November 23, 2002

Joan Jett wrote a letter to Rolling Stone in response to the magazine's "Women in Rock" issue. The missive went unpublished, but it's making its way around the interweb now.

Jett is right to complain that "[b]y RS standards, Rock is no longer a style of music but a trendy costume to be whipped up by expensive stylists and slapped onto the latest pop tart barbie doll. Give a girl some tight pants and a spiky bracelet and POOF! She ROCKS!" It's insulting that female musicians who are accomplished and dedicated to what they do are left out in the cold as bimbos-come-lately in Halloween rock-star garb are treated as icons within the VERY SAME IDIOM that artists like Jett (a sex symbol, yes, but an excellent guitarist too) work in.

The problem is that Rolling Stone won't differentiate between "rock" and "pop" -- they're a "rock" magazine first and foremost, and the word itself lends weight to RS's reputation. Except now they're a "pop" magazine in a rock mag's clothing. A "Women in Pop" issue, even with the presence of Britney and Christina, wouldn't sell as many copies as the more impressive and formal "Women in Rock" (featuring the same women). But "rock" and "pop" are usually interchangeable terms and have been so since rock's invention. It was never problematic (as far as I can remember) when Madonna graced a "Women in Rock" cover in the nineties. The dilemma at hand is Rolling Stone's identity crisis as of 2002. They're clearly latching on to the rock-as-fashion-statement idea that the pop world has embraced for the past two or three years, and they're going us one worse -- they're subscribing to the tiresomely juvenile belief in (not merely rock but) RAWK, the notion that everything RAWKS and is BADASS and that if we wanna legitimize youth-oriented pop music and hip-hop we've gotta see it through the dusty old rock lens. This is rockism at its purest. And for a specifically rock-through-rock-lens magazine (i.e. what RS used to be), that's fine. But if RS is going to expand its definition of "rock" to make room for contemporary chartpop, it shouldn't intentionally confuse the sort of thing Britney does with the sort of thing Joan Jett does. It only makes both parties look silly.

This said, Jett's letter has a whiff of sour grapes to it, and it's obvious she doesn't take women in pop any more seriously than RS takes women in "rock." Her dismissal of Pink is pretty insipid and shows no understanding of the pop star's career trajectory. Pink's not synonymous with Britney. She's not "a Spice Girl reject," either. Female pop stars can have their own identities, just as female rock stars can.

So I'm glad Jett wrote the letter -- it's nice to see rock icons taking the establishment to task -- but it's not the letter I would have wanted Joan Jett to write.

(Update: I've since learned that Joan Jett is not the actual author of this letter -- it's now being attributed to someone in the Jett camp named Maya Price. I should have been tipped off to this when the writer referred to "Joan" in the third person.)