In her essay, “Beginning to See the Light,” the essayist, journalist, activist, feminist, and pop music critic Ellen Willis writes: “For those of us who crave music by women who will break out of traditional molds, write and sing honestly about their (and our) experience, and create art so powerful that men and the society in general will have to come to terms with it whether they want to or not, the seventies have offered scant comfort.”
Willis wants to like female folk music but finds it too sentimental, insular, and full of rhetoric. She wonders, “… why did I like so little of the women’s-culture music I heard?”
She describes going to hear the feminist folk-rock band, Deadly Nightshade. The group sings a version of “Honky Tonk Women” rewritten without the sexist lyrics. Afterward, an audience member sends the band an outraged note, which the singer nervously reads onstage.
“They did not have the confidence or the arrogance,” Willis argues, “to say or feel, ‘If you don’t like it, tough shit.’ It was not that I thought performers should be indifferent to the response of their audience. I just thought that the question they ought to ask was not, ‘How can I make them like me?’ but ‘How can I make them hear me?’”
Rock ’n’ roll was born out of the patriarchal culture of the 1950s and continues to be a male-driven industry. Historically, both rock memoirs and rock journalism have been male-dominated. While societal expectations have evolved a great deal since the birth of rock ’n’ roll, women are still judged through the lens of the male perspective, seen as women first and musicians, journalists, or fans second. Now, however, there are more female musicians and fans publishing memoirs and more female rock journalists writing criticism than ever before. Their presence, both as players and commentators, illuminates the incongruous nature of a tradition that simultaneously frees and subjugates women. So, the question is: How can female writers, musicians, and fans gain more equitable footing in rock music and rock literature?
“In an overwhelmingly male atmosphere, female performers have served mainly as catalysts for male cultural-revolutionary fantasies of tough chicks, beautiful bitches, and super-yin old ladies.”
— Ellen Willis, “But Now I’m Gonna Move”
I. TOUGH CHICKS
Women in rock know the experience of being expected to adhere to societal gender norms. We make a choice to eschew these norms or to exaggerate what is expected of our gender. Either approach makes for its own sort of statement. A clear-cut example is shared by Patti Smith in the memoir, Just Kids, when she relates an incident that occurs when she is eleven. Smith is playing army outside with her brother. They crawl on their bellies, pretending to be soldiers in the summer heat. When she arrives home, Smith’s mother scolds her and says, “Patricia … put a shirt on!” Smith doesn’t want to because it is a blistering day. None of the other kids are wearing shirts, she points out. To which her mother replies, “Hot or not, it’s time you started wearing a shirt. You’re about to become a young lady.” Smith protests, announcing that she is “never going to become anything but myself.” In the end, she capitulates, but still she writes, “I cannot exaggerate the betrayal I felt at that moment. I ruefully watched my mother performing her female tasks, noting her well-endowed female body. It all seemed against my nature. The heavy scent of perfume and the red slashes of lipstick, so strong in the fifties, revolted me. … She was the messenger and also the message.”
Not having many female role models in print or in life for what she terms her “female destiny,” Smith takes comfort in the character Jo from Little Women. Jo is a tomboy and a writer who composes irreverent work and gets it published. Reading about this strong female character gives Smith the “courage of a new goal … that one day I would write a book.”
Eventually, she moves to New York, where one evening Robert Mapplethorpe drags her to a party at the Factory. The manager of the Factory, Fred Hughes, comments on her hair.
“Ohhhh,” he says, “your hair is very Joan Baez. Are you a folksinger?” Smith doesn’t know why this bothers her because she likes Joan Baez. But every woman reading this right now probably has an idea of why she is upset—a man she barely knows feels he has the right to comment on her appearance and judge it negatively to her face.
