A Note on "Women In Rock"
By Philip Auslander
I remember hearing a radio interview some years ago with Chrissie Hynde, the front woman of The Pretenders, on the subject of “Women in Rock.” As I recall, Hynde objected to this formulation, preferring that female rock musicians be treated simply as musicians and not be singled out by gender. I can see her point. There clearly is a sense in which the rubric “Women in Rock” ghettoizes female musicians. The world would indeed be a better place if we could just speak of rock musicians without specifying their race, ethnicity, gender, or sexual preference.
But I don’t think we live in that world yet. Other commentators have effectively documented the various ways rock culture is historically hostile to female performers as well as the ways girls and young women are discouraged even from learning to play the instruments associated with the genre and the ways the instruments themselves, particularly electric guitars, are not designed with a woman’s body in mind. It is clear that these issues have not simply gone away over time despite some positive change. For example, a casual Google search instantly turned up an article on Cracked.com that presents a fairly straightforward and predictable list of female rockers, preceded by a set of comments that includes: “Female rock stars aren't sluts.... just kidding they probably are.” Presumably, this is meant to be funny, perhaps even self-parodying, but is in reality but one small symptom of the persistence of anti-female attitudes in rock culture.
For the past few years, I have been teaching a course that spans the first half of the history of rock music, from 1945 to 1975. Since my students generally like to have a main textbook, I am always searching for reasonably good ones. Most recently, I chose a new book that sports a vivid picture of Joan Jett on its cover, thrusting her guitar in the direction of the reader and looking every inch the fierce, charismatic rocker she is. The punch line? There is no reference to Jett in the pages of the book. In fact, the book talks about female performers in the chapters that cover the eras in which I am interested only in the contexts of Rockabilly (Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin), Soul (Aretha Franklin), and the San Francisco Scene. (Joni Mitchell also shows up, as an example of an album-oriented artist of the early 1970s). The discussion of the girl groups of the early 1960s is couched as an analysis of male producers rather than female performers. In the case of San Francisco, the two figures mentioned are, predictably, Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane and Janis Joplin. Although Jett was enlisted as a cover girl to sell the book, she was not considered worthy of consideration between its covers.
There are, of course, plenty of books, websites, television programs, museum exhibitions, and so on that draw attention to and discuss female rock artists. In an essay of 2010, Monique Bourdage argues, however, that simply identifying women participants in rock is not an answer, because to do so ultimately implies that since one can point out female rock musicians, there really is no problem, and because this approach continues to treat women rockers as exceptional, as special cases, rather than the rule. Glossing art historian Linda Nochlin’s famous essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” Bourdage addresses the question of why there have been no great women rock guitarists, answering it by reference to the social and cultural barriers to women becoming rock musicians at all. As valid as this approach is, I think Bourdage addresses the wrong question. The problem with the question lies in the word “great.”
The history of rock is still usually written in a very old-fashioned way as the history of great artists. It may be useful to remember that, at least in the US, academic writing and serious journalism about rock music became possible in the mid-1960s when some English Department types discovered that Bob Dylan could be considered a poet and some musicologists discovered that the Beatles could be discussed as serious composers. From that point on, critical discourse on rock music, historical discourse in particular, has been written largely from a top-down perspective that emphasizes the “great” artists at the expense of all others. There are, of course, books and articles that focus on less well-known groups, but these often radiate the same aura of special pleading as those that make the case for women artists.
For example, the section on “The San Francisco Scene” in the textbook I mentioned earlier discusses exactly three bands out of a burgeoning scene that encompassed hundreds of bands in myriad musical styles: Jefferson Airplane, Janis Joplin/Big Brother and the Holding Company, and the Grateful Dead (each of which contained a female member at some point in its history, interestingly enough). This is the “great artist” theory of rock history in reductive action. It is remarkable to me that there is no room in the history books for a group such as It’s a Beautiful Day, one example chosen from a host of contenders, a highly successful San Francisco band that played regularly at the Fillmores and elsewhere, toured, put out five albums with Columbia Records between 1969 and 1973, and produced one of FM radio’s staple songs, “White Bird.” Such a group cannot be considered a failure in any sense--not artistically, not economically--yet it and ninety-nine percent of all rock bands are not deemed “great” enough to figure in the historical narratives, even though most successful bands are more like It’s a Beautiful Day than like Jefferson Airplane, and most working rock bands are not even as visible as It’s a Beautiful Day was.
The history of rock inherited its emphasis on great works from traditional historical musicology, and therefore belies the real experience both of people who listen regularly to popular music, who do not listen only to great composers and great bands, and of the working musicians who make most of the music we hear, almost none of whom will ultimately be judged to be “great.” In San Francisco, Bill Graham, the impresario behind the Fillmore Auditorium, later the Fillmore West, intentionally kept admission prices low because he wanted people to think of his venue as a neighborhood hang-out, a place to stop by and see what was happening, rather than a high-profile concert venue. Hearing the Dead, the Airplane, or Big Brother at the Fillmore, then, was more like going to your neighborhood tavern and seeing a local band than it was like going to a big ticket rock show. This experience of the music and the place it held in social life, which was replicated at the venues dedicated to psychedelic rock that sprang up in cities all over the country in the late 1960s, is not reflected in the way the history of rock is written.
