By Beth Brown
Why Joan Jett proves that rock isn’t just for men
Often described as the ‘Original Riot Grrrl’, Joan Jett paved the way for the feminist ‘Riot Grrrl’ movement to emerge in the 90s and produce some of the most memorable female- fronted grunge-punk bands such as Bikini Kill, and Babes In Toyland. Her iconic grunge look and ‘F*ck the world, feminist attitude’ is what makes Jett so memorable, it also doesn’t hurt that she’s famous for her cover of The Arrows’ I Love Rock.
Flashback to Los Angeles, 1975 to the popular clubs on the Sunset Strip; the Whiskey A Go Go, and Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco. In the misty, smoke-filled clubs amongst the Bowie wannabees and 70s go-go girls; you’d find 15-year-old Joan Jett, and notorious record producer Kim Fowley (Thompson, 2011). Together, they would change the future of Rock and Roll by creating one of the first all-female bands The Runaways. (Thompson, 2011)
Fronted by the blond -Bowie fanatic Cherie Currie, and sporting the names of future stars such as Joan Jett (rhythm guitar), Lita Ford (lead guitar) and Sandy West (drummer). The Runaways gained attention in a world where Suzi Quatro was the only other female worth giving any thought too (Thompson, 2011). Not all of the attention was positive; in fact much of it was not, they were often branded as ‘Jokes’ and “the best parade of jailbait you could find” (Ron Asheton in Thompson 2011: 41). Despite the negativity, they continued to prosper and even opened for bands like The Ramones, and Cheap Trick. (Currie, 2010)
Whilst the success of The Runaways didn’t amount to as much as they had hoped at the time, although their legacy would be realized at a much later date; “they were still one of the most popular bands on the sunset strip. Because they were all teenage girls.” (Cogan, 2008: 281)However, the novelty of a teenage girl rock band soon wore off, and they didn’t last as long as any of them had hoped or expected. Yet the Rock and Roll bug had bitten Joan Jett square on the ass, and she wasn’t about to give up her dreams of being a Rock and Roll star.
Leaving the dreams of fronting a world famous all-girl rock band, Joan Jett went off in search of something else. She formed Joan Jett and the Blackhearts and proceeded to conquer the Rock and Roll world with her explicit lyrics and sexual provocativeness on stage. She got the ball rolling for the ‘Riot Grrrl’ movement, the 90s feminist music ‘agenda’. The rolling ball, so to speak, began with The Runaways who were playing venues like CBGB by 1977. Their dominating ‘sexual stage presence’ and ‘rebel-girl anthems’ like Cherry Bomb lay the foundations for young girls everywhere to grab their guitars and create the new generation of Riot Grrrl’s (Coogan, 2008). And withy lyrics like ‘Have you, grab you ‘til you’re sore’ who can blame the younger fans of the band for grasping Rock and Roll music and making it their own by adding their own ‘agenda’ and image to the genre.
Throughout the 80s and 90s, Jett’s music reached millions of fans. Her music, published on her own record label, reached millions. Her publicity and preaching that ‘rock wasn’t just for boys’ didn’t stop there. After the brutal rape and murder of Seattle punk band The Gits singer Mia Zapata, Jett collaborated with the remaining members of the band to create the song Go Home. They played a series of shows all along the west coast in order to raise money to keep Zapata’s case open. Joan preached the importance of safety to women, and good self-defense knowledge. The death of Mia Zapata brought the Riot Grrrl movement into the spotlight. It is described as the starting point to ‘third wave’ feminist movement and often focuses on combining music with the non-music themes of rape, sexual abuse and other violence against women, as well as sexual power and sexuality. These references can be found in many of Jett’s songs such as ‘Fetish’ as well as in her covers of ‘Do You wanna touch?’ and ‘I Wanna Be Your Dog’ which emanate the sexual power of the singer. (Fere-Jones, 2012)
Joan Jett’s tough, rocker ensemble is really what emanated the ‘its not about the boys’ vibe. Leather jacket, dark hair and heavy makeup have been the staple look of Jett since the 70s (Oldham, 2010). And whilst she has experimented with her hair and looks, she has always returned back to these key features. Jett herself has said, “The tough image was put upon me. I don’t think I’ll ever shake it. But personally I don’t care, I just want to play rock and roll.” The image has certainly not been shaken, and now thanks to the 2010 film The Runaways starring Kristen Stewart, new generations of young girls have been introduced to the ‘rock is for girls’.
With thanks in large part to the commercial success of The Runaways movie, increasing the interest in the band, and in Joan Jett herself. New generations of female rock musicians such as ‘The Dollyrots’ and ‘Girl In A Coma’, female bands that are signed to Joan Jett’s record label, have been able to carry on the Riot Grrrl legacy. Joan Jett’s own commercial success has helped keep her music known and her messages as a feminist, and female Rock star in the know. The fact that Joan Jett is still so popular with numerous generations perhaps proves that she has helped to change the face of the previously male dominated world of Rock and Roll. Her induction into the Rock and Roll hall of fame does show that Rock and Roll is not just for boys.
Cogan, B (2008) The Encyclopedia Of Punk. Sterling Publishing Co. USA
Currie, C (2010) Neon Angel. IT Books, Harper Collins Publishing. New York.
Daly, S (1994) Joan Jett Lives Up to her Bad Reputation. Available at: http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/joan-jett-lives-up-to-her-bad-reputation-19940324 Accessed on: [27/10/2014]
Fere-Jones, S (2012) Hanna And Her Sisters. Available at: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2012/11/26/hanna-and-her-sisters Accessed on: [27/10/2014]
Oldham, T (2010) Joan Jett. Lagunatic music and Film works. USA
Thompson, D (2011) The Unauthorized Biography of Joan Jett. Backbeat Books. Milwaukee.
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