In our recent episode, freak rocker Frank Zappa had some choice words to say about including female musicians in his band, The Mothers of Invention. “I don’t think that there’s a girl around that would fit in with what we do,” Zappa said. He seemed to be speaking for rock n’ roll considering the dearth of women in the leading bands of the 1960s and 70s.
“I just don’t think it’s practical,” Zappa continued. “Not for what we do. It’s just not practical. I don’t think that there’s a girl around that would fit in with what we do. I just … I don’t like to change personnel all the time, but it does seem to happen, and I would hate to stick a girl in, get new publicity photos, and then have the poor thing bomb out in the middle of a tour.”
Has it touched you at all, women’s lib? I mean, do you think that is a valid movement, or just a fad also?
“Just a fad also, yeah.”
“Sure. Which is not to say it’s bad if it keeps them off the streets. It keeps them occupied.”
It’s not really clear where Zappa’s brush off of the ladies came from during this interview – percussionist Ruth Underwood was an integral part of his band in the mid-70’s, and Zappa had no qualms producing the girl group the GTOs – but the idea that “girls” couldn’t handle the pressure of life on the road was common enough in the music industry at the time.
We started to wonder if anything had really changed over the intervening years. Sure, Rolling Stone wasn’t naming any “old ladies of the year” like they did with Joni Mitchell back in 1971, but being a women in the industry definitely isn’t sunshine and roses. Man-of-many-bands Jack White – who has often collaborated with female musicians throughout his career – said this in a recent interview:
“It’s a real shame that if a woman goes onstage with an instrument, it’s almost a novelty. Like, ‘Oh, isn’t that cute.’ It’s a shame that in 2014 that’s a little bit of what’s going on in the perception in the room.”
– White, talking to Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready
So we decided to take a look back through our archives to see what else had been said about the status of women in rock, and see how those statements have stood the test of time.
“Show me a good chick”
Janis Joplin was the first, and maybe the only, big-time female rock n’ roller, but it came at a price. She didn’t have the kind of beauty required of female stars, so she lived fast and hard in a quest to be, and be seen as, “one of the boys.”
“Sexism killed her. Everybody wanted this sexy chick who sang really sexy and had a lot of energy … and people kept saying one of the things about her was that she was just ‘one of the guys’ … that’s a real sexist bullshit trip, ‘cause that was fuckin’ her head around … she was one of the women. She was a strong, groovy woman. Smart, you know? But she got fucked around.”
– Country Joe McDonald on Janis
One of our past episodes featured an interview with Joplin recorded only a week before her death in 1970. Village Voice journalist Howard Smith asked Janis about feminism and girls in bands.
A lot of women have been saying that the whole field of rock music is nothing more than just a big, male, chauvinist rip-off. And when I say: “well what about Janis Joplin, she made it?” And they say: “oh, her.” And it seems to bother a lot of women’s lib people that you’re kind of so upfront sexually.
“Well then that’s their problem. Not mine. I haven’t ever hardly talked with anyone in women’s lib. I haven’t been attacked by anyone yet. How can they attack me? I’m representing everything they said they want. You know what I mean? Well I have an opinion about this. It’s sort of like: you are what you settle for. Do you know what I mean? You’re only as much as you settle for. If they settle for being somebody’s dishwasher that’s their own fucking problem. If you don’t settle for that and you keep fighting it, you know, you’ll end up anything you want to be. How can they attack me? I’m just doing what I wanted to and what feels right and not settling for bullshit and it worked. How can they be mad at that?”
One girl I know said: well how come she doesn’t have any women in any of her groups?
“You show me a good drummer and I’ll hire one. Show me a good chick… Besides I don’t want any chicks on the road with me.”
“I’ve got enough competition, man. No, I like to be around men…Did all that shit I said about chicks sound bad?”
Counterpoint: Badass Lady Drummers
The Go Go’s Gina Schock
Janet Weiss, Sleater-Kinney
“They lumped me in with the women”
Here’s Joni Mitchell talking to Joe Smith in an outtake from a past episode:
“For the most part I found that initially they always lumped me in with the women. Whereas in fact what I was doing was not what most of the women were doing. My peer group was really Phil Ochs, and Dylan, and Eric, and David Blue. Basically that was my peer group. They had me lumped in with Judy Collins, who didn’t really write at that time, and Baez. Mainly that I was a woman with an acoustic guitar. … Then they lumped me in with Janis and Carly.”
Mitchell was never interested in fitting into a box created for her by the media or by record company executives. Unfortunately, not much progress has been made – the music industry still needs to be reminded that “women” isn’t a musical genre. See:
“They just wrote about their dicks and having sex”
Kurt Cobain was always open about identifying himself as a feminist, which is not surprising given that he came up through the same Olympia/Seattle music scene that spawned bands like Bikini Kill and L7, and the Riot Grrl movement.
Any good biography of Kurt Cobain now acknowledges that he didn’t come out of hesher rock, he came out of feminist, art-punk. And he said it himself at the time!
– Ann Powers, in The Punk Singer
Talking to Jon Savage in 1993, Cobain talked about realizing that much of the music he loved had wildly sexist lyrics.
“Because I couldn’t find any friends, male friends that I felt compatible with, I ended up hanging out with the girls a lot. And I just always felt that they weren’t treated with respect. Especially because women are just totally oppressed. I mean the words bitch and cunt were totally common. Although I listened to Aerosmith and Led Zeppelin, and I really did enjoy some of the melodies they’d written, it took me so many years to realize that a lot of it had to do with sexism.”
“The way that they just wrote about their dicks and having sex. I was just starting to understand what really was pissing me off so much, those last couple of years of school. And then punk rock was exposed and then it all came together. It just fit together like a puzzle. It expressed the way I felt socially and politically. Just everything. You know. It was the anger that I felt. The alienation.”
When Nirvana was inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 2014, the band decided to honor Kurt’s memory by eschewing male rockers and asking four female musicians to step up to the mic: OG badass Joan Jett, their Sonic Youth contemporary Kim Gordon, St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, and critically and commercially-acclaimed pop star Lorde.