THE RUNAWAYS movie is out and you should see it.
At the theatre.*
*(In limited cities release, March 19; in general release everywhere on April 9, 2010.)
Today's Blog is an open letter to all those young people who want to start a Rock'n'roll band. I'll be hipping you to why women are crucial to Rock, how to spot a sexist pig writer, and finally why that movie is essential to your health.
(The whole history of women in Rock is too huge to be told here; so consider this a primer for the Herstory with a general overview. In the near future this preface will be followed by new posts about each decade from the 50's up in greater detail.)
I think young women should see this movie to be inspired to make Rock better. The Parties Of NO want you to miss it, the same way they wanted you to miss the original band in 1975. It's time to kick them where it hurts.
Let's do this!
THE RUNAWAYS were a brilliant band in the mid 70's who did as much as anyone to open the gates for the other half of the human race to Rock freely. This is just a flat fact. BUT...they were part of a long path of Rock women from the 50's to now. This goes unacknowledged because of sexism or ignorance or often both.
The history of Rock'n'Soul is often trapped by two things: blindpsot narratives enforced by Rock critics and the segregation of Radio playlists. These limitations are theirs and we can reject them by looking at the whole picture.
There are certain outlooks critics have used for decades to shortchange women in Rock...and I'm going to destroy them for you right now.
THE STUPID ATTITUDES ABOUT WOMEN IN ROCK:
1) Rock has always been a man's game.
2) Only men can Rock convincingly.
3) Women are eye candy for conquest.
4) Exclude female Rockers from your histories.
5) Ignore Rock women for Pop women.
6) Repeat what your grandfather said.
7) Call them Women In Rock.
1) ROCK HAS ALWAYS BEEN A MAN'S GAME.
Not true. Women have been a part of Rock'n'Roll since the beginning.
Firstly this was a natural extension of their vital presence in Country, Blues, Jazz, Mambo, and all the other varied roots of Rock. Here are some examples.
-The First Family of Country music was the Carter Family, led by guitarist Mother Maybelle. When anyone like The Staples Singers sings "Will the Circle Be unbroken", it's because of her. From her we also get June Carter, Carleen Carter, and Roseanne Cash.
-Blues music only took off in the 20's because of the huge popularity of its female stars like Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Ethel Waters. We sing "See See Rider", "Sugar In My Bowl", "Hound Dog", and "When the Levee Breaks" because of them.
-During WWII, there were all-female Big Bands who toured the country while the enlisted men were away, like The International Sweethearts of Rhythm, Ivy Benson & Her All-Star Girl Orchestra, and Ida Ray Hutton & Her Melodears.
-The Rhythm'n'Blues songs of the early 50's helped pave much of Rock, and female stars like Ruth Brown led the way. Ruth put Atlantic Records on the map with her big hits, and from their success we got the golden age of 60's Soul (Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin) and 70's Rock (Led Zeppelin, Rolling Stones) because of it.
In each case these musics were kept alive by the crucial works of women.
Secondly it's lazy journalism to call Elvis the King of Rock. It's supposed to tribute his social impact, which is true and unassailable, but it just makes everyone else an also-ran. In reality the dawn of Rock'n'Roll in the 1950's was a pantheon of great talents who all deserve equal credit. We appreciate men like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Bo Diddley, Ritchie Valens, and Link Wray. But there were women right along with them that are only lately getting some due credit.
These women rocked, and you need to know it to know Rock'n'Roll at all: Wanda Jackson, Janis Martin, Big Mama Thornton, Sparkle Moore, LaVern Baker, Alis Lesley, Lorrie Collins, and Joyce Green are only a few. Social attitudes and sexist marketing may have tried to confine women soon after into making marriage cheerleader songs in Pop 'Girl Groups', but women who wanted to Rock were in every genre that ever followed. There were female singers, guitarists, and full bands all the way through Surf, British Invasion, Garage Rock, Psychedelia, Electronic Music, Glam, Funk, Hard Rock, Punk, New Wave, PostPunk, HipHop, Alternative Dance, Metal, Retro, Grunge, Riot Grrrl, and Electro.
