There is a common misconception that men dominate the rock scene. It’s not true. Women have long co-dominated the rock scene. The real issue is that they simply aren’t properly acknowledged for their achievements. Over the last several years, women have spoken out against those who oppress, undermine, and try to relegate them.
Still, even with all that women have accomplished, we still see inequalities. For example, according to one source, women only make up 19 percent of the average music festival lineup. How about this – another source states that as of January 21, 2022, only five percent of 2019’s Top 100 recordings were produced by a woman.
So, even though the music industry has come a long way, and of course there are more great woman artists than can be counted, it isn’t where it should be yet. With this article, I wanted to take the time to highlight a few of the most talented, influential, and badass women of rock music.
This will not be about who Rolling Stone, NME, or Pitchfork feel are commercially viable. This will not be centered around whoever MTV, VH1, or Fuse has had on their greatest whatever list. It features some women who have made an impact on rock music, have a story to tell, and a lesson to teach.
Formerly the lead vocalist for the German heavy metal band Warlock, Doro Pesch has been redefining what it means to be a woman in heavy metal for well over 30 years. Originally born in Düsseldorf, Germany, Doro’s early influences were the likes of Little Richard, T. Rex, Sweet, and Slade. After beating a life-threatening form of tuberculosis as a teenager in the 1970s, Doro decided to get more serious about music. Once she joined Warlock in 1982, she went on to lead the group to commercial success with a mix of power ballads and traditional heavy metal. Her unique voice and stage presence led Warlock to easily compete with other popular acts of the day, an exception in the 1980s metal scene which was completely dominated by male-fronted bands.
Oftentimes in the 1980s, the presence of women in rock, and in particular in heavy metal bands, was not taken seriously or considered exploitation. Doro Pesch was one of the few exceptions, as her abilities as a vocalist and songwriter and her commitment to promoting Warlock’s music without posturing as a sex symbol won the respect of the European heavy metal scene in the 1980s and beyond. Since leaving Warlock, she has released 12 more studio albums.
Doro Pesch has never compromised her art or her integrity. In her free time, she supports non-profit organizations such as Terre des Femmes, which advocates human rights for women and girls in need. She is also trained as a Thai boxer and is an accomplished painter and graphic designer.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe
Before the likes of Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly were claiming rock music as their territory, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was one of those who were drawing the blueprints for rock and roll. Her soulful blend of Gospel and foot-stomping blues laid a very real foundation for artists like Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis to lay their careers upon – she cut her first records in 1938 for Decca and was an immediate hit. Retrospective reviewers have kindly and rightfully dubbed her “The Original Soul Sister” and “The Godmother of Rock and Roll.”
Tharpe was a true guitar pioneer, among the first to use distortion in her electric guitar playing. All of her recordings predate the rise of electric blues, and so if what they say is true, then not only did Jimmy Page and other rockers steal from the likes of Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon, all of them “borrowed” from Sister Rosetta Tharpe!
Sister Rosetta Tharpe has gotten more and more respect and recognition over time, with Rosanne Cash stating recently that her father’s favorite singer was in fact Rosetta Tharpe. Johnny Cash echoed that in his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction speech. Other musicians like Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, Eric Clapton, Isaac Hayes, and Meat Loaf have all cited Sister Rosetta Tharpe as an important influence on their own work. In modern times, singer/songwriter Frank Turner even wrote a song called “Sister Rosetta” about her everlasting influence on rock music.
In 2018, things finally came full circle for The Godmother of Rock n’ Roll, as Sister Rosetta Tharpe was finally enshrined in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Courtney Love may be the most unfairly-derided woman in the history of modern rock music. Yes, it’s true she had an extremely high-profile and excessively turbulent relationship with Nirvana’s front man, Kurt Cobain. Yes, it’s also true that she could be self-indulgent and self-destructive. However, Courtney Love is also a true rock and roll survivor. The public tends to have a garish obsession with the role she may or not have played in Kurt Cobain’s death. That said, we should not be so shortsighted as to allow her supposed “role” in his death to overshadow her contributions to rock music. Her first album with her band Hole, 1991’s Pretty on the Inside, was named one of the year’s 20 best albums by Spin. Live Through This, the 1994 follow up, went platinum. She’s also a successful actress and artist.
Love’s candid, vulnerable songwriting has allowed her to grant herself a role model to so many awkward, misfit young women. On that subject, she once commented, “When you’re dying, and your life is flashing before your eyes, you’re gonna be thinking about the great things you did, the horrible things that you did, the emotional impact that someone had on you, and that you had on somebody else. Those are the things that are relevant. To have some sort of emotional impact that transcends time, that’s great.” Her ability to rise to the top following the aftermath of her larger-than-life husband’s death, reaching beyond his great shadow, is a testament to her drive and ability as a musician and songwriter.
