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Rock music’s legacy is a result of its powerful female lineage

On Feb. 5, Paramore became the first female-led band to win Best Rock Album at the 66th Grammy Awards, marking a historic win for female musicians in the genre. The band is one of the most streamed female-led bands on Spotify, with over 700,000 streams on songs like “Still into You” and “Misery Business.”

While frontwoman Hayley Williams is a monumental figure in modern-day rock and alternative music, she wouldn’t be where she was without the female musicians who came before her in the genre. Spanning back to the 1930s, women’s voices have amplified the genre.

Reimagining what gospel and R&B could be, Sister Rosetta Tharpe was a pioneer for many Black female rockers during this time. Growing up in Arkansas, she was a major influence on artists like Little Richard. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, Tharpe received the award for songs about racial injustice, finding strength in faith and her strong presence as a lyricist and activist in her music.

Wanda Jackson was another one of the first women to have a career in rock music in the 1950s, eventually earning the nickname “The Queen of Rockabilly” for her contributions to the genre. Starting as a country singer, Jackson changed to rock music after touring with Elvis Presley. She began releasing rock songs that weren’t censored to the societal norms of the time, singing about topics such as domestic abuse, alcohol and partying. 

The singer gained traction for songs like “Let’s Have A Party” and “Funnel Of Love,” solidifying herself as one of the decade’s best female rock singers and lyricists. Ruth Brown was another singer during this time who was widely successful, having No.1 records like “5-10-15 Hours.” She has since become an inspiration for artists like Bonnie Raitt, with many finding her integration of jazz and rock influences as a critical turning point in the genre.

You cannot talk about rock music and not include Tina Turner, the singer known for songs like “Proud Mary” and “River Deep - Mountain High.” Even through her abusive relationship with fellow musician Ike Turner, the singer’s growly vocals and themes of empowerment and grit made her a standout during the 1960s for many women experiencing similar relationships.

As one of the most successful Black female rock musicians, Turner turned the genre away from its bubblegum-esque sound of the previous decade and used her background in gospel and soul music to make it more radiant and powerful. She also became a replica of how to expand one’s vocal range, integrating her high soprano and vocal riffs to add more layers to her songs.

Janis Joplin followed suit in the 1960s, known for popularizing blues again through her rock songs. The singer listened to other artists like Thorton, Odetta and Bessie Smith growing up in Texas, wanting to imitate their vocal patterns and write lyrics about the female experience. What Joplin did so well was honor the musicians who came before her, and you can hear much of her love for the artists in tracks like “Piece of My Heart” and “Ball and Chain.”

Moving into the 1970s and 1980s, Carole King and Joni Mitchell became well-respected for their lyrical abilities. Before her career took off, King was already writing rock songs for artists like The Shirelles and The Drifters but emerged with her album “Tapestry” in 1971. It was the best-selling female album of the decade, selling 25 million copies worldwide. 

Meanwhile, Mitchell’s writing also made her highly respected, as she explored daring topics like the environment, political unrest and sexism in the industry. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from the Berklee College of Music in 2022 and has won 12 Grammy Awards for her work.

Paramore has said one of its key influences has been Fleetwood Mac. The band also emerged during this time, with frontwoman Stevie Nicks now experiencing a resurgence in her music for its confessional tone. With iconic songs like “The Chain” and “Landslide,” Nicks proved to be a powerhouse vocalist and a frontwoman who didn’t care to fit in.

This stance of ignoring beauty standards and societal norms continued with artists Blondie and Alanis Morissette, who were substantial female rockers of the 1980s and 1990s. The lead singer of Blondie, Deborah Harry, helped rock go punk with songs like the fiery “One Way Or Another” and go to disco with “Heart Of Glass.” 

Morrisette turned to punk and grunge following Harry to create amazing albums like “Jagged Little Pill” and tracks like “You Oughta Know” for their call-outs of patriarchal oppression and sexism. The singer has continued to stand up against sexism in the genre as well, declining to perform alongside Olivia Rodrigo at the 2022 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony after experiencing disrespectful staff.

Similar to Morrisette, the late Sinéad O’Connor is another woman who has defied the odds found in the music industry, known for calling out sexism and sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church during the late 1990s. An unapologetic lyricist, O’Connor’s legacy is important to note for her unwillingness to conform, which is evident in her stage presence and physical appearance. The industry now applauds her for songs like “Nothing Compares 2 U” and “I Am Stretched on Your Grave.”

Other honorable mentions go to Dolores O’Riordan, the Irish frontwoman of The Cranberries, and Avril Lavigne. With the resurgence of tracks like “Linger” and “Zombie,” O’Riordan’s signature voice and awareness of injustice and destruction are two elements many current female rockers admire. Lavigne has also been beloved for her punk-rock sound and for inspiring a new wave of emo music during the 2000s.

While there are too many female musicians to fit in one article, it is clear that rock music would not be what it is without the women who have contributed to it.


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