April 16th, 2011

Thoughts On The Outcome Of Rock And Roll March Madness

"How the fuck could Joan Jett beat The Beatles?" has been posted a few times and I suspect will be posted/thought even more times.

And, it's a fair question. After all The Beatles are the biggest selling act of all time and Joan isn't. Hell in the UK and Europe many people haven't even heard of Joan Jett, while even the poorest and most isolated people in South African villages know The Beatles.

But, that's not the point. Knowing who someone is doesn't mean that they are going to be beloved by everyone or even win an election. Hell, everyone knows who Charlie Sheen is, but I doubt he could get elected president.

The main thing that I think tipped the scales is this: nobody has anything bad to say about Joan. She's just too fucking likable.

Here's a lesbian who grew up poor in the worst part of Philadelphia who somehow managed to be doing world tours when she was 15 years old. Can you imagine the drive and determination it must have taken to make that possible? Particularly at a time when record companies were not exactly on board with gay or female artists.

Then, when that initial burst of popularity ended and The Runaways broke up, Joan, just barely out of her teens, tried to start a solo career. Quite famously 23 record companies turned her down so the band used all of their savings to press a 45 themselves called "I Love Rock And Roll" and promoted it by mailing it to every radio station in the country and begging them to play it.

That single remained #1 on the Billboard charts for nearly three months. That single remains the 28th biggest selling single of all time in America. Again, pretty fucking incredible for a very young woman who the industry wanted nothing to do with.

I can still remember the poster on my bedroom wall that read "23 record companies said no. 2.5 million record buyers said "I Love Rock And Roll."

Along the way she never sold out even though she was under huge industry pressure to do so. They wanted to exploit her lesbianism by having her make out with girls in her videos. She told them the fuck off. They wanted her to write radio friendly power ballads, she told them to fuck off.

She simply played the straight up rock and roll that she liked to play.

There's also a humbleness to Joan that is very appealing. If you do even a cursory YouTube search on her you'll find a lot of cover songs. You may ask yourself why this is.

The reason for all those covers is simple. Joan figured out early on that for every three people who come to a gig because they are fans there is one who was dragged there by their friends or romantic partner. While the fans have fun singing along to the hits, these people often don't know any of the songs and don't have a great time.

So, she figured that by putting three or four well known covers into each set she'd give these people something to sing along to as well, so that they could have a good time too.

How many other artists would even think of that? Most, I suspect, just assume that everyone there is an adoring fan.

She's also done interesting things along the way including duets with people ranging from Paul Westerberg to Bruce Springsteen to Michael J. Fox.

Beyond that anyone who has ever met her has said that she is a genuinely nice human being. How do you manage to be a public figure for 30 plus years without a single scandal or anyone saying anything bad about you to the press? I can't think of any other rock star who has pulled that off.

This is not even bringing up the work she has done to raise money for gay and lesbian rights and AIDS awareness - starting way before it was cool to do so.

Then, there is the work she's done to bring up other female bands. Through her record company she's promoted, backed up and supported any number of female led bands that would have gotten kicked to the curb by the major labels.

Her influence can not be overstated. Whenever you are in a bar and there is a girl singing or playing rock and roll, she's there because Joan showed young women that they didn't have to be confined to the pop arena. They could play real rock and roll.

She's been a working musician for her entire life. Most bands - The Beatles included - have a life span of about eight to 10 years. Joan Jett and The Blackhearts have been putting out records and touring every year since 1982.

Meanwhile other bands have squandered their reputations. Paul McCartney, Axl Rose, Mick Jagger, etc.. seem almost determined to rest on their laurels and act like they have the right to be complete assholes simply because they sold a lot of records.

Joan has never acted like that.

Finally, this was Rock And Roll March Madness.

The Beatles started out as a rock band and even later in their career put out some excellent rock songs. But, overall, rock and roll wasn't their thing. Weird art pop was. Their most famous album, Sgt. Pepper, has some great tracks on it - but they aren't tracks that resonate with any form of traditional rock and roll. "When I'm 64" is practically pissing on the idea of "Three chords, three minutes, a backbeat and a guitar solo."

Joan, on the other hand, embraced rock and roll like it was her own personal religion and never stepped back from it.

Joan's winning is a victory for traditional pure rock and roll, the idea of not selling out and just getting on stage and giving your fans a good time. She's rock and roll without the rock star bullshit.

That's rare and I understand why it's respected.