With Hole, her performances are uninhibited, and her lyrics are both confrontational and confessional. Love has been cited as a particular influence on young female guitarists, having once said, “I want every girl in the world to pick up a guitar, and start screaming. I strap on that motherf*cking guitar, and you cannot f*ck with me.” Some love her, some abhor her, but no matter how you look at her, Courtney Love has had a lasting impact on rock music, especially female-fronted alternative acts. Her perseverance gives hope to young female musicians who may be struggling to navigate a male-dominated music industry.
Chrissie Hynde is the über-badass singer of one of my favorite bands, the Pretenders. She has unmistakable style, with a fantastic contralto voice laced with distinctive timing, and plays intense guitar. Chrissie has a way of vocalizing which is truly hers. Eschewing formal voice training; she once contended, “Distinctive voices in rock are trained through years of many things: frustration, fear, loneliness, anger, insecurity, arrogance, narcissism, or just sheer perseverance – anything but a teacher.” Speaking of perseverance, she has plenty of that. She’s guided the Pretenders through the deaths of band members, intense discord, and long stretches of inactivity, all the while always coming out on top, better and stronger than ever.
Chrissie Hynde has not only influenced the musical landscape of the last five decades, she’s also helped shape female fashion with her Zen-beatnik-punk-biker style. She’s also helped shape feminist attitudes. Madonna commented, “I saw her play in Central Park in August 1980, performing with the Pretenders. She was amazing. She is the only woman I’d seen in a performance where I thought, yeah, she’s got balls, she’s awesome! It gave me courage, and inspiration, to see a woman with that kind of confidence, in a man’s world.”
When it comes to rock music, it is Chrissie Hynde’s world. She’s got the voice, the style, the charisma, and most importantly, the songs: “Brass In Pocket,” “Mystery Achievement,” “Don’t Get Me Wrong,” “I’ll Stand By You,” and many more. In a world where the landscape of what’s popular is constantly changing, Chrissie Hynde is what she always has been: a writer of fantastic songs, a role model for any woman who wants to enter the music business without a single iota of compromise, and a singer with a voice that most women and men would kill for.
Laura Jane Grace
Laura Jane Grace is both the frontwoman for the band Against Me!, and her solo band, Laura Jane Grace & The Devouring Mothers. In 2012, she came out as a trans woman. This was a massive step in raising awareness around the very real challenges of living as a trans person in both the alternative and punk scenes which, up until that point, had been lacking role models. While she may have been born Tom Gable, she knew from a young age that this was not her true identity.
In addition to being a wonderfully talented songwriter, Laura Jane Grace is an important and visible pillar of the LGBTQIA+ community, dedicated to building acceptance and equality in the punk community and the music industry.
I find her courage and will to succeed while in the spotlight of the music industry to be astounding. There may be some of you who feel my pick here to be “untraditional,” and I ask that before you pass judgment, read Laura’s memoir, Tranny: Confessions of Punk Rock’s Most Infamous Anarchist Sellout. After that, listen to Against Me!’s landmark 2014 album, Transgender Dysphoria Blues. Try and understand her struggle, and learn to embrace the human being behind those words. In the end, my hope is that you will understand the value of her perspective, and see the world through a lens besides your own. Rock on Laura. Rock on.
I want to finish by saying that for me, this isn’t just a list of favorites or some of the uncountable influential woman in rock. Maybe it’s the start of a conversation. I write articles for different purposes: to share something that I like, to get an opinion out, and for fun. The genesis of this particular article, however, came about when I happened upon an organization called Women Who Rock. As their website notes, its mission is “to champion women in rock and women’s health awareness.” Women Who Rock was launched by Melinda Colaizzi, who worked as a music business executive for 15 years with companies like Live Nation, ShowClix, and Berklee College of Music, while writing her own music and fronting rock and blues bands. This is an organization I really believe in, and feel is doing great work in making headway for women across the music business.
Colaizzi is quoted as saying, “I have personally experienced the gender disparity found in the music industry. I have been the only woman in dozens of concert lineups. In national festival lineups, generally, 20 percent or less of headline acts are women. With so many talented musicians both locally and nationally, the need for an organization like Woman Who Rock was clear, and my vision was born.” Colaizzi feels passionately about women’s health issues as well, stating that women are underrepresented in healthcare research funding.
In the world we live in today, it’s important that we all are allowed to feel safe, respected, and valued. With this article, I hope I’ve been able to give everyone a glimpse of the very special impact that women have had on rock music.
Header image: Doro Pesch, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/V-spectrum.