Once upon a time, in a faraway place called Philadelphia, a pre-teen named Joan Larkin asked her parents for a guitar for Christmas. Her parents obliged, and at 13, she had her guitar. And so Joan gave up horseback riding, moved to Los Angeles, and got famous.
Joan Jett, now a bona fide rock star, tells the story a little differently. "When I was 11 or 12 I finally got the balls to say 'Mom, Dad, I want a guitar for Christmas and I don't want no folk guitar,'" she told an interviewer. "I was always aggressive, determined as a child, something of a tomboy, I loved sports, was very athletic. Me wanting a guitar didn't come as a shock to my parents. I mean, I wanted to be the first girl on the moon, the first female major league baseball player. There was something about being the first that motivated me. Besides, if my parents hadn't got me a guitar I probably would have run away." (Source)
Instead of running away in the literal sense, Joan Jett started the rock group the Runaways in 1975 at age 14. It wasn't too long before she was touring the world with her all-girl group, a rebellious crew that fought an uphill battle as teenage girls in a world of intense competition and heavy drug and alcohol use. Cherie Currie, the band's lead singer, has only recently come out with stories detailing the sexual harassment and victimization experienced by the girls on the road. The 2010 film The Runaways also shows some of what they went through, but, according to Currie, leaves out some of the harsher facts (such as sexual harassment by the band's manager, and an incident of rape in Currie's early teens).
Being a group of young girls meant that the Runaways weren't always taken seriously. A lot of people hated the idea of girls with guitars, and there was pressure on the group to play up their sex appeal. Many people tried to take advantage of the Runaways, and the band's relationship with manager Kim Fowley ended in distrust and anger. "We fought so hard and we went through hell" (source), Currie says.
The Runaways fell apart in 1979, after releasing six albums in four years. All the members continued on to careers in show business, and it was Joan Jett who found the greatest fame. She began to pursue a solo career, staying in the UK to hang out and record with the likes of Sex Pistols' members Steve Jones and Paul Cook and immerse herself in the punk scene. They recorded a version of a song called "I Love Rock N' Roll," written by a couple guys from the band Arrows. When Jett returned to the states, she intentionally sought out male musicians to back her.
"I wanted to continue to play music but I didn't want to form another all-girl band. It's hard being a girl in music, so I figured I'd even up my chances," Jett frankly states. (Source) Unfair though the situation was, her instincts were good. At first, no one would sign Joan Jett and the Blackhearts—so she and her good friend Kenny Laguna started their own record label, Blackheart Records, and printed up Jett's first solo album on their own. It was the group's second album, I Love Rock N' Roll, picked up by Boardwalk Records, that broke through into the Billboard charts and gave Jett her first big hit, "I Love Rock N' Roll."
Jett once described this as her happiest moment:
That was when 'I Love Rock N' Roll' broke through. You always have people who don't like you, but then, it was at its peak. That was right after the Runaways. With the Runaways I could deal with it because there were four girls in the band who had to handle it and we could comfort each other. It just really got intense when 'I Love Rock N' Roll' was happening because people didn't think much about the Blackhearts. We thought a lot about ourselves and we went out on the road and we established our own crowd. We were real proud of that. When 'I Love Rock N' Roll' broke through it was the ultimate f--k you. I was really able to smile and feel that it was happening. (Source)
Jett was tired of being hated and underestimated, and "I Love Rock N' Roll" was a breakthrough in terms of commercial success, but also in terms of personal vindication. Her commercial success with the Blackhearts also meant that she was finally being taken seriously as a musician.
"I Love Rock N' Roll" was originally a hard-rocking, aggressively flirtatious song about picking up a girl at a bar, playing lots of rock music on the jukebox, and going home together.
In her band's cover of the song, Jett took the roles and reversed them, putting herself in the position of the admiring protagonist and putting an innocent boy by the record machine, waiting to be flirted with. Which brings us to the nagging question about Jett's big rock and roll breakthrough: Did the mores of the rock world require Jett to imitate male rockers—with a male backing band—in order to succeed?
We can find part of the answer in how people talk about Jett. For example, The New York Times once wrote that in the 1980s, Jett was "the perfect embodiment of rock's primal qualities. She was young, cocky, sexy, rebellious and knew how to rock a pair of leather pants. [...] She proclaimed 'I Love Rock N' Roll' with the casual sense of entitlement of a male legend." (Source)
In other words, it was her embodiment of the male ideal of rock and roll that drove her great success.
Maybe it seems a little silly or essentialist to talk about a "male ideal" of rock and roll. After all, isn't the whole idea to open up the rock world so that it's not all about "girl rock" versus "boy rock"? Well, yes and no. The thing is, the Runaways broke into the music world at a time when an all-girl rock band, a band where girls played the instruments (instead of singing along to a male backing band), was virtually unheard of.
And even for the Runaways, all their idols were men. They admired David Bowie, Kiss, Queen, and Led Zeppelin (Joan was the exception, idolizing female rocker Suzi Quatro from an early age). Rock and roll had always had a sort of macho element to it, with singers like Elvis and Chuck Berry providing an early blueprint for cocky rock machismo.
