All images courtesy of Getty Images/Women Who Rock
By Andrew Daly
There is a common misconception that men dominate the rock scene. It’s not true. Women have long co-dominated the rock scene. The real issue is that they simply aren’t properly acknowledged for their achievements. Over the last several years, women have finally begun to speak out against those who oppress, undermine, and relegate them. It is no longer cool, or acceptable, to be a misogynistic alpha male.
Still, even with all that women have accomplished, we still see inequalities. For example, did you know that women only make up 19% of the average music festival lineup? How about this – as of January 21st, 2022, only 5% of 2019’s top 100 recordings were produced by a woman. The music industry has virtually erased female producers, particularly women of color, from the popular charts.
So, even though we as a society have come a long way in terms of leveling the playing field between men and women, make no mistake – we aren’t there yet. There is work to be done. With this article, I wanted to take the time to highlight some of the most talented, influential, and badass women of rock music. Maybe in some small way, it will help open the eyes of those who feel things are “equal” as they are.
This will not be about who Rolling Stone, NME, or Pitchfork feel are commercially viable. This will not be centered around who MTV, VH1, or Fuse had topping out their greatest whatever list. This article will feature women who have made an impact on rock music, have a story to tell, and a lesson to teach. With that being said, let’s get started.
Formerly the lead vocalist for the German heavy metal band, Warlock, Doro Pesch has been redefining what it means to be a woman in heavy metal for well over thirty years. Originally born in Dusseldorf, Germany, Doro’s early influences were the likes of Little Richard, T. Rex, Sweet, and Slade. After beating a life-threatening form of tuberculosis as a teenager in the 1970s, Doro decided to dedicate all of her time to singing and music. Once she joined Warlock in 1982, she went on to lead the group to commercial success with a mix of power ballads and traditional heavy metal. Her unique voice and stage presence led Warlock to easily compete with other popular acts of the day, an exception in the 1980s metal scene which was completely dominated by male-fronted bands. Oftentimes in the 1980s, the presence of women in rock, and in particular heavy metal bands, was usually considered by fans more for glamour and sexual exploitation. Doro Pesch was one of the few exceptions, as her abilities as a vocalist, and songwriter and her commitment to promoting their music without posturing as a sex symbol won the respect of the European heavy metal scene in the 1980s and beyond. Since leaving Warlock, she has released twelve more studio albums. Doro Pesch has never compromised her art or her integrity. In her free time, she supports non-profit organizations such as Terre des Femmes, which help women and girls in need all over the world. You can visit their website here. She is also trained as a Thai boxer and is an accomplished painter and graphic designer. Here’s to hoping that Doro not only continues to push gender boundaries but also punches them right in the face.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Before the likes of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were claiming rock music as their territory, it was women like guitarist and singer Sister Rosetta Tharpe who drew the literal blueprints for the entire rock ‘n’ roll archetype in the first place. Her soulful blend of Gospel and foot-stomping Blues laid a very real foundation for Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis to lay their careers upon. Retrospective reviewers have kindly and rightfully dubbed her both “The Original Soul Sister,” and “The Godmother of Rock n’ Roll.” Tharpe was a true pioneer in her guitar technique, as she was among the first recording artists ever to use heavy distortion in her electric guitar playing. All of her recordings predate the rise of electric Blues, and so if what they say is true, and Jimmy Page really did steal from the likes of Howlin’ Wolf, and Willie Dixon, then they deserved it because all of them were stealing outright from Sister Rosetta Tharpe!
As time has worn on, Sister Rosetta Tharpe has begun to get her just due with Rosanne Cash stating recently that her father’s favorite singer was in fact, Rosetta Tharpe. A statement that Johnny Cash echoed in his own Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech. Other musicians such as Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Isaac Hayes, and Meat Loaf have all cited Sister Rosetta Tharpe as an important influence on their own work. In modern times, singer/songwriter Frank Turner even wrote a song called “Sister Rosetta” about her everlasting influence on rock music, and that she undoubtedly deserved to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2018, things finally came full circle for The “Godmother of Rock n’ Roll,” as Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally enshrined in the Rock and Roll half of fame for her indelible early influence on the genre. People will steal from her no more. The cat is finally out of the bag.
