Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine

From time to time The Feminist Menagerie will feature an article by a guest author.  I’m excited to present the first guest piece, written by Kera Lovell, 2011 graduate of Purdue University’s American Studies Master’s program.  I had the pleasure of completing my undergraduate thesis at the same time as Kera and was first introduced to her research on women and the rock music industry at that time.  She’s recommended the books Electric Ladyland by Lisa Rhodes and Rock ‘n’ Roll Woman by Katherine Orloff for further reading.

Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine, 1975

Reflecting the massive changes initiated by the women’s liberation movement, women began to drastically challenge gender inequality in the music industry in the 1970s, with growing numbers of women as music journalists, vocalists, musicians, writers, and executives who helped support openly feminist musicians and organize feminist music festivals. Even at Rolling Stone, one of the most popular national music periodicals still today, the magazine began to hire more female journalists and editors, covered increasing amounts of women’s rights issues, and, in 1975, dedicated a record number of cover stories to female artists. In spite of all the successes of Second-Wave feminism, it doesn’t take a genius to crack a 1975 issue of Rolling Stone and expect to find rampant sexual objectification of women. You can flip to almost any page and find it—the variety of pornographic magazine advertisements and nude album cover promo ads are just the tip of the iceberg. To say the least, this was a very difficult time in the history of female musicians who attempted to negotiate a space within the hypermasculine music industry.

Rolling Stone exemplified how even Leftist, counterculturally-rooted organizations negatively reacted to feminism. The magazine repetitively denigrated the Women’s Movement and “women libbers,” and more often than not, sexually objectified women by including articles on female pornography stars, female sensual massages, and political sex scandals. While Rolling Stone claimed to support progressive politics, readers can clearly see by reading between the lines that women are portrayed as sexual objects and subordinate to men. Not only were men sexually objectifying women in the advertisements, articles, and images in Rolling Stone, but female musicians ultimately mirrored this sexual objectification by over-sexualizing themselves to win over the patriarchal world of rock ‘n’ roll.

Women’s own self-sexualization surprised me most when investigating the magazine’s 1975 volume for my senior thesis at Agnes Scott College a few years ago.  Although there had been female musicians on Rolling Stone covers since the magazine was first published in 1967, cover stories of women had been few and far between. These numbers are pretty grim, with no female musicians on covers in 1972 or 1973. There were, however, eight women on Rolling Stone covers in 1972: four prostitutes, a nude woman receiving a massage, Sally Struthers, and Jane Fonda. 1975 began a drastic jump in female coverage with six covers devoted entirely to female musicians. This volume also shows a wide range of female musicians, including blues-rock artist Bonnie Raitt, hard rock artist Suzi Quatro, the African American glam rock group Labelle, Jewish jazz and rock artist Phoebe Snow, pop and later country sensation Linda Ronstadt, and pop rock artist Carly Simon.

Even though it might appear that these women were gaining greater respect and recognition through increased publicity, women began to take a lead from male journalists and sexualized themselves during their interviews, possibly to attract more male fans. Other than Raitt, who attempted to maintain a disinterest in sex, all of the cover stories on female musicians included the artist’s discussion of her orgasms. Patti Labelle compared her onstage ecstasy to being married to a million men and women: “And when I’m married to a person, I give all I have. It’s like a climax, and when the audience does it like they did last night in Atlanta, I come…Yes…I wear Pampers onstage.”1 Fellow band member Sarah Dash added, “It’s like letting a million people see you in bed with whomever you love…and being naked and having sex with your music…but I don’t wear tampons because if it ran down my leg, that’s what you see and that’s what you git. We told our band; ‘Now we like to reach orgasms onstage, and they thought we were from out there somewhere.’”2 Not only do these accounts reveal the lasting boom of the sexual revolution, but show how female musicians were expected to perform onstage and in articles. Journalists exhibited no surprise at these artists’ sexual revelations. Rock ‘n’ roll sold sex and women who were candid about their sexuality were successful entrepreneurs. In the heat of the revolution, many women wanted to embrace their sexuality, while other women felt that flaunting a sexual image only resulted in more sexism in the music industry. According to Terry Garthwaite, member of the band The Joy of Cooking, women were expected to be what she calls “chicky-poo”: “ultrafeminine and…submissive in their attitude,” while at the same time being what fellow band member Toni Brown defined as a “sexpot”: “a doll-like figure” “playing a flirtsy-cutesy role” (Orloff 59, 34). Male journalists consistently portrayed women as vulnerable and weak, yet sexually feisty women. Yet women were treated this way by all factors of the music industry, encouraging women to wear low-cut gowns rather than produce their own projects. Rather than feeling pressure to sacrifice their femininity to be “one of the boys,” women were often led to be passive and sexual. In Rock ‘N Roll Woman , her 1974 collection of interviews with female musicians, Katherine Orloff discussed how Ronstadt perpetuated the stereotype of a ditsy showgirl which many female musicians had to fight:

