Joan Jett: Rock and Roll's Great Idealist Stays Loud

Music Features Joan Jett
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The fan meet-and-greet at the Atlanta stop on Joan Jett’s tour with The Who is mostly what you’d imagine: She poses for pictures. They congratulate her on her recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, and she humbly thanks them. Every now and then, when a fan gets bold enough to go in for a hug, she’s ready with open arms. But there’s one thing that makes the whole process feel just a little more Joan Jett, something she says to each one before they walk away, looking them dead in the eyes and repeating it like a mantra:

“Get loud out there tonight.”

It’s a fitting message from the legendary musician, as she’s never shied away from being loud herself—whether it’s her literal volume in her work with The Runaways, The Blackhearts and her solo material; her personal style (which, to be clear, has nothing to do with her music but is hugely influential on its own); or her willingness to speak out about the injustices she’s suffered as a woman in the music industry, coming up in a time when it was assumed that all rock stars would have Y-chromosomes.

But how have things changed in the nearly 40 years since The Runaways put out their debut album, if at all?

Jett lets out a little wry laugh before giving her answer. “The latter half is more like it. I think women are the ones who are changing things. Obviously with the advent of social media and YouTube and various recording apps that you can use, people are able to make their own records and put them up online for other people to hear, which I didn’t have that ability when The Runaways were happening. The only way you could be heard was on radio or through records or on tour. So I think, you know, I think that’s definitely a positive for women.”

“But as far as business goes, they have enough trouble just trying to survive right now,” she adds. “Figuring out what to do. They’re not worried about women in rock ‘n’ roll. They’d be more worried about women in pop music and such because that’s their bread and butter, I guess.”

That distinction between rock and pop—or rock and anything else, for that matter—is important to Jett. As she said in her Hall of Fame induction speech, “I come from a place where rock ‘n’ roll means something. It means more than music, more than fashion, more than the pose. Rock ‘n’ roll is an idea and an ideal. Sometimes, because we love the music and we make the music, we forget the political impact it has around the world.”

To Jett, rock is all about being an outsider looking in, about standing up against the status quo. About getting loud. “I’ll tell ya, just the words rock ‘n’ roll have become so diluted over the years,” she says. “Because now there’s hair rock and this person’s a rockstar, and people that aren’t rockstars are rockstars. And it’s like, can’t you choose a different word? They’re not rockstars. Rockstars is a specific thing. Rock ‘n’ roll, rock, means something to some people. And it’s sort of, it’s too late now, the word’s been diluted and it is what it is, but it’s frustrating because it takes sort of what I always thought was important, a mystique and a menace that rock ‘n’ roll has, this sort of unspoken dangerousness, at least in the early days, and that’s been so diluted now.

“I was saying earlier to somebody that I think rock ‘n’ roll was a rebellious genre and as other genres came up—hip-hop, all that other stuff, rap music, it’s sort of embraced the showbiz aspect of it. Therefore, people just accepted it. And then I see rock bands moving in the same direction and trying to do, ‘go to this event and that event’ and it’s sort of diluted rock ‘n’ roll, but that wasn’t what it was about. People were trying to change and be accepted, [but] it was supposed to be sort of an outsider thing. You know what I mean?”

That reverence for what rock truly stands for makes her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame all the more meaningful for Jett—it’s an honor so great, it still hasn’t fully sunk in.

“It was incredible,” she says. “I’m still trying to crystallize it and figure out the appropriate words, because it was really quite overwhelming. It was a lot of fun, we had a lot of fun, which is really important, because these things can be so stressful. But it was such an honor. The standing ovation was not expected, that was really pretty overwhelming. I kinda saw my whole career flash before my eyes.”

And what a career it’s been: international success, her own record label, platinum albums, cover songs that so far eclipsed the originals people don’t always even realize they’re covers, and original songs that have gone on to become some of rock’s most enduring classics. Jett recently told Rolling Stone that she and Runaways manager Kim Fowley “shared the same mission statement: ‘Take over the world.’” It may have taken longer than expected—23 record labels rejected her solo debut—but Jett can safely say mission accomplished.

“Yeah, there was certainly a specific moment when ‘I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll’ hit No. 1,” she says. “Because everybody—first of all, every label had heard it and said ‘nope, nothing here.’ So you gotta go, ‘do they listen to what they get, or can they not hear hits or both?’ Either one is a scary answer. Or were they prejudiced because they didn’t like me? They didn’t want to have to deal, so they created an excuse—but whatever, that’s neither here nor there. But that was one of the moments that you go, ‘Wow, wow. We have a No. 1 record.’ We felt like we had arrived on a certain level. But the thing is, you gotta keep proving it. Especially if you’ve done it without—when you’ve done it on your own. It’s sort of like ‘okay, great, now do it again, do it again.’ So you know, that’s all fine and good, just keep showing up.

“But then I think another time, I think to myself, that we arrived, was recently, this Hall of Fame induction,” she adds. “It was very, like I said, I’m still trying to think of the words, to crystallize the emotion, or maybe there is no one word. But to feel accepted, even if everybody doesn’t like music, doesn’t understand things are subjective. It feels accepted. I know that a lot of people fought for me, really hard. So you know it’s not like I feel like I did this by myself. I had a lot of help. A lot of belief.”

And Jett’s willing to pay it forward, offering help of her own to fellow artists—whether it’s to the bands on Blackheart Records or by serving as a killer opening act for The Who on their 50th anniversary tour (she and the Blackhearts are hitting the road for some shows of their own beginning June 6, but they’ll be joining back up with The Who for the tour’s second leg beginning Sept. 14. You can check out a list of all the upcoming shows here).

“This go-around with The Who, the audiences have been extremely accepting,” Jett says. “So that, I really think is the goal, you want people to be involved. Because they’re most likely there to see The Who, not us, so you want to engage them. Winning them over just a little bit is the goal. To have them pay attention and get into it a little bit is great. And so if you can get everybody having a really good time, you’re just warming them up for The Who. I remind people of that, so they get into it. We’ve been having a really great time, great reception.”

This Who tour is celebrating 50 years of the band, and because Jett started her career so young, that milestone isn’t so far away for her, either. But she’s not promising a Joan Jett 50th anniversary tour just yet.

“I don’t really think about that,” she says. “Like ‘Oh, yeah I definitely want to hit the 50-year mark.’ I just kinda do it until I don’t want to do it anymore. I can’t say that I would still be playing, [but] I’m afraid if I stop, I’ll want to start again. ‘Cause that’s all we do. I’ve never really taken a year off, or a long vacation; it’s just not me. The last thing I want to do after getting off the road is get on a plane and go someplace, even if it’s beautiful. I live on the beach. I have my cats. That’s a vacation to me. I can just chill out at home. So you know, I can’t tell if I’m gonna. I love what I do, so I would think I might still be doing it when we get to 50 years. But who knows?”

She won’t make any guarantees, but back in Atlanta’s Gwinnett Center it seems like she could go forever if she wanted. She and the Blackhearts tear through the hits, toss in a few early Runaways songs, and when it’s all over, that Who audience she tried her best to win over is on its feet. Acceptance. The people she asked earlier to get loud did so in spades, and they were joined by about 13,000 others. Jett grins and offers one last howl— “Enjoy The Whoooooooooooo”—before heading backstage to fill the time before she’ll take over the next city. Mission accomplished.

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