Joan Jett proves that she still loves rock 'n' roll
by John Sewell
Though it's not so hard to find women playing loud, guitar-driven music these days, rock 'n' roll is still essentially a man's world.
Sure, women are more of a driving force in the pop marketplace than ever beforebut women performers seem to be relegated to the quieter, more introspective regions of the musical landscape. A true American original, Joan Jett is the template for women in rock 'n' roll. As a founding member and leading light of the über-punk, all-girl band, The Runaways, Jett forged the standard to which all electric guitar-wielding females aspire to this day.
Many have come in her wake, but Jett was the first female American rock 'n' roller to gain widespread attention, chart-topping hits, and the grudging respect of the male rock 'n' roll community. Without Jett's trailblazing efforts, the face of rock would surely be different today. The antecedent to groups like L7, The Muffs, The Donnas, The Lunachicks, the riot grrl movement and more, Jett is still a driving force who has not slowed down or softened one bit. With around 25 years experience as a hard-boiled rocker, she is as tough as ever, looking great, and rocking hard.
Asked if she's softened through the years, Jett is incredulous. "Me? Am I softening? Are you kidding? I think some people do let themselves go when they get older because they just get tired. But I haven't slowed down a bit."
Jett says that she is puzzled by the lack of girl rockers in her wake. "I don't know that I feel let down; but I just don't see why there's not more women wanting to play rock 'n' roll," she says. "Right now, in the mainstream, there's me and like Courtney Love. I love L7, but they've never really had a hit.
"There's sort of a partition or a glass ceiling that makes it hard for women to actually play hard rock. Sure, it's okay to say, 'I'm a woman. I play guitar,' as long as it's pop music or it's acoustic or something.
"I mean, I get so tired of hearing women in pop music being called rock 'n' roll. You know, can you all please stop calling all the pop babes rock 'n' roll? It's really getting tiring hearing people like Britney Spears being called rock 'n' roll. Give me a break!"
Always a visionary, Jett prefers to look to the future instead of riding on her laurels. Though she is currently on tour with Def Leppard, another band that reached its commercial zenith in the '80s, she doesn't harbor any especially fond memories of that era or seek to recreate it.
"I don't know if I miss the '80s per se," says Jett. "But I do miss hearing a lot of rock 'n' roll music. There just doesn't seem to be as much rock 'n' roll music anymore. Everything does seem kind of tame these days. It's hard to even go out in Manhattan and find a good band to see.
"It's easy for me to stay faithfuleven easier these days because there are less people doing it (playing true rock 'n' roll). I feel like it's my job to carry the torch. I don't understand, personally, just what happened. Or why there aren't as many people out there that are willing to have fun playing rock 'n' roll. I just don't get it. Maybe it's just that fashion change; styles change. Now everyone's into this rap/rock/metal kind of vibe. But I think there's nothing better than seeing a three-chord, straight-up rock 'n' roll band. In-your-face, sweaty music, three-minute good songsthere's nothing better than that."
Rap metal and dance pop may be the going thing on the airwaves today, but there actually are several girl-led bands in the punk underground that cite Jett as an influence and freely plunder her sound and image. One group in particular that is almost a cookie cutter, modernized version of The Runaways is California upstarts The Donnas.
"I saw The Donnas in New York last year and I thought they were excellent," says Jett. "They were very competent and I really got a kick out of their whole Runaways takeoff vibe. I think it's cute.
"I mean, imitation is a form of flattery. And I'm honored. I'm finally hearing some women picking up guitars and playing rock 'n' roll!"
Jett is indeed proud of her status as a pioneering female rocker. She is also reticent about a Runaways reunion, even though there has been a lot of demand. Wary about the pratfalls of reunited bands, Jett says a collaboration with former Runaway Lita Ford is possible, but improbable.
"We've discussed possibly doing something together. But I don't really see a reason to reform the group," says Jett. "I mean, we took so much shit when The Runaways was happening. So now, 20 years later people want us to get together so they can take their shot at all these old babes trying to get back some youth? I know what the press will do if we get back together. They say, 'C'mon, reform!' And if we did, they'd take their shots. I would come out with nooses and hang everyone that made fun of usbecause The Runaways is my baby."
