Cool Jett: the women-in-rock revolution – female rock star Joan Jett – Interview
When Joan Jett first plugged in her electric guitar at age thirteen, it was the beginning of plugging in a whole new dimension to the traditionally male-dominated rack ‘n’ roll realm. By the time she was fifteen, Jett was the driving force of the now-legendary all-girl rockers the Runaways. After they disbanded, Jett went on to record one of the biggest rock anthems of all time, “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” and a slew of other jukebox classics with her bend, the Blackhearts. Now thirty-four, the rocker with the jet-black hair—and leather and eyeliner to match–is still leading the revolution.
INGRID SlSCHY: I know that you’re working like a dog, right?
JOAN JETT: It’s nice that somebody notices. [laughs] But, actually, it’s nothing new. It’s what I love to do; it’s what I live to do. But these days I’ve done the most traveling yet, probably because of the great interest that Warner Bros. has shown.
IS: Why do you think this latest explosion of recognition is happening now?
JJ: Well, besides the fact that people seem to be enjoying Pure and Simple [her latest album], there’s the whole issue of timing. People have been writing about my career with my band, the Blackhearts. And the Runaways have been getting recognition for influencing a lot of female bands. The fact that you’ve got so many new bands out there like L7 or Bikini Kill who have been mentioning the Runaways or myself has been really great. I’m a fan of theirs–and worked with them on the new record–so they come to mind immediately. But there are so many all-female bands that I don’t want to do an injustice to by leaving them out of what’s been happening. And by the way, what’s been really nice about the recognition of our work is that it has also been coming from guys, too.
IS: That points to something–the ripple effect of feminism, which has given men a different sense of what they can do.
JJ: As far as I go, I’m into empowering women. If that makes me a feminist, then I am. But I also want to inform men that they got screwed in this deal, too. We were brought up to believe that to be a woman, you had to shut down virtually half of who you are. You have to shut down your physical side and be ladylike or something’s wrong with you. And with a guy, it’s like he had to shut down half of himself–his emotions. I don’t know who made up all those rules, but it’s ridiculous that anybody should feel like they have to be judged like that.
IS: Did your interest in rock ‘n’ roll have a lot to do with your interest in expressing yourself physically as well as musically?
JJ: What attracted me was just being able to make that kind of noise and have that control over it–and then to learn how to play guitar. But, yes, I love the physical aspect. Summertime is my favorite, because I get sopping wet every night, and that’s when I’m in my glory. You get all sweaty, the audience gets sweaty, and it’s an intimacy that can’t quite be described.
IS: For you to make the choice to be a musician, was that something that you had to fight for?
JJ: No, it wasn’t actually. In school I took clarinet when I was ten or eleven. And after that, when I was about thirteen, I asked my parents if I could have a guitar for Christmas. They got me an electric guitar. This was around 1973. And I went to some guitar place and asked the guy to teach me how to play rock ‘n’ roll. He looked at me like I had seven heads. He didn’t know what to make of me. So he taught me “On Top of Old Smokey.” That didn’t sit at all well with me–I couldn’t wait till my hour was up. I went home with one of those how-to-learn-how-to-play-guitar-by-yourself books.
IS: In reading about you, there’s this constant phrase that’s thrown out, “a bad reputation.” It made me laugh, because it seemed so obvious why you got it.
JJ: [laughs] I wound up with it from the Runaways days. We all did. People did not want to see teenage girls, in the late ’70s, playing sweaty rock ‘n’ roll. We were so serious about what we were doing, and we wanted to talk about our music. But most of the interviewers would start off by saying, “So, I suppose this is some phase you’re going through, that you’ll do for about a year, and then stop, settle down, and get married.” They really said this. And we’d say, “No, no, we really want to do this for our lives.” And then you’d see this total change in their vibe, and they’d become very threatened. And it would show in what they wrote, or said in other circumstances. Words were hurled at us–every derogatory word that could be said to a woman was said to us. And, of course, that’s gonna set you off. Then come the headlines like RUNAWAYS’ GUTTERMOUTHS.
After we broke up, I hooked up with Kenny Laguna, and we were trying to find a record company. We had “I Love Rock ‘N Roll,” “Crimson and Clover,” “Do You Want to Touch Me,” “Bad Reputation”–all these songs that became hits, that twenty-three major and indie labels listened to, and all said, “No song here. We don’t like her reputation.”
IS: Isn’t it incredible how a desire for self-determination gets twisted into the idea that a person is impossible?
JJ: I got a reputation because I spoke my mind. And I also had a reputation for being a hard partyer, but wasn’t that everybody’s reputation? So shouldn’t that have made me equal then? But it didn’t, because I am a woman.
IS: Thus the importance of your own label, Blackheart Records.
JJ: Yes. All along we’ve had our own thing happening, Blackheart Records, whether the records were distributed through Boardwalk, MCA, Epic, or as they are now, through Warner Bros.
IS: After you hit it big with “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” you wrote a song on the next album called “Fake Friends.” Can you talk about that?
JJ: We’re sitting there rocking along, and “I Love Rock ‘N Roll” happens, and it becomes this huge hit around the world, right? Nobody else thought it was gonna be a hit, but when the kids heard it, that was it. And it was right when MTV started. We were one of the first videos on MTV, so that video was probably seen millions of times. I wanted to go back and say to my old friends, who I thought were friends, “Hey, look at this! Isn’t this great?!” And I got no response. it ripped my heart out! There was nobody there to celebrate with.
IS: Have you gotten used to that feeling now–that sometimes there is nobody there to celebrate with?
JJ: Well, now I don’t look to celebrate, necessarily, with people. In fact, I can enjoy it on my own now.
IS: Speaking of celebrating you–Japan. Since the beginning of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, there’s been an audience in Japan.
JJ: In fact, the Runaways were huge in Japan. It’s very humbling, because I’m not used to being bowed to.
IS: So how are you reacting to the appreciation you’ve been getting in America?
JJ: After taking so much shit during the Runaways days, and with things always seeming to be a struggle, it’s nice. We don’t pretend to be anything other than a good-time, fun band. Maybe people are realizing that.
IS: But you have turned out to be that and more than that. Look at all the things we’ve been talking about. In fact, your last video, for the song “Go Home,” was about Mia Zapata, the singer of the Gits, who was raped and murdered after a show in her hometown, Seattle. You obviously believed it was possible to use video to help effect change.
JJ: I didn’t know Mia at all, but I felt a strong connection. Too many women are ending up dead, and too many people aren’t caring about it. It’s time for people to stop taking these things so lightly or as if it doesn’t have to do with them. There’re these kind of idiots in every city, and get ready for it, because you might have to deal with it.
That’s a side of me that’s growing. This album, I think, is the most–if you have to put a word on it–sociopolitical that I’ve gotten. I’ve written about things like being stalked; I’ve written a song called “Spinster.” But maybe it’s been that way all along, just because of the nature of what I do.
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