WHEN I mentioned to Nicky Barclay of the first successful all-girl rock band Fanny that I was working on an article dealing with women in hard rock, she looked at me, laughed and said, “it’s going to be one short article.”
It wasn’t much of a joke. If you leave out the ladies of folk-rock you can count on the fingers of one hand the women in good old rock ‘n’ roll. Besides Fanny, think of an all-girl rock ‘n’ roll band. Besides Grace Slick, Gayle McCormick, Kate Taylor, Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite (of Joy of Cooking) there are few well-known hard rock singers. Janis Joplin was the most expertise of the group, but her death left a void no woman in rock is yet likely to fill.
Why despite the emergence of rock ‘n’ roll as a voice for an age is the most powerful area of the music left almost entirely to the men? Women interested in the music, interested in the ideas turn away from hard rock and sway to the singer-composer stance, the single lady in a long dress sitting before the accepted piano or acoustic guitar. They become the Joni Mitchells, the Joan Baezs, the Carly Simons. Or now with Barbra Streisand making the jump to rock and Carole King bringing poetry to the street known as Tin Pan Alley, they become singers in the cabaret tradition and spawn the likes of Melanie and Laura Nyro.
But where are the female Joe Cockers or Mick Jaggers or Leon Russells. You can name Janis and Grace and then there’s that awesome pause and you’re hard pressed to further name women in rock. Although some rock groups do boast a woman lead singer, very few groups include women musicians.
Janis was an entity unto herself; but Grace is a part of the whole of the Jefferson Airplane. Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite have a more prominent role in Joy of Cooking, but they too share the stage with men. Aside from the women in Fanny and Karen Carpenter where are the women bass players, drummers and lead guitarists?
One problem is the definition of the term hard rock. Think of the words usually involved: raw, aggressive, driving, electric. Not words usually associated with our culture’s assessment of the essence of femininity. Often if a woman does make it on those terms it is because she is within the framework of a larger group which takes the pressure of masculinity off the female member of the band.
The traditional role of the woman dictates that she not expose herself either physically or mentally in public. She does not yell and scream and sweat and get it on in public. Decorum is the watchword and Joni and Carole and Carly are nothing if not ladies. Of course, Women’s Liberation has berated people for putting value judgments on terms and has denied the use of the word ‘lady’ in describing the female sex, but come what may few girls (in the past) have wanted to give up that complimentary descriptive word no matter what its avowed sexist connotations may be.
There can be no denying that circumstances have conspired to keep women rock bands from coming to the forefront of music. Our very culture is set up as a formative obstacle course. Fanny, at this moment, is without national competition and the girls describe how Bill Graham was unwilling to nurture them along (putting them first on the bottom of a bill and then letting them work up a following) as he had done so often with male groups because of his negative experience with the band Ace of Cups. Says Fanny, “There wasn’t any chauvinism involved. He had had the Ace of Cups and the girls split up after not very long to have babies and get married and Graham was left without a band. He didn’t want to go through that again.” The argument that all male bands continually split up without forcing the cancellation of gigs for other male bands fell on deaf ears.
The fact remains in hard rock, as in many other so-called non-feminine careers; women are not regarded with any notion of stick-to-itiveness. They’ll give it up and get married, or have babies, or get sick of the grind are phrases often heard that perpetuate the now cracking myths. As with any myth there’s been enough basis in truth to have people holding on far after its usefulness has gone.
As an all-girl rock band Fanny’s main job has been convincing people that they mean business. “We have to prove ourselves continually. People used to think we were a joke, a gimmick, but as soon as they heard our music they knew we weren’t just there.” But despite the fact that people are beginning to take Fanny seriously, there is still the onus surrounding them that they’ll never stay together long enough to make it to the top.
“We’ve made the commitment,” they’ll tell you seriously. They say they’ve talked out the problems and each has arranged her personal life to compliment their careers and not vice versa. An accepted way for men to live, but not, until very recently, an accepted way for women to live. Says Jean Millington: “My boyfriend knows the group comes first and understands that. In fact, he’s sometimes more eager for me to make it to the top than I am myself.”
So the pressure is there, not only from the audiences who won’t take you seriously — after all, who ever heard of an all-girl rock band that was any good; after all, who really wants to listen; it’s just someone’s idea of publicity — but from society which says if you give up the traditional set-up of a home and a family you’re some kind of an outcast.
This concept of giving up home and family is a particularly ambiguous one, inheriting all kinds of contradictions in terms. All entertainers give up home and family to a certain extent, but the ambience that surrounds being in a traveling rock and roll band is different from the ambience that surrounds being a single performer on the road. The rock ladies and their guys are well known: Joni Mitchell until recently with James Taylor, Joan Baez with husband David Harris, Judy Collins with Stacey Keach, Carole King with husband Charley Larkey. But the rock band syndrome is different and it’s either leave the wife at home or pick up whatever’s in town. Being an all-girl rock band finds one either leaving the husband at home (or does he come along and what does that do to accepted ideas of the husband-wife roles?) or finding whatever’s there. Neither stance is particularly the way most young women are brought up to enjoy.
So society conspires to keep its women from the clutches of hard rock by making the set-ups difficult; by saying you lose your femininity when you sing all the raucous, aggressive music, by saying no man worth having would put up with your specialized career. And it says most of those things at a very early age when young girls are playing with dolls and learning to bake pies. It says those things at the very early age when little boys are given drum kits and girls are taught to play the piano. It says those things when boys are allowed to plug in their instruments and form budding rock bands and girls are told to stay with the acoustic guitar and attend art classes. It says those things when the only females they see functioning in hard rock is a tragic women named Janis Joplin who got murdered by the life, or the cool goddess Gracie who has always lived as an outlaw. Other than that, there are Carole King, playing the piano and singing about being a woman and following where her man leads, or the folk heroines who play guitar and lead causes. The breakthroughs are few and far between.
