If you booked a concert lineup featuring The Go-Go’s’ Gina Schock, L7’s Donita Sparks, Suzanne Vega, Amanda Palmer and Heart’s Ann Wilson, the show would offer a pretty wide range of musical styles. The same holds true for the experiences and opinions those artists and 15 others share in Katherine Yeske Taylor’s She’s a Badass: Women in Rock Shaping Feminism, which Backbeat Books will publish Jan. 16, 2024.
She’s a Badass is the first book for Taylor, a veteran rock journalist who also contributes to Billboard. (She’s currently collaborating with Gogol Bordello frontman Eugene Hütz on his memoir that’s expected to be published in 2025.) The interview collection documents the gender-based challenges each woman has faced in their career, as well as their determination and perseverance.
Their stories run the gamut from shocking to humorous to enlightening. (The author of this article also contributed a quote.) Joan Osborne, a longtime Planned Parenthood advocate, recalls being banned from Texas’ Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion after expressing support for the organization from the stage during a 1997 Lilith Fair tour stop. Cherie Currie — whose former group The Runaways gets cited as a cautionary tale about how the industry has exploited females — tells an unexpected story of forgiveness in her relationship with late band founder-manager Kim Fowley; his complicated legacy includes Runaways member Jackie Fox claiming that he sexually assaulted her. Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray, who grappled with self-acceptance as a lesbian during the act’s ’90s heyday, faced sexism and homophobia on the level of being underpaid for her performances, and getting punched by a drunk man who called her a “d–e.”
She’s a Badass began taking shape when a literary agent familiar with Taylor’s work approached her about doing a book. “We agreed that feminism and women in rock was a topic that really hadn’t been addressed in a book before,” she observes. “There are a lot of books about women in rock and a lot of books about feminism. But when I went to do the proposal for this, I couldn’t find another one that was about this topic.”
Sourcing artists for the project wasn’t difficult; Taylor had previously interviewed some of them and put out asks for others. However, along the way, she revised the book’s thesis because she wasn’t expecting there would be “a certain number of women in this book who do not identify as feminists and have a real problem with some of the things that the feminism movements have done,” Taylor explains. “And it’s not because they don’t agree that women should be equal. It’s just that they disagree with the approach or what that label ‘feminist’ signifies now.”
She adds, “But I think that’s healthy. I think it shows more of the full spectrum of opinions that are out there about it. And I think the really important thing to note is that everybody was on the same page in terms of wanting to move women’s equality forward.”
Taylor also emphasizes that She’s a Badass isn’t “a male-bashing book,” for all the interviewees made sure to point out when men lent their assistance: “Everyone went out of their way to at least tell me one story where there was something where a man helped them.” Currie, for instance, cites touring mates Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers and Cheap Trick as being supportive; in high school, Palmer’s drama teacher let her protest a song in her senior year musical, Carousel, that normalized domestic violence by letting her perform her own tune during intermission. “So the message is pretty clear that these women don’t hate men. They hate that certain men treated them this way.”
She concludes, “I feel like with their honesty, they really captured the pretty full spectrum of women’s experience in rock. There’s no way to capture absolutely every single viewpoint, but I think that this group of women really did a good job of illustrating all the different kinds of good and bad things that can be encountered in this business.”
In the following excerpt from She’s a Badass, Ann Wilson recounts how her anger about sexism fueled Heart’s hit song “Barracuda,” and how an unsavory publicity stunt made her and her sister-bandmate, Nancy Wilson, break from a record label. (To preorder a copy, go here.)
Wilson certainly wasn’t submissive and quiet — but even so, she was taken aback by the misogynistic culture that permeated the music business at that time. Ironically, one of her encounters with this type of bad treatment also sparked one of Heart’s biggest hits, “Barracuda,” which was released as a single in 1977. Scathing and soaring, it has become one of the band’s signature songs.
“It was probably late ’76 or something, ’77, maybe,” Wilson recalls. “A guy who came up to me in the dressing room after our set said to me, ‘Hey, how’s your lover doing?’ I said, ‘He’s fine; he’s right over there,’” and she motioned to Mike Fisher. “And then the guy went, ‘No, no, no—I meant you and your sister. You and your sister are lovers, right?’
