Women Rock! Day 2023: The most influential women in music
To honour Women Rock! Day, we took a look at the women who made it possible for others to take to the stage and rock out alongside the men.
Date published: 3rd Jan 2023
Nowadays, we don’t have to look too far to find an indie, metal, rock, or punk band with a woman in it. But that wasn’t always the case. For decades, rock music was almost exclusively created by men, with women getting no closer to the stage than being at the front of the mosh pit. To get to where we are today, there were some vital women who helped make that change.
Today is Women Rock! Day, a day where we take a moment to reflect on and admire the influential women who paved the way for other women in rock music. So that’s exactly what we’re going to do today.
From poetic vocalists to fierce women who own the stage, shredders to bassists who create solid foundations for the best tunes in rock, here are the most influential women in rock music.
Sister Rosetta Tharpe AKA The Godmother Of Rock 'N' Roll
Before we get into the modern legends, it’s vital we shine a light on the too-often-forgotten matriarch of the genre. It cannot be understated how integral Sister Rosetta Tharpe was to the genre of rock and music as a whole. Do you like a song with a distorted guitar? A song where the guitar is prominent? You can thank this absolute legend for that.
She was the first to play the electric guitar with distortion and played it as its own distinct instrument. Not only did she pave the way for women, but for black people too. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2018, Tharpe was one of the creators of rock and roll. A fearless, queer black woman, Tharpe had the swagger, the stage presence, the skill, and incredible pipes that make her one of the greatest. We’d actually even argue that she is the greatest full stop. We could spend all day singing her praises, but we have some other legends we need to shine the spotlight on.
Can you get more badass than Joan Jett? She burst into the scene as the guitarist of The Runaways, one of the first all-female rock bands, a band that was so big they outsold Kiss and ABBA in Japan. If that wasn’t incredible enough, she was only 16 when the band was founded. She then went on to release solo music and form Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, for which she is probably best known with bangers like I Love Rock 'N Roll and Bad Reputation.
Jett, often dubbed the Queen of Rock 'n' Roll, is now 64 years old and still rocking on. With a gritty voice, unapologetic attitude, a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and an instantly recognisable and unique style, Joan will go down in history as one of the greatest and most integral to the genre.
Unfortunately, Janis Joplin was taken from us way too soon at the age of 27. But despite her short-lived career, she is still incredibly influential. Her instantly recognisable gravelly and super bluesy voice is one that you will have heard at some point, even if you aren’t aware of it. Joplin proved women could be huge rock stars too, wooing audiences with her showmanship, individuality, and obviously that to-die-for voice. She rose to fame singing for the band Big Brother before becoming a solo artist.
A further testament to her role in helping to shape the genre is that Joplin had some of the first visible tattoos in rock music, which is now something that is almost synonymous with the genre. Taken from us far too soon by an accidental overdose, we could never forget Joplin.
Moving to the present day, Hayley Williams rose to fame with her band Paramore in the 2000s. Her dyed hair, charisma, shockingly impressive vocal range, and immense stage presence are just some of the attributes she’s known for. She’s easily one of the most well-known women in emo and pop punk.
While the band’s and Hayley’s solo work is a lot more pop-leaning nowadays, Williams was instrumental in proving to young women and girls that they can get on stage, thrash around, sing their hearts out, and create incredible emo and pop-punk music. Already, there are plenty of artists citing her and her band as an influence, including PVRIS, Against The Current, and State Champs. We can’t wait to see where her career will take her and what other new artists she’ll inspire along the way.
Goth-punk queen Siouxsie Sioux (pronounced Susie Sue, if you were wondering) released eleven studio albums with Siouxsie and the Banshees, with their debut even later being regarded as one of the first post-punk records. Siouxsie gained recognition in the London club scene with her unique style, combining glam with bondage-inspired outfits, which, of course, became a staple of punk and gothic fashion. So not only did her work have a profound effect on music but culture too.
King, with her husband, wrote some truly incredible pieces of music over her career, including over 100 hit singles. She wrote Chains by The Cookies/The Beatles, (You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman by Aretha Franklin, I’m Into Something Good by Herman's Hermits, Don’t Bring Me Down by The Animals, and plenty of her own tunes, too.
