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February 07, 2011  | by: Kerri O'Malley

Joan Jett Rocks Out on the Cover of Her 1983 "Fake Friends" Single

A new Rock and Roll Hall of Fame retrospective plans to put women in their proper place: on stage, blowing everyone’s minds with the feminine touch of hard-earned rock rage and respect.  Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power will be the world’s first all-girls rock and roll exhibit.  And yes, pinch yourself: we do live in 2011.

Traveling at about the speed it took for our species to turn from monkeys to humans, the acceptance of women into the priggishly chauvinistic rock and roll scene was no small task.  And we still have a long way to go.  These days, it’s still easier for a girl to melt into the pop scene with a pair of gooey lips and over-exposed tits than it is for her to be taken seriously as a musician.  Fortunately for us, lady rockers haven’t worried too much about being “taken” one way or another lately.

From Karen O to Meg White to Gwen Stefani, modern rock girls are a diverse and deadly bunch.  Love them or hate them, they have changed things forever.  But the change didn’t start with them.

Billie Holiday Belts It

The exhibit breaks the women’s history of music into cutely-named eras, beginning with “Suffragettes to Juke-Joint Mamas” in the 1920s.  Billie Holiday, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith are all acknowledged as the absolute first in women’s recorded music, all quintessential blues and jazz singers.  Wanda Jackson, the rockabilly songstress and guitar player who kept in step with Elvis back in her day, pops up again as the exhibit moves forward in history.  Next, the girl groups step up, with nods to the Shangri-Las and the Ronettes.  But the shadow of a man (namely Phil Spector in the case of the Ronettes) was always behind these ladies, writing most of their hit songs, creating a man’s wet dream of soft and lovely females, cooing in chorus.

Then came the 1960s, an era of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and liberation.  Janis Joplin and Aretha Franklin sang their souls out with more power than the boys could ever deliver, and Grace Slick sent the world down a rabbit hole with her haunted, haunting tones.  The girls tore it up with the boys on stage, without shame or script.  And in case anyone didn’t catch the hint about what the sexual revolution was supposed to mean for us, Loretta Lynn penned a beautiful ode to birth control.

The Gritty Runaways

Joan Jett and The Runaways broke onto the scene in the 70s, just fresh young girls with big attitudes, looking to play hard.  The Runaways were the first all-girl rock band, where the girls not only stood up front, singing and looking pretty, but played instruments as well.  Cherry bombing their way into the hearts and fantasies of America, these rock and roll chicks were immensely important to female rockers, building a dirty edge into their music that was usually reserved only for the drinking, fighting, sleazy, drug-taking dudes.  The Runaways drank, fought, sleazed around, and took drugs. (At least, that’s what I gathered from last year’s Kristen Stewart/Dakota Fanning Runawaysalthough it also emphasized the role of Spector-esque male rock producer Kim Fowley.)

The 70s were doubtlessly a majorly important decade for female rockers as women joined the punk rock movement, adopting not only the music, but the attitude that had been considered unladylike for decades.  Even in the 60s, “free love” often meant free sex for the boys and free accidental babies for the ladies.  House Mothers ran communes, cooking and cleaning while the boys “felt the vibes.”  But as Patti Smith debuted her Horses LP, shoving the image of her androgynous album cover down the throats of he-man woman-haters, and Blondie’s Debbie Harry warned the world that she’d get it one way or another, something was changing in the female rock world.  Yet, despite all these earth-shaking moments, the 70s are the least-described decade on the Hall of Fame site.  Hmmm…Let’s hope that doesn’t translate into the actual exhibition.

The birth of pop is given its rightful place (yes, Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera happened, making us all wonder just how dirty we really wanted to get).  Confusing as Madonna or Britney may be — is it an empowering embrace of sexual identity or a degrading slutfest? — some sort of impact was made there, we know.

Salt-N-Pepa Attack Rap with Big Personality

And last but not least, the lovely Riot Grrrl era of the 90s, when grungy girls hit the scene again.  The Breeders sang “Cannonball,” Stefani sweated around, Lilth Fair began, and on the other side of town, female rappers were rising in their own rite.  Salt-N-Pepa brought their fierce attitude to rap’s natural posturing, but turned its sexual objectification of women on men.  Let’s see if they can p-push it real good, eh?  Oh yeah, these ladies had back-up male dancers.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame exhibition will cover our modern times as well, highlighting Lady Gaga (no comment) and Meg White.  I’m glad to see White made the cut, as she has had to endure years of critics and airheads dissing her drumming abilities as childish.  I’ve seen many a comment about Meg with the over-generalized: “This is why girls shouldn’t drum.”  Screw them, Meg.  The Hall of Fame posse is now on your side.

Women Who Rock will kick off with the RNR Hall of Fame’s Annual Spring Benefit Concert on May 14.  The show, called It’s Only Rock and Roll, will feature Wanda Jackson, Cyndi Lauper, Janelle Monae, and other female musicians yet to be announced.  The exhibit itself will open on May 13 and run through to next year.  Also on display, starting next week, is Girls on Film: 40 Years of Women in Rock, an exhibit of Anastasia Pantsios’ rock and roll snapshots.

As Cee Lo Green travels around with an all-girl band for his Ladykillers appearances, it’s obvious that instrument-playing ladies are still a novelty in rock and roll.  But hopefully this new exhibit will bring more attention to the true, NON-NOVEL power of women in rock and pop music.  After all, it’s about time we got some R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

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