Women Who Rock

20 Nov

As part of its Arts Fall Festival, PBS premiered the 90-minute documentary Women Who Rock this week. The program, hosted by the ever delightful Cyndi Lauper, highlights the impact of women on the past, present, and future of rock music. It features interviews with and performances by the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Darlene Love, Mavis Staples, Heart, and many more. It’s a powerful program and must-see viewing for anyone interested in modern music history.

Part of the inspiration for the show is an exhibit currently on view at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power. It’s a long-overdue celebration at the Hall, the first of its kind in the 25 years since the first honorees were inducted. Hopefully the exhibit and the program will help underscore the significance and influence of women in what is often viewed as a men’s club. As with so many walks of life, rock women are not the exception, but an overlooked part of the total fabric of music in the last 60 years.

Lauper herself notes the irony of the Hall of Fame being part of this celebration.

I always have been saying [the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame] should include women. I was in Cleveland and I took my cousin’s son to see it, because he wanted to see it, and they asked if I wanted a VIP tour and I said “Not really, because you don’t really include women in your curation here.” There’s hardly any women, and I feel funny walking this kid around, explaining who the women were who were around at the time.

The Hall certainly has honored many important women, including Aretha Franklin, Joni Mitchell, The Supremes, Blondie, Mahalia Jackson, writer Cynthia Weil, and many more. Sadly, however, only 11% of the inductees are women or even groups that include women. Given that there are 16 men who have been inducted twice or more (as members of groups and as solo performers), there certainly seems to be room for more inclusion.

The Hall can’t please everyone, of course, and the importance of various performers has a highly subjective quality. While the criteria are laudably broad, however, and commercial appeal or classic rock credibility are clearly not the only factors, it’s hard to credit some of the glaring omissions. Besides our Cyndi, where are Joan Baez, Pat Benatar, Mother Maybelle Carter, Cher, Sandy Denny, Eurythmics, The 5th Dimension, Connie Francis, Carole King, Patti LaBelle, The Mekons, Olivia Newton-John, Dolly Parton, Linda Ronstadt, Carly Simon, Nina Simone, Dionne Warwick, X, or Young Marble Giants to name a few diverse examples?

This is especially troubling when one considers that only five of the 28 inductees from the past three years are women (including ABBA and two male-female songwriting pairs). Five of the 15 nominees for 2012 are women: Heart, Joan Jett (and the Blackhearts), Chaka Khan (with Rufus), Laura Nyro, and Donna Summer. Let’s see how they fare.

As in every other field, women have made major contributions. From Dolly Parton’s Just Because I’m A Woman to P!nk’s Stupid Girls, from Aretha Franklin’s Respect to Lady Gaga’s Born This Way: as singers, songwriters, musicians, businesspeople, and carriers of message through music, women who rock matter. Let’s be certain to celebrate them.

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