Joan Jett’s finest moment—the one that sums up everything about how insanely great she is—doesn’t tend to get a lot of play once you go beyond the hard-core faithful.
For those who get their music from commercial radio, major-league hockey games, and the kind of pilsner-swilling trash that pulls up at public campgrounds with the boom box cranked, it’s all about “I Love Rock ’n’ Roll”. And why wouldn’t it be? To truly understand Jett’s brilliance, compare her 1981 cover with the Arrows’ 1975 original, and then marvel at the way she turned a toothless garage-blues throwaway into a glitter-bombed anthem for the ages.
For those who love stadium-sized drumming and metallic–KO riffage, “I Hate Myself for Loving You” tops the list of the former Joan Marie Larkin’s crowning achievements. Over the course of four massive-sounding minutes, rock’s original tuff girl showed the boys of the hair-metal ’90s how it was done. “I Hate Myself for Loving You” hit the airwaves at a time when MTV hard-rockers wore pink spandex, had an endless appetite for candy-apple-coloured lipstick, and went through Aqua Net Extra Super Hold hairspray by the crate. And no, we’re not talking about the women. “I Hate Myself for Loving You” not only made you wonder what the fuck anyone saw in Ratt, Poison, and Twisted Sister, it confirmed her as the coolest rocker ever to come from the Sunset Strip.
As for those in it for more than the Billboard hits, you could argue for hours as to which non-single should have gone quadruple platinum. Hands up for the synth-soaked antiballad “Love Like Mine” and its great line “I get talked about/I been carried out a thousand times.” Or how about the late-period “Any Weather”, a bubblegum grinder cowritten with some guy named Dave Grohl. Or the rockabilly-glam jam “Fake Friends”, which should be a primer for anyone considering a career in the relentlessly ugly business that is rock ’n’ roll.
As great as all the above might be, nothing will ever touch “Victim of Circumstance”, off Jett’s 10-million-selling (and completely essential) breakthrough album, I Love Rock ’n’ Roll. What often gets overlooked when one considers the singer’s career today is that she didn’t become an icon overnight.
Driven by razor-burn guitars and a Ramones-simple drumbeat, “Victim of Circumstance” was written before Jett exploded all over the radio in ’82, finally becoming a household name after a rough half-decade in the business. Astute students of rock ’n’ roll history will recall that, before going solo, she was a founding member of the Runaways, a band that discovered it’s hard to be taken seriously when you’re 16 years old, female, and penning songs like “Cherry Bomb”.
How not seriously? Try being turned down by 23 major labels after deciding to launch a solo career. That explains the inspiration for “Victim of Circumstance” lines like “Really gets you down when you don’t belong/An’ everyone around says you growed up wrong/But why do they resent it, I ain’t doin’ anything/They say that I’m demented an’ I never could sing.”
The greatest moment of a fucking great song, though, comes at the 1:28 minute mark of “Victim of Circumstance”. The outrage practically bleeding through the speakers, Jett screams, in her gloriously whisky-and-nicotine-cured voice: “I’ve been laughed at/I’ve been shut out/But let there be no doubt/Never been afraid of chances I been takin’.”
And who’s laughing now.
Today Jett isn’t a rock star as much as an inspirational, undeniably iconic goddess, as revered by the disciples of riot grrrl great Kathleen Hanna as she is by Warped Tour punks whose parents weren’t alive when she started smashing boundaries. You want cutting-edge badass? Check out who was sitting in the producer’s chair for the Germs’ landmark punk classic GI. You want mega respected? When Grohl, Krist Novoselic, and Pat Smear needed someone to sing “Smells Like Teen Spirit” for Nirvana’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, guess who they called.
For the love of Christ, Jett has even managed to make Barbie seem cool. In 2009, Mattel released a Ladies of the ’80s Joan Jett doll, which immediately coincided with Barbie taking up smoking, drinking, and fighting, wearing black leather, and heading to the salon for a raven’s-wing-black shag make-over. And, of course, nominating “Victim of Circumstance” as quite possibly the greatest song ever.
Joan Jett kicks off the PNE’s Summer Night Concerts series on Sunday (August 17).