In her insightful book She’s a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll author Gillian G. Gaar stated, ‘Female artists were (and are) frequently not seen as having the commercial potential of a male artist and so were not given the chance to demonstrate that they could indeed sell records on their own merits.’ Indeed, it seems that for a female to become a successful singer they first have to market themselves as a sex symbol, often appearing in magazine articles semi-naked in an effort to publicise their new album. While their male counterparts are often judged solely on their musical abilities, women are sold as much on their looks and bodies as their ability to perform.
The genre that would defy this mentality the most was dubbed by the press as riot grrrl, a movement in the early 1990s that originated in the United States and shared many similarities with the grunge scene, with bands reacting against the preposterous glam image of the previous decade. With Kathleen Hanna’s Bikini Kill as one of the forerunners, artists were refusing to allow themselves to be marketed as a male fantasy and instead promoted feminism through their lyrics and attitude, with other groups such as Bratmobile and Jack Off Jill following suit.
But even as early as the 1960s there were female artists who insisted on playing the game by their own rules, only adding sex appeal on their own terms and writing music that could not be dismissed as taking second-place to their image. Nico, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell boasted intelligence and strength that would resonate not only through their music but also in interviews. As attitudes changed as the 1970s progressed and the spirit of free love that had dominated the previous decade was replaced by a feeling of frustration, alienation and anger, the punk scene emerged in both the United States and Great Britain, with the likes of Patti Smith leading the way in America.
In England, controversial singers such as Ari Up and Poly Styrene gained as much acclaim and notoriety as their male counterparts and even as the 1980s began there were unique singers like Siouxsie Sioux making an impact. Meanwhile, in America there was a burgeoning alternative scene that included Sonic Youth and the Pixies, both of which had female bassists who were key elements to the groups’ sounds. ‘I’ve said before that misogyny is the actual backbone of the music industry,’ Kim Deal of the Pixies once told the Guardian, ‘and without misogyny the music industry would crumble.’
The 1990s continued this trend, with bands often featuring female bassists in an otherwise all-male line-up; these would include D’arcy Wretzky of the Smashing Pumpkins, Sean Yseult of White Zombie and Rayna Foss of Coal Chamber. The opposite was also true, with several groups being mostly female, such as L7, Babes in Toyland, Hole, Veruca Salt and Elastica to name a few. Elsewhere, there were female-fronted acts like Garbage, Skunk Anansie, Lacuna Coil and No Doubt. In 1995, after producing two pop records, Alanis Morissette finally launched her career with the Grammy Award-winning Jagged Little Pill, becoming a strong role model for young women with lyrics that focused on independence and being strong-willed in a male world.
While PJ Harvey and Fiona Apple gained modest acclaim for their almost-radio friendly music, Merrill Nisker – better known as Peaches – launched her sexually-devious and aggressive assault on the sense in 2000, commencing with The Teaches of Peaches and later followed by the controversial Fatherfucker. The last decade has seen the likes of Karen O of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs and Alison Mosshart of The Kills gaining positive reviews from music critics, although Paramore’s Hayley Williams is often still referenced by the press more for her looks than her musical ability, proving that while attitudes have improved some things never change.
Joan Larkin was barely seventeen when she found herself on the road with the Runaways, dressing provocatively and playing punk songs to crowds of drunk and aggressive men. Inspired by the likes of Suzi Quatro, Jett wanted to be a rock star with both glamour and attitude and the group soon found themselves touring the world, but internal conflicts soon prompted singer Cherie Currie to quit, forcing Jett to take over for the remaining albums. Jett launched a solo career in 1980, joining forces with backing group the Blackhearts and with their cover of the Arrows hit I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll was launched into the mainstream. Blending elements of punk, pop and ’50s rock ‘n’ roll, Jett would spend the remainder of the 1980s as one of the most popular female rock acts in the world, producing such hit singles as Crimson and Clover, Do You Wanna Touch Me and I Hate Myself for Loving You, while also venturing into acting with a co-starring role alongside Michael J. Fox in the 1987 drama Light of Day. Much like her former bandmate Lita Ford, Jett struggle for success during the 1990s but in recent years a new generation of rock fans have discovered her music and once again turned her into a rock icon.