Her album Tapestry sold over 13 million copies and contains some of the best songs of the 70s. She's the most successful female songwriter of her time and has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, and was the first woman to win the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. Incredible.
More than just an incredible musician with a jaw-dropping legacy, Patti Smith earned the title "punk poet laureate" due to her fusion of rock music and poetry. The Godmother of Punk released one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time with her debut Horses. If you ever read a “Best Albums of All Time” list, you’re almost certain to find it listed on there. Smith regularly dressed androgynously, had (and still has) signature unruly hair, and almost never wears makeup. Honest to the core, you don’t come across someone like Patti Smith every day.
Smith fell in love, had two kids, and hid from the public eye for a while before returning after her husband died of an unexpected heart attack. Another legendary woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Patti Smith's career has been nothing short of revolutionary, proving women are not simply "capable", but talented, ingenious songwriters and poets that can change music and art.
Possibly best known for the absolute timeless banger that is Somebody To Love, Grace Slick fronted Jefferson Airplane and was a central figure in the early psychedelic scene in the mid-60s. Slick smashed barriers with her distinctive vocals, fantastic tunes, and candour, openly admitting she wrote White Rabbit after an acid trip.
A friend of counterculture hero Janis Joplin, Slick’s career encompassed a philosophy of love, humanity, and doing things differently while inspiring women along the way. Her career spanned four decades before she retired from music. She still works in visual arts, but her musical legacy will live on for decades.
If we’re talking about influential women in rock music, it’d be a sin not to mention one of the first riot grrrl bands, Bikini Kill. If you’re unfamiliar with the riot grrl movement, it fused feminism, punk music, and politics and started in the 90s. More than music, the riot grrrl movement created a safe haven for women to be angry, enjoy music, and protest issues such as racism, classism, misogyny, rape culture, patriarchy and more through music, art, and activism. A Bikini Kill show often saw women at the front while the men were told to stand at the back, fighting the sexist vibes many punks shows had at the time and offering women a place in the scene.
Bikini Kill is one of the biggest feminist bands ever, and their timing for stepping on the scene couldn’t have been better. The band not only created a space for women to enjoy punk when it seemed like the men in the scene didn’t want them there, but also inspired countless women to take to the mic, pick up a guitar, or start beating up some drums. Bikini Kill was, and still is, essential.
When Suzi Quatro rose to fame, people had already gotten used to seeing women in a few rock bands but a woman on bass was still pretty unheard of. Suzi mercilessly smashed that barrier by becoming one of the first women to rise to the top with a bass in hand. In a documentary about her, titled Suzi Q, some of those to acknowledge her influence include Joan Jett, Debbie Harry of Blondie, Tina Weymouth of Talking Heads, and L7. While we’re here, we should take a moment to also be grateful to Suzi’s sister, Patti Quatro, who, with her band, Fanny, became one of the first all-female rock bands to sign to a major label.
Over her career, Quatro has released fifteen studio albums, received the Icon Award by the Women's International Music Network, received an honorary doctorate in music from Anglia Ruskin University, and has been inducted into the Michigan Rock and Roll Legends Hall of Fame. Still making music today, Suzi Quatro’s last album was released in 2021. She’s still going strong at the age of 72, and we’re buzzing to see it.
Memphis Minnie was known as the Queen of the Country Blues. To put into perspective just how skilful she was, this legend beat Big Bill Broonzy in a picking contest judged by none other than the father of modern Chicago blues, Muddy Waters. Broonzy said she “can pick and sing as good as any man I've ever heard; she can make a guitar cry, moan, talk and whistle the blues."
Minnie started playing the guitar at seven years old before running away from home at thirteen. She played on street corners which lead to a tour of the south. She’s credited as one of the first blues artists to use the electric guitar, helping form the roots of rock'n'roll, R&B, and electric Chicago blues, and influencing huge names including Led Zeppelin and Big Mama Thornton. If we’re talking about the history of rock music, it’s vital we put some respect on Memphis Minnie’s name.
Stevie Nicks fronts Fleetwood Mac, one of the world’s best-selling bands, and also has incredible solo music under her belt. While making incredible tunes, Nicks has always been at the front of the fight for equality, stating her independence is something she's not willing to give up for a man, and inspiring and mentoring women in the industry.
