" premiered at the Venice Film Festival, where journalists noted that the movie didn't show the U.S. flag being planted on the moon's surface, a fact that quickly drew ire from conservative politicians. In fact, Chazelle does show the flag after it's been planted. He just doesn't treat the planting itself as a culmination point. He takes the moon landing, an achievement that might have been played for easy triumph, and turns it into one man's solemn personal reckoning, with all the sorrows, failures, sacrifices and convictions that have brought him to this extraordinary moment. We may not truly know Neil Armstrong by movie's end, but we know that his one small step contained multitudes.

GROSS: Justin Chang is a film critic for The LA Times. If you want to hear the interview we broadcast yesterday with the director and "First Man," Damien Chazelle, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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