By 1974 Fleetwood Mac looked set to self-destruct; there were legal issues with the name, their last few albums had failed to achieve success and the line-up had constantly changed over the last five years. Their salvation came when drummer Mick Fleetwood discovered singer and guitarist Lindsey Buckingham in a studio; there was one catch though, his partner, Stevie Nicks, would have to join. The result would be two of the best-selling albums of the decade. Born Stephanie Nicks, she had met Buckingham while still in high school and the two had become romantically involved, while also performing together in a short-lived group called Fritz. Following their split, the two formed a duo that they christened Buckingham Nicks. Adding a new pop sensibility, Fleetwood Mac’s second album under the new line-up, 1977′s Rumours, would be certified multi-platinum, despite the band suffering through numerous personal issues during its recording. Nicks launched her own solo career with 1981′s Bella Donna, boasting the hit single Edge of Seventeen. In recent years, Nicks has successfully balanced her solo career and work with Fleetwood Mac, the latter having issued a four-track EP in 2013.
Born Grace Barnett Wing less than two months after the outbreak of the Second World War, Grace Slick enjoyed a brief amateur modelling career before marrying cinematographer Jerry Slick in 1961. The two formed their own group The Great Society but soon Grace Slick was lured away and convinced to join a new, emerging band called Jefferson Airplane. By this point they had already released an album but with their second effort, 1967′s Surrealistic Pillow, they were launched into the big league. Sharing vocal duties with frontman Marty Balin, Slick would compose one of the album’s most known tunes, White Rabbit, although the band would enjoy their biggest success with Somebody to Love. Three months before the release of their fifth studio album Jefferson Airplane appeared at the legendary Woodstock festival in New York. The band split in 1972 and soon evolved into a new project Jefferson Starship, with Slick appearing on seven of their albums. Success came once again with Starship in the mid-1980s, with the hits We Built This City and Nothing’s Gonna Stop Us Now receiving regular rotation radio and MTV throughout the decade. In recent years Slick has received acclaim for her paintings of such artists as Jimi Hendrix.
For many years CBGB was the place to be in New York City, the east coast’s answer to the Rainbow Bar and Grill or Whisky a Go Go. Despite being rundown and filthy, it was the home to some of the most exciting bands of the 1970s, a venue where they could establish their sound and find their audience. One of the first and most famous of these graduates was Patti Smith. Born in Chicago in 1946, Smith was twenty when she took a bus to New York City to seek a new and exciting life. Smith and her partner, photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, began to indulge in the local music scene by attending shows at Max’s Kansas City and soon found their way to CBGB. Smith was also developing a keen interest in singing and became involved with Blue Öyster Cult keyboardist Allen Lanier. Forming the Patti Smith Group they enjoyed a residency at CBGB with Television, while the same year she also recorded her first album Horses, produced by former Velvet Underground guitarist John Cale. Despite her popularity, Smith would remain inactive throughout most of the 1980s and would release only two albums the following decade, although her career would kick-start once again with 2000′s Gung Ho.
Barely out of her teens, Ann Wilson was performing in Seattle as part of a group called Hocus Pocus with guitarist Roger Fisher and bassist Steve Fossen. Through Fisher’s brother Michael, the trio relocated to Vancouver and, with the addition of Wilson’s younger sister, Nancy, became Heart. ‘We’re going to write what we feel,’ Ann Wilson told Billboard in 1976, the same year that saw the release of their debut album Dreamboat Annie. Heart would enjoy Platinum sales with their first four albums while the tracks Magic Man and Barracuda climbed the charts. But by the end of the decade they had seen a commercial decline. After signing with Capitol Records they were given an extensive makeover and paired with professional songwriters-for-hire Vallance and Holly Knight, which resulted in a spectacular comeback. But with this success came a loss of creative control after four albums Heart parted ways with Capitol. Heart finally enjoyed critical acclaim once again with their 2010 album Red Velvet Car, followed more recently with their latest offering, Beautiful Broken.
By the time Debbie Harry formed Blondie in 1974 she was almost thirty and in those pre-rock star days she had performed backing vocals for the short-lived The Wind in the Willows, worked as a Playboy Bunny and a waitress in Max’s Kansas City club. After a brief tenure with early punk group the Stilettos, Harry met guitarist Chris Stein and the two formed what would become Blondie. They soon became a regular fixture of the local rock scene before launching into the mainstream with their first number one hit Heart of Glass. Blending punk with disco, Blondie enjoyed considerable success over the next few years with The Tide is High, Atomic and Union City Blue but it came to an end almost overnight. By this time Harry had launched an acting career with a memorable appearance in David Cronenberg’s surreal masterpiece Videodrome, which led to roles in films as diverse as Hairspray, and the anthology Tales from the Darkside: The Movie. In 1986 Harry had UK Top Ten hit with French Kissin, a track written by Chuck Lorre, later the creator of Two and a Half Men. Blondie reformed in the late 1990s and returned to the charts with the hit Maria.
