Many of us know her face, her name and her music – but very little of us appreciate the way she cultivated the rock music industry, how she opened doors for women in rock music and most importantly, how she revolutionized our societies and social standards through her music. Joan’s performance of female masculinity is not an imitation of male masculinity but rather, a distinct gender identity that exists in between middle-class definitions of appropriate masculinity and femininity. Along with critic Judith Halberstam, I argue that indifference to traditional male power structures is a plausible model for resistance against patriarchal structures, especially when there is limited space for a critique of those structures. Some punk bands attained mainstream success, however, they played down punk’s critique of class and gender. Even punk bands like Blondie that attempted to maintain punk’s parody of middle-class gender roles discovered that it was difficult to translate punk ideals to a broader audience. Mainstream marketing techniques often converted irony and parody into conventional statements that offered women as sexual objects for male consumption.
At the same time, Joan acknowledged the potential problems associated with Fowley’s marketing techniques, especially that the band’s purpose was often misunderstood. As she noted to her fans in 1987: “It was so hard to get taken seriously, and the sexuality, it seemed was the whole focus with that audience … and most certainly with the press. That was truly frustrating. I mean we wanted to be sexual and that was definitely part of our identity. But nobody paid attention to the fact that we could actually play; that was very annoying.”
Equal participation by the rock ‘n’ roll girl in rock’s culture of excess was easier to perform than to attain in life. Joan, Lita Ford and Sandy West quickly gained a reputation for various forms of excess, allegedly scaring off potential producers after they fired Fowley in 1977. These failures frustrated Jackie Fox, who quit the band in 1977 after a successful tour of Japan in part because of their manager’s failure to properly insure her instrument. While Joan and Lita developed successful solo careers, Sandy battled with alcohol problems, as she spent time in prison in 1999 for driving under the influence. The songs and videos from the albums I Love Rock n Roll and Bad Reputation solidified Joan’s image as an outsider whose refusal to acknowledge traditional powers or ways of doing business in the record industry gave her music an unusual authenticity. According to one reviewer, “That never-say-die persona has made her success seem hard-earned and her failures somehow noble.” Joan’s image in the early 1980s continued to gesture to the rebellious rock of female adolescents but it also included the gender bending and tongue-in-cheek humor of punk.
She went on to become one of the most influential women in rock, recording top hits, founding Blackheart Records and producing Riot Grrrl acts Bikini Kill and 17. Her early career was portrayed in the biopic The Runaways.
Joan Jett was born Joan Larkin on September 22, 1958 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Her passion for music began early and she received her first guitar at the age of 14. Joan tried to get a record label to distribute her new album but she was rejected by 23 different companies. Out of frustration, she and Laguna founded Blackheart Records in 1980, making Joan the first female artist to own and have direct control over an independent record company. In making the record, she got help from an unlikely source – rock super group The Who. Laguna was friends with the band members and their manager and they let Joan use their recording facilities. She later told Rolling Stone magazine, “We wouldn’t have been able to make the record if they hadn’t helped us. They basically let us record what became Bad Reputation and [said], ‘Pay us when you can.’ ” Her persistence, was admirable but even more admirable, her attitude. With songs like I Love Rock n Roll and Hostility, she showed the world that women can rock the mic just as hard as guys can (sometimes – even better)!