Through the 1970s, feminists in the women's movement had worked hard to make space for women in male-dominated fields ranging from politics to the medical profession to rock and roll. The argument was that there was no biological reason why women couldn't do all the same things men could do, and that if women were blocked from certain fields it was because of sexism or socialization.
Logical though it may seem, there was a downside to this approach to social change. It turned out that as women were permitted to enter different male-dominated fields, they found that they had to imitate men's attitudes and approaches in order to succeed. In other words, even though women were eventually "allowed," they had to struggle much harder for the sort of status men had.
The loophole in the argument that women could be "the same" as men was that if they showed any vulnerability or stereotypical "femininity," their status might go down. The 1980s were a particularly harsh time, when women began to realize that after all that progress, a lot of things had stayed the same. There was an invisible glass ceiling preventing women from moving ahead in lots of fields, and sexual harassment and sexual assault were still imminent threats. The movement had changed laws, but not necessarily attitudes.
Nowhere was this more true than in the world of rock, where it was often assumed that girls couldn't even tune a guitar or plug in an amp. The Runaways state openly that they constantly had to prove themselves as girl rockers. Even when they proved their musical abilities over and over, they were still a "girl group," still expected to be "cute" and still sexualized by audiences and even by their own manager. In this sort of an environment, it's completely understandable why Joan Jett adopted the sort of tough, confident, even macho stance so evident in "I Love Rock N' Roll." It was a way to stand up to all the sexism, and it was also a way to get beyond it.
Is it fair that Jett had all these pressures on her, or that she felt she needed a male backing band to succeed? We're thinking the answer is no. But is it understandable why Jett would approach it this way, especially when she seems to have the personality and "the balls" (her words) to play the role of the cockiest female rock lead in history? We're thinking yes. And without a doubt, the legacy she left was huge.
"Ms. Jett seemed revolutionary in the 1980s because she acted as if being a (rare) female guitar virtuoso was no big deal" (source), said The New York Times in 2006, admiring Jett's gusto as an aging rocker still touring and writing music. This performance of confidence was key, and "I Love Rock N' Roll" was the song that broke through, that brought Jett the rock star status she'd dreamed of as a kid.
And what about the whole "women in rock" issue in the years since "I Love Rock N' Roll"? Jett was in one of the first all-girl rock bands, and she was one of the first women to start her own record label. It wasn't until the era of Riot Grrrl in the 1990s that dozens of others followed suit. Jett herself ended up admiring and working with bands like Bikini Kill, L7, and the Gits (whose lead singer, Mia Zapata, was raped and murdered in 1993, a tragedy that further galvanized feminist activists).
Ani DiFranco emerged as a sensation by starting her own record label and becoming world famous on her own promotion and under her own control. Salt-N-Pepa became the first all-girl hip-hop group to make it big, and the ideas of "girl power" and "revolution girl style" spread to all kinds of people. These new movements in girl-driven music said that women didn't have to imitate men in order to succeed in rock or hip-hop. At the same time, women didn't have to be sex objects or live up to expectations of femininity (Salt-N-Pepa, for example, were criticized for wearing baggy pants). And, like Joan Jett with Blackheart Records, they could be in control of their own careers.
Which brings us to Britney Spears. The teen star du jour for the end of the millennium, her early career was marked by teen celebrity clichés like overnight fame, controversial magazine covers, record-breaking hit singles ("…Baby One More Time" is the fastest-selling single ever by a female artist), and a past career as a Disney Mouseketeer. She is now one of the most successful female musicians in history.
Her popularity seemed to indicate that the archetype for female stardom at the end of the millennium was still more Britney, less Joan: a girl who sings, not a girl who rocks.
Spears' career largely seems to represent the ways that the roles of women in music have not changed over the decades. She was both idealized as a beautiful, talented teen and bashed for being too young, too sexy, or lacking in talent. Britney-bashing became as much a sport as Britney-idolizing. And when she decided to get a little rock and roll by covering "I Love Rock N' Roll" in 2002, she was promptly honored with a barrage of criticism. A critic at AOL Radio quipped that she was "doing her best to single-handedly set the women-in-rock movement back 20 years" (source). Joan Jett wasn't amused, either, saying, "I mean, people usually cover a song that says something about them, but I doubt she loves rock and roll. Maybe she likes songs." (Source)
We'll let you decide for yourself whether the Britney cover deserves so much criticism (it did go gold in Australia and chart in several European countries)—we're more interested in the questions it raises.
Is Spears playing ironically and knowledgeably on the troubled history of sexism in rock and roll by coyly covering the song? Or is she taking on a legacy that's not really hers, Joan Jett's legacy of independent young women making their way in a man's world? Is Britney helping to set the clock back on women's progress in the music world, or just riding a tide that already existed—and maybe throwing in some ironic critique of her own?
These aren't trick questions, and they don't necessarily have easy answers.
What we do know is that Joan Jett, in her own words, "did something extremely important for rock and roll" (source) by rocking out as hard as she did, as a woman, in the early 1980s and actually being successful. The jury is still out on whether rock and roll has been able to live up to her fierce tradition.