When Smith gets home, she realizes her “Joan Baez hair” is a cut she’s worn since she was a teenager, so she lays her rock magazines on the floor, cuts out all the photos of Keith Richards, and studies them. Then, she grabs some scissors and chops her hair like his—a transformation she describes as a “liberating experience.” She writes:
Though I was still the same person, my social status suddenly elevated. My Keith Richards haircut was a real discourse magnet. … Someone at Max’s asked me if I was androgynous. I asked what that meant. “You know, like Mick Jagger,” they said. I figured that must be cool. I thought the word meant both beautiful and ugly at the same time. Whatever it meant, with just a haircut, I miraculously turned androgynous overnight.
Where Smith finds liberation in her androgyny, Willis sees misogyny. In “Beginning to See the Light,” she writes of the singer,
I’m also uncomfortable with her androgynous, one-of-the-guys image; its rebelliousness is seductive, but it plays into a kind of misogyny—endemic to bohemian circles and, no doubt, to the punk rock scene—that consents to distinguish a woman who acts like one of the guys (and is also sexy and conspicuously “liberated”) from the general run of stupid girls.
I have to disagree with Willis. If we take Smith’s earlier statement on its face, she is searching for ways to embody herself. She does not want to identify with gender norms because they don’t feel authentic to her. It is other people who label Smith based on gender expectations. She is working within the confines of the male-dominated music industry, so to forgo female stereotypes and adopt an androgynous persona gives her power.
Smith’s new kind of femininity is a revelation, through which some women see a path to the freedom to be themselves. In Clothes, Clothes, Clothes. Music, Music, Music. Boys, Boys, Boys, Viv Albertine recalls seeing Smith’s photo in the popular music rag, NME: “I have never seen a girl who looks like this. She is my soul made visible, all the things I hide deep inside myself that can’t come out. She looks natural, confident, sexy and an individual. I don’t want to dress like her or copy her style; she gives me the confidence to express myself in my own way.”
Albertine can’t believe how unrestrained and free Smith sounds on her debut album Horses. Her songs are like nothing Albertine has heard before. “Up until now,” she observes, “girls have been so controlled and restrained. … Her record translates into sound parts of myself that I could not access, could not verbalise, could not visualise, until this moment.” As she listens, Albertine realizes that “girls’ sexuality can be on their own terms, for their own pleasure or creative work, not just for exploitation or to get a man.” She is in awe of Smith for breathing heavily and making sexual noises in her music. This gives Albertine an idea. She writes, “If I can take a quarter or even an eighth of what she has and not give a shit about making a fool of myself, maybe I still can do something with my life.”
Albertine eventually learns guitar and joins the all-female punk band The Slits. It’s empowering for her to play music with a group of women. “I want boys to come and see us play and think I want to be part of that,” she acknowledges. “Not They’re pretty or I want to fuck them but I want to be in that gang, in that band. I want boys to want to be us …”
At the same time, being in an all-female band is dangerous. The group is spat at, laughed at, and attacked. Singer Ari Up is even stabbed in the butt on the way to see a movie. But the women of The Slits don’t back down. They have something to say and no amount of violence or hate is going to stop them. This energy is captured on the cover of their LP, Cut, where they pose topless in loincloths, covered in mud. The Slits made this image purposefully, Albertine informs us: “We know we have to have a warrior stance, not try to be all seductive.” Journalist Carola Dibbell describes the Cut cover in her essay, “The Slits Go Native,” suggesting that “the image stakes out the female body as female territory better than anything this side of Judy Chicago’s ‘The Dinner Party’: solid, varied, flawed, defiant, and irreverent.” This owning of their bodies, flaws and all, is part of The Slits’ punk attitude; after all, they are the first all-women punk band.
While The Slits discover a way to express themselves, Willis finds punk problematic. In “Beginning to See the Light,” she describes listening to “Bodies” by the Sex Pistols. She is repelled by the fact that it so anti-woman, a song that despises women’s bodies because “they have babies and abortions and are a fucking bloody mess.” Yet, she continues,
The extremity of its disgust forced me to admit that I was no stranger to such feelings—though unlike Johnny Rotten I recognized that the disgust, not the body, was the enemy. And there lay the paradox: music that boldly and aggressively laid out what the singer wanted, loved, hated—as good as rock-and-roll did—challenged me to do the same, and so, even when the content was antiwoman, antisexual, in a sense antihuman, the form encouraged my struggle for liberation.