2) ONLY MEN CAN ROCK CONVINCINGLY.
Please. This is known as the Scared Little Boy mentality.
Let's nail this for what it is. Most societies split humanity into gender, then they codify them by strength and weakness. Male=Hard=Strength, Female=Soft=Weak. Macho versus Ladylike. Thanks to Latin, entire languages are split in two with separate gender distinctions just to reinforce this fake division. The dumb end of males picks up this superiority complex and reinforces it through culture.
Enough, time to grow up. There is no difference. You're a soul in a body and you can do anything you want. You don't grow up to be a man, you grow deeper to become an adult. An adult has proper respect for the family of humanity and doesn't hold anyone back with immature ideas of why they are less than anyone else.
Now here's the deal: Rock'n'Roll in its true sense has always rejected segregation. It is the antidote to separatist deadends. It is all about hybrid and mutation: combine two cool things to make a third new thing. There is no such thing as either/or. Now repeat.
This mope's attitude confuses expression with agression and thinks that empowers him. Who's interested in these six foot boys who love their muscles and their ego? You must spend a lot of time at the gym to be able to pull those strings and tap a drum. Such heavy lifting, that. Or maybe you just have so much more soul than a woman to be able to play melodies. Uh huh. You're weak in the head. Rock'n'Roll is not about macho posturing, it's about personal expression. A guitar isn't a phallus, it's an arrow for the spirit.
Real Rock has always challenged gender. In the beginning, Little Richard and Alis Lesley mocked barriers of male and female style. The Beatles brought long hair in for men. David Bowie and Suzi Quatro turned sexuality inside out. Jayne County, Genesis P-Orridge, and Lynn Breedlove (Tribe 8) made gender a spectrum. Rock is liberation, not suppression.
Enough with this kid mentality. Now pick up your toys coz I'm tired of tripping over them.
L7 & JOAN JETT -"Cherry Bomb" (live, 1992)
3) WOMEN ARE EYE CANDY FOR CONQUEST.
Women have been in Rock since the beginning, but who does the magazine Guitar World put on the cover?: bikini models and porn starlets fondling guitars.
This kind of moron's attitude thinks girls are meant to scream at your concert, young women are groupies, and 'whatever' for the rest.
"Rock'n'Roll" was a Blues euphemism for having sex. Sexuality is the primal pulse behind almost all Rock and Soul music. Good. That's a natural and positive thing. But there is a difference between sensual and sexist. Sensuality is essential, sexism is an evil. Sort it out.
Two of the best 45's in history were Dion's "Runaround Sue" and "The Wanderer". It also sums up what's wrong here. Both run around having sex but he's a stud and she's a slut. That tired hypocrisy still governs our attitudes.
We laud Elvis Presley, Mick Jagger, Jim Morrison, Isaac Hayes, and Usher for the liberation of their sensuality. We should do the same for Betty Davis, Cherie Currie, Grace Jones, Courtney Love, and Peaches. Drop the double standard, what's good for the goose is good for the goddess.
4) EXCLUDE FEMALE ROCKERS FROM YOUR HISTORIES.
The official lazy journalist view of women in Rock is this: The Gogo's> The Bangles> The Spice Girls. The lazy Rock critic view of women in Rock is: Janis Joplin> Suzi Quatro> The Runaways> Joan Jett> The Gogo's> The Bangles> Bikini Kill> Liz Phair.
These people have rarely heard of Goldie & The Gingerbreads, Fanny, or Birtha. Or think you haven't so they don't mention them. And you probably haven't because, hey, they didn't mention them.
This kind of attitude is because of blatant ignorance caused by a sexist music industry.
It's all about access. 45 singles were a brand new thing in the mid 50's. You were lucky to get one chance at doing two songs at a fly-by-night label. Even luckier if it became an area hit through local radio. There were no record corporations, no radio networks, no mass distrubution to help these people. You threw your luck in the wind and sometimes it worked. This was made far harder if you had brown skin, were a woman, or other annoying aspects of real life interrupting the program. So yes, there were many women who somehow managed to get recorded against these odds but they had no support system to promote them. Some like Wanda Jackson and Lorrie Collins were lucky to be on TV shows, Lavern Baker had the R'n'B crowd with her back. But the rest were systematically ignored out of the scene and history.
