Jett still loves rock 'n' roll


July 23, 2006


Joan Jett has been both a heavy-metal pioneer (as a member of one of the first all-female heavy-metal bands, the Runaways) and a New Wave heroine (with her band, the Blackhearts), but her presence among the mainstage attractions at this year's Warped Tour isn't about nostalgia: At age 47, she has just released one of the best and most ferocious pop-punk albums of the year, "Sinner," on her own Blackheart Records.

Jett's familiar mix of driving rhythms, anthemic hooks and that delightfully raspy growl acquires a new urgency on the disc with the political message of "Riddles" and the risque flirting of "Fetish." The album also takes some surprising turns, including a cover of the Replacements' "Androgynous" that's thematically correct but a musical departure.

I spoke with Jett 10 days into Warped, as it made its way toward Chicago's July 30 stop.

Q. Are you enjoying the Warped experience, Joan? It's a unique kind of corporate punk fest, with just about every surface being sponsored by some company or other ...

A. Well, I'm having a blast; I love it! They need sponsors or whatever ... I'm not going to fault them for it. It's a good time.

Q. I love the new album. What was the goal going into recording?

A. We just wanted to get a record out! It's been so long for me, having new studio material out. We've been trying to get a record out for years, and we just kept running into obstacles, and now we were finally able to do it. I don't think there was any sort of goal in mind -- or if there was, long ago, I don't remember what it was now.

Q. There's a lot of immediacy and anger in a song like "Riddles," where you're taking on the Bush administration about the war in Iraq. It seems like you had some things you really wanted to say.

A. You know, I've wanted to write about politics or spirituality -- various things that I haven't really touched on specifically in songwriting before. It's kind of difficult, and coinciding with us trying to get this record out, I had a bit of writer's block. But I think myself and [producer and musical collaborator] Kenny [Laguna] finally got over the hump, and I'm really pleased with what "Riddles" says. I don't think it attacks anybody personally -- it's just a commentary about what's going on in the country.

I was afraid or being preachy or corny, but really, "Riddles" just came out in the studio. We were at deadline, and things kept coming to Kenny and me as I was singing. So we'd stop the tape; I'd run into the control room; we'd write down the lyrics that were coming into our heads, and I'd go back into the studio and re-sing what we just wrote. "Riddles" just came out of the air. That's one of those things you wait for as a songwriter for your whole life -- things that are just completely spontaneous and come out of you.

Q. What about "Fetish"? That struck me as something different, as well.

A. Different? Well, I think that's pretty much what people expect from me: songs about intense sex! [Laughs] It's just a straight up rock 'n' roll song, and I love to play it and watch people react.

Q. Where did you get the idea of covering the Replacements?

A. Oh, I've been a big Replacements fan for years! I thought "Androgynous" would be a fun one to try, because it was a little bit different.

Q. You're also a woman who's had that label "androgynous" thrown at you throughout your career.

A. Absolutely. You know, I know I'm a woman, and I love being a woman, but I think that I've never been comfortable in that super-femmie kind of role, so I've always played down the middle. I embrace my masculine side, and I think doing a song like "Androgynous" sort of sets the mood for that.

Q. That leads to the question of your role as a heroine for the riot grrrl movement and other female rockers. I've always thought about this issue the way L7 did: That "women in rock" won't make real progress until people are talking about them as being great rock bands, period, instead of great "female" rock bands.

A. Right, but I don't know if that's ever going to happen, to tell you the truth. Now that I'm almost 30 years past the Runaways, it's still not a standard thing for a girl to be playing rock 'n' roll. Still! They can't get past the level of playing clubs, and there is still that feeling of, "Yeah, you can play in a band and play clubs, but that's as far as you can get." As far as being taken seriously, you've gotta get in line and get on "American Idol." People ask me why I think that's the case, and I really don't have a good answer.

I think part of it is that people get very nasty when women are trying to play rock 'n' roll. It comes at you from very strange places -- even the people closest to you don't support you sometimes. You get called really nasty names just for trying to play music. Many times people would say to me, "Girls can't play rock 'n' roll," and I never understood that, because girls play cellos and violins in symphony orchestras. They play Beethoven and Bach, so what you are saying is that they're actually capable of mastering an instrument, but they're not allowed to?

Rock 'n' roll -- the term "roll" implies sexuality, and that you own your sexuality. That's why they showed Elvis from the waist up, and everyone said that Chuck Berry would steal their 16-year-old daughters. It was dangerous music, so girls playing it means that they are telling you how they are going to use their sexuality instead of the other way around. To me, pop music says, "You can do anything you want with me," and rock 'n' roll says, "This is what I'm going to do to you!"

Q. Does it bother you when you see female pop stars defining themselves entirely by their sexuality?

A. No, it doesn't, because it's completely separate from what I do. What bothers me is when writers start calling people who don't play rock 'n' roll "rockers." I'm one of those people who, if you say someone is rocking, they better be playing rock 'n' roll!

Q. I interviewed Britney Spears when she covered "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and asked her why she chose that song, and she said, "I always loved Pat Benatar."

A. [Laughs] You got that quote? I've seen that, and I love that quote! I've never heard her version of "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," because I've never wanted to. I've got nothing against Britney, I just didn't understand why she would choose to do a song like "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" when rock doesn't even touch her life in any aspect.

Q. So those words still mean something to you?

A. Oh, yeah! Definitely, they really do. I'm really enjoying Warped, because I get a chance to see some of these bands. I've seen Bouncing Souls, NOFX, Against Me!, Saves the Day, Underoath, Rise Against, Senses Fail ... a lot of those bands, but some of the smaller bands I haven't seen yet. There are like eight stages with nine bands playing every day! But I'm going to get out and make sure I get to all of those stages and take in as much as I can before this tour is done.