Voices Heard: Women in Rock-n-Roll

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Jodi Mitchell, 1968

To quote Peter, Paul, and Mary, “I dig rock-n-roll music.” My spirits lifts when I lift the needle, gently place it down on the record, adjust the volume and let the music stream through the crackle of my record player. I have some prized Richie Havens, James Taylor, and CCR records, but I usually reach for the Joan Baez, Janis Ian, or Aretha Franklin albums. Music from powerful, talented female artists gives me such euphoria. Their music makes me feel proud to be a woman.

Rock-n-roll and rock criticism are fields largely dominated by males (just take a gander at GuitarWorld magazine, or visit the nearest Guitar Center), but the female influence is significant and must be regarded. When I hear Joni Mitchell sing, “I am a woman of heart and mind,” or Carole King declare that “it’s too late,” or Mama Cass and Michelle Philips [harmoniously] shout that “you gotta go where you wanna go,” I feel a surge of female power and energy that is overwhelming. It is music about traveling, loving, feeling, forging, and freeing ourselves without necessarily being with a man. Ellen Willis, the first popular music critic for the New Yorker (1968), wrote not only about albums, performances, and musicianship, but about the way the music made her feel. I would argue that’s what music is about–the way it makes us feel.

Women bring something to music that men could never. The crystal clear notes that Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez master, and the low, sultry notes Aretha Franklin belts out (Franklin was voted the number one singer of all time in Rolling Stone magazine) can not be equated by male musicians. Female musicians liberate women with their words, their rhythms, and their soul. There’s something about the sizzling hi-hat, saxophone solo, and piano bits mixed with Franklin’s singing out about the respect she expects (and all the bread she’s got).

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Carole King holding her Grammys for Tapestry, 1971

Similarly, how can one deny Carole King’s demand to “get up every morning with a smile on your face and show the world all the love in your heart?” Thirteen of King’s songs are compiled on an album called The Legendary Demos, “Beautiful” being one of them. Some of the other songs include, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Way Over Yonder,” and “It’s Too Late.” All of the hits on the album are indeed, legendary. Oftentimes, folks aren’t aware of all the hits Carole King wrote/helped to write (e.g.,“Take Good Care of My Baby,” “Will you Love Me Tomorrow?”) King was also the first female writer/artist to win record, song, and album of the year, for her album Tapestry.

The list goes on for influential female singers–Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, Joan Baez, Etta James, Karen Carpenter, Grace Slick, Patsy Cline, Billie Holiday, Stevie Nicks, Janis Ian and dozens, dozens more. Women are an important part of rock-n-roll history. When I imagine rock-n-roll without the influence of women, it is an empty, monotonous past. Women have a voice, and a darn good one at that.

-Madeleine Toerne

Ohio University Women’s Center Staff

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About Ohio U Women's Center

The Ohio University Women’s Center serves and responds to the needs of OU women students, faculty, and staff, as well as members of the community. Founded in 2007, the center is dedicated to creating an inclusive and welcoming campus climate for all members of the community through programs, resources, referrals, advocacy, and education. Located in Baker University Center 403.
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