Joan Jett earned her status as a rock ’n’ roll icon

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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).

Comments (8) Add New Comment
A. MacInnis
There's a Joan Jett doll? Seriously? As Bongwater said of Nick Cave dolls, I need one.
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out at night
Thanks for the reminder of just who's great. I'm about to do a big Joan Jett/Runaways Youtube binge based on your recommendations.

Here's another wrong that needs to be righted: no great rock and roll movies with women at their centres. I have been picking my way through all the lists and trying to curate a series of some of the best and somewhat overlooked rock and roll movies, and the gut-punch is that such a series would appear on the surface to be horribly sexist. What movies could one put up in order to appear even a little gender-conscious? The Rose? A Star is Born? (with Babs and Kris Kristofferson, aka one of the worst movies ever), The Runaways? (from a few years ago, a movie that received lukewarm reviews and starred that limp Twilight thing as JJ?). Is there a great Janis Joplin movie? Nope. Some awesome picture I don't know about starring the amazing girl groups of the 60s? I'd love to learn about it but I doubt there is.

Can anyone make some good suggestions? Keep in mind token films of mediocre quality and pedigree won't cut it. It has to be a movie with some currency, panache and genuine cool that might stand a chance of attracting an audience, something on par with Quadrophenia, Rock and Roll High School or Sign O the Times.

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Jett Head
I've got all her albums, Runaways albums, and I even have Cherry Bomb as my ring tone. As one youtube comment says, "we don't need the sun, we've got Joan".
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A. MacInnis
Out at Night - you cant find it easily, will probably have to resort to torrent it, but Joan Jett is pretty great in Light of Day, the Paul Schrader film about a brother-sister fronted rock band (Michael J. Fox is the brother). I haven't seen it in years but thought it was under appreciated. I keep meaning to look at Gina Gershon in a movie called Prey For Rock'n'Roll, too, which looks like it might be pretty good - I've only seen the first few minutes...
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AC
This rock n roll chick was decades ago, and still is, 'coolness' defined. What a voice, easy on the eyes too. She received rave reviews for her acting in that one movie decades ago...wonder why she didn't continue with more cinema. Nice article.
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out at night
Thanks A. MacInnis. I saw Light of Day when it came out. I am a big fan of Paul Schrader (even defending his last movie The Canyons from a pan written by one Adrian Mack at the Straight. However Light of Day is for me second or even third tier Schrader. I haven't seen Prey for Rock and Roll, though I have glanced at the DVD case (back when one sought films out at places called video stores).

A handful of other movies did pop into my brain since my last post. Has anyone seen Times Square. Out of the Blue or The Fabulous Stains? I haven't.
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Adrian Mack
I've seen Times Square, Out of the Blue and The Fabulous Stains, and The Canyons is a piece of shit.
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John Lucas
Out of the Blue is well worth watching. I would say it's a very rock 'n' roll movie with a female lead, but the main character isn't a musician per se. Worth it for the vintage footage of the Vancouver punk scene, though.
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