With its just-released four-part docuseries, Women Who Rock, Epix provides intriguing insights into the struggles and successes of the female pioneers of Blues. Rock and Roll and Rap. Split into major changes in popular music, episodes have titles such as “Truth”, “Defiance”, “Power”, and “Success.” Each is hosted by a key influencer for the period covered, culminating with present-day artists. With archival and current interviews, the series uncovers the difficulty of being a woman in an industry that is mainly male, including label executives, producers, and studio technicians.
The first episode “Truth” is hosted by Mavis Staples who takes us through her personal saga, and reflects on pioneering female blues artists like Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Mamie Smith. At that time, Blues was generally not a mainstream genre, making the success of these artists even more surprising. Mavis started her musical career as the youngest singer in The Staple Singers, which included her siblings (Cleotha, Pervis, and Mavis), and led by her father Roebuck “Pops” Staples. The group found significant fame traveling the gospel circuit, but eventually felt compelled to use their music to bring attention to the civil rights challenges at that time (the 1960s). This foray, along with the success of their Billboard-topping hit “I’ll Take You There” caused some backlash and accusations that they had turned to “the devil’s music.” Chaka Kahn, Nona Hendryx, and Nora Jones add their commentary to the social upheavals and Kahn’s participation in the Black Panthers as a teenager, including her need to steal a pistol to keep in case things “went down.” Later Etta James would urge the young Chaka Kahn to avoid drug use, unlike Etta herself.
Episode two, “Defiance,” is hosted by Nancy Wilson of Heart, who along with her sister Ann found early success as a female rock duo. “Barracuda,” their classic early rock hit, was written by Ann Wilson one night after a meeting with a patronizing record executive who suggested the sisters might be lovers and spoke of other “ways” they could ensure their success.
The episode takes us from the late 1960s into the 1970s and interviews Rickie Lee Jones, Shiela E., and Tina Weymouth (bassist, Talking Heads), among others. Artists like The Runaways and Fleetwood Mac were breaking down boundaries on what women could do in the music industry. Wilson relates how Heart got their big break just after they were kicked out of a venue for complaining about the food. They unexpectedly received a call from none other than Rod Stewart, who asked them to open for him. Other stars such as Joni Mitchell describe how protests regarding support for the Equal Rights Amendment urged women to pursue roles that were previously male-dominated.
The Punk era is explored, with female rockers such as Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and Joan Jett figuring prominently. In one anecdote, relayed by Jett herself, she begged her parents for a guitar which she finally received at age 13, and then practiced nonstop, much to her parent’s aural discontent.
Near the end of the episode, we head into the MTV age, where the need for an image, especially a sexy one for bands comprised of or led by women, set the movement back. Pat Benatar takes us personally through her story, getting an opportunity to perform while dodging the expectations to “act and dress sexily.”
The final two episodes, “Power” and “Success,” include segments hosted by Pat Benatar, who is as snarky as ever, and Sheryl Crow. They include interviews with Natalie Merchant, Shania Twain, St. Vincent, Sheryl Crow, Kate Pierson (The B-52s), Aimee Mann, Sarah McLachlan, Macy Gray, Norah Jones, and others – and take us through the 1990s and early 2000s to today. With the onset of powerful audio software and professional-grade personal mixing equipment, the ability to make music is easier than it’s ever been. Female musicians can create their music, publicize it and gain notoriety without necessarily having to “work the system.” Billie Eilish, Yola, Syd, and others can create the style of music they want, socialize it on Instagram and YouTube, and then publish it on various streaming music sites, lifting many of the barriers early female artists faced.
Director Jessica Hopper (The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic) brings together both archival and firsthand interviews to gain perspective from a variety of female artists from different genres. For anyone middle-aged and beyond, many of the clips and artists will bring back memories. The series is packed with music and vintage performances that are described over a backdrop of the related news of the time. If there’s one challenge for such an ostentatious effort it’s that it’s often forced to gloss over famous female pioneers. For example, Linda Rondstadt and even to some extent Taylor Swift are mentioned only in passing. But the series is engaging and reminds us that it was a steep climb and long road for pioneering women rockers. And with any such battles that are related to “-isms” (sexism, ageism, racism), while progress continues to be made, there’s still work ahead.
Photo: Pat Benatar (Getty Images)