November 22, 2015

O’BRIEN | Loving Rock N’ Roll As a Woman

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By KATIE O’BRIEN

At some point in my early teens, I started listening to rock music. Classic, punk, alt, grunge — I would stay up late into the night listening to and reading about my favorite ‘70s-90s era band at the time. In high school, I eventually came to the realization that pretty much all of the artists on my silver iPod nano were male. At first, this did not necessarily strike me as strange, or as a problem — I just accepted that the good rock music was made by men; that the deep scruffiness of a man’s voice was a necessary part of the rock equation.

CClockwise from top left: Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett COURTESY OF BLOGSPOT

CClockwise from top left: Stevie Nicks, Patti Smith, Chrissie Hynde and Joan Jett
COURTESY OF BLOGSPOT

But I eventually became much more interested in introducing gender equality to my playlists. My junior year of high school, when I created a collage on my wall of pictures printed on computer paper, I carefully taped photos of Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin and Stevie Nicks — some of my newfound favorites — among Led Zeppelin, The Doors and Pink Floyd. But the women on my wall were still outrageously and sadly outnumbered.

VH1’s 100 Greatest Artists of Rock & Roll list, compiled in 1998, contains exactly zero female artists or female-fronted bands in the top 20, and a measly eight on the entire list. There is a second list of “100 Greatest Women in Rock & Roll,” so it’s not for lack of options. So are men just better at making rock music? I no longer buy it.

As is probably common knowledge among people who read the Arts section, rock music evolved in the ‘40s and ‘50s as black musicians began combining styles like blues, swing, jazz, folk and gospel. First came rhythm and blues, which gave birth to rock and roll. But despite being aware of this history, there is one extremely important person it took me much longer to even hear of: Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

She’s the so-called Godmother of Rock & Roll, whom Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan all have cited as an influence on their music. Tharpe’s first hit was a song called “Rock Me,” and experts detect some of the first sounds of rock and roll in her unusual, melody and riff-heavy style of playing the guitar, and her passionate, gospel-style vocals.

While her influence is common knowledge to those who have studied rock music and its origins, Sister Rosetta Tharpe is not a household name today like the men who succeeded her. Rock and roll developed largely as a man’s game, and a white man’s game at that. In the 1970s, rock and roll had taken on its “sex, drugs and …” archetype in full force — an archetype that was and continues to be, more or less inherently hostile to women (I mean, just listen to anything by The Rolling Stones).

COURTESY OF PBS

Sister Rosetta Tharpe / COURTESY OF PBS

In New Yorker article “The World Needs Female Rock Critics,” Anwen Crawford tells the story of a young female rock writer being asked by her editor for a blowjob in exchange for the opportunity to cover The Who, and being told “same difference” when she pointed out she was a rock writer, not a groupie. The stereotype of the female groupie worshiping the male rock gods — perpetuated in movies and music videos galore — reduces women’s role in rock music to that of mere followers, staring up in awe at the men on stage.

Anwen also writes, “Rock music has rarely offered women the same tangible promise of social rebellion and sexual freedom that it has given men — though plenty of women, myself included, have tried all the same to find those liberties in it.” Janis Joplin was one of the few women who rose to fame within the rock n’ roll scene during the peak of the late-60s-early-70s rock era, and her ex-boyfriend Country Joe McDonald famously said, “Sexism killed her.”

The sad truth is that women in rock music have been overshadowed, undervalued and erased. And many women likely chose not to partake in a genre that did not want them: Joni Mitchell, for example, apparently wanted nothing to do with the label of “rock” — she always has called herself a singer-songwriter, and she too has been outspoken about the sexism she’s faced in the music industry, noting that whichever man was in the room with her at the time has often received credit for her work.

Today, women have much greater visibility in rock music and its derivatives. By the time of the Riot grrrl movement in the 90s, women were no longer the anomalies that the likes of Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Janis Joplin surely were. That said, sexism still permeates the music industry. Artists from Bjork to Solange Knowles to Taylor Swift have complained about not receiving credit for their roles in authoring and producing their own albums. And all-female rock groups continue to be treated as a genre — separated off as a different category, like women in so many other fields and industries.

Riot Grrl, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill COURTESY OF THE AV CLUB

Riot Grrl, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill / COURTESY OF THE AV CLUB

Sexism and decreased female visibility in rock music is just a microcosm of society as a whole. Still, I wish I could go back and yell at my ninth-grade self for thinking rock music was just a boy’s thing, and that I was somehow special for being a girl who cared about it. Then it wouldn’t have taken me so long to start listening to Stevie Nicks and Christine McVie, Grace Slick, Kim Deal, Joni Mitchell, Kate Bush, Laurie Anderson, Rickie Lee Jones, Patti Smith, The Runaways, The Breeders, Hole, Kim Gordon and the countless others that I either don’t have the space to list, or have yet to discover.

Katie O’Brien is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at kobrien@cornellsun.com. Midnight Radio runs alternate Mondays this semester.

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