My point here is that the question of “women-in-rock” cannot be separated from the way the history of rock is biased toward a very limited canon of “great” artists, most of whom are indeed male, because this bias excludes historical consideration of the vast majority of rock musicians, among whom are a significant number of female players. To frame the question as a search for “great” women guitarists is to perpetuate both this problem and the mythologizing of “guitar gods” in rock as if the contributions of other musicians are less important (I would be prepared to argue, for example, that Grace Slick’s voice was every bit as important an instrument in Jefferson Airplane as Jorma Kaukonen’s guitar). Like most self-proclaimed “rockists,” I am fond of making lists. Here, then, are a few of the non-“great” bands (and one great one!) you might have heard had you been hanging out on the San Francisco music scene between 1967 and 1970 or so that included female musicians in their ranks.
Great Society (Grace Slick, vocals)
It’s a Beautiful Day /Linda LaFlamme (keyboards, vocals)
Joy of Cooking /Terry Garthwaite (co-founder, guitar, vocals), Toni Brown (co-founder, keyboards, vocals)
Cold Blood /Lydia Pense (vocals, front woman)
Stoneground /Annie Sampson, Deidre LaPorte, Lynne Hughes and Lydia Moreno (vocals)
Sly and the Family Stone/Rose Stone (vocals, keyboards), Cynthia Robinson (trumpet)
Mother Earth /Tracy Nelson (vocals)
The Loading Zone/Linda Tillery (vocals)
The Ace of Cups/Mary Gannon ( bass, vocals), Marla Hunt ( organ, piano, vocals), Denise Kaufman (guitar, harmonica, vocals), Mary Ellen Simpson (lead guitar, vocals), Diane Vitalich (drums, vocals).
The list can also be extended well beyond San Francisco:
Ultimate Spinach (Boston)/Barbara Hudson (guitar, vocals)
Fort Mudge Memorial Dump (Boston)/Caroline Stratton (vocals)
Ill Wind (Boston)/Connie DeVanney (vocals)
High Treason (Philadelphia)/Marcie Rauer (vocals)
Ten Wheel Drive (New York)/Genya Ravan (vocals)
The Peanut Butter Conspiracy (Los Angeles)/Sandi Robison (vocals)
Smith (Los Angeles)/Gayle McCormick (vocals)
Stoned Circus (Kansas City)/Nancy Lake Whedon (vocals, percussion), Donna Kurtz Nugent (drums)
Fear Itself (Atlanta)/Ellen McIlwaine (vocals, guitar, organ, harmonica)
The Ace of Cups exemplifies another trend of the psychedelic rock era that has received no attention in rock history: groups made up entirely of female musicians. The mid-1960s saw the birth of so-called "garage band"--bands started by teen-agers inspired by the Beatles and the British Invasion. Some of these were groups populated by teen-aged girls called "all-girl bands" at the time. Some such groups were clearly gimmicky and exploitive, but many represented the genuine desire of young women to be rock musicians. Some wrote their own songs; others were basically cover bands or bar bands. All were popular primarily in their home regions, though similar groups could be found throughout the US.
Although most of these groups recorded pretty sporadically, they did play out and tour extensively, appear on local television programs, etc. The only comprehensive source I have found on this phenomenon is a webpage which makes it clear not only that there were far more all-girl bands than one might suppose, and that the phenomenon was global in scope. Some of the noteworthy groups include Goldie and the Gingerbreads, one of the first, whose singer and leader, Goldie Zelkowitz, would later lead the New York-based progressive jazz-rock group Ten Wheel Drive under the name Genya Ravan. The Pleasure Seekers, from Detroit, was made up of Suzi Quatro, a pioneering female rocker of the early 1970s, and her sisters. In addition to playing Detroit-area bars, this group toured military bases in Vietnam. In the late 1960s, at least two all-women groups on the West Coast, Birtha and Fanny, gained higher profiles, including major record deals, helping to pave the way for such successful all-female bands of the early 1980s as the Go-Gos and the Bangles.
My purpose here is not so much to name-check women rock musicians as to suggest that if one’s listening experience during the psychedelic rock era was not limited to the three psychedelic rock bands in the United States eventually deemed significant by the history books, that if one had actually been hearing music in clubs in whatever American city on a regular basis at the time, then one’s odds of having seen women performing in rock bands are far greater than is usually suggested. Consequently, one’s understanding of women’s status in rock during the time at which rock (as opposed to rock and roll) really came into its own as a distinct musical genre might be quite different than the impression conveyed by the standard histories.
Philip Auslander is the Editor of The Art Section. He has written extensively on music, including the book Performing Glam Rock: Gender and Theatricality in Popular Music (University of MIchigan Press).
Images (from top):
Joan Jett courtesy of tomboytarts.com
Grace Slick courtesy of thebluegrassspecial.com
It's A Beautiful Day courtesy of wormgrinder.blogspot.com
The Ace of Cups courtesy of psychorizon.wordpress.com
The Peanut Butter Conspiracy courtesy of
The Pleasure Seekers courtesy of garagehangover.com