The Underappreciated Women of Rock

The Amazing Sister Rosetta Tharpe

The band Heart is undoubtedly one of the greatest bands to come out of the classic rock era. Songs like "Barracuda" and "Crazy On You" put them on the map. The band formed in an era that female rock musicians were not taken seriously and were downright thwarted in comparison to their male counterparts. Notable female rock musicians from their era of the late 70s – early 80s were people like Joan Jett, Lita Ford, Tina Turner, Pat Benatar, Chrissie Hynde, Stevie Nicks, Debbie Harry, and so many others that made their mark on the genre. The common theme with all of them seems to be that they have, at one point, been discredited on the sole purpose of gender. The Wilson sisters of Heart have been particularly treated in a disgusting way just for the simple fact that they were women succeeding at being rock stars. In fact, the inspiration to write "Barracuda" came from the anger towards a false publicity stunt that claimed that the Wilson sisters were in an incestuous relationship, and geared its anger toward the music industry sexism that tried to put them down.

A problem that is incredibly evident is Nancy Wilson’s guitar playing is always forgotten about retrospectively when talking about great guitarists. I had the pleasure of seeing Heart in Toronto in 2014, who had Jason Bonham, son of the late John Bonham of Led Zeppelin, opening for them. The Heart sisters, even 30 plus years after their prime, were musically on point. They were doing Zeppelin songs better than current members nowadays. Ann Wilson’s pipes were strong as ever, even though people talked a lot about her looks. Nancy Wilson matched, if not surpassed, what Jimmy Page is capable of doing. Jimmy Page is considered one of the greatest guitarists of all time, but on that same list would you find Nancy Wilson? The answer is a resounding no. On Rolling Stone’s top 100 guitarists of all time, only two are women: Joan Jett, and Joni Mitchell. Despite the undoubted talent they present, the lack of representation is astonishing. Especially since women were essential in pioneering the genre. Alongside heavy blues musicians like Robert Johnson, Leadbelly, and Muddy Waters, and I will cite women like Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Memphis Minnie, Ma Rainey, Liz Cotton, and Beverly Watkins (whose androgynous style and explosive performances are very much overlooked in this genre). To the credit of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they are finally inducting Sister Rosetta Tharpe this year, citing her as the Godmother of Rock and Roll 45 years posthumously. In her time she was discredited due to rumors of homosexuality, and straying from her gospel path. A major overlooked fact about Sister Rosetta Tharpe, is that she was one of the first to pioneer heavy distortion on the electric guitar in the 1940s as a very clear precursor to the rock genre.

The rock industry’s history of keeping women and LGBTQ+ at bay and attempting to make it a macho boys club is the biggest farce in music. The chattered homosexuality of The Runaways, and David Bowie’s open bisexuality and genderfluidity may have been some of the only exceptions in the mainstream, and not without immense backlash. Fans were apparently dumbfounded to learn that Freddie Mercury was gay. Despite the feminine look of glam metal bands of the 80s and 90s, it was always accompanied by explicit themes of womanizing. There is a problem with rock stars throughout the years, and the pattern of abusing women as if they are a trophy of fame and success. 

Few women and LGBTQ+ people have slid through these cracks and barriers toward mainstream success. Aside from the women I mentioned earlier in the article, I cite Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Etta James, Patti Labelle, Kim Gordon, Siouxsie Sioux, Kathleen Hanna, Mavis Staples, Patti Smith, Meg White, Tracy Chapman, Annie Lennox, Amy Winehouse, The Ronettes, Christine McVie, Mama Cass, and more. Currently, Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes whose voice seems to transcend dimensions, and Deap Vally whose two piece group rocks harder than any of their contemporaries. These are all to name a few. In short, the genre was pioneered by men and women of colour, and groups that the mainstream does not associate with rock. True rock is rebellious, intersectional, and complicated. It is bred of inner power and raw emotion, and moving forward should look to not just inclusivity, but recognizing previously unconventional people for well deserved accomplishments and progressions within the genre.