Joan Jett IS Rock ‘n’ Roll
In 1984, we were one of those families who didn’t have cable. We had an old wooden television — just one for the whole family — with an antenna, no remote control and a handful of basic channels. My brother and I had heard of this thing called MTV, but far be it from us to know what it actually was. We had pieced together that it was some sort of radio-on-television, but that was about as much as we understood. Instead of watching music videos, my parents thought it was healthier for us at such young ages — I was four and my brother was seven — to listen to the music and should we want visuals to accompany the songs, we would make the videos ourselves.
As you can imagine, filming music videos became a regular weekend activity for us. We each had our respective songs to enact; for my brother, it was “Old Time Rock ‘n’ Roll,” the great Bob Seger classic, and mine was, “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” Joan Jett’s transformative rock anthem. Something happened to me when those first chords powered through the speakers and the drums shook the stereo. It was a basic sound — no frills or musical overindulgence. It was pure rock ‘n’ roll and it allowed me to leap off of couches for our VHS home camera, while I played the meanest air guitar in my neighborhood.
When I told this story to a friend of mine recently, she reflected on how significant it was that there was a female guitarist for me to play along with — that I must have chosen to film this song in a subconscious solidarity of sorts. I hardly thought so, but who knows? I’d feel a bit more comfortable saying that at 4 years-old, I didn’t do anything out of solidarity — I didn’t even know what that meant; I acted, instead, on pure emotional instinct. What drew me to Joan Jett, and to “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll,” was simply the music — the beat, the chorus, the way it sparked something in me that made me want to throw my tiny fists in the air, the way that it jumpstarted my adrenaline, and the way that it shook shyness from my core and ignited an instantaneous fire that shot through my veins.
What I’ve come to understand as one of many truly extraordinary Joan Jett qualities is that she made the “extraordinary” an expectation for women musicians. When I was leaping around the house in 1984, I wasn’t challenging any societal norms; I just did what the woman on the record sleeve was doing, and I was far too young to realize that this was anything other than ordinary. It was as simple as that: with one turn of the record player, I grew up thinking that women were, and could always be, rock stars.
There’s been so much written about Joan Jett over the years and her influence on women guitarists and musicians — her paving the way for those who came after her — that I sometimes wonder if this commentary is doing her a disservice. It certainly should never be understated what she’s done for women musicians, though I’d argue that she would not have been able to shatter that glass ceiling, or at least begin to pound the hell out of it, had her music not already resonated as powerfully and universally as it did — and still does — with audiences.
Growing up in New York City, I had always aligned Ms. Jett with a Lower East Side punk scene, but I recently had the opportunity to see Joan Jett in concert in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Somewhere in the middle of the Isleta Pueblo Reservation, convened the most diverse concert audience I’ve ever seen: there were soldiers in and out of uniform, middle-aged moms with their pre-teen daughters, pre-teen girls and boys without their moms, leather-clad male biker groups, cowboys with crisp Stetsons and polished boots, big guys in football jerseys, a 20-something-year old roller-derby crew and senior citizens taking it easy in the back rows. And, these were just the folks I saw before the lights went down. By the time the houselights dimmed and Joan ripped into the opening chords of “Bad Reputation,” the 300-pounds-of-muscle security guards had abandoned their posts, while most of the audience abandoned their seats and pushed their way onto the floor and towards the stage.
That night, Joan Jett played the kind of straightforward rock ‘n’ roll that makes you remember everything that you love about rock ‘n’ roll. As pure as the music was, so was Ms. Jett’s character. She didn’t play for the audience; she played with the audience, and in doing so, she offered us a momentary release to throw our arms in the air, scream out lyrics to “Do You Wanna Touch Me” and “Crimson and Clover” until our voices disappeared, and created that beautifully rare opportunity to sweat out the day’s problems in exchange for rock ‘n’ roll.
I’ve spent the better part of my career writing about Americana music and culture — about the “every-man/woman music,” the accessible kind of music that generally comes from the South and is harvested from a type of everyday American. It’s the kind of music that has few barriers to distinguish the musician from the audience, and it’s the kind of music that can be swapped around a metaphorical campfire with each singer taking a little slice of ownership for him or herself. By the end of Ms. Jett’s concert, I wondered if I had been viewing this genre all too narrowly… I started to think that Joan Jett might just be as “Americana” as any musician touring today.
The concert ended with a most fitting version of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” originally covered by Ms. Jett on her 1983 album, Album. I looked around at the hundreds of people singing and dancing, and thought about the lasting sense of authenticity and true belief in rock ‘n’ roll that Ms. Jett shares with audiences. That’s what I can only imagine most musicians would strive to have as their greatest legacy. With over 30 years in this business, Joan Jett is still the queen of rock ‘n’ roll — the humble queen of cool — and America’s rhythmic pulse beats stronger every day because of it.
Bad Reputation was just re-released on 180 gram clear vinyl on November 23. The limited edition LP includes an enhanced CD of Bad Reputation with bonus tracks and live footage.