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Gender in History of Rock & Roll

"Move Over": The First Women of Rock

Until the 1980s few women claimed the rock and roll stage and only a handful recorded memorable albums. Janis Joplin, perhaps still the reigning queen of rock, had one of the most exciting—and most tragic—careers in rock. As the raspy-toned lead singer for Big Brother and The Holding Company, and later as a solo artist, Joplin delivered legendary rock classics such as "Piece of My Heart," "Try (Just a Little Bit Harder)," "Move Over," and "Summertime."

Grace Slick, a singer-songwriter and classically trained musician, helped launch the band Jefferson Airplane to commercial success with such hits as "Somebody To Love" and "White Rabbit." With Slick's good looks and dynamic stage presence, the band earned international exposure and, by 1967, had become one of the highest-paid rock groups in America.

In the 1970s, vocalist and songwriter Stevie Nicks gave the group Fleetwood Mac its signature sound, transforming it from an average band to one of the biggest selling rock groups in history.

But few other women left their mark in the 1960s and 1970s, during the early, formative years of rock's development. Does the history of rock, then, really depend on female contributions? Would the story of rock and roll look so different had women rockers, like Joplin, Slick, and Nicks, never graced the stage, or female rock musicians never picked up an instrument? Does a musical phenomenon recognized by its fans as brash, ballsy, and masculine have a prominent place for women—for both the rough and the softer sides?

"Rock 'N' Roll Is Hard Work"

The answers to these questions aren't as simple as they might seem. In fact it's difficult to determine just how crucial women have been in the development of rock and roll, and it's certainly impossible to know what the music would sound—and look—like had women never become involved as either singers, songwriters, musicians, or fans. Women, of course, have filled all these roles and asserted themselves in various and complex ways in rock and roll culture. All along the way they have negotiated obstacles, such as sexual aggression, exploitation, unfair pay, condescension, and exclusion. And they've also risen to the many challenges facing any performing musician, fighting to win over bandmates, audiences, and critics. "Rock 'n' roll is hard work," punk-rock singer Patti Smith explained in an interview in 1977, "it's harder than being in the army. And your guitar is your machine gun; tour instruments are your implements of battle."

"Who's Got The Biggest Balls?"

Many of the earliest women to pursue a rock career did engage in a sort of war, sometimes against skeptics or other rock artists, often against society and cultural norms, and at times, they engaged in a war with themselves. Janis Joplin, the first white female rock star, fought each of these battles, and didn't always win.

"Who's got the biggest balls?" Joplin asked her band who were discussing who should drive their car from the recording studio. "I do," she answered. That was her way: to beat the boys at their own game, to be the toughest, the boldest, the cuss the loudest, drink and smoke the most, love the meanest, and, most importantly, to rock the hardest. She threw herself into drug and alcohol binges, chaotic relationships, and incredibly explosive stage performances. And somewhere along the way, her friends say, she lost her sense of herself, and that's where it all ended for the goddess of the counter-culture. On 4 October 4 1970, Janis Joplin was discovered in her room in the Landmark Motor Hotel in Hollywood, dead of a heroin overdose. "Sexism killed [Janis]," Joplin's one-time lover Country Joe McDonald said of her end. "People kept saying that she was just 'one of the guys.'" That was a mistake, he said, "'cause that was f-----' her head around... she was one of the women."


Grace Slick also struggled to define herself in the 1960s, a period she called the "sensual revolution." A middle-class, college-educated model from Chicago, Slick transformed herself in San Francisco's world of sex, drugs, and psychedelic rock. But unlike Joplin, who often felt crushed by her chaotic lifestyle, Slick was along for the ride, and she was unwilling to let anything or anyone ruin her fun. "It wasn't like peace and love kinda stuff," Slick remembered, "it was, Let's make music and screw around instead of making war. To a certain extent it was pretty arrogant and it was also the hedonism thing that said, If you get in the way of my fun, f--- you."

Jefferson Airplane's first album featuring Slick, entitled Surrealistic Pillow, hit the charts in 1967 and made the band a "Summer of Love" sensation. By the mid 1970s, however, Slick had left the band for another group, Jefferson Starship. She and Starship managed to rack up several Top Ten hits in the 1980s, most notably "Sara" and "We Built This City (On Rock 'N' Roll)" (which, incidently, would become a karaoke favorite and, for many rock fans, the bane of their existence). Slick managed to survive what Joplin had found to be the physically and psychologically destructiveness of rebellion, sexual experimentation, and drug abuse. She also managed to maintain a sense of herself as a woman without allowing that to destroy her. She was one of the lucky ones.

Familiar Boundaries

Women, especially in the first decades of rock's development, were pressured to stay "in their place" much the way post-World War II middle-class housewives were confined to traditional roles in the home. That's quite odd for a music culture that emerged as a reaction to the rigid boundaries of the 1950s! "Despite its radical beginnings," writer Lucy O'Brien comments, "the codes of mainstream rock are maybe too conservative, too rigorously male-defined for a woman to find a comfortable place."

Paying Dues and Breaking Through

The fact is rock and roll has never been an exclusively male venture. In the beginning it may have seemed that way, but with each decade more women, inspired by those who rocked early and often, such as Janis Joplin, Tina Turner, Patti Smith, Grace Slick, Joan Jett, and Stevie Nicks, took up the pen, or the mic, the guitar, or the drumsticks, and little by little rock and roll gained its feminine perspective. "I'm glad there's a lot of babes doing this s---," Chrissie Hynde, lead singer of the Pretenders, told Rolling Stone magazine in 1994, "because it's kind of lonely out there." Throughout the end of the twentieth century, rock—like the blues and jazz before it, and hip-hop and reggae/dancehall after it—remained a male-dominated genre of music, but women emerged as an undeniable and powerful force in the studio and on the stage.

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