When The Beatles exploded and reignited Rock'n'roll, it's obvious that untold thousands of boys started banging away on starter guitars. But so did girls. They didn't want to just chase the Fabs, they wanted to be them. There were myriad all-female rock combos in the mid-60's, a lot of whom got to record at least a single, have a local hit, and go on regional tours: like The Liverbirds, The Luv'd Ones, The Pleasure Seekers (with Patti and Suzi Quatro), and The Ace of Cups, to name only a few. But Goldie & The Gingerbreads were the first all-female band to get a record contract with a major label...for singles. That's the hitch. No LPs. Then the label failed to promote those singles, even when one of them became a career-making hit when covered by a male band ("Can't You Hear My Heartbeat", Herman's Hermits).
In 1970 the first all-female band signed to make full albums was Fanny. This is one of the most important victories in the history of women in Rock. After a couple years they were joined by Birtha. They rocked as hard, played as well, made strong albums, and wowed the tour crowds as strongly as any male band. Too often, they got treated like groupies with attitudes by other bands, road crews, and press hacks. But they had forced the door open.
FANNY -"Blind Alley" (1972)
The tide began turning because of feminism and critical mass. Feminism took on Civil Rights' mantle as the expansion of equality and for most of the 70's was in general favor as such. Plus there were too many tough female acts coming out: Suzi Quatro, The Runaways, Heart, and Patti Smith. But the single most crucial catalyst for the explosion of women in Rock was Punk music. It's do-it-yourself attitude flung more women into Rock history than the previous two decades combined, an exponential wave crossing all genres through to the present day. They did it by creating their own access, their own labels, their own fanzines, their own undergrounds. In short, they went around the record industry.
Which is another way they get written out. Joan Jett, The GoGo's, and The Bangles are thought of as the beginning of women in Rock in the early 80's because you saw them on MTV. It's that simple. You could finally see them so it seemed like they came out of nowhere. They were actually indie acts that had managed to crack the mainstream and get some record label support for awhile.
The upshot is that your CD compilations and Box Sets rarely include those pioneering women. Your Rock museum doesn't nominate them. Your movie reviewer steers you from THE RUNAWAYS to that cookie-cutter romance comedy. The deciders still think women are Pop divas and any Rockers are rare flukes.
Did the first two NUGGETS box sets have women in them? No, so an underground series called "Girls In the Garage" compiled 9 (!) CDs of them. Then smart, sympathetic producers in the know like Alec Palao and Lois Wilson included several of them on later NUGGETS and GIRL GROUPS box sets. Rock grrrls, rediscover history and rewrite it. Force your own access.
5) IGNORE ROCK WOMEN FOR POP WOMEN.
This typical ploy just happened when the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame nominated Madonna and Abba. They're fine acts. But let's be clear; they made great Pop, but they are not Rockers. Meanwhile, it took eight tries for The Stooges to be nominated (?!!!), and The Runaways or Joan Jett have never even been considered. Huh.
Likewise, the mainstream media of the 90's thought of women in Rock as The Spice Girls, seemingly without having the slightest clue about the Riot Grrrl and Queercore movements. Really.
It's always been this way. Pop women are selected over Rockers. The prom queen trumps the scary artist girl. Haven't we been beaten to death with Britney Spears for years, but who in the mainstream ever talks about the hundreds of female Rawk groups struggling for attention on MySpace and YouTube? The lazy narrative of Rock history thinks any Rockabilly women were an exception, and that women in Rock only meant Girl Groups. This homogenized women into a broad category of Pop music that's seen as a brief blip before The Beatles. They're relegated as polite belles decorating chapels of love, produced and manufactured by male creators. It reinforces the Female=Soft=Weak yawn. (Often the critic's formula is Pop=Soft=Female, Rock=Hard=Male.)