Courtney Love may be the most unfairly derided woman in the history of modern R=rock music. Yes, it’s true she had an extremely high-profile and excessively turbulent relationship with Nirvana’s frontman, Kurt Cobain, which ended in Cobain’s demise. Yes, it’s also true that she’s at times self-indulgent, drug-addled, and generally self-destructive. However, Courtney Love is also a true rock ‘n’ roll survivor. The public tends to have a garish obsession with the role she may or not have played in Kurt Cobain’s death. That being said, this is not an investigative piece on the death of Kurt Cobain. More so, we should not be so shortsighted as to allow her supposed “role” in his death to overshadow her contributions to rock music. Her candid, vulnerable songwriting has allowed her to grant herself a role model to so many awkward, misfit young women.
On that subject, Love once commented, “When you’re dying, and your life is flashing before your eyes, you’re gonna be thinking about the great things you did, the horrible things that you did, the emotional impact that someone had on you, and that you had on somebody else. Those are the things that are relevant. To have some sort of emotional impact that transcends time, that’s great.” Her ability to rise to the top in the aftermath of her larger-than-life husband’s death, reaching far beyond his great shadow is a testament to her own drive and ability as a musician and songwriter.
Furthermore, her perseverance gives young female musicians who may be struggling to navigate an overwhelmingly male-dominated world some hope. With her own band Hole, her performances are uninhibited, and her lyrics are both confrontational and confessional. Love has been cited as a particular influence on young female guitarists, having once said, “I want every girl in the world to pick up a guitar, and start screaming. I strap on that motherfucking guitar, and you cannot fuck with me. That’s my feeling.” The book The Electric Guitar: A history of an American Icon paid her praise by saying, “Love truly lived up to Paul Westerberg’s assessment of pretty girls ‘playing makeup/wearing guitar. She frequently stood on stage, microphone in hand, and foot on monitor, and simply let her Fender guitar dangle around her neck. She truly embodied the empowerment that came with playing the electric guitar.” Some love her, some abhor her, but no matter how you look at her, Courtney Love has managed to have a lasting impact on rock music, on female-fronted alternative acts, and on performers in general. She is a different kind of person. One who will forever walk to the beat of her own drum. For better, or for worse.
Chrissie Hynde is the über badass singer of one of my favorite bands, The Pretenders. She has unmistakable style, a fantastic contralto vocal range laced with its own highly distinctive time signatures. Chrissie has a way of vocalizing which is truly hers, eschewing formal voice training; she contends that, “Distinctive voices in Rock are trained through years of many things: frustration, fear, loneliness, anger, insecurity, arrogance, narcissism, or just sheer perseverance – anything but a teacher.” Speaking of perseverance, she has that in spades. She’s guided her band, The Pretenders, through multiple deaths, intense discord, and long stretches of inactivity all the while always coming out on top, better and stronger than ever. Her gut-punching, take-no-prisoners approach to life and songwriting has been often imitated but never duplicated.
Chrissie Hynde has not only perpetually influenced the musical landscape of the last four decades, but she’s also helped shape female fashion with her “Zen-Beatnik-Punk-Biker-Chick” style. She also helped shape feminist attitudes for further generations, with Pop singer Madonna commenting, “I saw her play in Central Park in August 1980, performing with The Pretenders. She was amazing. She is the only woman I’d seen in a performance where I thought, yeah, she’s got balls, she’s awesome! It gave me courage, and inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence in a man’s world.” When it comes to Rock music, it’s Chrissie Hynde’s world, and the rest are just living in it. She’s got the voice, the style, the charisma, and most importantly – the songs. In a world where the landscape of what’s popular is constantly changing, Chrissie Hynde is what she always has been: a writer of fantastic songs, a role model for any woman who wants to enter the music business without a single iota of compromise, and a singer with a voice that most men would kill for.
Laura Jane Grace
Laura Jane Grace is both the frontwoman for the band Against Me!, and her solo band, Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers. In 2012, Laura Jane Grace came out as a trans woman. This was a massive step in raising awareness around the very real challenges of living as a trans person in both the alternative and punk scenes which, up until that point, had been lacking role models. While she may have been born Tom Gable, she knew from a young age that this was not her true identity. She recalled experiencing feelings of gender dysphoria as a child, and even cites these feelings as her “Earliest memories.” After coming out, Grace commented on her role in Against Me!, saying “However fierce our band was in the past, imagine me, six-foot-two, in heels, fucking screaming into someone’s face.”
