Music

Joan Jett: Our early shows felt like a public execution

Joan Jett was just a teenager when she had her first huge hit with the Runaways. She was unprepared for the levels of vitriol they'd face.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts in Black and white

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts. Image: PR supplied

When Rock & Roll Hall of Famer Joan Jett started the all-girl band The Runaways in the ’70s she was convinced everyone “would love 16-year-old girls playing rock’n’roll”. The band faced a rude awakening.

“Very quickly, once people realised we were serious about it, the name calling started. Not just little names, but really hurtful names: cunt, bitch, dyke. And that’s meant to scare you to death. It did scare me to death,” she said in a new interview with The Big Issue for the iconic Letter To My Younger Self feature.

“But what it also did was it hardened me. I just was incensed at the principle. How dare you tell me what I can and can’t do?”

Jett was just 18 when the Runaways’ huge hit Cherry Bomb raced up the charts. But at early shows, audiences would hurl insults and projectiles at the teenage girls onstage. Jett used to come backstage after playing and cry in the band’s dressing room.

“There was something about it that was a spectator sport,” she said. “I was starting to realise that maybe it was going back to the days when people used to be killed in the town square, hanged or stoned. And I started to feel like that’s what this was, on a different level. It was a way for the certain people in society to voice their displeasure at what we are doing.”

The journalists who wrote about the band were no better. They’d write horrible things “just to make their buddies laugh” and their interview questions were all about sex.

Jett said she’d refuse to answer: “I realised in that moment: Joan, if you answer this question, they’re never going to ask you another question about music again. It’s over. So you can’t ever make it about sex. Sex is inherent in rock’n’roll. But they didn’t think we knew anything. So it was very interesting, sparring with people through that time.”

If she could speak to her 16-year-old self, Jett said she’d warn her about the misogyny she was going to face throughout her life. But she’d also issue a message of resistance.

“What I would tell my young self is that people feel threatened by strong women. And that’s been the case, not just since America was around, but for thousands of years. That’s just reality. So people use these words to hurt you on purpose, to try to get you to stop,” she said.

“So I would tell my young self, take it all with a grain of salt. It’s meant to do exactly what it’s doing to you: hurt your feelings. It’s not to help you in any capacity, to steer you in what they feel is a proper direction. They’re just trying to get you to stop.”

As we know, Jett did not stop. After the Runaways split up, she went on to have decades of global success with Joan Jett & The Blackhearts. They’ve given the world some of the most-loved songs in the rock’n’roll cannon: I Love Rock’n’Roll, Bad Reputation, I Hate Myself for Loving You. Currently on tour in the US, they’ve recently released a new EP, Mindsets.

Throughout all the attacks, Joan Jett kept going for one reason: “I wanted to make it easier for the next girl. Because I knew I had already thrown in my lot.”

In that, she unquestionably succeeded. With her six-string and an ironclad will, Jett carved a place for women with guitars. Her fearlessness paved the way for so many women to rock – among them riot grrls Bikini Kill, The Distillers’ Brody Dalle, Miley Cyrus. She has also produced many bands throughout her career under her own label Blackheart Records.

She doesn’t regret the hard times. “Important moments can be great, and they can also be devastating and sad, but they all build who you are as a person,” she explained. “You can feel better about losing because you know it’s building your character. People who don’t lose anything, they don’t know even the meaning of winning.”

Read Joan Jett’s full Letter To My Younger Self interview – including her memories of David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Robert Plant – in The Big Issue magazine, out from Monday 7 August 2023.

Joan Jett and the Blackhearts’ new digital EP Mindsets is out now. joanjett.com

The Big Issue magazine exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income. To support our work, buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today. Or give a gift subscription. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available from the App Store or Google Play.

Support the Big Issue

For over 30 years, the Big Issue has been committed to ending poverty in the UK. In 2024, our work is needed more than ever. Find out how you can support the Big Issue today.
Vendor martin Hawes

Recommended for you

View all
Jingoism of Rule, Britannia! has long felt shameful. Is it finally time for BBC Proms to axe it?
A 1990s BBC Proms in the Park concert
Music

Jingoism of Rule, Britannia! has long felt shameful. Is it finally time for BBC Proms to axe it?

Zayn Malik: 'I wanted to forge my own path, write my own story and see the world'
Exclusive

Zayn Malik: 'I wanted to forge my own path, write my own story and see the world'

Zayn Malik speaks on new music, home city Bradford and identity: 'I'm a very Northern man'
Music

Zayn Malik speaks on new music, home city Bradford and identity: 'I'm a very Northern man'

'It's always a good time for music somewhere': Kae Tempest talks 80s unrest and new drama This Town
Kae Tempest
Music

'It's always a good time for music somewhere': Kae Tempest talks 80s unrest and new drama This Town

Most Popular

Read All
Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits
Renters: A mortgage lender's window advertising buy-to-let products
1.

Renters pay their landlords' buy-to-let mortgages, so they should get a share of the profits

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal
Pound coins on a piece of paper with disability living allowancve
2.

Exclusive: Disabled people are 'set up to fail' by the DWP in target-driven disability benefits system, whistleblowers reveal

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over
next dwp cost of living payment 2023
3.

Cost of living payment 2024: Where to get help now the scheme is over

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know
4.

Strike dates 2023: From train drivers to NHS doctors, here are the dates to know