Doing What the Girl Wants to Do

By Paul Rigg

The name Joan Jett evokes a strong, classy, independently-minded hard rocker who has not only made a great impact as a musician but also as an icon, especially for young women.  

As a girl Jett raged because she was given the message that playing rock guitar was not for her. "Anger for women in music, for me, stemmed from... being told that a girl couldn't play guitar, when you're sitting in school next to girls playing violin and cello and Beethoven and Bach. The anger came from not been given a chance, from being told to shut up and sit down and act like a lady," she once said."Once you start throwing that kind of shit around, it's war!"

Jett's 'war' began at 15 when she co-founded The Runaways in Los Angeles and helped them become the first mainstream all-female group to play guitar-driven rock 'n' roll. When the band split, Jett formed her own group and soon had a worldwide hit with I love Rock 'n' Roll; a song that is so catchy that it is very difficult not to sing along to.

Joan Larkin, better known as Joan Jett, was born on 22 September 1958.   Jett started taking guitar lessons at 14 but famously quit because her teacher kept trying to push her into playing folk songs. Shortly afterwards she co-founded The Runaways with Lita Ford, Sandy West, Jackie Fox, and Cherie Currie. She played rhythm guitar, shared some lead vocals, and co-wrote many of the group's songs.  

The band were soon touring and supporting well-known acts like The Ramones, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and Van Halen.

The success of songs like Cherry Bomb gave The Runaways a large following in many countries, especially Japan. Ironically however they were not able to crack the US and, partly due to this and disagreements about the direction they should take, they finally split in 1979. 

These were defining years for Jett, as she herself confirmed. "The Runaways was so special. Beyond girls just playing rock 'n' roll, it represented a lot to me about following your dreams and about not being dictated to about what your life is going to be. Girls see these defined roles they're supposed to follow in life, but when I was a young child, my parents told me that I could be anything."  

Shortly after leaving The Runaways, Jett travelled to England, met with Paul Cook and Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols, and recorded her first version of Arrows' song I love Rock 'n' Roll.

Jett then returned to Los Angeles to work on a film, where she met producer Kenny Laguna, with whom she started a long term collaboration. Together they recorded the album 'Joan Jett' (later renamed Bad Reputation). Unable to find a record label to release the album Jett went ahead and set up her own label, Blackheart Records; in the process becoming the first female artist ever to exercise that level of control over the production, publicity and distribution of the record.   

It was at this time that Jett pushed ahead with her idea to form a backing band, The Blackhearts. In 1982 Jett and The Blackhearts released the album
I Love Rock 'n Roll and the re-recorded the single of the same name, which spent seven weeks at the top of the US charts, from 20 March to 1 May, 1982.

More hits followed, including "Bad Reputation", "Crimson and Clover", and "I Hate Myself for Loving You", and Jett and her band subsequently toured with Queen, The Police and Aerosmith.

From these years forward, Jett has played Gibson Melody Maker guitars and used the rough edge of D’Andrea Delrex Sharkfin 1.0 mm picks to create her distinctive sound. Partly as a result, she is ranked 87 on Rolling Stone's 100 greatest guitarists of all time. Covered in a myriad of stickers that reflect some of her beliefs, it is difficult to imagine her on stage without her distinctive bashed up guitar. "My guitar is not a thing. It is an extension of myself. It is who I am", she says.


Jett's 100% commitment to following her passions, along with her growing profile, led her to play a key role in the growth of the ‘90s feminist movement ‘Riot Grrrl’, along with Patti Smith. This counter-culture initiative had a heavy impact on the third wave of feminism that challenged many prevailing concepts, including the idea that punk was only for men. In this way, it created a new opening for a whole new generation of female musicians.

Riot Grrrl bands are known for writing about and supporting issues that challenge, for example, racism, sexual abuse, and the patriarchy, and promote female empowerment. 

In this context Jett supported the punk band The Gits, following the rape and murder of their lead singer, Mia Zapata, in 1993. Earnings from their collaborative live album was put towards the search for Zapata's murderer. The resulting publicity and continuing investigation eventually bore fruit in 2004 wheh the singer's killer was brought to justice and convicted.    

Jett has a number of diverse passions and is an enthusiastic activist in many different areas.   Interestingly, for example, while Jett was a vocal opponent of the Iraq War, she has consistently supported US troops by performing for them over several decades.  

She is also a long-time vegetarian and supports both Farm Sanctuary and PETA, the animal rights group. Typically, her backing is not distant - she works very closely with the organizations, to the point of personally handing out information leaflets to the public in the street. "
I avoid contributing to the major environmental damage that the meat industry creates," she says. "I hope that soon we can make sure that everything we do is earth-friendly."
  Among her many devotions, it is perhaps her fight to create a space for women to be the people they want to be that is, and will be, one of her most important legacies.  

The advent of the Internet and social media, among all the good, has brought in its wake a new level of instant judgement and abuse that has, in particular, often created a hostile environment for women. In this context, Jett's anger and drive to ensure that girls - and specifically young female musicians - have the possibility to fulfil their dreams is as relevant today as it ever has been. 

In fact Jett has recently stated that she believes a new revolution is just around the corner. "I think we're coming back to that fertile ground where people have had enough of the way things are, I can feel it. Those girls are out there, in every city, banging around – and when they find their outlet, it's going to be just like it was for me," she says defiantly. "A new generation picking up guitars and drums and saying, 'I am here! Let's go!'"