Joan Jett Has Spent Her Career Fighting For Equality In Music. But She Doesn't Know When We'll Get It.
With the release of Bad Reputation, Joan Jett has taken a moment to look back on her own life. She’s already an icon, but this documentary spanning the beginning of her career in the ‘70s all-girl band The Runaways to her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 makes something else clear: she’s a fighter. She’s gone to the mat for the rights of women in music, for her own right to make and live by her rules, and for control over her career.
“Really that’s all The Runaways were doing: trying to express ourselves the way we knew how, putting it into our songs,” Jett told Refinery29, putting the raison d'être of her groundbreaking girl band into words. “Not much different than what the Rolling Stones were doing. We didn’t want barriers put up on what we were allowed to sing about, say, or play.”
Refinery29 spoke to Jett ahead of Bad Reputation’s release, and the “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” singer told us about the strangeness of watching your life be turned into a documentary, about enduring criticism from second-wave feminists, and why she’s always faced her fears when people told her she couldn’t do something — and did it anyway.
Refinery29: With this documentary, you got the chance to look back and reflect on the choices you’ve made and the battles you’ve chosen to fight. How do you feel about what you see?
Joan Jett: “I feel pretty fulfilled, looking at the film. I went right along on the emotional journey that my life has been: the elation of The Runaways, the depression when the band broke up, meeting [my longtime manager] Kenny [Laguna]. It took me on this journey again. I feel good about it. I don’t have big regrets, yeah sure here and there in the details I could find stuff I wish I did, but on the main things, I’ve been really blessed and guided by a universal force that took me in the right direction for me.”
What battles do you feel like you’re still fighting?
“I think the gender issue, the roles of what women are allowed to do and not allowed to do, is going to be with us for a long time. That’s always a place to put some energy. Teaching younger people at an early age how to treat people is very important. I think it makes a big difference in how we grow up. Addressing gender issues and what we say to each other, it starts early. Everybody with little kids or kids around knows exactly what I’m talking about. It’s up to all of us to tend to our own gardens and deal with that stuff if we want things changed. If we want guys to treat women differently, we need to focus on how [young] boys and girls treat each other.”
When you were starting out, both with The Runaways and as a solo act, did you think of yourself as a feminist?
“No. The terminology was so new at the time; it wasn’t part of the lexicon. On a day to day level, people didn’t talk about being a feminist or not. It was, at that time, more of a political word. But, I definitely felt criticism from aspects of that movement who were uncomfortable with the fact that young girls and teenagers want to have sex and talk about sex. You don’t just dismiss that aspect of being a woman. I understand, given time to reflect on it, why people may have been a little punchy about it. But it’s frustrating when you’re taking crap from women when you’re trying to follow your dreams. Your parents always told you that you could be whatever you wanted to be, and now you’ve got these women telling you that you can’t for some political reason you don’t yet understand. I was didn’t get it.”
I know what you’re talking about with second-wave feminists. That idea of separating equality from being a sexual being was very real in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Has feminism evolved since then? Is it something you identify with more now?
“The problem with labels is they have boundaries, you know? What a feminist is to one person is not the same thing [to another]. I’m for people being what they want to be; if that’s a woman being a rock ‘n’ roller or a nuclear physicist, which may not be fields women typically go into. You can’t let other people dictate your life to you. I know I’m a woman, I knew I was a girl, but I’m going to do what I’m going to do. I didn’t get caught up in the gender role of it. That’s what I was fighting against the whole time, the fact that people were saying girls can’t play rock ‘n’ roll. It didn’t make logical sense to me. I was in band class playing clarinet and sitting next to girls playing cello and violin, while we played Beethoven and Bach. You’re not saying girls can’t master the instrument, you’re saying they’re not allowed to be the Rolling Stones. Rock ‘n’ roll by its nature is sexual. So, if a girl is going to play guitar or drums, it’s going to be sexual! There’s no way of separating those things. I found out very quickly how uncomfortable people are with people discussing their sexuality, and certainly teenagers discussing it. Really that’s all The Runaways were doing: trying to express ourselves the way we knew how, putting it into our songs. Not much different than what the Rolling Stones were doing. We didn’t want barriers put up on what we were allowed to sing about, say, or play.”
It totally makes sense. With the Rolling Stones and so many bands of the era, women were allowed to be the subject of the song but not allowed to perform the songs because it was too dangerous. It creates a whole culture where women are the muse and not the artist.
“That’s what you’ve got to fight against, because who put down those rules? Where is it written that that’s how it is? That’s the thing: people count on you being fearful, as a woman or whoever you are and whatever you want to do. They count on that fear to keep them from forging ahead and figuring that out. It’s definitely fear-inducing, and it’s not a fear you want to face. But it is doable.”
You’ve had a front row seat to this for decades now. How do you think things have evolved for women in the music industry? What’s the biggest challenge facing women today?
“I think it’s still very much the same as it was many years ago. The appearance is that women have come a lot further, and maybe on some levels they have, but until women really get into positions of power, where they’re making the money decisions of where this and that dollar goes, and are in the upper echelons of things across the board, which is going to take time, I don’t think things will change that much. Because they have not until now. We’re still fighting the same issues that I was discussing years ago. There’s a thing on a loop about what girls can achieve. When they come up, you’ve got to challenge those assumptions at every turn, and it can be exhausting. On some level, it can be easier not to fight and to go along. That’s what women have to decide: do you want to go along, and maybe your life will be a little bit more comfortable if you don’t make waves? But years down the line, they’re going to go, ‘What happened? I’m not happy at all.’ Years down the line, they’ll look back and realize, maybe, that sometimes you have to press for your dreams. You have to fight for your own self, no one is going to give it to you. It’s a lot of lip service until you start actually doing it. Then it seems people like to throw barriers up, as opposed to being helpful.”
When women run into roadblocks and find they’re being told what to do in music, what kind of advice do you give out to the younger generation of women who are seeking your wisdom and experience?
“I think this theme runs through our whole interview, to a degree: stand up for yourself. Confidence also begins young. To help girls find that sense of confidence and learn how to find it when you get thrown off balance — which you always will. It’s not like I have it together all the time. You always have to rebalance, and that’s important for people to know. Everybody has those ups and downs, me too. Every day it’s a struggle to keep yourself motivated and positive, but it’s important. As corny as it sounds, you’ve got to go for your dreams — whatever they are. I find that people, maybe it’s human nature, but that’s depressing...if you’re sitting with people and tell them what your dream is, instead of telling you it sounds cool and you should do that, they tend to go, ‘Are you crazy? You can’t do that.’ People tend to shoot down dreams as opposed to supporting them. You’ve got to resist that. Find someone to support you; it may be your friends and family. It’s important to have someone, even if they don’t quite see what you see, to support you and offer a shoulder to cry on if you need to and a pat on the back when you don’t need it.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.