By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Joan Jett has worn her rocker uniform and her tough-girl snarl that betters even Elvis' confident lip curl for so long now that it makes you wonder if the Philly-born, Los Angeles-raised siren ever suffered from the doubt that seems to wiggle its way under the skin of every rock-and-roll lady who takes the stage: Do I rock, or is that sea of guys screaming because they want me to take off my shirt? It's not a question of whether or not women can rock (there's no need to rekindle that insipid debate) but rather a question about women's role in rock's history--better known as his story. Women are typically cast as supporting players, fashionably dressed puppets of a male producer or the groupie doing the adoring, not the people who are adored.
Jett's career couldn't be simultaneously both more and less representative of that story line if she were a Siamese twin. Even since her days in The Runaways, the all-girl group that L.A. producer-svengali Kim Fowley promoted/shaped during its four-year flirtation with the glammed-up record biz from 1975-1979, Jett's attitude is part rock stereotype, part proto-revolution girl style now. The Runaways were one of America's first female groups proverbially to "rock" as hard as the boys. This was a band of teen girls ripping through three-chord rock about plowing through boys and booze like a middle-aged German man on holiday in Capri. It was Fowley's ploy to make bank with chicks strutting like rocker guys but still seen as rock dolls. Though The Runaways did prove to be a stepping stone between L.A.'s mid-'70s rock set and late-'70s punk misfits--as a launching pad for the Bangles, inspiration for the Go-Go's and studio mentor to the Germs (Jett produced their beautifully antagonistic 1979 debut, GI)--The Runaways were never more than a barely legal footnote, save in Japan, where the all-female group has since become a higher art form (witness garage schlockers like the 126.96.36.199's or psychedelic noise anarchists OOIOO).
When the group disbanded, Jett took a brief sojourn in London (where she hooked up with former Sex Pistols Steve Jones and Paul Cook for a few tracks) before landing in New York, where her solo career took off. Becoming one of the first women to own and operate her own label, Jett backed herself with the all-male Blackhearts and unchained 1980's Bad Reputation. With it she defined the persona that she still embodies today and became the woman rocker that the likes of Babes in Toyland, L7 and Bikini Kill saw as a role model. It also outlined Jett's straight-ahead, classic rock blueprint. Her no-frills style is packed with big, catchy guitar hooks and throbbing rhythms over which Jett growls her throaty rasp. All these elements fused into tight nuggets like the Ramones-inflected title track, the power pop tune "You Don't Know What You've Got" and the fuel-injected cover of Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)."
Though her later originals became her chart-toppers--1981's "I Love Rock and Roll" and 1988's unfortunately Poison-esque "I Hate Myself for Loving You"--its Jett's jugular jaunts through other's material, such as Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crimson and Clover," Bruce Springsteen's "Light of Day," Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues," Sly and the Family Stone's "Everyday People," Slade's "Mamma Weer All Crazee Now," the Rolling Stones' "Star Star" and Jonathan Richman's "Roadrunner," that showcases Jett's jittery, electric gift. She's able to take typically testosterone tirades and one-up the guys with ballsy, bombastic interpretations that often have more bite than their writers may have suspected. Of course, today she still loves rock and roll and has to dust off her anthems when hitting the stage. But a girl's got to find a way to put another dime in the jukebox if she wants to hear her hits, no?