THE READING ROOM: ‘Badass’ Women in Rock Stake Their Claim, But Is It Feminism?
How do women in rock shape feminism, how does feminism shape women in rock? The answer is not readily apparent in music journalist Katherine Yeske Taylor’s new book, She’s a Badass: Women in Rock Shaping Feminism. Rather, she applies the term loosely to track the ways that women rock musicians, starting in the 1960s and 1970s, were “pursuing their careers as they saw fit.” As women rockers then and now faced marginalization, Taylor puts the spotlight on how the artists she features have stood against those forces, whether they actively embraced feminism or not.
“Instead of being mere ‘manufactured’ pop stars, or relegated to membership where they weren’t in charge, suddenly women were controlling their own music, message, and image,” she writes. “This was, in its way, just as revolutionary as any protest demonstration.”
Rather than unspooling an argument about the intersection of women rock musicians and feminism, Taylor allows the rockers to speak for themselves. As she notes in the introduction: “In this book, I’ve interviewed twenty significant women in rock, devoting a full chapter to each one, taking an in-depth look at her most memorable experiences in the music business (and in life in general). They reveal the incredible talent, determination — and, often, humor — that they needed in order to succeed. Their experiences reveal the unique challenges that these women have faced, how they overcame them, and what they think still needs to be done to make sure we don’t lose the progress that’s been made so far on the equality front. Spanning the 1970s through today, these women’s stories prove that promoting feminism — either through activism or by living example — is, undeniably, badass.”
The women featured in the book are Suzi Quatro, Ann Wilson (Heart), Exene Cervenka (X), Gina Schock (The Go-Go’s), Lydia Lunch, Suzanne Vega, Cherie Currie (The Runaways), Joan Osborne, Donita Sparks (L7), Amy Ray (Indigo Girls), Tanya Donelly (Throwing Muses/The Breeders/Belly), Paula Cole, Tobi Vail (Bikini Kill), Laura Veirs, Catherine Popper, Amanda Palmer, Bonnie Bloomgarden (Death Valley Girls), Orianthi, Fefe Dobson, and Sade Sanchez (L.A. Witch).
In the profile of Suzi Quatro, whom she calls the “original female rock star,” Taylor observes that Quatro broke barriers for women in the music business, though Quatro admits that she “didn’t have an agenda,” she was just being who she was. Quatro rejects the label of feminism, stating very matter-of-factly, “I’m not a feminist. I’m a ‘me-ist.’ Your job in life is to go inside yourself and find that little light that makes you you and switch it on and let nobody ever switch it off. I always did make myself heard.” The advice Quatro gives grows out of her experience of making her own way as a bassist fronting a rock band: “Because I didn’t fit anywhere, I found my own place to fit. So finding that place, you can create your own thing, and nobody can take it away from you. So I found my own voice and I kept it.”
Ann Wilson of Heart, her group with sister Nancy Wilson, admits that she’s “never looked at our gender as being anything to set us apart from other musicians. I guess I have a blind spot where that’s concerned.” At the same time, she ponders, “I think that some of the obstacles that were thrown up in front of Nancy and me for being women are just really basic systemic things. By standing up and being bold and not being submissive, do females go against the very basis of their gender, as it applies to culture? If they do, then that’s being called rebellious.”
As Wilson reflects on the future for women in rock, she states, “I think women are deep and emotional and attached to their instincts, and that’s what they have to bring into songwriting and rock. I believe that women will really come into their own in rock when they come up with something that’s uniquely theirs, where they come from the female sensibility and inject a whole new voice into this thing.”
Have women rockers made strides in the music industry? Tobi Vail of Bikini Kill says her experience felt like taking one step forward and another step backward. Being a badass becomes a necessary part of a woman rocker’s identity: “If you look at history, you can see that progress is not linear; it goes back and forth. You never know when [progress] is going to go backwards, so you always have to be fighting. You have to be aware that rights we do have were achieved through political struggle. You can’t take them for granted.”
Americana musician Laura Veirs admits that women and their genius are still often overlooked because they not in the dominant group of white men in the music scene. Even so, she remains hopeful for the future of women in music: “You can see this next generation coming and their true open-mindedness — especially around gender. Their fluidity around gender and their nonbinary thinking around that is so refreshing. I see the next generation acting in a really cool and new way that will disrupt what’s going on right now.”
The best aspect of She’s a Badass: Women in Rock Shaping Feminism is that Taylor allows these 20 women to tell their stories themselves. There are glaring omissions in the book: where is June Millington and Fanny, the original female rock stars? What about Ace of Cups? Perhaps both of those bands came just before the 1970s, Taylor’s starting point, and perhaps none of these women were available for an interview. In spite of this shortcoming, Taylor gathers a diversity of women’s voices speaking to their own experiences in making their way in the music world, and she illustrates how the scene has changed, and not changed, for women in rock between the 1970s and today.
Katherine Yeske Taylor’s She’s a Badass: Women in Rock Shaping Feminism was published by Backbeat Books on Jan. 16.