Any Deviation: Joan Jett Through the Eyes of a Strange Grrrl
Like any edgy youngster who grew up in the mid to late 2000s, I was obsessed with Guitar Hero. I’d kill hours in our playroom, sacrificing precious Disney Channel sitcom time to pretend I was a rockstar in a leather jacket. My little hands could barely reach all the little buttons but that didn’t stop me. My choice of song was quite limited; all I wanted to play was old macho hair metal my dad put in the car, or independent songs generic enough to play on the radio. Things I knew. But while loading one of the games, I vividly remember hearing a song intro that I just couldn’t not look out for. A walking rhythm, a guitar spinning like a motor and a woman at the center of it all, growling.
Even singing about how hopelessly devoted to her man, she sounded like a badass. I had hardly ever heard women do the kind of rock music I listened to, let alone sound as steadfast as guys like that. Her name and song title were displayed at the bottom of the screen: “Hate Myself For Loving You” – Joan Jett. And that was it. From that point on, I enviously looked at studded belts in charity shops, or scribbled little rants in my journals that I wish I had known more rockers because god, I wanted to talk to Someone about that. I felt like I had discovered gravity, or fire, something that was obviously there long before I was born, but that had irrevocably changed my way of seeing the world.
Joan Jett’s take on ’80s hard rock was a gateway for me in so many ways. She was one of the people who inspired me to pick up a real guitar, with “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” being one of the first songs I ever learned properly. If she can do it, and she looks so cool doing it, I’m like, why can’t I?
But playing an instrument, of course, is just one way of being in an alternate subculture. Jett’s presence in this old-school, male-dominated rock world was a signal to my young self that I could take up space there too. Embarrassingly, I was really a “unlike any other” girl growing up. I was called weird so often that I started wearing it as a badge of honor, proudly sharing my niche interests despite – often, in fact, because of – the critical looks it would give me. But defining yourself in relation to your peers can get pretty lonely. If I wasn’t “like the other girls”, what was I?
Female rockstars like Joan Jett gave me my answer to this question. The hard rock that I grew up with is huge, visually and sonically, with its dramatic hair and overdriven riffs that feature in Joan Jett’s most famous songs. Her favorite genre doesn’t apologize, and many who interviewed her know neither.. She also released songs like “(I’m Gonna) Run Away”, full of fuzzy guitars to add bite to a power-pop style chorus, and my favorite “Grrrl activity‘, who praised young women for being passionate and boisterous activists when they are so often ridiculed as queens of the theater for having strong opinions.
Perhaps the most obvious example of the soundtrack of his songs in my quest for identity is his most famous track, ‘Bad Reputation’. It’s a song that screams with every sarcastic comment used to scare young women into behaving, but with its simple, catchy chords found in the punk world, it makes entire arenas sing.
Countless shows and movies have used the song to hint at a mold-breaking character. It’s a war cry for nonconformity, and phrases like “a girl can do whatever she wants” make it clear that she is not conforming to passive female roles, while embracing a new kind of femininity that barks.
Writing these kinds of rock songs explicitly about being a woman, not just being a woman, was also quite remarkable to me when I was younger. Women were mentioned in the heavier music I grew up with as props for male enjoyment, and as in many male-dominated environments there seems to be pressure to embody the stereotype of The cool girl. They can stay, of course, as long as they don’t bring up their âfemale drama,â or kill the mood by bitching about the serious issues of gender inequality that plague us all.
I spent a good part of my youth trying to come to terms with this clichÃ©. I was in a lot of male-dominated fandoms, from pop-punk and emo to wrestling fan communities, where I was told wordlessly not to be too loud, not too dramatic, or too feminist. . If I was talking about the sexism I experienced in these spaces, I was just a stupid girl spoiling the fun. But I was never able to fully commit to being The Cool Girl, to playing the game, because every once in a while I would go back to my childhood heroes like Joan Jett and realize how pointless this game was. Decades before me, there were women who carved their own identity without sacrificing their passion. If she didn’t have to choose between being feminine and getting her hands dirty in the rock world, maybe I didn’t have to either. Maybe being like the other girls wasn’t that bad.
Alternative subcultures often consist of a bunch of misfits finding common ground, and that’s exactly what I felt like defining myself as a “rock chick” and admiring someone whom no one knows. ‘other in my classes never cared. I’m not alone in all of this either. There is something like a revival of Riot Grrrl right now, especially on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, which has led young people to re-evaluate the women who pioneered rock before their time. In TikToks on Riot Grrrl’s Influences and Predecessors, two iconoclasts continue to emerge: British punk Poly Styrene and Joan Jett.
There are arguments to be made that each of Jett’s former band members from The Runaways was a game-changer. They were a bunch of teenage girls in a world where everything teenage girls love is ridiculed as fangirling. Even though their act was designed somewhat for a male audience, their great energy and self-confidence is something that many others can reclaim. People like me weren’t their target audience for the band, but here we are now.
For Jett in particular, her ability to reinvent herself over time has likely contributed to her lasting influences on several generations of rebellious girls. For over a decade, she proudly stood in heavily male-dominated rock subgenres, and no matter which one she found herself in, she never compromised her self-confidence.