Alongside Cherie Currie and Joan Jett, Lita Ford entered the music industry while still in her teens as one-fifth of the Runaways. The group was the brainchild of notorious producer Kim Fowley who had enjoyed considerable success in the 1960s; his intention was to market the group using their sex appeal and subjecting them to a gruelling schedule of non-stop touring and recording. Fowley’s ruthless management skills soon paid off when, in 1976, the band were signed to Mercury Records. Remaining a regular on the Los Angeles club circuit after the band’s split in 1979, Ford met Mötley Crüe bassist Nikki Sixx at the world-famous Troubadour and the two became an item. Ford was determined to launch her own solo career and, remaining under the guidance of Mercury, released her debut album Out for Blood in 1983. While she soon became a sex symbol among metal fans the record failed to attract much attention, but with her third effort, Lita, she became a rock star in her own right. Released through RCA and featuring writing contributions from Sixx and former Black Sabbath frontman Ozzy Osbourne, the album became a hit, most notably for the pop rock single Kiss Me Deadly and the Osbourne duet Close My Eyes Forever.
Having endured a strained relationship with her parents, particularly her mother, Janis Lyn Joplin became alienated from her family. As well as developing a passion for both painting and music, Joplin also became a keen drinker when she was still a senior in high school. Moving to Austin in 1962, Joplin enrolled at the University of Texas, where she sang soprano in the local group Waller Creek Boys. But it would be in the summer of 1966, when Joplin arrived in San Francisco, that her life would change. At that time, the city had become the mecca for the hippie culture, with the neighbourhood of Haight-Ashbury being the focal point for the scene of free love, psychedelic drugs and experimental rock music. She soon became a member of Big Brother and the Holding Company, who had formed the previous year but would not gain momentum until the arrival of Joplin. She recorded two albums with the band before Joplin embarked on a solo career. This would sadly be cut short, however, when twenty-seven-year-old Joplin was found dead, due to a lethal mixture of heroin and alcohol. Of her legacy her sister, Laura Joplin, wrote in her biography Love, Janis; ‘When janis died in 1970, we never expected her image to grow, evolve and gel into one of the preeminent symbols of the times.’
Arguably one of the most controversial female rock stars of the last few decades, Courtney Love was born Courtney Harrison in San Francisco and was introduced to the world of rock ‘n’ roll from an early age, having appeared on the back cover to the Grateful Dead’s third album Aoxomoxoa in 1969 before she had reached her fifth birthday. While still a teenager, Love formed her first group, Sugar Baby Doll before briefly fronting Faith No More. In 1985 Love auditioned for the role of infamous rock groupie Nancy Spungen in biopic Sid and Nancy, which told of the troubled relationship between Spungen and former Sex Pistols icon Sid Vicious. Despite losing out on the role to Chloe Webb, Love appeared briefly in the movie as one of Spungen’s friends. Love formed another group, Hole, in Los Angeles in 1989 and the following year released their first single, Retard Girl. The band eventually signed with Geffen Records, the home of Nirvana whose frontman, Kurt Cobain, Love would marry in 1992. A decade after her failed attempt at launching an acting career, Love gained considerable acclaim for her role in the Hustler biopic The People vs. Larry Flynt.
‘Volunteer work at a rape crisis/domestic violence shelter had prepared me for the outpouring of emotion many women would express after the punk shows I played,’ explained Kathleen Hanna in the book Sisterhood is Forever. Hanna became passionate about feminism in the late 1980s and initially started a gallery celebrating women’s independence, before creating the fanzine Revolution Girl Style Now and Bikini Kill, the latter inspiring the name of her Washington punk group that would inadvertently become the fce of the riot grrrl movement of the early 1990s. Hanna became an important figure on this new scene and after the band’s split a few years later continued to remain prolific through her work with Le Tigre and Julie Ruin. While a respected feminist icon Hanna’s outspoken beliefs would occasionally court controversial retorts. ‘K.H. was my husband’s worst enemy in the world,’ Courtney Love told Spin in 1995. ‘She’s not really in a band. Bikini Kill don’t really play and they don’t write songs. She’s a political activist who took a bunch of women’s studies classes at Evergreen, probably the worst college in America for such things.’