Naked and Androgynous

More than two decades later, Joan Jett still has a few surprises to reveal

In case you haven't figured it out after all these years, Joan Jett is still the "tough girl." When her name is mentioned in print, that phrase always follows, like magic, by rote. In an e-mail interview with the Observer, Jett has her own take on the pigeonhole she first acquired back in 1975, when she formed the Runaways with the help of lascivious promoter Kim Fowley: "I'm bad at being subtle," she says, "but I'm not that tough."

With a voice like a fat indelible marker, Jett wasn't made for subtlety. And beneath the seeming toughness, there's always been sensitivity--in her hit cover of "Crimson and Clover," which injected a heart into that song's bubblegum center, in the philosophical come-on "Play With Me" and in "Naked," a moving punk ode to emotional exposure from her new album, Sinner. The new album is among her best, perhaps second only to her 1980 solo debut, reviving her reputation for consistently catchy, bone-basic rock after the S&M-inspired misstep of 1999's metallic "Fetish" single, her last studio recording.

But Sinner has its share of Jett firsts, including a surprisingly elegant ballad, "Watersign," and something even further out of character: explicit politics. "I don't like to wear my politics on my sleeve," says Jett, "but I feel we are at a point in history where being quiet is not a responsible or wise choice." Jett's new tracks "Riddles" and "Change the World" aren't exactly Billy Bragg. Pleading for peace and assailing Bush administration programs by name, they're more like the protest songs Joey Ramone occasionally wrote: earnest, angry, hopeful and uncontrived. Jett's usual underlying messages, sexual positivity and self-acceptance, show up on Sinner in her cover of the old Replacements tune "Androgynous," an empathic sketch of a gender-ambiguous couple. "It's a song I've always loved for its uniqueness and truth," says Jett, "not to mention its beautiful melody." Jett's warm take on the song not only hangs a jangly country arrangement on the original piano ditty but also shifts the tone away from Paul Westerberg's tragic edge.

As on all Jett's albums, Sinner's meatiest cuts are the rave-ups, including the sexy "A.C.D.C.," the snotty "Tube Talkin'" and the sweet "100 Ft. Away." "I never change with trends," says Jett, "partly because I can only do my music with conviction when it turns me on, and three-chord rock and roll and punk is, so far, the only music I love to do." Sinner's best track, however, isn't a raver or even a ballad but something in between: "Baby Blue," so sparse and cool and hard that it's straight out of an S.E. Hinton novel, written in the third person about a certain tough girl whom you may already know.

 
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