If the problem is conditioning — and like most sexist restrictions we are coming to realize that is indeed where the problem lies — then certainly things will be changing in rock ‘n’ roll as circumstances have been changing in medicine, politics and other areas once closed to women. The 12-year-olds of the world will have a different point of reference than the 24-year-olds. All over the country Fanny has been approached by young girls asking about the machinations of forming a rock band. As the accepted mentality which says women will not pursue careers with the same jest and commitment as men breaks down, more girls will be willing to spend the 10 or more years necessary to success.
Rock musician after rock musician talks of how he started playing in high school in local bands, but that is the very age when personal emotions overtake the intellect and many girls view playing in a rock band as direct competition with boys and simply refuse to take even the first steps. If they do want to play or sing, they enter into the more accepted realm of folk-rock and become the Carly Simons. But surely as Fanny becomes more and more well known and other all-girl rock bands come into the light, young girls will not feel socially and emotionally threatened by their ambitions.
The question still remains of audience reaction. A great deal has been written concerning the sexual connotations of rock ‘n’ roll; to what extent becoming an idol means the success or failure of a particular band. For years it was true that women controlled the buying and selling market and the 50’s were littered with “heart throbs” rather than musicians. It’s more than mildly interesting to note that although rhythm and blues, folk and Tin Pan Alley have always readily accepted women into their highest echelons, rock has sneered and closed the imaginary doors.
Part of this has to do with the charisma of rock and the fact of the gentlemen’s agreement that it’s the territory of the male. Actually, all serious acceptance has generally been established as the territory of the male, and women have had to fight for every inch of gained respect as if engaged in a major battle. Certainly the question of talent and depth comes into play, but serious rock critics have always been less willing to take the femininity of a Joni Mitchell seriously (how often has she been dismissed as too soft — too feminine) than they have been to praise the straight ahead power of the Who. Men are rarely criticized for being too masculine while women still consider being called “too soft” an insult. Why is being told you write like a man or play an instrument like a man accepted by women as the ultimate compliment?
It is of course true that the Women’s Liberation movement is changing the thoughts and actions of a nation. The continual putdown of women in Rolling Stones songs is no longer going unnoticed and uncriticized (witness the major investigation by one rock paper into the chauvinism of ‘Brown Sugar’), even if the records are still selling. Also women are beginning to accept each other without competition. It could be an overstatement, but it is probably true that women are more willing to put down the music of a woman than is her male counterpart.
If you’re idealized or idolized you’re creating a threat to other women. Grace Slick was always caught in that syndrome. Termed by many male writers “Amazing Grace,” she was often the brunt of criticism from women who were jealous of her good looks, her power and her talent. Uniquely, Janis, with her obvious ability to live close to the bone, was spared the competitive rhetoric. Janis, with her little girl lost openness and her raw emotionalism, was too exposed to be a threat to anyone but herself.
What it all boils down to is audiences, male and female, are willing to accept a woman onstage if she is playing out her traditional role, but not if she decides to venture into masculine territory. If she does, she will automatically (a) not be taken seriously, (b) be profoundly put-down, (c) have her credibility as a woman questioned or (d) the proverbial all of the above.
Karen Carpenter, who plays drums for the super successful Carpenters, says she has never been accepted by male musicians who refuse to deal with her as either a good drummer or a bad drummer, but instead can’t see or hear beyond “there’s a chick and she’s playing drums and only guys can play drums.” Fanny encounters much the same opposition and like Karen Carpenter is meeting the challenge head on. The women of Joy of Cooking have come out of the folk tradition and have given it up for the joy of hard rock. They too are being met with shocked looks of “show me” as they step out onstage with Terry Garthwaite playing lead guitar.
The women of Joy of Cooking are not young girls; they are part of a generation of women who have examined the traditional sex roles and have come to new conclusions. They have managed perhaps to a far greater degree than the almost 10 years younger women in Fanny, to achieve a new style of “femininity” while playing rock. They are creating a new style that transcends the barriers and although Nicky Barclay of Fanny puts them down as not really being rockers (they have no guts, she says), Joy of Cooking is taking the idiom and the myths and is advancing both to a new understanding.
The question also arises as to why are we willing to accept the femininity in Mick Jagger or Rod Stewart or Roger Daltrey and not any degree of masculinity in women? The men in rock have often courted the most theatrical aspects of femininity and made it their own, but put a woman behind a plugged-in guitar and her credibility as “the better half” is destroyed.
The future of women in hard rock looks about as good as the future of women in any all-male field. Barriers are breaking down. The process is slow, perhaps slower than in other areas. There will always be chick singers with an all-male rock band, because there she can play out the accepted masculine/feminine roles; but hopefully more and more women will be unable to limit themselves to any one style, to any one instrument, to any one area of music. The audiences, no doubt, will be the last to come along, the last to accept, but they too will have to bend as the obvious talent comes through.
When I asked one of my friends why she thought there weren’t more women in hard rock, she said quickly and simply, “because it isn’t a feminine thing to do.” So we’re right back where we always were until we reevaluate what it means to be feminine and what it means to play hard rock. It’s hardly likely at this moment to imagine women wanting to be Grand Funk Railroad or Bloodrock, but who knows. Anthropologist Margaret Meade warns us that a woman’s capacity for violence and strength far exceeds any man’s; so the future could hold any direction at all.
People define hard rock as aggressive, driving, raw and electric. Not words usually associated with femininity. But the meaning of words is changing and there’s nine years left in the decade. Those 12-year-olds can turn everyone’s minds inside out if they choose to.
© Jacoba Atlas, Billboard, 6 November 1971