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A Joan Jett Fantasy

January 6, 1982

I like Joan Jett, and I enjoyed her first album, Bad Reputation, more than anything I listened to all last year. I’d probably enjoy her second album, I Love Rock ‘n Roll, almost as much, since it’s really almost as good. But two good albums in a year for a steadily expanding audience suggest that this woman is going to have a career. That means contemplating not only where she has chosen to stand in the history of rock and roll, but where she might go. And that, rather than reassuring, is disconcerting.

Take her flawless taste. Good taste, in rock and roll, is certainly not timeless –it can turn into tomorrow’s tired cliche. But it does have its historical moments. Linda Ronstadt’s good taste during her ascendancy in the middle ’70s made a connection between Motown, Buddy Holly, Dolly Parton, and James Taylor when that connection was a balm on the fissures of the fragmenting counterculture. Today it’s a dead end for Ronstadt and an Adult Contemporary soporific. Other examples spring to mind –Arlo Guthrie, Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson. Maybe even–long, long ago in a culture in ferment, far, far away –the Rolling Stones.

Joan Jett currently has the best taste in rock and roll. Choosing a Ramones-tinged, punk-influenced cast for her fast, hard, medium-heavy traditional rock quartet sound frees her from the melodrama and sexual posturing built into the more Led Zeppish (or was it Heartish) heavy metal cast she had as a member of the Runaways. Punk’s gift is the use of energy as a metaphor for a sexuality and assertiveness that isn’t mined with submissive booby traps. The Runaways were jailbait, an ambiguous message about who had power. And while a male rock fantasy can strut and preen onstage, a female doing the same thing suggests a gang-bang as well as a dominatrix. Joan Jett bouncing around the stage of the Ritz New Year’s Eve on black sneakers while covered in black Spandex (with shoulder pads) was dominant but neither scary nor ludicrous.

On top of that is her wonderful choice of old material: Dave Clark Five, Tommy James, Sam the Sham, the Isleys, Gary Glitter, and most striking–Leslie Gore’s old anticipation of feminism “You Don’t Own Me.” These are all great songs with bad reputations, fitting into neither the genteel rock aesthetic of the Ronstadt era nor the earlier rock’s-rebellious-roots aesthetic of the ’60s. The choice of songs echoes Joan Jett’s own stance as a good person with a bad reputation and implies a sort of Reichian connection between sexual rebellion and cultural energy unfettered by intellectual propriety.

This is exactly my taste, these are my favorite songs, this is the dynamic I’ve always wanted to believe existed between cultural freedom and sexual freedom, and this is just what I thought was going to be created when feminism met rock and roll. There are just two problems. It’s too perfect. And it was supposed to happen a decade ago.

It’s disconcerting for a fantasy to happen after you quit believing in it. Makes you feel like the teacher who’s suspicious when the students have learned everything too perfectly (the Bruce Springsteen problem). Makes you feel a lapse in taste would be reassuring. And it also makes you remember what’s happened in the intervening 10 years (the Rolling Stones problem). Do these fantasies matter anymore?

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ show at the Ritz was nearly perfect. Not slick–it was rock and roll sloppy, but very professional. After all, as I figure it, she’s been touring for six years, since she was 16. It’s reassuring to see a rock and roll woman who doesn’t have to rely on sexual manipulation, eccentricity, or the charms of the unpolished. But this being the 1980s, the better the act is, and the less marginal its potential, the more ominous the maw of a very large and meaningless success looms up ahead. Her voice has the classic flat rock and roll midrange of Chuck Berry, Mike Love, even the pre-cynical Mick Jagger. It’s expressive but not dramatic, open but not too revealing, common but not average, and confident but not insolent. It could become the vessel of all sorts of social meaning, or of not much at all. And it’s a woman’s voice this time, which could be very or only slightly interesting.

It feels safer these days to put your hope in the marginal, the new, the minimal, the experimental, to assume something good can only come out of left field and that it isn’t likely to go very far. But Joan Jett’s current vitality disrupts this comfortable retreat. At the moment, there is new wine in those old bottles. At the moment, it’s exciting to listen to a cocky, self-contained, female rock and roller with a sense of tradition.

So what kind of audience could sustain that rock and roller’s vitality? It would have to believe that Joan Jett understood the moral purpose behind rock and roll rebellion, as a woman would be more likely to do. That the audacious inclusion of “You Don’t Own Me” on one record and “The Little Drummer Boy” on the other showed that Joan Jett understood the function of virtue in rock and roll, the need for a little risked innocence amid the bad-assing, and that this would give her the same stab at longevity as Bruce Stringsteen.

It would have to believe that Joan Jett’s taste and skill revealed intelligence and perception, and that, if she was able to maneuver her way from the confines of teen rebellion in the Runaways to a self-contained assertiveness in her twenties with the Blackhearts, she had a good shot at avoiding the confines of that stance as she got older. That she might really move on to something else before she got locked in.

It would have to believe that the rock and roll life was coming alive again as a metaphor, that audiences were sharing with performers, that this was something more than a self-contained milieu inhabited by pros who enacted a fantasy life for consumers. And that she would leave herself open to creative influences from rock and roll subcultures that could help her do this.

It would have to believe that her one-of-the-boys stance was an honest preference and not a defense, and that it mattered that there was such a a female role model around in 1982, as it would have mattered if such a female role model had arisen in 1970.

Okay. I’ll try.

Tom Smucker

Village Voice

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