Joan Jett's ascent to rock's highest echelons began one Christmas in the 1970s, when her parents gave her a Sears Silvertone guitar. "When they got me that guitar for Christmas — the electric guitar — I was thinking, 'Most parents wouldn't do that,'" the "I Love Rock and Roll" singer, former member of the pioneering teen-punk outfit The Runaways, activist and all-around hellion says in the just-released documentary about her life, “Joan Jett: Bad Reputation.”
Jett had specifically asked for an electric guitar, and not an acoustic one — she was 13 and already aiming to defy expectations, and in the early 70s, "women with guitars" were usually toting acoustic models to accompany the folk-pop that they were often boxed into playing. Jett, who was fascinated by the glitter rock that was taking hold in the 70s, had a different idea of what "women in music" could be.
"I was so into this idea of girls being able to play rock and roll, and that they'd play as well as boys would. Girls playing rock and roll would be so cool and sexy, because it had never been done. I thought everybody would love it," Jett says.
Jett formed The Runaways, her first band, in California in 1975. (While her snarl has since become one of rock's most iconic voices, she felt too shy at first to handle lead-singer duties, which were handled by Cherie Currie until 1977.) The group, whose razor-wire guitars and unapologetic songs like "Queens of Noise" and "I Love Playin' With Fire," took cues from glam and punk as well as metal. They opened for the likes of Cheap Trick and Van Halen — but squaring the circle between being women and being rockers was difficult.
Jett notes that when people involved with the Los Angeles rock scene — musicians, promoters, concert attendees — viewed The Runaways as a novelty act, their reception was positive, if pat-on-the-head condescending. "But once they realized it was serious —that we planned to make an album, and go on tour, and do everything male bands were doing, the tables turned," she recalls in the documentary. "It went from 'cute, sweet' to 'slut, whore, cunt.'" (The film does not touch on allegations from 2015 that Runaways manager Kim Fowley, who has since died, sexually assaulted band member Jackie “Fox” Fuchs.)
Reading reviews of The Runaways from the time can be nauseating. "Am I not a fan, a man who while not entirely asexual, bought the Runaways records right from the start and actually took off the shrink wrap and played them?" British writer Sandy Robertson asked in “Sounds” in 1977 — the type of sort-of-well-meaning, yet still-kind-of-gross returns to the sexist mean that tinged reactions to The Runaways and so many of the all-woman bands that followed them.
"My parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be when I was five years old, and I believed them," Jett, who was born in 1958, says.
"My parents told me I could be anything I wanted to be when I was five years old, and I believed them," Jett, who was born in 1958, says. "So that's the attitude, as a young child, that I took into life — I wanted to be an astronaut, I wanted to be an archaeologist, I wanted to be all these different things. I didn't realize, really, that there was this glass ceiling."
The Runaways dissolved in 1979, and that year, the then-hard-partying Jett contracted a heart infection that nearly killed her. But when she recovered, she doubled down on her craft, eventually meeting her now-longtime manager Kenny Laguna, and forming the Blackhearts. Laguna had been part of the bubblegum wave of the late 60s, playing keyboards on Tommy James and the Shondells' shimmying "Mony Mony" and working with the relentlessly bright Ohio Express. The blend of bubblegum pop's "don't bore us, get to the chorus" aesthetic with Jett's intimate knowledge of harder-edged sounds was a winner, although it would take time for people to realize that.
When Laguna sent songs — including the massive smash "I Love Rock 'N' Roll," and Jett and the Blackhearts' version of the Tommy James 1968 chart-topper "Crimson and Clover" — to record labels, he was turned down, with some rejections pointedly noting that the songcraft was lacking. “Bad Reputation,” Jett's first solo album from which the documentary obviously takes its name, was pressed by Laguna and went on to cement Joan's aesthetic, which was fast and loose while also being defiantly her own.
Jett has been an omnipresence in rock for decades. "I Love Rock 'N' Roll" was an MTV staple; rock superstar Bruce Springsteen wrote the title track to her 1987 acting debut “Light of Day;” and riot grrrl standard-bearer Kathleen Hanna worked with Jett on a 7-inch single by her band Bikini Kill and on Jett's 1994 album "Pure and Simple." Her endless touring has included stints with the now-defunct traveling punk carnival Warped Tour, overseas trips to entertain U.S. troops with the United Service Organizations and Cyndi Lauper's late-2000s LGBTQ-positive tour True Colors.
But her persistence can sometimes overshadow the way she broke and continues to break boundaries. Watching “Joan Jett: Bad Reputation,” you marvel at Jett's tenacity and unwillingness to bend: She casually deflects sexist questions like "are you going to get married," pushes forward even in the face of mass rejection and keeps her ears open for future collaborators (in the documentary, Hanna notes that Jett reached out to her after hearing a Bikini Kill cassette). She also matter-of-factly advocates for what she believes in, whether it's animal rights, awareness of sexual violence or why she feels passionate about performing for troops stationed overseas while still being averse to war.
She's not a quiet revolutionary — listening to any of her songs makes that clear — but she's a woman who, while bristling against being defined by her gender foremost, made a space for others like her to grow and thrive.
"We all have our f****** heroes, you know," said Dave Grohl in 2015, when his former band Nirvana was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 2014 class. (Jett, who performed "Smells Like Teen Spirit" with Nirvana's surviving members, was inducted the next year along with the Blackhearts.) "And we made friends with one of our f****** greatest rock and roll heroes,” he added. “[Jett] made Pat [Smear, formerly of grimy L.A. punk outfit The Germs, now guitarist for Grohl's Foo Fighters] want to f****** start a band, made it OK to be f****** dirty and cool and play rock n' roll like a real rock and roller."
Not "like a girl," or "like a woman rock and roller" — just a "real rock and roller," a guitar-toting lover of the song who boasted a singular voice and a knack for upending expectations wherever she went.