Here’s some pop music news. Guess the year it takes place.
Blondie has announced a North American hall tour and has a new album coming Sept. 13. The Human League has a new album getting a physical release that same day. The Bangles have a new album on the way Sept. 27 with a tour following five days later. The B-52s have a release dropping Oct. 11 and are continuing a tour.
Meanwhile, the Go-Go’s just wrapped up a tour for which most of the dates sold out. Joan Jett attracted a record crowd at the Oregon Amphitheater, and Stevie Nicks got a lot of press for an album released earlier in the year.
If you guessed all of this happened during any random year in the early 1980s, you’d be wrong. All of this is happening this year.
The pioneering female rockers and female-led bands that emerged or had their biggest successes in the early 1980s are back in a big way. The fact that so much attention is being paid to them now seems to be creating a sort of mini-revival, but the question is why this is happening now.
One answer, said Cindy Wilson of the B-52s, is that since most of these acts have stuck around rather than hung up their rock ’n’ roll shoes, they’ve gradually been able to build up large audiences that span generations.
“The people that came to see us in the old days have kids,” said Wilson. “So it’s really amazing that it keeps being passed around. We get a great crowd — all ages.”
There’s also the fact that most female acts from the early 1980s era bring to their music a sense of lightheartedness that some see as lacking in today’s more in-your-face female artists. So said Holly Beth Vincent, who led the ’80s act Holly and the Italians and is still an active performer.
“I think it was kind of a fun time — naïve, innocent time — and I think people like that about it,” Vincent said. “I guess kids want to hear that now.”
Girls just wanna get airplay
But there’s also a deeper element of fan identification that these artists bring to the stage, said Gillian G. Gaar, author of the first book on female rockers, “She’s a Rebel.” Gaar said that although there had always been women in rock, it was the female rockers from her era that overcame the struggle against musical gender prejudice and blazed the path that the 1990s Riot Grrrls and others would follow.
“I recently spoke to the Go-Go’s Jane Wiedlin who said when they would go into radio stations to promote their first album, the DJs would be like, ‘This is a total joke,’ ” Gaar said. “And she said something like, ‘They said things to us that today you could start a lawsuit over.’ ”
According to Carolyne Mas, an early ’80s rocker who had a minor hit with “Stillsane,” radio stations back then had an unofficial policy to avoid playing too many female artists out of fear of alienating their listeners.
“There was something in radio called ‘female segueing,’ where you couldn’t play a female act if you’d just played another one,” Mas said. “You couldn’t do them back to back, but you could put men back to back, no problem. Since my records came out around the same time as those by Pat Benatar, Ellen Shipley and Ellen Foley, it was a difficult to struggle to be the one to be heard because they really couldn’t play all of us.”
Wilson said that being a female fronting a rock band wasn’t considered odd when the B-52s formed in the artsy college town of Athens, Ga. But when the group played New York, “I’m sure we looked like we were from a different planet," she said.
“But then we started getting an audience there and definitely hit a nerve and it became bigger and bigger after that,” said Wilson, whose group is preparing to release its first live album, “In With the Wild Crowd! Live in Athens, GA.”
Terri Nunn, whose band Berlin scored a No. 1 hit with “Take My Breath Away,” said that unlike today, when female musicians like her flaunted their sexuality in the pre-Madonna era, the results could often backfire.
“It was a double-edged sword because as much as men in the business want sexuality in the visual presentation and in the music, at the same time there’s kind of a double standard there,” Nunn said. “Because if you included it in what you were doing then you’re a slut too. Both of those coexist — the desire and the judgment coexist. So I got both.
“I don’t know if it’s that way now for Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, but it definitely was then,” Nunn said.
Working hard for the money
To succeed in such a hostile (or indifferent) environment took an extra helping of effort and that, said Gaar, and is likely what fans like about this group of artists today.
“What’s common to a lot of these people is they just had a determination to get through,” Gaar said. “In (Go-Go’s lead singer) Belinda Carlisle’s autobiography, you get a sense of that. They got together in the late 1970s, but their first album didn’t come out until 1981. They were watching other people getting signed to labels and they felt they weren’t in part because they were women.
“They’d get discouraged, but they’d keep urging each other on and they just stuck to it.”
While radio may have been unfriendly to female performers, MTV wasn’t and inadvertently helped create an ’80s women’s music revolution, Gaar said.
“In those early days, MTV was a music station and they didn’t have any reality shows and all they did was play videos,” Gaar said. “But because of that, and because there weren’t that many bands making videos at the time, they just put on everything they could get their hands on, so it was really a diverse mix — which included women. That gave exposure to a lot of bands that maybe would not have gotten that three years down the line when they were being more selective.”
Carla DeSantis Black, who founded the magazine ROCKRGRL and women’s musician advocacy group M.E.O.W. (Music for the Empowerment of Women) said because of MTV, the early ’80s were a time when women’s music snuck up on the general public as just plain music and wasn’t considered different or odd to the younger generation.
“It was really a golden age for women because women were really coming into their own at that particular time,” Black said. “Bands like the Bangles weren’t really considered ‘women in music’ — they were just musicians. I think there’s less of that now because I think women who become popular get singled out as ‘women in rock’ in a way I don’t think that they necessarily were at that particular time.”
As it stands now, the women rockers who once weren’t taken seriously by radio program directors are taken very seriously by musicians who grew up hearing them and draw from their music.
“Groups come up and say, ‘You’ve influenced me,’ and it’s really wonderful to hear that,” Wilson said. “That’s the natural way with music. You feed (an influence) in and make it your own and bring something that you have to it because it speaks to you.”