II. BEAUTIFUL BITCHES
The New York punk scene had a different energy than the UK’s. In her memoir, Face It, Debbie Harry writes that what unified New York was “pointing out the inconsistencies in a hypocritical society and the foibles of human nature and what a joke it all was. A kind of Dadaist up-yours.” Harry wanted to be a musician, but there were no women doing what she wanted to do. Smith was around, but, like Willis, she rejected the the androgynous approach. As she reflects:
Rock, like I said, was a very masculine business in the mid-seventies. Patti dressed more masculine. Though deep down I guess we came from a similar place, my approach was different. In many ways, you might say that what I did was more challenging. To be an artistic, assertive woman in girl drag, not boy drag, was then an act of transgression. I was playing up the idea of being a very feminine woman while fronting a male rock band in a highly macho game. I was saying things that female singers really didn’t say back then. I wasn’t submissive or begging him to come back, I was kicking his ass, kicking him out, kicking my own ass too. My Blondie character was an inflatable doll but with a dark, provocative, aggressive side. I was playing it up yet I was very serious.
Harry uses her glamorous image and melodic pop-punk to deliver songs full of social and gender commentary. Even so, her glamour comes at a price. She allows her record label to sell her as a product, becoming more object than artist, a two-dimensional representation of an idealized version of a woman. She admits to “selling an illusion of myself.” By marketing her beauty as a focal point for her band Blondie, the music sometimes gets shortchanged. She describes how reviews of their band often focus more on how she looks than on how the music sounds.
Jessica Hopper explores a similar objectification and erasure of women in rock in her essay, “Emo: Where the Girls Aren’t.” Hopper is incensed at the representation of women in her music scene. She explains,
Girls in emo songs today do not have names. We are not identified beyond our absence, our shape drawn by the pain we’ve caused. Our lives, our day-to-day does not exist, we do not get colored in. … We’re vessels redeemed in the light of boy-love. On a pedestal, on our backs. Muses at best. Cum rags or invisible at worst. … Emo’s yearning doesn’t connect it with women—it omits them.
As Hopper is writing, word of her discontent gets around the emo scene. She is approached by a guy who asks, “What do you mean ‘emo is sexist’? Emo songs are no different than all of rock history, than Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin.” Hopper signals her awareness. The guy persists, “How are songs about breaking up sexist, though? Everyone breaks up. If you have a problem with emo, you have a problem with all of rock history!”
“I do,” Hopper replies.
As a female rock critic, she has had to wrestle with listening to music that unfairly represents her gender. She writes,
As a woman, as a music critic, as someone who lives and dies for music, there is a rift within, a struggle of how much deference you can afford, and how much you are willing to ignore what happens in these songs simply because you like the music. … Can you forgo judgement woe to women because the first eight bars of “Communication Breakdown” is a total fucking godhead. … [W]ho, other than a petty, too serious bitch dismisses Zeppelin? … Who do you excuse and why? … Can you ignore the marginalization of women’s lives on the records that line your record shelves in the hopes that feigned ignorance will bridge the gulf …
Hopper isn’t so worried about her generation. They’ve had feminist musical heroes such as Bikini Kill and other Kill Rock Stars bands, who encouraged her “not [to] allow my budding feminist ways to be bludgeoned by the weight of mainstream, patriarchal culture.” She credits that music for making her a journalist. Her concern is for teenage girls who lack the knowledge of any other underground music—who attend emo shows where only boys play. She wonders if those teen girls “see themselves as participants, or only as consumers or—if we reference the songs directly—the consumed.”
Even though she was a teen who felt her ideas were important, she admits, it never crossed her mind to play music until she saw other women doing it “to show me that there was more than one place, one role, for women to occupy, and that our participation was important and vital—it was YOU MATTER writ large.”
Hopper maintains it is up to “radicalized” women to encourage others to participate in the music community as artists and people with something to say because “Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than a pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us.”