The sequel to this is to think of all 70's women as singer-songwriters. It's as if before The Gogo's there was only The Shirelles and then Joni Mitchell. Or Carole King, to compress them both. This Laurel Canyon mentality of women in Rock was primarily purveyed by Rolling Stone magazine and the contemporaries they hung with. Now I respected publisher Jann Wenner growing up and I'd like to give him the benefit of the doubt. But damn.
Maybe a telling anecdote is this. In the mid 60's there was a great Garage Rock single called "Boy, What'll You Do Then?" by Denise & Co. The tough young singer, Denise Kaufman, turns the usual game around by chastizing her boyfriend for being a supressive control freak who holds her back from having wild fun. Denise then formed the all-female band The Ace Of Cups during the heyday of San Fran psychedelia. The former boyfriend she was upbraiding was Jann Wenner. Now, again, I want to give Jann the benefit of the doubt on this. And Wenner is the prime mover behind the Hall Of Fame. So, Jann...as someone who has dedicated his life and made his fortune protecting the legacy of Rock'n'Roll, show us that you can stand behind your proud woman and nominate real Rock grrrls into the Rock'n'Roll Hall Of Fame.
You can start with The Runaways. And then make up for Goldie, Fanny, Birtha, and Suzi.
By the way, Cherie Currie was wearing her corset and underwear onstage a decade before Madonna, but she was blasting actual Rock'n'Roll when she did it.
6) REPEAT WHAT YOUR GRANDFATHER SAID.
When in doubt, repeat the lie you've always heard. This attitude is basically akin to the 'Bash Yoko' mentality.
There were no Rock critics until the late 60's. There was an elitist cult of Jazz critics, but what we now think of as great Rock music was written off as 'stupid Pop music for stupid people' by the Classical and Jazz scribes in the 50's and 60's. We should give brave new counterculture magazines like Rolling Stone, Crawdaddy, Cream, Oz, and their ilk the credit for legitimizing Rock as a valid form of artistic expression.
But the male writers were only human with the flaws of their moment. They coined offensive terms like Kraut Rock that we still use, and they still thought women were groupies until the early 80's. Even Joni, who matches the most holy Dylan move for move, got subjected to that. But then...there's how Yoko got treated.
Yoko Ono was famous before The Beatles. She was a world-reknowned artist from the Fluxus Group, with John Cage and Al Hanson (Beck's grandfather). She was a feminist before most people had ever heard of Gloria Steinem. No one had a problem with Marianne Faithfull or Anita Pallenberg because they were seen then as sexy arm charms for The Stones. But they weren't Japanese, outspoken, and marrying the critically-preferred Beatle. Like the Kraut Rock thing, many critics and fans turned post-War hate against her heritage; they resented her individuality and were threatened by her politics; and they wrote off her work having seen or heard almost none of it. Because of them this became the broad social impression of Yoko, sealed in amber.
The lazy opinion of Yoko is: made screech music> broke up The Beatles >feminazi. This hand-me-down hate has been repeated ad nauseum for four decades now. Just watch what some 15-year-old male goofball mis-types as a comment onto any Yoko video on YouTube. Well, I grew up in the South and I know a bigoted idiot when I hear one, whether it's a Fox blowhard with a chalkboard or Bigot III on his parents' computer. So I'm calling this third gen inbreed out.
Nope. The Beatles broke up The Beatles because it was time, be grateful we had them at all. Yoko made ranges of music that included ambient dub, proto-Punk, and melodic beauty. We routinely applaud Bowie, Eno, and Pattie Smith for similar advances while ignoring what she was already doing first. She was the strongest voice for Women's Lib that ever happened in Rock music. She is the big bang of truly fearless women like X-Ray Spex, Nina Hagen, Lene Lovich, Cosey Fanni Tutti, The Au Pairs, Crass, The Poison Girls, The B-52's, Jarboe, Diamanda Galas, Kathleen Hanna's riot grrrl brigade, The Boredoms, L7, Tori Amos, Shonen Knife, Cibo Matto, and Peaches. She also opened John Lennon up into what he considered to be his true self, and when someone insults her, they are insulting their idol.
