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Though it’s not so hard to find women playing loud, guitar-driven music these days, rock ’n’ roll is still essentially a man’s world. Sure, women are more of a driving force in the pop marketplace than ever before, but women performers seem to be relegated to the quieter, more introspective regions of the commercial landscape. But even if radio won't play them, there are indeed female bands out there who rock hard, most of them inspired by the trailblazing singer with the jet-black hair and surly image.

A true American original, Joan Jett set the template for women in rock ’n’ roll. As a founding member and leading light of the über-punk, all-girl '70s band The Runaways, Jett forged the standard to which all electric guitar-wielding females aspire to this day. Jett was the first female American rock ’n’ roller to gain widespread attention, chart-topping hits, and the grudging respect of the male rock ’n’ roll community. Without Jett’s pioneering efforts, the face of rock would surely be different today. The antecedent to groups like L7, The Muffs, The Donnas, The Eyeliners, Bratmobile, the riot grrl movement and more, Jett is still a driving force who insists that she has not slowed down or softened one bit

"Me? Am I softening? Are you kidding? I think some people do let themselves go when they get older because they just get tired. But I haven’t slowed down a bit."

If anything, Jett says she's tired of female pop singers being called "rock 'n' rollers" when there ought to be more women following her electric-guitar lead.

"I don’t know that I feel let down, but I just don’t see why there’s not more women wanting to play rock ’n’ roll," she says. "Right now, in the mainstream, there’s me and like Courtney Love. I love L7, but they’ve never really had a hit. There’s sort of a partition or a glass ceiling that makes it hard for women to actually play hard rock. Sure, it’s okay to say, ‘I’m a woman. I play guitar,’ as long as it’s pop music or it’s acoustic or something.

"I mean, I get so tired of hearing women in pop music being called rock ’n’ roll. You know, can you all please stop calling all the pop babes rock ’n’ roll? It’s really getting tiring hearing people like Britney Spears being called rock ’n’ roll. Give me a break!"

(In an interesting wrinkle since this interview in February, 2000, Britney Spears has seen fit to record the Joan Jett staple, “I Love Rock’n’Roll.” Of course, the Spears version is a sequenced, sampled mangling that has nothing whatsoever to do with rock’n’roll—a horrible example of postmodernism gone awry. Jett, who is not the author of the song and will gain no profit, is surely angered—or at least flummoxed—by this development.)

"I Love Rock 'n' Roll," recorded with her then backing band, The Blackhearts, charted some 20 years ago. But Jett prefers to look to the future instead of riding on her laurels. Though she has toured in the past with Def Leppard, another band that reached its commercial zenith in the ’80s, she doesn’t harbor any especially fond memories of that era or seek to recreate it.

"I don’t know if I miss the ’80s per se," says Jett. "But I do miss hearing a lot of rock ’n’ roll music. There just doesn’t seem to be as much rock ’n’ roll music anymore. Everything does seem kind of tame these days. It’s hard to even go out in Manhattan and find a good band to see.

"It’s easy for me to stay faithful–even easier these days because there are less people doing it (playing true rock ’n’ roll). I feel like it’s my job to carry the torch. I don’t understand, personally, just what happened. Or why there aren’t as many people out there that are willing to have fun playing rock ’n’ roll. I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s just that fashion change; styles change. Now everyone’s into this rap/rock/metal kind of vibe. But I think there’s nothing better than seeing a three-chord, straight-up rock ’n’ roll band. In-your-face, sweaty music, three-minute good songs–there’s nothing better than that."

Rap metal and dance pop may be the going thing on the airwaves today, but there actually are several girl-led bands in the punk underground that cite Jett as an influence and freely plunder her sound and image. One group in particular that is almost a cookie-cutter, modernized version of The Runaways is California upstarts The Donnas.

"I saw The Donnas in New York last year and I thought they were excellent," says Jett. "They were very competent and I really got a kick out of their whole Runaways takeoff vibe. I think it’s cute. I mean, imitation is a form of flattery. And I’m honored. I’m finally hearing some women picking up guitars and playing rock ’n’ roll!"

Jett is indeed proud of her status as a pioneering female rocker. She is also reticent about a Runaways reunion, even though there has been a lot of demand. Wary about the pratfalls of reunited bands, Jett says a collaboration with former Runaway Lita Ford is possible, but improbable.

"We’ve discussed possibly doing something together. But I don’t really see a reason to reform the group," says Jett. "I mean, we took so much shit when The Runaways were happening. So now, 20 years later people want us to get together so they can take their shot at all these old babes trying to get back some youth? I know what the press will do if we get back together. They say, ‘C’mon, reform!’ And if we did, they’d take their shots. I would come out with nooses and hang everyone that made fun of us–because The Runaways are my baby."

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