OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

OSU RESEARCHERS ON A ROLL WITH "GIRLS ROCK"

11/04/2004

CORVALLIS, Ore. - In the pop music scene, young divas from Britney Spears to Avril Levigne make millions of dollars and dominate the charts, their every move chronicled by teen and music magazines, television entertainment programs, and legions of fans.

But in the world of hard core rock and roll, women have faced more of an uphill battle. Their struggles provide the theme for a new book called "Girls Rock: Fifty Years of Women Making Music."

Written by Mina Carson and Susan M. Shaw of Oregon State University, and Tisa Lewis of Montreat College, "Girls Rock" was published by the University of Kentucky Press. The authors say their goal was not to create a history of women in rock; rather it was to look at how a variety of performers - from stars to coffee house artisans - decided to get into music and what they faced along the way.

"We wanted to look at women's relationship with their music," said Shaw, who directs the women studies program at OSU. "There have been a lot of histories written, but no one seems to ask the women about their music. Rock is such a male-dominated genre, that we thought it would be interesting to look at women's experiences."

What they found was a uniform love for music, a lot of obstacles in the paths of the performers, and reluctance by some musicians to be part of the project. "A lot of women didn't want to be interviewed for the book because they didn't want to be known as 'women musicians,'" Shaw said. "They wanted to be known as bass players, guitarists, or drummers, but they were afraid to be portrayed through a feminist perspective because it might hurt their chances in the profession."

Carson likened the situation to women athletes. "They may be in the same sport (as men)," she said, "but somehow it is lesser."

An associate professor of history at OSU, Carson said she was particularly moved by some of the early experiences of women performers.

"One that sticks with me is the experience of Wanda Jackson," she said. "It wasn't so much about her personally, but about the way her style and appearance was so orchestrated. When she was 14 years old, she made her first appearance at the Grande Ole Opry and was told she couldn't go on stage because her dress showed bare shoulders. She was humiliated.

"It wasn't just the rule," Carson said. "It was that nobody bothered to tell this 14-year-old ahead of time. And that experience still touches a nerve with her, half a century later."

Shaw said she was touched and amused by the experience of Canadian singer Jann Arden, who was told by an American record company executive that she was "35 pounds away from superstardom."

"I never rebutted it," Arden says in the book. "I didn't say anything. I went to my hotel room and I remember calling my mom and sort of telling her the story. And there was a long pause on the line, and she said, 'well, why didn't you tell him that you didn't want to gain any more weight?'"

"It is one of those situations," Shaw said, "when humor masks a lot of pain."

Women overcoming obstacles is a major part of the book, the OSU authors say, but the performers' love for their music make those struggles worthwhile. In the first chapter of their book, "Girls With Guitars," they recount the experience of Joan Jett, who started an all-women band in the 1970s called the Runaways. Initially dismissed as a novelty act, Jett went on to stardom with her next band, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who cranked out numerous hits.

Recalled Jett: "…there wasn't anything that we got because we were girls that I remember in a positive sense," she said. "Everything was, 'You're weaker 'cause you're girls. You can't take it because you're girls…But you're cute to have around, so come in and get drunk.'

But, she adds, those sacrifices may be paying off.

"After all," Jett says, "one of the goals of the Runaways was to make it normal for a girl or woman to write and play rock 'n roll and sweat onstage - and we seem to be getting closer to that."

At the other end of the spectrum are performers like Melissa Ferrick, who signed a seven-record deal in 1991, only to be dumped after two albums because she didn't have a hit.

"What she found," Shaw said, "was that she could make more money and stay true to her music by selling her own CDs. So she made her own label and in essence 'self-published.' When you're a struggling musician, the companies charge you for everything. This way, she keeps control."

Despite their struggles, the dozens of women interviewed for the book all stuck to their music. The attraction that lured them into rock in the first place was strong enough to keep them performing, despite the numerous obstacles and prejudices they encountered, Carson pointed out.

"There are simply a lot of success stories out there that don't get a lot of attention," she said. "For most of the women we talked to, from the first time they performed their music in front of someone, they knew that's what they wanted to do."

The authors are working on a follow-up to Girls Rock called "Come See About Me," which will be a series of essays on how women performers present themselves, and are represented in the media.