Women’s rock enters the academy
| Rocker-turned-professor Lisa Rhodes examines how women in ’60s rock culture were portrayed in her new book, Electric Ladyland: Women and Rock Culture. In researching it, Rhodes discovered that very little was written in magazines about women musicians and their work, and less was written in academia: “Big parts of the story haven't been told.”
In Electric Ladyland: Women and Rock Culture, Temple professor Lisa Rhodes goes beyond dishing interesting music industry tidbits about Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell and others.
The book also examines how female rockers were portrayed by popular music journals Rolling Stone and the Village Voice, as well as by a number of mainstream publications, from 1965 to 1975.
And Electric Ladyland delves deeper into the culture itself with a scholarly look at how the experiences of the women in rock, particularly celebrated and sought-after groupies, correlated with the women’s movement and changing sexual attitudes and mores in America.
“Like the journalists, female musicians — and even the more self-possessed groupies — were attempting to expand the social possibilities for all women in the face of hostility and indifference,” writes Rhodes, an assistant professor of American studies.
“Because the majority of journalists were men, however, women in the rock subculture ended up being described by people who might not have a clear understanding of their experiences.”
Rhodes found commonalities in coverage of female rockers in the mainstream press. Generally, the pieces favored classically trained musicians like Joan Baez over “untrained” ones, like Aretha Franklin. There was a palpable “attitude of condescension toward the musicians, their music and their fans” and pieces used excessive detail in the descriptions of women’s appearances, Rhodes said.
The best bellwether of that, the professor noted, is the popular press’ treatment of Joplin, whom Rhodes calls “the most influential and revolutionary of the women musicians in this era.”
“[Writers] mostly used comments about Joplin’s clothing to draw attention to her carnality,” Rhodes said, noting that one Newsweek piece on Joplin at the Monterey Pop Festival said Joplin “jumped and sang like a demonic angel in her gold-knit pants suit.”
That approach, Rhodes maintains, attempted “to diminish Joplin and her accomplishments by describing her as ‘just another chick,’ when in fact she was the most innovative performer in rock music at the time.”
“Joplin was a trendsetter of the first rank and, as such, challenged people’s preconceived notions of how a female musician should look and act.”
In researching the book, which grew out of her doctoral dissertation at the University of Texas, Rhodes painstakingly scoured media accounts to examine coverage of female musicians … when coverage was there at all. The book also includes detailed interviews with journalists, groupies and noted photographer Baron Wolman, who had the idea for Rolling Stone’s famous 1969 groupie issue.
“The most noticeable thing in researching the magazines is how few articles existed,” Rhodes said. “These publications did not write frequently about women musicians and their work.”
In fact, the groupie issue was only the fifth time a female had graced the cover of Rolling Stone, which began publishing in 1967, Rhodes noted. But the issue was clearly important enough to Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner that he took out an unprecedented full-page, $7,000 ad in The New York Times to promote it, according to Rhodes.
“Wenner believed the issue was something special and deserved extraordinary publicity,” Rhodes said of the issue, which used a black-and-white photo of a velvet- and lace-clad groupie named Karen on its cover. The same photo of Karen, with an ever-so-slight smirk on her lips, graces the cover of Electric Ladyland.
“Due to its approach and popularity, Rolling Stone’s groupie issue forever linked rock groupies with a particular construction of compulsory sexual behavior,” Rhodes said. “The issue had a far-reaching, though somewhat reductive and limiting, effect on the idea of the groupie in American popular culture.”
But, Rhodes said, her interviews with groupies, most of whom preferred to be identified by their groupie names — Pennie Lane and Cynthia Plaster Caster among them — showed that there “was no hegemonic, monolithic groupie culture.”
“Groupies were an important part of the landscape of popular music’s history,” Rhodes said. “Between 1965 and 1975, the groupies were battling a centuries-old double standard, and they were winning that battle. Only a few rock journalists realized their intrinsic interest to a culture in the midst of a revolution in its sexual behavior.”
Wolman, the photographer, was one of them, as was Lillian Roxon, author of the first rock ’n’ roll encyclopedia, Rhodes said.
“Wolman’s portraits of rock women are some of the finest examples of this art form from this, or any other, era,” Rhodes said. “Wolman treated the women with great sensitivity in his photographs, endowing them with a range of human possibilities.”
Groupies, Rhodes said, “regarded themselves as far more than just sex partners for the male musicians. They had power and weren’t afraid to wield it. Due to their panache, beauty, sex appeal and chutzpah, they were extraordinarily powerful in the rock subculture, and status devolved on the rock stars who could attract them.”
“They are what give rock its sex appeal and its magic,” Roxon wrote. “They are the fans who have dared to break the barriers between the audience and the performer, fans with one thing to give — love — who want nothing in return but a name to drop.”
No journalist understood rock culture, musicianship and American popular culture more intimately than former New Yorker and Village Voice writer Ellen Willis, Rhodes said.
“Of all the people who covered rock music in the 1960s and 1970s, Willis created the most cogent and complex analyses,” Rhodes writes. “She wrote articles about men and women in rock and roll that did not ignore differences between the sexes, but rather explored them. Her articles demonstrate what nonsexist writing about rock and roll could be.”
Rhodes’ book includes a 1969 passage from Willis, now at New York University, on seeing Joplin in concert.
“It was the most exalting, exhausting concert I have ever been privileged to see, hear and feel,” Willis wrote, noting that the audience would not leave. “Finally, [Joplin] came back onstage. ‘I love you, honey,’ she said, gasping, ‘but I just got nothing left.’
“Someday, we were sure, it would really be true, someday soon if she kept giving like that.”
Willis wrote that she felt “a little like a vampire,” enjoying Joplin. “From now on,” she wrote, “I decided, after two encores I stop clapping.”
A former rock musician in the 1980s who was often mistaken for a groupie backstage, Rhodes began researching Electric Ladyland thinking she’d find some source material.
“When I started this project, I thought I’d at least have a guide. But I was out there in the wilderness,” she said. “This is the first book written in academia on Rolling Stone, and on music coverage in the Village Voice, let alone women in rock music journalism.
“I don’t think the ’60s have been mined at all,” she added. “Big parts of the story haven’t been told.”
- By Barbara Baals
Lisa Rhodes has gone from living the rock ’n’ roll life to researching it, writing about it and teaching it.