BY MIN CHEN
Joan Jett was the first woman I’d ever seen playing guitar. I mean, of course, I’d seen women playing guitar: the likes of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez strumming along to songs about circles. But Joan Jett played guitar in that she wielded, commanded, and prevailed over the instrument, making it unmistakably hers. She and her guitar were always in loud and electric union. They made for a compelling sight and sound, as Joan Jett playing guitar is bound to be; and they were a revelation, because however seamless their marriage, they were an unlikely match to begin with.
Jett’s origin story is well-established. As a pre-adolescent, she discovers rock ‘n’ roll; by age 12, she’s asking her parents for a guitar for Christmas. “And I don’t want no folk guitar,” she clarifies. Guitar acquired, she takes lessons from a teacher who, informing her girls don’t play rock ‘n’ roll, teaches her the chords to “On Top of Old Smokey.” She learns none of that and instead, trailing the spirit of Suzi Quatro, proceeds to hang out at Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on Sunset Boulevard in her leather jacket and torn jeans. There, she meets Kim Fowley, producer of novelty singles, notably “Alley Oop,” who helps her assemble a group. And in 1975, at 15, she finds herself playing guitar in The Runaways, the first-ever all-girl rock ‘n’ roll band.
The dimensions of that story are recognizable, marking the stations on a musician or guitarist’s path to mastery and success. They’re also familiar as Jett has had many opportunities to outline it—in the 2010 biopic The Runaways, for instance, or more recently, in the documentary Bad Reputation—and in the process, stake her claim on and in that narrative. She was, after all, a girl, and girls, as her guitar instructor once insisted, don’t play rock and roll. It’s a sentiment that did indeed echo throughout a male-powered industry that in the 1970s, prided itself on its Led Zeppelins and Rolling Stones. Jett picking up and taming her guitar, however ordinary an act, was a gesture of pure subversion. “We didn’t have to do anything to freak people out,” she once said of The Runaways. “We just had to show up.” And yet, show up they did, if only to constantly run into opposition: “When guys thought it was just a phase, they’d belittle us, but when they realized we were serious, they got nasty,” she said. “It’s difficult to get across to people what it’s like to be spat at.”
Still, Jett embraced the menace and aggression (and resistance) that came with being a female playing rock ‘n’ roll. “I feel like I was in it for life,” she insisted. Growing in confidence as she embarked on a solo career in the 1980s, she built an image of a woman inseparable from her axe. On album cover after album cover, in video after video, Jett is slung with her instrument in images that reiterate her technical ability and her defiance. Just watch her strut across the bar in 1982’s “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” or power through the live segments of 1983’s “Crimson & Clover” and 1988’s “I Hate Myself For Loving You” for a view of a woman in total and competent control of her machine.
As she’s acknowledged, her guitar has become an extension of her person: “It is who I am.” Definitely, it’s a phallic stand-in too, but intentionally so. Jett, if no one else, is aware of how rock ‘n’ roll and guitar-playing are tangled up with sex, the act and the instrument. “When people told us girls couldn’t play, that wasn’t want they meant,” she’s noted. “They meant that girls couldn’t play rock ‘n’ roll because it implied sex, which means that they’re in charge and owning it.” Her reclamation of the guitar is symbolic as much as primal. In the film Bad Reputation, Kristen Stewart, who played Jett in The Runaways, recalls the guitarist encouraging her on-set to put “pussy to the wood.”
But, Jett again: “It wasn’t all just about sex, it was just about owning who you were.” Wherein lies her gift. The vision of Jett gripping her guitar, radical for its time, is more than image, but representation—of rebellion, possibility, purpose, and tenacity. She wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll and in the face of spit and disapproval, she did. The hostility she encountered (including rejections from no less than 23 record companies) was well-documented in the video for “Bad Reputation,” a supposed statement of recalcitrance that, really, was just saying, “A girl can do what she wants to do / And that’s what I’m gonna do.” And as standard bearer, the least she could do was quite literally bear her instrument. (Also note the Gibson Joan Jett Blackheart Electric Guitar, which she developed in collaboration with Gibson.) Consequently, her visibility and success as a female guitar player has been no small boon for females, for guitar players, and for rock ‘n’ roll. Green Day’s Billie Joe Armstrong, also in Bad Reputation, remembers watching Jett as a kid and thinking, “I want to be the male version of that.”
Today, Jett considers herself lucky enough to be such a vessel—a guiding list for the pop-punk and riot grrrl movements, and anyone who wanted to play rock ‘n’ roll. Including me: I played poorly, but I recognized in Joan Jett a girl with guitar as much as grit. She was already fortified with it when she received for Christmas that first guitar from parents who’d also told her, “You can be anything you want.” No doubt, that instrument came bound with that belief. “I wanted to be the first girl on the moon, the first female major league baseball player,” she’s said. “Besides, if my parents hadn’t got me a guitar, I probably would have run away.”