It seems she has been pigeonholed to such an extent that she is often given little credit for having any brains…Linda likes to feel sexy onstage and the message is communicated as much through her clothes, a wardrobe which includes tight pants and filmy blouses, as through her movements, suggestive comments, and generally friendly attitude. In this way, she sometimes seems to perpetuate her own stereotype (123).

On that note, have you cracked an issue of Rolling Stone since 1975? Things haven’t change much, except perhaps the self-sexualization and sexual objectification of women has gotten a little worse.

1 Art Harris, “Labelle: Comin’ Comin’ Comin’ to Getcha!” Rolling Stone, July 3, 1975, 42. Note how even the article’s title is a play on the article’s orgasm banter.

2 Harris, “Labelle,” 42.

3 responses to “Reading Between the Lines: Female Musicians in Rolling Stone Magazine

  • keraera

    Thanks for the opportunity! Awesome blog!

  • Gina

    What is your view of women being sex-positive? I feel like a discussion/mention of sex-positivity could save this article, cause otherwise it seems kind of… well… demeaning.

    The author assumes that the women featured in Rolling Stones Magazines would not have talked or been sexual, unless prompted. Perhaps this is true, but perhaps it isn’t. I feel like assuming that women are being pressured and/or coerced to be sexual rests on the presumption that either women aren’t or shouldn’t be openly sexual. This puts women in a box I think they don’t really belong in.

    Additionally, I think you would also have to prove that men are also not sexualized to the extent at which women are. Keep in mind, though, that men are sexualized in different ways than are women. I honestly would say that they are equally sexualized. Sex sells, in all industries, but I think it is even more true in the music industry.

    So, ultimately, while I think reading between the lines is good, I think that you can’t spend so much time reading between the lines that you miss the entire story.

    • kera

      Hi Gina,

      My view of women being sex positive is positive. Women can express their sexuality – as they often did during the mid-seventies. Most gender scholars, however, are quick to add that these expressions of women’s sexuality weren’t completely innocent. The so-called “Sexual Revolution” wasn’t liberating for some women (You can read Ruth Rosen’s chapter, aptly titled, “The Hidden Injuries of Sex” in The World Split Open, which details some of the negative effects of the sexual revolution).

      Female musicians, especially in Rolling Stone’s magazine, were not only encouraged to be sexual as part of their onstage persona, but expected to. As Orloff, Rhodes, and other scholars and female musicians have detailed, sexualizing yourself was nearly the only way to make it in the hypermasculine rock industry. In fact there’s an ad in Rolling Stone in 1975 that jokingly attests to that:

      While men could use their musical talents to appeal to male producers, women were expected and often forced to use their sexuality. Orloff illustrates in her book a common scenario for women trying to make it in the industry: “A new act to promote. A good-looking singer with her first solo album. It has cost her record company over $40,000 to get it into the stores. The young executive sighs and stares at the floor. ‘If she’d only go down on the promotion men, we’d sell a million records (13).’”
      So their discussion of their orgasms might have been genuine and empowering for these women in some way, but the point was that more of the article was spent on women’s bodies (including extensive physical descriptions absolutely NOT found in articles on male musicians), their sexuality, and their male muses and partners, rather than their talents. Men did express their sexuality a lot, but women’s body parts were often made the focus of these discussions (and images) of male sexuality, and in the articles their band/music was the focus of the article.

      That being said, there’s actually no way of knowing how much of what women said in these cover stories was legitimate or put in by male journalists and editors (as although more women were being hired, no women were put in charge of female cover stories). Their self-sexualizing articles, however, made a significant impact on other women trying to succeed and being taken seriously.

      You should actually read Rhodes book (mentioned at the top), as she, being a former pop musician herself, really nails the double-bind women experienced during this time.

      While you make a good point about how these comments by women were sex-positive, you have to consider not only the historical context (of the music industry, the women’s movement, and the sexual revolution), but also the fact that these articles are written by men and mostly for men – and sex sells. This was an industry built on hierachies of power. If women are trying to articulate power through their own self-sexualization, how much power can they really ever have?

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