Illusion of Equality

The legendary Joan Jett reminds that there's still a glass ceiling in rock 'n' roll

After more than 30 years as a professional musician, Joan Jett finds it hard to believe that there aren't more women playing rock 'n' roll.

Sure, there are your occasional role models--you've got your Slits, L7 and Sleater-Kinney--but they still constitute the minority. And a version of the corporate glass ceiling is responsible, Jett said in a recent telephone interview.

"I am actually shocked at this point. I thought what we did with the Runaways in the '70s, and what a couple of other girls did, that it would open up the music industry, but that energy has always been difficult to sustain.

"It's dangerous, because there is the illusion that there's equality, and everything is just fine. But it is not, because girls are discouraged from achieving in rock music beyond the level of a hobby. There are plenty of all-girl bands in any city, but to break through to that next level from club to radio support is virtually impossible."

And yet Jett did it. With her longtime backing band, the Blackhearts, she has enjoyed nine Top 40 hits, including such rock radio classics as "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and "Bad Reputation," as well as eight albums that have sold to either gold or platinum levels.

She has become an icon to fans of classic rock, metal, punk, indie rock and power pop.

Her most recent CD, Sinner, was released this summer on her 25-year-old independent label, Blackheart Records. She just got off the road from playing the male-dominated Warped concert tour, and in October will headline her own tour with opening act the Eagles of Death Metal.

During the coming week, she will appear on TV with both Jay Leno and Craig Ferguson, celebrate her birthday (Sept. 22) and play on the bill at the KFMA Fall Ball this Sunday, Sept. 24, at Tucson Electric Park.

Presented by radio station KFMA FM 92.1, the all-day show promises a diverse group of acts, including cult-favorite metal bands Avenged Sevenfold and Atreyu, and up-and-coming alternative rockers Muse.

If the company is anything like that of the Warped tour--which featured such acts as Rise Against, Underoath, Riverboat Gamblers and NOFX--Jett will likely be treated like the rock royalty she is.

"I have nothing but great things to say about all of the artists on that tour. They were all very friendly and outgoing. ... We all watched each other's sets, pulling for each other. There were none of the head trips, or a lot of negative competition between the bands, as I understand there often is on a lot of these packaged deals."

There were, however, not many women on the stage at most Warped stops, although Jett isn't critical of the tour for that. She finds blame in the record industry as a whole and in a society that discourages female empowerment.

"Rock 'n' roll is a sexual thing. If a girl plays it, that is implying that she owns her sexuality, and it distracts the audience. They wonder, 'What is she gonna do with it?' That's very threatening, and not just to boys.

"There's something threatening to the girls, too. A lot of it is about putting conditions on female sexuality--it has to be packaged in a certain consumable way. We understand how strong the conditions are."

Women can use their sexuality, but only in marketable ways, Jett said.

"It can be something so deep-rooted that even if they still attempt to do it, they fall into that trap. Girls live a lot more in their self-esteem than boys do, and our culture tells them how they can feel self-esteem. It becomes a very nasty way of packaging an artist."

Which is why Jett has led her own band and independent label for a quarter of a century, and why she has worked with uncompromising artists such as the Germs, Fugazi's Ian MacKaye, Rancid's Lars Fredrickson, Bratmobile, L7, The Gits, The Replacements' Paul Westerberg and Le Tigre's Kathleen Hanna, who appears on Sinner.

That's why, too, Jett and longtime manager Kenny Laguna also use Blackheart Records to help shepherd the careers of other promising artists, such as Cleveland's The Vacancies and Albuquerque, N.M.'s The Eyeliners, both of which have made albums released by the label.

In this way, Jett's carrying on a tradition she helped start.

"We had to start our own label way back when, because nobody would sign us in the beginning. Now we're in a position where we can occasionally put out records by other bands that have good music, but they don't have a vehicle to get it out to the public."

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