vəˈräɡō/: a woman of strength or spirit; a female warrior.

Where have all the rock chicks gone?

Superbowl Sunday was all it was hyped to be and then some. The much favored 49ers against the underdog Ravens plus high drama, lights going out, random no-calls and hard-crushing hits.

However,  despite this being one of the best Superbowls I’ve ever seen, I was also impressed with the healthy dose of female adrenaline that came in the form of the half-time show. I am not a huge fan of Beyoncé, but her performance of 13 mins with 120 dancers and several back up singers was electric.  It wasn’t the explosions or the choreography nor the subsequent reunion of Destiny’s Child that really impressed me. It was the appearance of guitarist Bibi McGill at center stage riffing on her guitar whilst the undisputed queen of pop performed. That Bibi was center stage could of been in part because of her role as musical director, but for me it was profound for a pop diva to share anything like that with a lesser-known guitarist. Later I found out McGill (who I’ve seen play with many other artists including Pink) was part of a ten-piece all-female group put together by Beyoncé called “The Sugar Mamas.”

In a later statement, Beyoncé expressed wishing she had more women who played instruments to look up to as a child and although she played a little piano, she didn’t stick to it and wanted to provide something to inspire other girls to pick up instruments.

After hearing this,  I was touched but also somewhat bummed out. If Beyoncé as a child of the late eighties saw no musical heroes of the female persuasion, what now of a culture that is moving even further away from live music?

So I asked myself the question: where have all the rock chicks gone?  It’s a good place to start. Beyoncé lamented the lack of female musical heroes growing up, but I can assure you that she meant Black female, musical heroes. During the time of her childhood, the war was on and sistahs were doing it for themselves. The Go-Gos,  the Pandoras, the Bangles, Lita Ford, all female  but all white. You had your Taste of Honey and later Klymaxx,  but for the most part the Sisterhood of the Traveling Guitar was lead by the white girls.

Yet the deeper problem was always rock ‘n’ roll’s lack of acceptance, of swaying to what the suits in the business wanted. Most musicians didn’t have problems being inclusive–most.  I know many a female musician who has dealt with sexism–the snide remarks about how dudes do it better. The rock ‘n’ roll business types (except for few, freakishly talented, black, rock-gods a.k.a. Hendrix/Lynott) had successfully kicked out the black man which meant black women too and kept a keen foot on white, female rock performers.  The novelty of female,  rock performers had started during rock ‘n’ roll’s early years.

Take Janis Martin, a rockabilly and country prodigy, she was singing and playing before she was six appearing with such country legends as Hank Snow and Jim Reeves. As soon as Martin hit her mid-teens, however, she became tired of country and jumped to rock ‘n’ roll. Often referred to as the female Elvis, she recorded  ‘Will you, Willyum’ written by Carl Stutz and her own rock ‘n’ roll drugstore-composition. The Big El himself was a fan and sought to have a boy/girl tour with her, but after Elvis collapsed on stage from exhaustion, Martin’s parents swayed from the Colonel’s grasp.

How about Peggy Jones aka Lady Bo, a graduate of New York’s High School of Performing Arts, she studied tap and ballet and was trained in opera. Lady Bo had been playing guitar for two years when a chance meeting with Bo Diddley at the Apollo led to a life changing moment of being asked to be his lead guitarist. Lady Bo went on to do stints with the Animals and James Brown. Martin and Jones are not household names to non-rock geeks, but certainly two, prominent women in the history of rock that didn’t get the love they deserved–two less women that Beyoncé would never read or hear about.

Though the women in rock history includes everyone from the girl-groups like Martha and the Vandellas to the Ronettes (whose harmonies would later influence Joey Ramone), rock deities like Janis Joplin, Carole King and Stevie Nicks and other large heads on rock’s female Rushmore, weaved the Rock-Soul tapestry that linked to Aretha and Tina. But it is a totally different thing when you see a woman carrying the machine around her neck and her pelvis; Both are bad, but one means war.

The 1970’s brought us punk rock-Monroe, Debbie Harry, adding glam and menace. At the same time, The Runaways came along. They were the evil, little sisters of the Ramones, a cultural, carpet bomb. Had a female rock ‘n’ roll revolution finally happened? Former garage-rock-Prince and now mad-scientist-producer Kim Fowley set a group of California girls onto the world and it hasn’t been the same since. The fact that two of the Runaways’, Joan Jett and Lita Ford took separate roads that still met in the middle, only scratches the surface of their importance in the history of Women in Rock.

At the same time punk, beat-poet Patti Smith was redefining what rock n ‘roll was and what it could do—a change was gonna come. By the time the 80’s and 90’s rolled around,  we thought we were safely into the future, but the eighties all-girl boom and the Riot Grrl explosion of the 90’s–L7, Hole, PJ (muthafuggin’) Harvey, Meshell (bad-ass) Ndegeocello–was then quickly replaced by the cute Mouseketeers, Britney and Christina. This took Madonna’s pop appropriation of the rock grrl’s aggression and made it safe.

So where are all the rock chicks?  They’re still here in Santagold’s new-wave Rudegrrlness, in Amanda Palmer’s daughter-of-Bowie freedom, in the local upstarts ‘Pretty Little Demon’s’ alchemy and the ‘Care Bears On Fire’ youthful screams. And maybe some little grrl watching last week’s Superbowl with Dad saw McGill shred the guitar and thought, “I wanna rock!”

About P.Downes

P.Downes

A Los Angeles-based Bajan, rude boy from Boston, P. Downes (Writer/Film & Independent Music Editor) is a card-carrying music and comic book geek with dreams of making movies. He’s a published comic book writer, most notably “Killer Ape and Other City Stories,” a collaboration with Greg Moutafis about a black, punk band who comes of age on the night of the LA Riots. Rumor has it that he types his articles in Spider-man Underoos for good luck.

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