'I wanted to be a musician that happened to be a girl. Not a girl musician' – Joan Jett
Laviea Thomas
12:22 1st July 2022

This year sees the release of MGM-owed Epix’s brand new series Women Who Rock, a mini-series with three episodes, each one hour long. Across each episode, Epix take you through some of the music industry's most acclaimed female pioneers. 

We wanted to look at why it’s so important to have shows like this available in 2022. The discussion surrounding women's rights and equality is ramping up again, especially in light of the overturning of Roe v Wade in the USA. If this documentary has taught us anything, it’s that right now, more than ever, we need to hear, see, and read about female successes. Women Who Rock pieces together an arsenal of information of just how much the music industry has to thank women for its growth. 

With guest appearances from notorious figures Chaka Khan, Macy Gray, Kelis (to list a few), and video footage of artists including Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Kate Bush, The Slits, Bikini Kill and many, many, more, Epix not only document female musicians right from the very beginning of rock'n'roll but cover a range of music genres all paved by influential women. 

One of the (many) great things that stood out to us about this documentary is that though its title implies a rock focus, Epix have highlighted women who have shaped and made an impact in myriad genres. Women Who Rock may begin with the rock industry, but by no means is it restricted by it. Across this documentary you’re showered with the striding success of all the women who we are to thank for the way the music industry stands today. Each of these women are stars in their own right, and funnily enough, fangirls of the stars older than them, wiser than them and younger than them. It’s a heartfelt community of women supporting women.

Since the very beginning, women have paved the way for music genres across the board. From Sister Rosetta Tharpe bringing a jazz-infused soul to rock'n'roll, Joan Baez’s crisp and eternal touch to soul, riot grrrl’s outspoken grit in the punk scene, and Salt-N-Pepa's hyper-sexual feminist approach to hip-hop. Across this documentary, Epix single-handedly clarify just how important it is to acknowledge women in music, without missing a single beat. Doing so, Epix simultaneously cover a range of relevant political, social, and cultural affairs that were happening during each star’s era of fame. Tying together a whole movie of events across a string of just three episodes, Epix paint a vivid picture of not only the bravery, persistence and sheer talent of these women, but also the surroundings that often acted as ongoing barriers to their success. 

A prevalent theme is that a lot of the songs produced, written and covered by these artists were driven by matters that woman still have to fight today: sexism, racism, homophobia, and just downright incompetence. In episode two, guitarist of glam-rock group Heart, Nancy Wilson tells that her sister Ann Wilson (the band's singer) wrote their famous hit ‘Barracuda’ about misogyny, after a man made an inappropriate comment implying she was in an intimate relationship with her sister.

In the same episode, Pat Benatar says: “I wanted to break the boys club. I wanted to break down that bullshit” when talking about how she saw the need to re-shape the way the music industry saw rock'n'roll. In episode three, Tori Amos says: “you couldn’t lose a customer, or you would lose your job. But I said to myself, if I don’t do something, I’m going to die in this bar room, at a piano, smelling of beer, (and I hate beer).” This comment comes during the discussion about the never-ending stream of men who would abuse their power and use their money as a weapon of hierarchy. The sad reality is that despite their talent or ambition, women struggled (and sometimes still struggle) to validate their abilities, without the straining weight of men overpowering them. Challenging the men — who were ultimately at the top of the food chain — could risk your income, and have a ricochet effect on your career moving forward as an aspiring musician. It was a threating period for smart, innovative women trying to make it in the music industry, and often meant subjecting yourself to psychological pain just to get the recognition you deserved. 

Women Who Rock showcases the good, the bad and the ugly of the female story behind the evolution of the music industry. Some of its most wholesome moments come at the transitions between eras, in which you see the evolution of women’s fashion in rock'n'roll. Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Wanda Jackson can be seen playing guitar in heels and dresses, representing a more palatable but still revolutionary ‘women can do rock too' with a touch of sophistication and glam. Fastforward in time and artists like Tina Turner and Heart’s Wilson sisters rocked mullets and wigs just like the infamous boy bands who were selling millions of copies of their over-produced records. The rock industry has seen so many faces, sub-genres, and styles along its path, and it’s with some of these artists, can we truly be grateful to see its current shape. 

But why is this series so important today? Growing up between the 1950s and 1980s, the chances of you reading or seeing positive coverage about women in rock'n'roll was slim to none. Despite the new talent that was emerging every day, women did not have it easy. Fast forward to the late '80s and early '90s and TV is a big movement and gateway for musicians: at this point, seeing women in rock bands was beginning to become more normalised but still had such a long way to go. Women Who Rock is an amazing visual reflection of some of the music industry’s biggest stars…who just so happen to be women. Historically, acknowledgement of women in rock'n'roll was never really given. Women Who Rock takes a glance at setting the clocks back, doing the research and paying credit to those due. 

Right now, there are more women in rock'n'roll than there ever has been, but that’s not to say the work is finally done. Because every day, women in music have to fight their corner: for bigger stages, to be considered for festival line-ups, to be taken seriously as band members and not mistaken for groupies. Whilst the last century has seen the music industry evolve, the story doesn’t end here, and that’s why Women Who Rock is so important today, tomorrow and in the distant future. As it stands, women aren still second-guessed and overlooked by their male peers. The music industry has a long way to go, but we’re grateful for the women who have driven it to where it is now.

Watch the series.

Issue Four of the Gigwise Print magazine is on pre-order now! Order here.


Photo: Press