She's a Badass, Katherine Yeske Taylor

Transcending to Badass: That’s How Female Rockers Roll

The female musicians interviewed in Katherine Yeske Taylor’s She’s a Badass have persisted against all odds and infused rock with a feminist verve.

She's a Badass: Women in Rock Shaping Feminism
Katherine Yeske Taylor
January 2024

“It was always the music … Just that really basic, primal thing that makes you want to sing.” Ann Wilson of Heart expounds on her experiences as a female musician in a male-centric industry in Katherine Yeske Taylor’s new book, She’s a Badass: Women in Rock Shaping Feminism.

Taylor’s book features intergenerational interviews with 20 significant female rockers from across the decades, mostly from the US, about their adventures and misadventures navigating a machismo music industry. She’s a Badass was born from Taylor’s need to celebrate the rockers’ influence on the wider feminism movement.

Wilson’s quote also echoes what hard rock trailblazer Suzy Quatro says in an earlier chapter (“I was just being who I was”) and punk pioneer Exene Cervenka’s assertion in a later chapter that “I was uncompromising about who I was.” In other words, these female rockers follow their natural impetus to make music, striving toward what French feminist Simone de Beauvoir called “transcendence”: “creative, productive, powerful, extending outward into the external universe,” a domain previously reserved mainly for men. 

These musicians persist despite sometimes odious obstacles; if that rattles some men, so be it. They are not here to get a patriarchal stamp of approval. They are here to achieve transcendence. Indeed, the fierce females interviewed for She’s a Badass – including such underground and aboveground luminaries as Lydia Lunch, Suzanne Vega, Joan Obsorne, Amanda Palmer, and Gina Shock –  have persevered in a profession notoriously riddled with sexism and misogyny not because they have something to prove, but because it’s their inherent right to indulge their creative impulses.

Yeske was initially disheartened that several interview subjects rejected being called feminists, as she explained in an interview with Atlanta feminist bookstore Charis Books. After all, the historical feminist movements facilitated future women’s accomplishments. It seems callously dismissive on their part to disavow a movement that enabled their entry into spheres of power and influence.  However, as Yeske realized, all of the interviewees naturally favor women’s rights, and, of course, they indelibly impact the current feminist movement either implicitly or explicitly, standing as living paradigms for other women.

Each rocker gets her chapter in She’s a Badass, and each story is starkly illuminating. For example, neo-folk singer Suzanne Vega, getting her start in the ’80s, struggled to maintain agency for her image rather than submitting to someone sculpting it for her according to stifling societal standards. Along those same lines, avant-gardist Amanda Palmer has taken control of her art via Patreon, eschewing brand sponsorships and boardrooms filled with condescending white men.

Lydia Lunch, who awakened her own musical impulses in the ‘70s, helping to launch the New York No Wave movement, says that because there were many female artists in the scene at the time, “Poverty brought us together. And the creative urge.”

No matter how strong that creative drive, however, Bonnie Bloomgarden of contemporary band Death Valley Girls bemoans the difficulty of indulging it when women in the industry are judged more harshly than men: “Am I dressed slutty? Am I dressed frumpy? Am I too fat, too skinny?” There is a litany of insidious ways in which women are judged.

Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls places the situation into even sharper focus, noting she has undergone extra layers of oppression because not only was the industry often inhospitable to women, but there was homophobia to contend with. And don’t even get started on the patronizing attitude of some men toward women when it comes to musical chops and savvy, not to mention even more technical aspects of music production, such as sound engineering. Susan Rogers, a highly reputable audio engineer who famously worked for Prince, says in the Afterword, “I can tell stories of being intimidated, debased … in the recording studio.”

These are just a few tales in She’s a Badass that illustrate the trials and adversities female rockers have endured to achieve that coveted transcendence. Some stories, like ones told by riot grrrl Tobi Vail, are downright traumatizing. 

One thing that becomes clear while reading She’s a Badass is that it is vitally important to keep fighting for women’s rights; as the horrifying reversal of Roe v. Wade proves, those cherished rights can be rolled back. Of this unthinkable event, Tanya Donnelly (Throwing Muses, the Breeders, and Belly) says, “I have two daughters who are directly impacted … the backward move is devastating to them.” 

In our era of gender fluidity, it might be that some people would rather focus on our shared humanity. But it’s unfortunate that some people take for granted the gains that earlier feminists made and are oblivious to the ones still being made. This contributes to an erosion of feminist ideology.

But as guitar whiz Orianthi urges—against all odds—“Never dim your light.” Keeping that inner light so bright despite the dark forces of toxic masculinity that work against us is what makes female rockers such transcendent badasses. 

RATING 7 / 10