Nicks is the first woman to have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame twice, has been named one of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time by Rolling Stone Magazine, and won Album of the Year at the 1978 Grammys for Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. Safe to say she’s more than made her mark on music.
Ann & Nancy Wilson
Ann and Nancy Wilson are vocalists and guitarists of Heart, the first hard rock band fronted by women. The band has sold over 35 million records worldwide and is commonly cited as one of the best hard rock and classic rock outfits. You’ll definitely know their tune Alone. The sisters then went on to form Lovemongers so they could continue having fun making music without the pressures of the industry looming over them.
As one of the first hard rock bands fronted by women, their influence is immediately clear, showing women that they too can get involved with penning iconic riff-laden tunes. The band was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2013 by Chris Cornell of Soundgarden, who called them “heroes and role models”, while also commenting on their influence on him and other Seattle musicians.
Even heavier still, Doro Pesch, donned the Metal Queen, shows the immense power a woman's voice can possess, dominating heavy metal tracks with her fierce, intense voice. In the 80s, it was common for women to be seen as more of a token instead of being credited for their musical abilities. So Doro made an effort to focus solely on the music, not marrying or having kids, while ensuring she was appreciated for her musicianship.
When grunge began to take over in the US, pushing heavy metal out, her dream of conquering America with her band Warlock was destroyed. However, Europe continued to shower her and Warlock with the praise they deserved, resulting in multiple award nominations, including a win for German Echo’s Best National Female Artist in 1994. When metal resurged, Doro once again rose to the top, gaining recognition from countless artists and music fans. Doro knew early on in her career that she would help give other women confidence to take on the metal world, and she did a fantastic job of doing just that.
Kim Deal wasn’t in one, but two fantastic, influential bands. Deal laid down basslines and contributed vocals for Pixies, including on their album Doolittle, which is often considered the band's greatest work. Then, she formed The Breeders, providing vocals and rhythm guitar. With The Breeders, Deal released their debut album Pod, an incredible album that Nirvana's Kurt Cobain called one of his all-time favourites.
While many songs feature basslines in the background, Deal’s basslines stand out and can be heard clearly in songs like Hey and Gouge Away. Without her stand-out bass, these songs would simply fall flat. Together with Suzi Quatro, Deal inspired women to pick up a bass and prove they can do it too.
If you don’t know Atomic, you’ll know Heart Of Glass or Call Me by Blondie. Blondie pioneered the new wave genre while incorporating elements of punk, funk, disco, reggae, pop, rap, and more, keeping ahead of the times and proving their musical intelligence and wanderlust. Fronted by Debbie Harry, Blondie has penned some truly unforgettable tunes and has since been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Debbie Harry always embraced her femininity, expressing herself with fashion, makeup, and being undoubtedly beautiful, promoting the idea that you can be a feminist and kick arse in a male-dominated industry without sacrificing the feminine qualities that you love. What a boss.
Big Mama Thornton
As mentioned earlier, blues was crucial for the development of rock music. And Big Mama Thornton was one of the biggest names in blues and became one of rock's most influential. Regularly cited by artists as an influence, Thornton was one of the first women to take to the stage with a guitar in hand. She recorded the truly legendary Hound Dog (yep, Elvis "borrowed" it) written by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. Leiber said of her, “we saw Big Mama, and she knocked me cold. She looked like the biggest, baddest, saltiest chick you would ever see.”
Not only was Thornton a woman in music, but a black one in the 50s, which meant there was a limit to her success despite her skill and talent. It was only when Elvis recorded Hound Dog that it became a real hit, which many consider a disgusting injustice. Now, as we look back on her music - appreciating her huge, fiery growls, mind-blowing harmonica skills, and clear star quality - it’s important to remember her contributions and admire her tenacity as a black female musician during a time when racism and misogyny were horrifically prevalent.
Without these fearless, incredible, and deeply inspiring women, for all we know, rock music may never have had the kick up the arse it needed. Over the decades, these women helped make rock music something that women can better enjoy, be it on the stage or in the pit and for that, they deserve all our respect and then some.
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