Like any edgy young person who grew up in the mid-to-late 2000s, I was obsessed with Guitar Hero. I’d kill hours in our playroom, sacrificing valuable Disney Channel sitcom time to pretend I was some leather-jacket-toting rockstar. My tiny hands could barely reach all the wee buttons but it didn’t stop me. My song choice was pretty limited; all I wanted to play was the old macho hair metal my dad put on in the car, or indie songs that were generic enough to get played on the radio. Things I knew. But loading up one of the games, I vividly remember hearing a song intro I just couldn’t not search up. A marching beat, a guitar revved like an engine, and a woman at the centre of it all, snarling.
Even singing about being hopelessly devoted to her man she sounded like a badass. I’d hardly ever heard women making the kind of rock music I was listening to, let alone sounding as unshakeably confident as the blokes of the genre. Her name and her song title flashed up at the bottom of the screen: ‘Hate Myself For Loving You’ – Joan Jett. And that was it. From then on I was gazing longingly at studded belts in charity shops, or scribbling little rants in my journals about how I wished I knew more rockers because god, I wanted to talk to someone about this. It felt like I’d discovered gravity, or fire—something that’d obviously been there for long before I was born but that’d irrevocably changed how I saw the world.
Joan Jett’s take on the hard rock of the ’80s was a gateway for me in so many ways. She was one of the people who inspired me to pick up a real guitar, with ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ being one of the first songs I ever learnt properly. If she can do it, and sound so cool doing it, I thought, why can’t I?
But playing an instrument, of course, is just one way of being into an alternative subculture. Jett’s presence in that male-dominated, old-school rock world was a signal to my younger self that I could take up space there too. Embarrassingly, I was very much a “not like other girls” girl growing up. I got called weird so often that I started to wear it as a badge of honour, proudly sharing my niche interests in spite of—often, in fact, because of—the judgemental looks it’d get me. But defining yourself against your peers can get pretty lonely. If I wasn’t “like other girls”, what was I?
Female rockstars like Joan Jett gave me my answer to that question. The hard rock I grew up loving is big, visually and sonically, with its dramatic hair and overdriven riffs that feature in Joan Jett’s best known songs. Her genre of choice doesn’t apologise, and many who’ve interviewed her know that neither does she. She also put out songs like ‘(I’m Gonna) Run Away’, full of fuzzed-up guitars to add bite to a power-pop-style chorus, and my personal favourite ‘Activity Grrrl’, which praised young women for being loudmouthed, passionate activists when they’re so often derided as drama queens for having strong opinions.
The most obvious example of her songs soundtracking my search for identity is probably her most famous track, ‘Bad Reputation’. It’s a song that yells back at every snide comment used to scare young women into behaving themselves, but with its simple and catchy chords found throughout the punk world, it gets entire arenas singing along.
Countless shows and movies have used the song to hint at a character being someone who breaks the mould. It’s a battle cry for nonconformity, and lines like “a girl can do what she wants to do” specify her not conforming to passive female gender roles, while still embracing a new kind of femininity that barks back.
Explicitly writing these kind of rock songs about being a woman, not just while being one, was also pretty standout to my younger self. Women got mentioned in the heavier music I grew up with as accessories to the men’s fun, and as with many male-dominated environments, there seems to be a pressure to embody the stereotype of The Cool Girl. They can stay, sure, just as long as they don’t bring up their “girl drama”, or kill the mood by bitching about the serious issues of gender inequality that affect all of us.
I spent a lot of my youth trying to bend to this cliché. I was in a lot of male-dominated fandoms, from pop-punk and emo to wrestling fan communities, where I was wordlessly instructed not to be too loud, or too dramatic, or too feminist. If I talked about the sexism I experienced in those spaces, I was just a stupid girl ruining the fun. But I could never fully commit to being The Cool Girl, to playing the game, because every now and then I’d look back at my childhood heroes like Joan Jett and realise how pointless that game was. Decades before me, there were women carving their own identities without sacrificing their passion. If she didn’t have to choose between being feminine and getting her hands dirty in the rock world, maybe I didn’t have to either. Maybe being like other girls wasn’t so awful.
Alternative subcultures often consist of bunch of misfits finding common ground, and that’s exactly how I felt defining myself as a “rock chick” and looking up to someone nobody else in my classes cared about. I’m not alone in all this, either. There’s something of a Riot Grrrl revival going on right now, particularly on social media platforms like Instagram and TikTok, which has led to young people re-evaluating the women who trailblazed rock before their time. In TikToks on Riot Grrrl’s influences and predecessors, two iconoclasts keep cropping up: British punk Poly Styrene, and Joan Jett.
There’s arguments to be made that every one of Jett’s old band members from The Runaways was a game-changer. They were a band of teenage girls in a world where anything teen girls love is derided as fangirling. Even though their act was somewhat crafted for a male audience to gawk at, their high energy and confidence is something many others can reclaim. People like me weren’t their intended audience for the band, but we’re there now.
For Jett specifically, her ability to reinvent herself over the changing times has likely contributed to her enduring influences on multiple generations of defiant girls. For over a decade, she stood proudly in very male-dominated subgenres of rock, and whichever one she has found herself in, she has never compromised on her confidence.