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Why You Should Listen to Female Rock Stars

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.
This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at UWindsor chapter.

While rock ‘n’ roll is typically thought of as a male-dominated realm, it’s important to recognize that there are some influential women that helped to shape rock as it exists today. Since male rock stars, especially in the 70s and 80s, presented rock as dependent upon sex, women, and rebellion, female rock stars weren’t as included in this act against the establishment. However, female rock stars continued to create, perform, and revolutionize the rock genre, often flying in the face of preconceived notions of femininity and patriarchy.

Female rock stars have pervasive and lasting influences on rock ‘n’ roll development but are often pushed to the side when male artists take the lead. There is a particularly long history of black artists, specifically women, not receiving the acclaim they deserve even when they’ve influenced many white male rock stars. For instance, Odetta produced blues and jazz music in the 60s, influencing Bob Dylan, who said: “right then and there, I went out and traded my electric guitar and amplifier for an acoustic guitar” (Rolling Stone). While Odetta’s influence on Dylan and blues music in general is profound, women are often sidelined as merely influences for male artists. Dylan’s ability to see her music as complex and important in its own right should remind all of us that female rock stars and artists are equally deserving of their own spotlight without being confined to the ‘development’ of male rock stars. Similarly, Bessie Smith influenced and arguably shaped rock ‘n’ roll in its earliest stages of development and helped to publicize and demonstrate important social issues. Angela Davis said that “[Smith] celebrated and valorized black working-class life while simultaneously contesting patriarchal assumptions” (Rolling Stone). While rock n’ roll developed into male-dominated rebellions against capitalism and social standards, we need to recognize that many female artists were already raising these issues and that rock didn’t need to diminish women as ‘props’ to the male artists’ rebellion to the establishment. 

“[Bessie Smith] celebrated and valorized black working-class life while simultaneously contesting patriarchial assumptions.”

– Angela Davis

“Black Women Who Helped Shape Rock & Roll.” Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-pictures/black-women-who-shaped-rock-1122749/singer-bessie-smith/.

Moreover, female rock stars were often prolific in their voices, songwriting, and performances, demonstrating female strength and emotional conflictions. For instance, Patti Smith and Janis Joplin both demonstrated the power of being yourself in a world that continually tries to take you down. I watched a documentary about Janis Joplin years ago, and the thing I remember from it most was that Joplin had been attacked and ridiculed for her appearance her whole life. It struck me that being a woman is another component to being a rock star: you cannot exist solely as a “musician.” You have to exist as both, bearing the brunt of patriarchal commentary and trying to pave your way as a musician. However, throughout this experience, Joplin was positive and exciting. Janis Joplin said, “It isn’t necessarily about misery, it isn’t about happiness. It’s just about letting yourself feel all those things you already have inside of you” (Sydell). In some ways, Joplin was already paving the way for a new group of musicians who would not apologize for who they were, while also dealing with the tremendous emotional toll of being labelled ‘not pretty enough.’ When you listen to her records, you can hear this in her voice – the way it rumbles, cracks, breaks, and ultimately reveals the emotional complexities of her life. In a similar but different strain, Patti Smith also defiantly existed as herself. While arguably not as “successful” as other female rock stars, she influenced punk music with her lyrical and complex songs. As a writer and avid reader, Smith’s songs read more like poetry than music – but then again, poetry and music go hand in hand. At the time, Smith’s androgyny was rebellious to the patriarchy and to those who would seek to pigeon-hole her. As she posed for her cover in a white shirt and skinny tie, she rebelled against the ‘female rock-star’ cut-out (von Hahn). In her older age, she continues to go against the grain, posting on her Instagram about various social issues. She presents a bold and rebellious image of an older woman refusing to be ignored by a culture that rarely recognizes the achievements or fame of older women. 

“It isn’t necessarily about misery, it isn’t about happiness. It’s just about letting yourself feel all those things you already have inside of you.”

– Janis Joplin

Sydell. Laura. “Janis Joplin: The Queen of Rock.” NPR, June 7 2010, https://www.npr.org/2010/06/07/127483124/janis-joplin-the-queen-of-rock.

There are many more female rock stars that took inspiration from each other and revolutionized the field. Although rarely mentioned in the fame of rock and roll, they serve as essential reminders of the ways in which the culture of rock depended upon women’s work, often in ways that directly helped male artists. Regardless of what kinds of music these women wrote, their ability to weave themselves into narratives that didn’t allow space for them is tremendously important. We should look to them as cultural icons in the same way the world worships male rock stars. As one man asked me in an elevator one day, while I wore a Rolling Stones shirt, “Do you even know who they are?” we should be reminding ourselves and others that rock was a quintessentially female-formed art. Rock listeners and bands do not need to continue to exist within a male-dominated sphere. In fact, we should be asking exclusionary male rock fans, “Do you even know who these women are?”


“Black Women Who Shaped Rock & Roll.” Rolling Stone, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-pictures/black-women-who-shaped-rock-1122749/singer-bessie-smith/

Sydell, Laura. “Janis Joplin: The Queen of Rock.” NPR, https://www.npr.org/2010/06/07/127483124/janis-joplin-the-queen-of-rock

Von Hahn, Karen. “The enduring stylishness of Patti Smith.” Toronto Star, https://www.thestar.com/life/2013/03/15/the_enduring_stylishness_of_patti_smith.html

I'm an English major at University of Windsor. I enjoy reading, writing and painting. I'm very interested in social justice issues, like climate change, women's rights and sexuality/gender studies.