Lesbian and bisexual women have been at the forefront of rock, punk, and counterculture rebellion. They have influenced male rock ‘geniuses’, they’ve inspired new genres of music, they’ve been the soundtrack for revolutionary movements, and they’ve often been left undervalued or completely uncredited.
These three women have (finally) been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and we’re going to take a look at why.
1. Sister Rosetta Tharpe
This list wouldn’t be worth anything without putting Sister Rosetta Tharpe in the beginning, because her contribution to rock and roll has shaped what music is today. Tharpe was rumored to have romantic relationships with a few different women, including singer Marie Knight. As the “Godmother of Rock ‘N’ Roll,” gospel-singing Tharpe was one of many Black women who came before — and inspired — rock ‘geniuses’ like Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Jerry Lee Lewis. She brought Little Richard to the stage when he was only 14-years-old.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe, named Rosetta Nubin at birth, was born on March 20, 1915, in Cotton Plant, Arkansas. Her parents picked cotton, but were also both musicians. Her mother was a women’s speaker for the Church of God in Christ, where music and dance was a huge part of the congregation. Tharpe was singing and playing guitar as ‘Little Rosetta Nubin’ by the time she was four-years-old, and was viewed as a musical prodigy among her community.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe took inspiration from the blues; she brought gospel, spiritual music, to mainstream rock; and she pioneered the pop-gospel genre. Tharpe “became a virtual overnight sensation” to the music scene, with her first records ‘Rock Me’ and ‘This Train’. Tharpe was one of two black gospel acts — the other being Golden Gate Quartet — to record for American soldiers in World War 2. In 1944, Tharpe cracked the Billboard Top Ten with the song ‘Strange Things Happening Every Day’, a collaboration with “boogie-woogie pianist,” Sammy Price.
In 1946, she had a huge hit with rumoured lover Madame Marie Knight, “Up Above My Head.” The couple played to large church crowds until the ’50s, when Knight moved permanently into secular music and Tharpe planted herself firmly in gospel. Tharpe’s reputation was damaged among religious purists: her record sales and engagements dropped off and, while she clawed her way back to appear at the Apollo Theatre alongside The Caravans and James Cleveland by 1960, she wasn’t a household name like she was before. She died in 1973 from a stroke.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s biographer Gayle Wald quotes Tharpe as saying “Oh, these kids and rock and roll — this is just sped up rhythm and blues. I’ve been doing that forever.” Sister Rosetta Tharpe didn’t get inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 2018.
2. Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin was a blues-rock singer with one of the most recognisable raspy voices of all time. Joplin was one of four “iconic figures of 60s rock” who died between 1969-1971, all at the age of 27. The others being Brian Jones, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. Janis Joplin and her music reflected the politics of the 1960s. ‘Mercedes Benz’, for example, was a rejection of consumerism.
Despite Sister Rosetta Tharpe walking so singers like Janis Joplin could run, Joplin was inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of Fame twenty-three years before Tharpe, in 1995. Janis made a huge impact on the music scene. Influenced by blues artists like Ma Rainey, Joplin “was rough around the edges, vulnerable and charismatic, and she paved the way for countless women in rock.”
Singer-songwriter Tracy Nelson says rocking women were told “why not just stay home, find a man?” during the mid-sixties, but Joplin persisted like no other. Nelson recalls performing after Joplin one concert and thinking “Man, this is a force of nature,” while Janis played.
Janis was severely bullied up until she made it to the big stage, even being voted ‘ugliest man on campus’ by a frat house in the early 60s. “They laughed me out of class, out of town, out of the state,” she explained. However, she found love in music: “Singing is like loving somebody,” Joplin once said, “It’s a supreme emotional and physical experience.”
Janis Joplin was bisexual and “her most sustained relationship” was with a woman, Jae Whitaker. Janis had flings with rockstar men but, according to Alice Echols, author of Scars of Sweet Paradise, most of her long term partnerships were with women.
3. Joan Jett
Joan Jett has been active in the music world since 1975. She is known across generations for her “groundbreaking artistry,” including the icon in her own right, and big fan, Debbie Harry. Jett, inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015, has taken the stance that declaring her sexual orientation removes the spotlight from her art and places it upon her personal life. However, she helped in rehearsals for the biographical film about her band of the same name, The Runaways (2010), which detailed her attraction towards, and relationships with, women. Whether she’s a lesbian or bisexual isn’t anybody’s business according to her, which is true to her style.
Celesbian Kristen Stewart, who played Joan Jett in the film, says about Joan Jett’s involvement: “In a rehearsal before we actually shot [the song] ‘Cherry Bomb.’ I couldn’t commit to it. I just felt like I was traipsing on something. I’m not good at rehearsal. So she [Joan Jett] was like, ‘What are you doing, man? C’mon. You know this. You’ve got this.’ And I was like, ‘I know, I know, I know, don’t worry.’ And she was like, ‘COME ON! Pussy to the fucking wood!’ It was funny, because rock ‘n roll’s supposed to be messy and ‘fuck it, nothing matters’ but it’s truly the opposite of that for her. She has a diligent, almost compulsive dedication to it. And that was, KRISTEN! Pussy to the wood.’”
Joan Jett was born into a Pennsylvanian protestant family in 1958, her father an insurance salesman and her mother a secretary. She got her first guitar at thirteen-years-old and took some guitar lessons, but quit when the instructor kept trying to teach her folk songs. Her family moved to Los Angeles so she could pursue her talent for music and her parents divorced shortly after. When that happened, she changed her name to Joan Jett, from Joan Marie Larkin, and told people Jett was her mother’s maiden name. It wasn’t.
Jett is a feminist icon for her punk rebellion against male dominance both in and out of the music industry. She has had huge success, both solo and in groups, despite the male monopoly on rock. She still performs today. Jett said to Interview Magazine in 2010:
“Being told that girls can’t play rock ‘n’ roll–I mean, even as a kid, it was so illogical to me–it’s like, what do you mean? That girls can’t master the instruments? I’m in school with girls playing cello and violin and Beethoven and Bach. You don’t mean they can’t master the instrument. What you mean is they’re not allowed, socially–it’s a societal thing.”