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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.

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