The late 1970s and early 1980s were a turbulent time on the music scene. “Punk rock” came into vogue. Disco was breathing its last. A band of teenage girls called The Runaways went through several lineups and had a minor hit with “Cherry Bomb.” They never really got that far in the United States or Europe, but they opened for several prominent bands. They also made it big in Japan. Several Runaways became stars after the band broke up. Lita Ford went on to solo success. Original member Micki Steele joined the Bangles. The group’s biggest eventual star was Joan Jett, who would lead Joan Jett and the Blackhearts to the top of the charts with a cover of Arrow’s “I Love Rock & Roll” in 1981. Over the next decade or so, they would produce memorable hits like “Bad Reputation” and “I Hate Myself for Loving You.” Their 1990 album The Hit List featured covers of songs like AC/DC’s iconic “Dirty Deeds.” She and her band would be semi-satirized memorably in my favorite comic strip, “Bloom County,” as “Tess Turbo and the Blackheads.”
It almost didn’t happen. After the Runaways broke up, Jett approached 23 different labels and was rejected 23 times. Eventually, Jett decided to go it alone. She and her band started their own label, Blackheart Records, and sold several million copies of “I Love Rock & Roll.” It was a triumph, for the most part, of what Adam Thierer calls “permissionless innovation.” She had to secure rights to the song, of course. Still, she didn’t have to get permission from already-existing record labels or a skeptical Ministry of Culture loathe to bless her efforts. She just did it.
Now imagine what would have happened had she needed permission from the Ministry of Culture. How likely is it that a bunch of refined sirs and madams would say, “Let’s let one of the “Queens of Noise” cover Gary Glitter’s ‘Do You Wanna Touch Me?’ Do we really need a new version? Do we need a new version of ‘I Love Rock & Roll,’ for that matter? Isn’t one version good enough?” One can imagine them saying, “Come back when you can sing,” or “Come back when you’re dressed like a lady,” or worse, like in the video for “Bad Reputation,” but with the twist that Jett has nowhere else to go. Record executives could refuse to pay for and distribute Jett’s music. They could not, however, actively stop her from doing it herself. As one publication that had panned some of her work put it, “Selling records is the best revenge.”
The tastes of hoi polloi dominate mostly-free markets. They answered the sirs and madams mentioned above by repeatedly voting for “I Love Rock & Roll” with the dimes they put in jukeboxes around the world and requesting it on radio stations. About two and a half decades after it was released, people were still voting for it by downloading it from iTunes, as I did when I got my first iPod in 2007. People continue to vote for it today every time someone listens to it on Spotify.
Yes, a lot of popular music is hot garbage. As I’ve gotten older, wiser, and more refined, I’ve started really listening to the lyrics of a lot of the songs I loved growing up. Let’s just say that lyrics like “You need coolin’/Baby I’m not foolin’/I’m gonna send you back to schoolin'” and “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love” from Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” don’t exactly parallel Milton, Shakespeare, or Wordsworth. Even Shakespeare’s plays had fart jokes, though, and one of the comic characters in Twelfth Night was not-so-subtly named Toby Belch. Shakespeare probably wouldn’t have made it down to snobs like us without at least a little success among the rabble. As an aside, look around the next time you’re at a government-subsidized symphony, musical, opera, play, or performance by a famous dance troupe. Ask yourself how you think the audience’s median income compares to the median income of the general population. Arts subsidies are welfare for the rich.
Joan Jett has been a rock icon for decades, not only because of her trademark sound and persona. She is a legend because of her pioneering business acumen and her refusal to give up after hearing “no” from the major record labels. Even if you think the “Queen of Noise” produces nothing but noise, her success in a world of permissionless innovation is a good reason to love rock & roll.