I wanted to review Heart’s autobiography Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul, and Rock & Roll because it occurred to me that I know next to nothing about Ann and Nancy Wilson. Heart’s music is constantly on the radio, they even had a VH1 Behind the Music episode. Yet what I did know was perfunctory: they are sisters and one or maybe it was even both sisters faced rampant rumors about their sexualities. Thus, I turned to Kicking and Dreaming for insight but found a deeper examination of not only the Wilson sisters’ lives, but also the taxing role of female musicians in the music industry and the prevalence of the dominant gendered norms inflicted onto women.
With the assistance of Charles R. Cross, famed biographer of rock ‘n’ roll heavyweights such as Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Kurt Cobain, Kicking and Dreaming begins with the Wilsons’ childhood and teenage years. Reading much as a diary, Ann and Nancy reveal the events and the individuals who impacted their careers and personal philosophies on both a large and small scale. A particularly engaging narrative is the influence the Beatles bestowed onto Ann’s and Nancy’s lives and Heart’s music. Here Nancy makes it clear that the Beatles provided creative musical influence and that the Wilson sisters “didn’t want to be Beatle girlfriends. We wanted to be Beatles” (44). This was a part where I audibly yelled “YES!” Because usually a women’s romantic and sexual inclinations are more commonly the focus rather than the creative and professional predilections.
This obviously reflects what I knew of the band. Yet early in their lives, the Wilsons identified the marginalized position of women in rock ‘n’ roll and elevated themselves out of these roles. They used their career and success to dynamically reconstruct the gendered nature of music to more fully include those previously marginalized; specifically women.
The autobiography’s charm lies in the opening chapters when the Wilson sisters fondly remember their family, friends, and the community support they received. They emphasize that their family was a crucial anchor throughout their entire career. As they recount each decade and the trials and tribulations equated with rock stardom, the love and support of their family never waned. Rather, it provided the strength and encouragement they needed when they felt alienated from their own identities and the music industry.
More so, the reader is constantly reminded of the unyielding love and support Ann and Nancy have for each other. For example, Nancy recalls that Ann was “’my person,’ my impossible perfect thing’ was right here next to me, and always had been” (100). This is a refreshing change from other cultural narratives that constantly pit successful women against each other. Women are more often depicted in vengeful competition (think the Kill Bill series) rather than fruitful collaboration. But this is where Kicking and Dreaming differs. The inclusion of family and an emotional sister relationship recognizes the unequivocal connections between women and cultural experiences.
With some trepidation, the Wilsons critically examine the role of female rock ‘n’ roll musicians. It seems that they might be uncomfortable critiquing the industry that sheltered and bolstered their careers or perhaps they simply do not want to focus on the barriers that jeopardized their success. Regardless, the Wilsons situate themselves as rockers who infiltrated an intensely homosocial space. They recall instances of sexism enacted by the Marshall Tucker Band and Lynard Skynard that simply could have been because they “were just jerks, or whether they thought we would upstage them, which we did” (128).
Arguably this is one of the high points of Kicking and Dreaming; when the Wilsons’ creative integrity was undermined, both sisters immediately recuperated their powerful positions. This comes in the form of ensuring the readers of their chart success or simply stating that they rocked harder than those reiterating the sexism. In so doing, they instituted a new image and discourse about women in music; they seized control of their own identities, art, and success.
This new image and discourse transgressed the gender normative values of rock ‘n’ roll, however, it was also the means by which these women were objectified and commodified. Throughout the autobiography, both Wilsons evoke memories of industry reps who focused on their physical appearance, weight, and sexualities rather than their creative output. Ann remarks “you couldn’t be too thin, too young, or too good-looking if you were a woman in music” (161). As their success grew, albums and concerts sold out, and fans fervently sought Ann’s and Nancy’s attention, the media sexualized, objectified and reduced the Wilson sisters to objects. As Ann writes, “even the storied New York Times couldn’t resist talking about our appearances. John Rockwell noted our ‘striking good looks’…we could not escape the expectations of male critics” (124).
But gender did not solely determine who objectified them. Interestingly, the Wilson sisters lament trusting renowned photographer Annie Leibovitz who tried several times to photograph Ann and Nancy in the nude. Despite hesitation and refusal, Ann succumbed to “Annie’s nagging” (146). Typically, it’s not acknowledged that women working within the industry are equally capable of objectifying any artist. And as Ann learned, “I had allowed myself to be sexualized and it was exactly the opposite of what Heart represented. I think part of it was that because Annie was female, I trusted her not to objectify us, which had been a mistake” (147). What this anecdote demonstrates is that objectification positions the female artist as not only a product with social and cultural values but also an economic good with high market value. Unfortunately, this is still a common problem within the contemporary music industry.
Despite consistent empowerment and perseverance in the face of disheartening sexisms the Wilson sisters frequently returned to gender normative roles. As Nancy writes, “[when] I turned forty, a panic ensued that I wasn’t a mom” (215). And later she develops this further by specifying that “when I wasn’t on the road with Heart I became a stay-at-home wife, working in my husband’s [Cameron Crowe] world and making dinner every night” (216).
Similarly, Ann negotiates the dominant beauty myth that miscasts beautiful women as absolutely blond and thin. For Ann this battle stems from the teasing by grade school peers or fearing that someone will know her clothing came from a company called Chubette. Ann contends that this “was a message that got through to me at an early age. I was different, and I was wrong. I stuttered, and I was overweight, and these things were not allowed” (38). Later in life she even agrees to lap band surgery in order to lose weight. This comes as a disappointment but not as a surprise.
Frequently, women who transgress dominant gender norms will be forcefully repositioned, in this particular case it is Ann’s and Nancy’s realignment with the housewife and beauty myths. However for readers, it is important to not focus on this as Ann’s and Nancy’s fault. Rather, we can use this as fodder to create change and understand that dominant identity construction is not fixed but rather mutable. The Wilsons demonstrate the ability to subvert, change, and then return to dominant cultural and social constructs. This allows individuals to truly understand themselves and ultimately live outside of dominant ideologies.
Unfortunately, Kicking and Dreaming is riddled with typos and clichéd writing. For example, Ann recalls a romance with Ian Hunter. At that point in his life he wore “glasses as barriers to the world, and when he took them off, I knew I was seeing the real him” (164). This is definitely a low point in the writing. Also, the text is quite repetitive with both sisters often reminding readers of facts that they had already extrapolated. For example, the reader is reminded several times that the band was fired from a bar called Lucifer’s because Ann criticized the food, or that their Mother elected to nurse their father after he experienced a stroke rather than travel, or finally, that they gave Kelly Curtis guitar lessons at an early age. It’s unclear if these anecdotes are repeated to pad the autobiography or if they are essential details in the history of Heart.
Regardless, Kicking and Dreaming is a fun read that entertainingly unravels the musical legacy and cultural impact of Heart. The band’s and the Wilsons’ repertoire spans almost 50 years, their role as women in rock ‘n’ roll is iconoclastic, and their music, sound, and creative influences are ubiquitous. Their legend is undeniable. As a result, Kicking and Dreamingis not simply an autobiography; it’s also a peek into a larger creative cultural history.