The first two episodes of women who rock documentary series covered the dawn of rock n’ roll and its many antecedents and the golden age of classic rock. Episode 3, titled “Power”, explores the new opportunities and pitfalls of the 1980s music video era and how the 1990s ushered in a new generation of female artists determined to overthrow the boys’ club of the music industry. Produced by the same team behind 2019 Punk series, the 4-part series airs Sundays on Epix until the end of the month.
MTV launched at 12:01 a.m. on Saturday, August 1, 1981, famously premiering with the music video for The Buggles’ “Video Killed The Radio Star.” What is generally less reported is that the second video released was by a female artist, “You Better Run” by Pat Benatar. With a voice that could pierce the loudest electric guitars, Benatar was sexy and confident, a singer who got top billing but was also a bandleader, presenting a new hard rock archetype that has been copied countless times.
A working-class New Yorker, Benatar didn’t believe there was anything a woman couldn’t do as well as a man and, like others on the show, says she was inspired by his hard-working, hard-nosed mother. Music videos would help launch her multi-platinum career and she says the tight leotards and stretch pants she wore made her feel like she was putting on armor. At the same time, she was aware of the limits of appearance over art and the squinting look of the male eye and maintained firm control over her image and career.
Benatar was the tip of the iceberg for an impressive number of female artists who used the music video format to their advantage. Informed by punk rock’s peacock fashion sense, artists like Cyndi Lauper and R&B veteran Tina Turner projected power and authority as Madonna reversed the sexualization of female singers. “She was turning into a sex object, so that was okay,” ex-Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon says approvingly.
In a medium that relied on visual presentation, however, female musicians often had to bend to convention. Having made their bones during the hippie and hard rock 70s, Heart was given a glam metal makeover with lots of cleavage and teased hair. Guitarist Nancy Wilson explains that due to the importance of music videos, labels and management now felt they could weigh in on the band’s physical appearance.
The 1980s also saw the emergence of hip hop as an artistic and commercial force to be reckoned with. As the decade progressed, an increasing number of women came to the fore. They ran the gamut, from the streetwise Roxanne Shante to the lighthearted sexualized pop of Salt-N-Pepa, and Queen Latifah, whose “Ladies First” championed the place of women in hip hop and history. Sadly, no female MCs appear in the episode to present their own story, a glaring omission given their continued prominence not only in hip hop but also in pop music in general.
Similarly, 80s R&B is overlooked. While the episode features segments on singer Jody Watley and percussionist-turned-Prince protege Sheila E, where are Whitney Houston, Janet Jackson and Sade? That’s the problem with using rock as an adjective and not as a genre. If you’re for a penny, you’re for a pound. You should either focus on artists who are stylistically “rock” or include a weirder array of artists who represent the totality of female musicians operating in their respective era. If you don’t, you risk being guilty of symbolic gesture and omission.
As the glamor of the 80s gave way to the 90s, a new generation of musicians was waiting in the wings. Raised on second-wave feminism and punk rock, women in grunge and the Riot Grrrl movement gave voice to female outrage. Where Hole’s Courtney Love presented stories of exploitation and abuse in terms of confrontation, Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill fought for the inclusion and safety of women in the often testosterone-driven underground punk scene. . Curiously, the many female musicians who played in top bands of the day, including Smashing Pumpkins, the Breeders and the all-female L7, are overlooked.
At the same time, a slew of exciting new solo artists took advantage of alternative rock forays and presented unique new stories centered on the female experience. While plenty of time is spent documenting Sheryl Crow’s struggles to be taken seriously and take control of her career, other artists have fallen short with little more than a mention. Of course, that’s the danger of covering such a wide cross-section of artists, but at the same time, it speaks to the magnitude of their contribution. With one episode remaining, it will be interesting to see how women who rock binds everything together in the new century.
Benjamin H. Smith is a New York-based writer, producer, and musician. Follow him on Twitter:@BHSmithNYC.