Music can be a political force, wrote Mary Harron, the music critic – and later film-maker – in 1982. When punk first arrived it was viewed as fascist, until the left remodelled it “as a working-class cry for help”, jumping on the Rock Against Racism bandwagon. But when it came to feminism, it was political action that forced rock music to change, rather than the other way around. Female rock audiences and artists had long pushed against expectations of femininity, wearing baggy T-shirts and jeans. But how might they express their sexuality on stage? Debbie Harry became a knowing parody of a sex symbol, Harron wrote, while Patti Smith “was the first and last female rock star to let her subconscious rip”. In the early Eighties change was coming in the form of the American songwriter Joan Jett, who “sidesteps the usual stereotypes of what a female rock ‘n’ roller should be”.
The earnestness with which the British left enjoy rock music is a chilling thing. They have the zeal of recent converts: until recently rock was dismissed as class commercial exploitation. When punk arrived it was labelled fascist until the left reclassified it as a working-class cry for help and jumped on the Rock Against Racism bandwagon.
Feminism is one case where political activity created a change in rock music, as opposed to the other way round. But now theory is lagging behind. A recent article in Marxism Today announced the grand discovery that “against the old dictum of dressing to please men, women are actively reclaiming the pleasure for themselves”. Rock audiences, and musicians, have been doing this for years. At the Women Live concerts at the ICA, old guard feminists the Mistakes – sternly asexual in baggy T-shirts and jeans – seemed almost like a nostalgia act, swept away by a tide of careless teenagers dressed to the nines.
But if women in rock feel free to dress as they please, they have yet to resolve how to express their sexuality on stage. Faced with the old images of dominance and submission, most retreat from sex or, like Debbie Harry, become knowing parodies of sex symbols – which is having their cake and eating it too. I thought back to a Meat Loaf concert at Wembley a few days before which itself had been a parody of heavy rock machismo. Watching Meat Loaf storm across the stage like a massive erection anxiety, I was depressed by the hatred of women and half-envious of such a naked display of male ego and male fear. Patti Smith was the first and last female rock star to let her subconscious rip: a veil of politeness, of correct attitudes, now lies over women’s lyrics, obscuring the thrust as surely as the old role models did before.
The same pointless debate that once took place over wearing mascara and high heels now centres on the question – is rock ‘n’ roll intrinsically sexist? It depends, of course, on the attitude behind the guitar. Joan Jett’s album I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll provides the proof. Rock works on inspirational images, and it is here that Joan Jett matters. The vocals are a flat, hoarse whine – effective in its way – and the backing tends towards a leaden thump. But apart from “Love is Pain” (a crass and unconvincing anthem to sadomasochism) she has sidestepped the usual stereotypes of what a tough female rock ‘n’ roller should be. A bored, gum-chewing, vulnerable delinquent, Joan Jett offers – 25 years after the event – the image of what a female Fifties rock ‘n’ roller would have been.
It really gets you down when you don’t belong
And everyone around says you grown up wrong.
Why do they resent it, I ain’t done anything,
They say that I’m demented and I never could sing.
“Victim of Circumstance”
The final track is a cover version of the old Tommy James song “Crimson and Clover”. Joan Jett crooning “I don’t hardly know her/But I think I can love her” offers the tenderest moment on the album. And that song is playing in the bedrooms of a million teenagers: in the American heartland, changes are at work.
Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).