Most Beatles fans are cool. Because, come on, they're Beatles fans. They love and respect Yoko for who she is and what she's done. But there are still some peripheral idjits and walk-bys who have a problem with her. To which I say, "in an age where everyone is jaded about everyone being co-opted, it's wonderful that she is still so dangerous and edgy that she still scares people like you. So suck it."
This parallel example sums up the sexist hand-me-down that gets used to this day against Rock grrrls. The idiot bigot view of women in Rock is: can't play> uh, gimme a beer. Whenever you hear this slug, let him know his balls aren't his strength by breaking them.
I always think the double standard is hilarious. Garage Rock bands are touted proudly for being amateurs with heart and maybe one good song. Unless you're female, and suddenly you have to play better than Hendrix and have made "Revolver" before you get half a grunt of notice, and still no inclusion on the compilation. Well, maybe your grandfather might remember that the men won WWII because of the planes, ships, and tanks the women built for them. She could save the planet before you were born so if she wants to play a fricking guitar, get out of the way and shut up.
THE SHE TRINITY -"Climb That Tree" (1970)
7) CALL THEM WOMEN IN ROCK.
Then there's the whole thing of grouping them at all.
Patti Smith and Chrissie Hynde will punch you in the face before you can call them "women in R- owwww!" They want to be thought of as musicians, stand or fall. And ideally they're right.
I remember the term 'negro' used by older relatives. It struck me as ancient and insane. 'Black' (identity) was the beginning of the social arc toward 'African-American' (citizen), and someday we'll get to words like Human or Brother and Sister or Sweetheart. This is one of those. We need to show people women have always been in every era of Rock until the commonality of it finally forces the focus only on someone's talent. I can remember when Tina Weymouth was relentlessly singled out as 'the female bass player' of Talking Heads. Now a female bass player seems like a standard requirement in most bands.
Now why did I go on about all that at length?
Because when you see any of these archaic mindsets creeping into any review of THE RUNAWAYS movie, or about your favorite band, or about your band, you can call it out for the lazy stupidity it is.
This film moved me. It spoke to a lot of emotional and cultural things that are just as relevent today as the era of the film. I saw none of that spoken to in some of the movie reviews I was seeing. Don't let them put you off. They're doing it for all of the reasons above. But they are failures at their jobs. 'To criticize' doesn't mean to rip something apart. There's a positive critique and a negative critique. A negative critique tears something up with no respect or solutions, which is useless cruelty. A positive critique respects someone's intentions while offering possible options to explore, which is helpful advice.
In particular, a useless review of THE RUNAWAYS tries dismissing it as a formula biopic. I thought that was self-damning. Maybe they've seen "Thirteen" and they're jaded to this story, or they've seen too many episodes of "Behind The Music". But what they don't speak to is that this really happened to 15-year-old girls in 1975 who were misused by all the adults around them in the record industry, the press, and the drug scene. The world treated children with a dream like they were whores. It took their great work despite these odds and threw it away.
I find these adults just as guilty today of pimping an ego-star culture that promises teens everything while using them for quick profit and discarding them. "Thirteen" only happens because of the symptoms of that same old-boy system. That system is kept in motion by a parade of exploitative clutter designed to use youth...like fake Idol contests, bling videos, and the latest device. But this movie condemns them for that criminal neglect and exploitation. It should be no surprise that your corporate-owned paper, magazine, channel, or website didn't speak to that. It struck me that 35 years later they're still just trying to write The Runaways off and steer young girls away to heartthrob franchise films. In that sense these reviews are just cynical manipulation and ass-covering.
Underlying that are the shopworn excuses for dismissing Rockgirls listed above. When you're reading a review of the film, separate out what's helpful or maliscious. If they have valid concerns about the structure of the story, or issues about missing characters and perspectives, or suggestions about how the impact could have been enhanced, that's all fair and good. But if they obviously can't wrap their head around the idea of women Rockers, broader sexuality, the social responsiblity to protect youth instead of using them, or calling out gender slavery, then flip them the bird right back.