“I had this strange bunch of emotions that hit me right after he said that. At first it was like, ‘Wow, huh.’ And then it was like, ‘God damn it, this is a sleazy business after all. What was I thinking?’ Because Nancy and I really had this idea that we were songwriters carrying cool messages to the people. We had no idea that we would be perceived, even by a sleazeball, as two porno chicks together in a band. It made me really mad, not only at him but at the industry and at my decision to be so naive and consider myself some kind of spiritual pilgrim with these songs. I got so mad and confused, I wrote the words to ‘Barracuda.’ It was mostly just venom that I felt.”
Soon after, Wilson encountered another notorious example of how badly women could be treated in the music business. Forty-five years later, she still sounds irritated as she recalls this incident.
“Our record company was really good. They believed in us. But they had this publicist at the time; his idea was to put a full-page ad in Rolling Stone that looked like a tabloid cover, and for it they used an outtake from the Dreamboat Annie cover session where [Nancy and I] had circles under our eyes and we looked really kind of bad. And the caption was, ‘It was only our first time.’ So the way it looked was, we just got out of bed from having fucked each other. My parents were offended. We were offended. Everyone was offended—except for the record company, because they sold a lot of records because of it.
“All of it became so distasteful to me that I just thought, ‘No, this is going in the wrong direction for our dignity and for our souls. This is not how we want to be perceived. I don’t care if it sells records or not. This is just ugly. It’s the lowest common denominator, and I’m not going to go there.’ So we decided to change labels. Our producer, Mike Flicker, also left over it. We just went, ‘We’ll take our chances someplace else.’”
Breaking that contract prompted Mushroom Records to sue the band. The lawsuit was filed in Seattle, where the members of Heart had relocated. “That’s probably where we lucked out, because if it had gone in front of a judge that was more familiar with the music industry, like in L.A. or something, we might not have prevailed. But we did,” Wilson says. “This judge in Seattle went, ‘You can’t stop these local girls from doing their craft. So back off.’”
Despite winning the case, the Wilson sisters didn’t feel entirely victorious, as they were worried that standing up for themselves would get them labeled as “difficult” or otherwise hurt their long-term career prospects. “We felt that no one else was going to want to touch us because we were such divas,” she says.
Fortunately, that fear turned out to be unfounded, as Heart went on to ubiquitous radio play through the rest of the 1970s and on into the 1980s, when they became popular on the then brand-new MTV network. Though relieved that they had adapted to the times and remained successful, Wilson recalls that it was difficult for her and her sister to suddenly have so much attention paid to their looks, not just their music.
“It was sort of like you were put on a movie set with trained dancers and people who were actors and actresses, and expected to be one of them,” Wilson says of making music videos in the 1980s. “I know in my case, I’d just always been a musician. I’d never been a dancer or an actress or anything like that, so it was really uncomfortable at first to try and measure up to that. And,” she says with a laugh, “you can see it in some of the old Heart videos, the styling and the bad acting that both Nancy and myself did!”
MTV provided a new visual-based promotional medium for bands—but in truth, Wilson says, the focus on women’s appearance has been the case forever. “I think there’s always been an image thing, for all women. That’s always been an obstacle. There’s a very small window of acceptability that’s put on women, image-wise. Or if it’s not image, then it’s ageism, or it’s something else.” She says this is particularly true for women in music. “There’s always some reason why you shouldn’t be doing this if you are a woman.”
She worries when she sees how many young female artists these days seem to focus on appearance over talent in order to get noticed. “If you’re good-looking and you wear tiny hot pants and all this kind of stuff that is commonplace now for women in the music industry, you can only do it for so long before your body changes. The inevitable decline. So you’d better have a lot more than just your body.”
Five decades after Heart began their rise to fame, Wilson sees how women are still treated differently than their male peers — it happens “constantly. All the time,” she says. “Sometimes it’s disappointing because you’re sending the music from your soul, and why does it have to get hung up in the gender issue? It’s a human broadcast, not a gender one.”
Reprinted with permission of Backbeat Books, a division of Rowman & Littlefield.