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book review

Denise Donlon writes in her memoir, Fearless As Possible, that the ‘entertainment business is rife with power-hungry arrogance.’Lisa MacIntosh

In 1985, Denise Donlon took a job at the then newly launched MuchMusic. Her childhood lisp having been alleviated through speech therapy, Donlon was hired to host RockFlash, the station's live, hourly music-news segment. (Its previous host, Jeanne Beker, had departed to start Fashion Television.)

With the exception of helming a college radio show at the University of Waterloo, Donlon's previous music-business experience had been behind the scenes – talent buying, artist management and publicity. MuchMusic's early days were extemporaneous and chaotic. In Donlon's new memoir, Fearless As Possible (Under the Circumstances), she describes them as "bedlam." Already insecure about her height (6 foot 1 – that this would become the name of a self-worth-reclaiming Liz Phair song eight years later is not lost on me), and her age (29, "ancient by audience standards"), Donlon was anxious, trying to learn fast. Magical thinking marshalled her through.

"At the end of the first week, in the middle of that chaotic landscape, I was struck by a tiny, transcendental flash that I would one day be totally fine, and in control," Donlon writes. "I don't recall any hubris or ambition, or even what it meant, exactly. It didn't hit me like a bolt of lightning; it was more like a slow-motion surge … and then it whooshed away like a receding wave and left me a little stunned."

Shortly thereafter, Donlon became producer and host of The NewMusic. In 1992, she was appointed MuchMusic's director of programming. Eventually, she became vice-president. In 2000, she was summoned to become president of Sony Music Canada. Such a storied career has provided Donlon more than enough lore and wisdom to fill this 500-page memoir. Unfortunately, for the inquisitive, she stays vague regarding salacious tour gossip and riveting corporate turmoil – "… what happens on the road stays on the road." The stories she does share are entertaining, if a little sterilized. On tour with Whitesnake in 1984 (her client, Canadian rock band Headpins, were the opening act), Donlon refused to wear the all-access pass because it depicted a woman's glossy, wet mouth. She interviewed Stevie Wonder on an hour's notice, played pool with Keith Richards, smoked with Joni Mitchell in the backyard, took Iron Maiden's Bruce Dickinson to the Ontario Science Centre to interview him while his long hair stood up in the Van de Graaff generator, enduring an electric shock in the process. It was Donlon who decided the MuchMusic Video Awards categories should go gender-neutral in 1997. Like the careers she has bolstered, the list of celebrities she's worked with goes on and on.

Whether or not on purpose, Fearless As Possible suggests that much of Donlon's job description over the years has included the de-escalating of men who've gotten in her way. The process of having to prove herself – to executives, bouncers at clubs, interview subjects, co-workers – doesn't cease. It's a loop.

"Provocation is a particular tactic of Moses'," she writes of long-time colleague Moses Znaimer. "He's adept at positioning the precise question that might rattle your chain so he can find out what you're made of, if you're worthy of his time." It is in these decades-old memories that readers may pause and wonder how far we've actually come. When Donlon was booking talent at UW, the school's Federation of Students president wanted her to bring a band called the Battered Wives to campus. Today's entertainment industry remains just as brazen about trivializing abuse.

"The entertainment business is rife with power-hungry arrogance," Donlon writes. "I've known bullies in the form of record company presidents, artist managers, tour managers and broadcasters. Yellers and screamers and blowhards. But the words don't have to be loud to be hurtful. There's a more insidious approach that can be equally oppressive: delivered in a whisper, intended to make you feel stupid and humiliated. I learned resilience."

In 2008, Donlon became head of CBC English Radio. It feels almost entitled to anticipate a mention of Jian Ghomeshi, although not unreasonable given the timeline. Finally, toward the end of the book, Donlon discusses Ghomeshi head-on. She writes that she had no idea, and maintains that she'd never heard any complaints about his behaviour at work. This deliberately exonerating claim of not knowing feels out of step in an otherwise compassionate account. Donlon's self-interrogation includes the story of her own sexual assault, suffered at 14.

Donlon's passion is fierce, but there are moments when the magic wanes. "Learning to be your best leader self can be confusing when there are so few women role models to emulate," she writes. Earlier, she acknowledges the futility of interviews, despite having begun a career on them. "An interview is a manufactured construct. It's artifice, really …" She laments that The NewMusic tapes are not archived in a broadcast museum, echoing a familiar sense of professional erasure that many women, no matter how powerful, can identify with.

As can be the case when sincerely passionate people rise through the ranks and go corporate, there is mediation at work in this book. Donlon's scrappy anti-establishment roots and modest upbringing seem at odds with her eventual relocation to the core of the media elite. She bemoans that the music business is "commercial and inherently anti-art" and criticizes excessive wealth. But she is a member of the Order of Canada and produced, alongside the Walrus Foundation's Shelley Ambrose, a 2006 Clinton Global Initiative charity event attended by the megarich. (The book contains a chummy photo of Donlon and Ambrose with Bill Clinton.)

This discord is at the heart of a long-ago kerfuffle between Donlon and Leonard Cohen, over the track listing of a greatest-hits compilation. Cohen didn't want to include So Long, Marianne, but Donlon, citing pressure from her own superiors, insisted. (According to Donlon, Cohen said the song "was never as good in reality as it was in memory.") She told him gently that she did not require his permission to include the song. "Denise, if you insist on this course, if you insist on going against my wishes and including this song when I have asked you not to, then go ahead," he told her. "But you need to know that you will forever hold a much smaller place in my heart." It crushed her. The next day, Cohen wrote her an e-mail to atone: "These are all very tiny matters and have no weight at all in the butcher shop we call the world. All that matters here is the heart. So let's keep ours open. Your old friend, Leonard."

Donlon seems to have heeded this advice. Of her eventual dismissal from the CBC, she writes: "It took a while to shake off my anger. I dragged my hurt around like Jacob Marley's chains for way longer than I should have. But I learned to focus instead on gratitude."

Carly Lewis lives in Toronto.