Jett says that looking back at The Runaways' tumultuous career is a mixed bag of emotions. The band has gained a posthumous respect; but while they were together, the group's members encountered obstacles and prejudice at almost every turn. "We got hassled about everything when we were in that band." says Jett. "Just the fact that we were girls, first of all. Being women. I guess it's hard for people to get it unless they're involved. People don't want to see women doing things that they don't think women should do. Women are supposed to take a submissive role in society."
Sure, there have been plenty of gains in the last two decades. But Jett still finds that there are antiquated notions about women's roles in the world of rock 'n' roll.
"I don't know why girls aren't doing rock 'n' roll as much," says Jett. "But, if people had to take the kind of shit that I took when I was in The Runaways, I would say that's why they're not playing rock 'n' roll. They'd start getting judgments about their character, judgments about their sexuality, things that are completely unfounded just based on the fact that they're playing electric guitar. Most people don't want to deal with being cut down.
"The fact that The Runaways picked up guitars was not accepted. And me, being one of the louder ones with the leather jacket and the heavy eye makeup, I was just pushing the envelope. We were called sluts, whores, and dykes all the time. And we were constantly laughed at by bands we played with, by the crews, and by the press. It was just totally frustrating. I didn't get it.
"I mean, I thought people would love seeing teenage girls playing real rock 'n' roll. You know, that was great! And when I see teenage girls now that are doing what we were doingI wonder how they can handle it. It's hard for me to think that most teenage girls could even handle what we went through. We were very mature for our age. It was really an incredibly special band. And anybody who saw us play knew that."
Looking back, Jett says that she also had favorite performers that she sought to emulate early in her career. "Wow, it's hard to look back at who my influences were because it's so long ago," says Jett. "I didn't really have heroes per se. It was more like having influences or being a fan or inspired. But saying I had a hero, that's too strong of a word.
"I'd say my big musical influence was the British glitter scene. Suzi Quatro was definitely a big influence because that was the first time I saw another woman playing rock 'n' roll. I figured that if she could do it, I could do it. And, if I could do it, other girls could do it, too. I guess she was a big inspiration.
"But a really big one was Liza Minelli: a big inspiration. She turned me on to show business, to deviation and just wanting to sing. I really wanted to emulate Liza. And I've been lucky enough to be friends with her. So that's really like a wonderful end to that story. She really is one of my heroes."
Always the people's performer, Jett is happy to play a mix of new and old material, pleasing her old and new fans alike. She claims to have played her biggest hit, "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" at every single show since 1982 when the song was number one on the charts. "I don't want to be a smart ass and pull that one from the set because people get disappointed."
Jett may be an archetype of black leather, rebellion, and the punk aesthetic, but she reports no problem in playing with more commercially-oriented acts such as her tour mates, Def Leppard. "I don't think the show with Def Leppard is an odd mix at all. I think the music works well together because both bands write three-minute rock songs with melodies and big choruses. There might be a different tilt, but the music works well together and the audiences work great together, too."
As to her personal life, Jett plans to continue rocking out, while also allowing some time for introspection. After a relentless schedule of playing and recording, she hopes to find some time to discover just what her other interests are.
"Rock 'n' roll is the only aspect of my life that I've paid attention to. So now I want to take just a little bit of time and find out who I am beyond the person on-stagebeyond the person that's playing guitar. I love sports, I love animals, I love kids, I want to save the world. So how do I combine all those things? I don't know. I'm gonna start working on that instead of being so regimented and only accessing one aspect of myself. It's time to grow a little bit.
"I think what I'm gonna do is to just try to get more balance in my lifeto still be able to play the hard rock 'n' roll and do what I like in music, but also to take a month off here and there. I don't want to come to a point where I say fk all of this and just leave it behind. I think it's just about getting into other aspects of life, not just always being in a band. But I am not softening. Rock 'n' roll music is still what gets me off the most."