III. SUPER-YIN OLD LADIES (GROUPIES)
The 1960s bred a new kind of fan: the groupie. This term is often applied to women in a derogatory way to imply that having sex with male musicians is the ultimate goal or that they have no other way of being a part of the rock scene. But perhaps this is exactly how they want to be a part of the rock scene.
In her memoir, I’m With the Band, Pamela Des Barres challenges the stereotype. She admits she is “desperate to be famous,” but that’s not the motivation behind her becoming a groupie. Rather, she proclaims: “I dig musicians, I feel they have the most to offer me mentally and emotionally because they think basically along the same lines that I do; extremely creative people. Music is life.” Des Barres loves the music, is attracted to the creative energy of the scene and becomes inspired to demonstrate her appreciation physically. “I still considered myself a true feminist in the early days of women’s rights because I was doing exactly what I wanted to do,” she insists. “I loved music and the men who made it. … I wanted to be close with the men who made me feel so damned good, and nothing was going to stop me. I wanted to treat a rock star … nice.”
It isn’t all sex. Des Barres makes custom shirts, counsels the musicians, and sometimes cooks for them. She quotes a paperback titled Groupies and Other Girls, which cites the GTOs, her groupie gal gang and band, discussing their relationships with rock stars: “We don’t just sleep with them, we go beyond the physical level with all of them and they respect us for that. Musicians are really very intelligent people and that’s the way we treat them; not like studs. That dehumanizes both us and them.”
Indeed, Des Barres and the GTOs are performers in their own right who are championed and supported by their male counterparts, most notably Frank Zappa, but also Chris Hillman, Gram Parsons, and Nick St. Nicholas. All of them show up to the Shrine Auditorium for the GTOs’ first show.
Willis is not a fan of the groupie phenomenon. She is bothered, she notes in her essay “The Feminist,” that “[f]reedom for women is defined solely as sexual freedom, which in practice means availability on men’s terms.” And she is offended by a statement about groupies that appears in Rolling Stone, to which she responds:
It seems that rock bands prefer San Francisco groupies to New York groupies: the latter being cold-hearted Easterners, are only out for conquests; Bay Area chicks really dig musicians as people, not just bodies, and stay afterward to do their housework. This sort of disingenuous moralism offends me much more than the old brutal directness. At least the Stones never posed as apostles of a revolutionary lifestyle.
The point is hard to argue with. And yet, in “‘We Support the Music!’: Reconsidering the Groupie,” Amanda Petrusich offers a contrasting view, suggesting that being a woman in rock ’n’ roll during the 1960s and 1970s was not easy. At the same time, she acknowledges, there were other avenues available to women who loved rock. She highlights women artists such as Janis Joplin and Grace Slick and women rock critics such as Willis and Lillian Roxon. Petrusich wonders if perhaps groupies choose to be groupies because sex is “their preferred option” for getting close to rock stars. She writes:
People find all sorts of ways to manage the magnificent, sometimes paralyzing feelings a true communion with art incites: as long as there have been humans making beautiful things, there have been other humans who wish to subsume or harness that energy via sexual congress. Sex is a method (and an effective one) for achieving a kind of transcendental closeness to another person and, by inevitable extension, to the work that they make.
Through the perspective of Petrusich and Des Barres, in other words, groupies may be liberated women who offer themselves sexually to artists in order to, as Petrusich puts it, “see what happens when a person comes at beauty with beauty.”
“For me feminism meant confronting men and male power and demanding that women be free to be themselves everywhere, not just in a voluntary ghetto.”
— Ellen Willis, “Beginning to See the Light”
Many women paved and continue to pave the way for female voices in music and rock literature. Unfortunately, our society is still male-centric which means women are still qualified as “female musicians” or “female fans” or “female rock writers” instead of just musicians or fans or rock writers. While society attempts to put us in gender-defined boxes, women can choose to live with honesty and authenticity, which, in turn, inspires other women to do the same. By sharing their stories and writing about their experiences as musicians, fans, and journalists, women create a new, more equitable narrative for their place in rock, transforming it from a boys’ club to a shared art form that includes multiple gender perspectives.