So, in addition to being a wonderfully talented songwriter, and a true anarchist soul, Laura Jane Grace is an important and highly visible pillar of the LGBTQIA+ community. Her courage to come out will allow generations of performers after her to do the same, and her courage in the face of a male-dominated, and often times homophobic industry will be instrumental in building real acceptance, and equality in not only the punk community but the music industry in general. Herndon Graddick, President of the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, hoped that Grace’s public profile would increase public awareness, and acceptance of trans people: “Laura is displaying extraordinary courage by coming out as transgender after already establishing herself as a Rock star. For many of the band’s fans, this may be the first time they’re actually thinking about transgender people, and the bravery it sometimes takes in order to be true to yourself.” Laura Jane Grace is a true hero to us all.
Her courage in the face of her struggle and her will to succeed while in the spotlight of the music industry is nothing short of astounding. There may be some of you that feel this pick is “untraditional,” and if you are one of those people, I ask that before you pass your judgment, read Laura’s memoir Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. After that, listen to Against Me!’s now-classic album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Take the time to get to know the person. Try and understand her struggle, and learn to embrace real empathy for the human being behind those words. In the end, my hope is that you will learn to understand and embrace the value of her perspective, and more importantly, understand the true value of human life and that our preconceived, outdated notions of what makes anyone anything– don’t mean jack shit. If you’re one of those “traditional” people, then I hope this pick ruffled your proverbial feathers. I hope you’re angry, and I hope it all leads to you finally opening your eyes, and seeing the world through someone else’s lens besides your own. Rock on Laura. Rock on.
So, I want to finish by saying that for me, this isn’t just a list for consumption. No, this is maybe, hopefully, the start of a conversation. I write these columns for different purposes. Some are to share something that I like with you all. Some are for fun, and some to get an opinion out. Still, some are written with a more express purpose. The genesis of this article came about when I happened upon what I feel is a really cool, and special organization called Women Who Rock. You can visit their website here.
You may be wondering, “Who is Women Who Rock?”
For starters, it’s Female founded, Female fronted, and Female produced. The organization itself was founded by Melinda Colaizzi, who worked as a music business executive for 15 years with companies like Live Nation, ShowClix, and Berklee College of Music, while also writing her own music, and fronting her own Rock and Blues bands on the side. This is a relatively new organization that I really believe in, and I feel is doing some really great work in making headway for women across the music business. They not only focus on championing women in music, but they also have a focus on women’s health as well, which is equally, if not, more important.
In regards to gaining more exposure for women in music, Colaizzi is quoted as saying, “I have personally experienced the gender disparity found in the music industry. I have been the only woman in dozens of concert lineups. In national festival lineups, generally, twenty percent or less of headline acts are women. With so many talented musicians both locally, and nationally, the need for an organization like Woman Who Rock was clear, and my vision was born.”
On the flip side, there is also the women’s health focus, where Colaizzi was quoted saying, “I’ve had my own personal experiences of women’s health issues affecting my family, among friends, and colleagues. Through those experiences, I discovered that women are underrepresented in healthcare research funding, and learned that my hometown of Pittsburgh was home to Magee-Women’s Research Institute, the nation’s largest research institute dedicated specifically to women’s health. Learning about the disparity in research dollars made me think: why not unite, and rock the future of healthcare for all women through the power of music?”
So, this is an organization I’ve personally come to respect, and feel is worth supporting. I truly believe what they’re trying to do is worthwhile, and I implore you all to check it out on your own.
In the world we live in today, it’s important that we all are allowed to feel safe, respected, and valued. So, with this article, I hope I’ve been able to both remind and educate you on the very special impact that women have had on rock music over the last half-century, and I hope I’ve encouraged you to possibly dig deeper.
A few years ago, a revolution of gender equality in music, and in society began with the #MeToo movement. In this sometimes disturbing and unsettling world we live in, it has never been more important for both men and women to help carry the torch toward real, true equality. So, if this article accomplishes anything beyond basic, mindless entertainment, specifically for all the men out there, I hope it keeps your minds and senses driving toward actual awareness based on a true understanding that you will never understand a struggle that is not your own, but that you can still make a difference, and that you should always at least try to be kind.
For all the women reading this, I want you to know that your words, ideas, and love of music are always equally and truly valued here. One of the best parts of doing what I do is playing a role in helping bring people together through positive discussion, kindness, and real friendship, and if this article accomplishes anything, I hope it’s the furthering of those ideals and beyond.
– Andrew Daly (@vwmusicrocks) is the Editor-in-Chief for www.vwmusicrocks.com and may be reached at email@example.com