Here's what I think about the strengths of the film, without giving anything away:
-The soundtrack is the smartest set of choices I've heard forever in a Rock film. They kick it right with Wanda Jackson's "Fujiyama Mama", already acknowledging the history of women in Rock, before rolling right into Suzi Quatro, the heir to 50's Rock and inspiration for young Joan Jett. From there it only gets better, with pitch-perfect choices of songs by Bowie, The Stooges, The MC5, The Sex Pistols, and more, each spot-on for the scene and the vibe. This movie makes a Rock lover's heart pump just the way these songs did for the teens in the story.
-Also impressive is the cinematography of Benoit Debie, most particularly in the intense intimacy of the close-ups. The use of grain, depth-of-field, delirium, and montage bring the two lead's emotions into fuller frution. And the lushly impressionistic love scene set to The Stooges' "I Want To Be Your Dog" is absolutely excellent.
-Kristen Stewart is Joan Jett. I didn't know that would be possible but she does it with such ease that it amazed me. She has the little things down, like body language, moves, vocal inflections. The singing was so exact I thought it had to be lip-synchs of Joan, but no, homegirl was doing it herself. I found Kristen's Joan to be strong, cool, sweet, sensual, anguished, and very moving.
-I've always enjoyed Dakota Fanning since "I Am Sam", a film that has deep personal connection for me. She captures Cherie's toughness and vulnerability really well. She does valiantly with the singing, but it would be tough for most to match the coolness of Cherie's basso edge.
-The movie is mainly about Cherie, Joan, and their insane producer Kim Fowley. A fixture of the 60's and 70's LA Rock scene, Fowley is infamous for his combustible combo of music insight and manic behaviour. Michael Shannon does an astounding job capturing him exactly, in appearance, style, and brutal hyperbole. I hate how he treated the band but I sure relish how well he was played.
-It's easy to think of The Runaways as twentysomethings who were punk as nails, but seeing how they really were only just teenagers, with all the goofiness, guilessness, and confusions of that age, really brought home to me how horrendous this situation could be for them. They just seem like kids getting deeper and deeper into something that can't end well. It's alarming and heartbreaking. A lot of the film's value comes from alerting you to how young stars should have a saner support system. (Nowadays young women are more fortunate with training grounds like the Institute of Musical Arts, and summer camps for teaching young girls. It should be pointed out these were created by female rockers who got abused by the music industry and put their wisdom to work for the new generations.)
-At the same time the movie reminds you of what it's like to be a teenager and have a dream in front of you that you're willing to run through fire to achieve. Their enthusiasm is contagious and reaffirms why Rock'n'Roll is a great catalyst for the soul. When Cherie flips off a chucklehead crowd that heckles her early on, I empathized as keenly as any time I've given a deserved kick to the pricks. Yeahhh!
-Another crucial dimension of this film is sexual identity and trying to express it while society selectively rewards or condemns you for it. One of the key aspects of the Glam Rock era was upending gender roles and expanding sexual preferences. The Runaways were a band with well-rounded sexual appetites. There's a double facet to that here. The Rock world was all too eager to exploit their emerging sensuality like they were lucrative jailbait, but would have destroyed them for the taboo range of their true desires. At the heart of this film is a love story, a courageous one that reviewers are conspicuously silent on. Especially cowardly of them when 35 years on this is more timely than ever, with culture wars over suppressing or liberating same-sex love. Despite them, the film becomes that even more relevent in its connections to the underground gay and bi history of Rock, from Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter to Lesley Gore to Carol MacDonald (Gingerbreads, Isis) to Fanny to Nona Hendryx to Queercore to Boyskout. It reaffirms that, though history denies them, they have always been a part of history, and that that closet is getting emptier by the day.
PEACHES & JOAN JETT -"You Love It" (2006)
To all you young women who love "TWILIGHT", I say go to this movie and get inspired. Why just yell at The Beatles when you can become The Beatles? Or you can go to THE RUNAWAYS and become your own Runaways. Don't just moon over a goth boy, become a Goth band. The Runaways were a crucial breakthrough for women in Rock and you can be, too. Don't listen to negative people. Don't put it off until the video. See it now...big, loud, and with cool friends.
THE RUNAWAYS movie is out and you should see it.
At the theatre.
And then see this.