The Wichita music scene is having an ’80s flashback. The Go-Go’s headlined last year’s Riverfest; Joan Jett was a signature performer during this year’s. The band Heart, fronted by sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson, will play the Stiefel Theatre in Salina on Oct. 24. And on Thursday, Pat Benatar will headline at the Kansas Star Casino in Mulvane. Big hair recollections and neon fashion nostalgia aside, it’s a reminder that the decade stands out for its remarkable roster of successful female rock stars.
“In the late ’70s and early ’80s, it was really a heightened time for women,” said Melinda Newman, a Los Angeles-based entertainment writer and former West Coast bureau chief for Billboard magazine. “It was an era when rock was really strong, and there were a lot of women with something to say. Whether it was Heart or Pat Benatar, these weren’t women who were shying away from really taking a spotlight, really claiming their power and really having something to sing about.”
What about their contemporaries, though? The 1990s gave us a few trend-setting female rockers, including No Doubt’s Gwen Stefani, who remains relevant though her prominence has dimmed. And there’s no question that women dominate pop music – Katy Perry, Beyonce, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Pink and Adele are among today’s most radio-friendly and noteworthy performers. But when it comes to rock and roll, female-fronted bands and singers have faded. That doesn’t mean women have left the stage, though.
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Jenny Wood, a vocalist and guitarist with the Wichita-based rock band Gooding, thinks women were taken more seriously in rock music by the 1980s after they had spent much of the 1970s increasing their presence on stage by singing backup with bands like Pink Floyd and the Rolling Stones. As a musician who tours nationally, she finds inspiration in women who are as savvy businesswise as they are artistically talented.
“It’s harder for people to take women seriously in rock,” she said. “Joan Jett is one of my top business-minded women influences. St. Vincent, My Brightest Diamond these are all women who nudged their ways to the top. They believe in themselves, are persistent and stick to their guns.”
Rachel Cutler, drummer for the Wichita-based rock band The New Imperialism, sees the birth of MTV as part of what helped women advance.
“MTV helped move the industry forward, especially for women, because women have the sex appeal, they can sell, and they can look great and perform just as well as men can,” she said. “MTV helped in that it visually showed that to a mass audience.”
Newman saw the advent as more of a double-edged sword, though.
“With MTV, women went from being judged by their music to being judged by their looks. There was a real shift,” she said. “The Bangles and the Go-Go’s really had to look cute and sound good as well. The premium on looks became the focus. It set many women up to fail. Not everyone was able to break through as a result.”
A home in indie rock
Wood said she’s worried about the status of women in rock today. She sees a lot of male-fronted bands that feature women in their ensemble in a docile, more demure manner – a throwback of sorts that she fights in her own performances.
“When I’m on stage, I’m my loud, weird, wild self,” she said. “I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about being with such a male-influenced band, but I know I am influencing that music. It’s very important to have a woman’s influence in a band. It gains the band female followers, and it means something to fans when they see a woman up there on stage.”
Indie and alternative rock seem to offer promise for budding female-fronted acts, though. Wood points to the success of groups like Haim, an all-women indie band from the Los Angeles area whose hit single “The Wire” generated much buzz within the indie music world.
Cutler said the culture of indie rock makes it more accessible and allows women to be freed from some of hard rock’s constraints.
“I see a lot more ladies in the indie rock scene,” she said. “It’s a bit calmer and much more expressive. I think women really like playing that kind of music for that reason, and a lot more women gravitate to it as an audience.”
Newman sees a lot of hybrid artists breaking through and thinks that’s perhaps where some of the energy from women who rocked the 1980s went. She points to Kelly Clarkson and Pink, who can be classified partially as rock musicians because they belt out songs like a rocker, but their tracks tend to be much more pop-oriented.
“We’ve entered this stage where there aren’t a lot of female-fronted rock acts having mainstream success,” Newman said. “Instead we have a lot of these artists like Florence and the Machine and Lana Del Rey, who are finding more success on alternative radio even if, like Florence, they may embrace traditional rock elements. One act who is really straddling the line and doing it very well between pop and rock is Paramore. Hayley Williams is really able to capture some of the essence of the female rockers of the ’80s and still have a completely contemporary appeal.”
Cutler, who has a degree in music performance percussion, said she notices most of the popular female singers today are vocal-focused and not as instrumental. She sees rock and roll as having morphed into more of a pop-rock and R&B sort of fare. She thinks change may be happening, though, at least locally.
“I’m a private teacher, and half of my students are female. I see a lot of women entering the musician scene. There are a lot of lady drummers coming up in the next generation, so it will be interesting to see where they go.”
Newman said that while rock music shifts and morphs over time, women’s influence remains today, though it’s playing out differently.
“A lot of this is cyclical, but it has been a while since we’ve had some really straight-ahead female rockers who have really broken through. It may simply be that they’ve been replaced by women like Kelly Clarkson and Pink. It’s not necessarily a bad thing; it could be that it’s just morphed into that direction for now.”