I’ll admit it, I’m a little bit obsessed with Mad Men, the hit series that impeccably recreates the decadence, repression and cherished “family values” of the early ‘60s. The story of the upscale Draper family, who appear to have everything, is viewed through the lens of patriarch, Don Draper, an up-and-coming but mysterious Madison Avenue advertising agency executive.
The show drips with authenticity through a prism of what was and is no longer socially acceptable (drinking, smoking, littering, talking). What I have found especially fascinating about the show, are the three lead female characters. There’s Betty, the beautiful but depressed dutiful wife and mother; Peggy, the ambitious career woman struggling to be taken seriously by the men in the office; and Joan, the head secretary/sexpot who sleeps with her married boss, but keeps all the other “girls” in the office in their place.
In the Mad Men era, women were seen but not heard. Betty, Peggy and Joan lived their fictitious lives with feelings hidden under wraps (it wouldn’t be ladylike to do otherwise) and numerous disappointments —mostly caused by the men in their lives—to themselves. A woman’s place was in the home and her role was as confining as her corset.
Last week on my blog, I interviewed writer Jessica Hopper. When I asked her to name the most challenging aspect of writing her book, “The Girls’ Guide to Rocking,” she said:
“The careers of many women, before the women’s lib era often had a similar trajectory that involved being robbed of their royalties by a bad pimp-like boyfriend/manager figure.”
Maybe I have seen one too many episodes of Mad Men, but that line really stuck with me. I wondered, are women more musically independent now or are most still overshadowed by a more powerful and occasionally nefarious male authority?
I posed this question up to a friend of mine who has a successful male trifecta on her resume: a famous father, a famous ex-husband and a famous cut on a famous male musician’s famous debut album. That’s a whole lotta famous. But it’s a sticky wicket if you want to be taken seriously as an artist on your own terms. “I don’t want people to think I’m just a groupie, like Pamela DesBarres,” she says.
These days, Miss Pamela teaches writing classes, but even though she was a member of the band, the GTOs, everyone knows her for the classic memoir I’m with the Band, which details her numerous sexual dalliances with famous rock stars.
Once you become known for the famous male company you keep, is it possible to surpass that public perception and be your own woman?
Courtney Love will forever be associated with Kurt Cobain, an identity she realizes puts her in a league she wouldn’t be in otherwise, and a role she nurtures. There’s no doubt that marriage to Kurt raised Courtney’s profile. Yet, this bonus neutralizes a significant amount of her own artistic integrity because his name will forever be attached to hers.
Yoko Ono has always been demonized by the perception that she was responsible for the break-up of the Beatles. No matter how many albums she records, she will forever be overshadowed by John Lennon’s legacy.
Drummer Meg White inspired an entire generation of young girls to play drums. But when The White Stripes started out, Meg and Jack, formerly married, were coy about the nature of their relationship and pretended to be siblings. Meg has taken a lot of heat for not being as musically savvy as Jack and will likely always be associated with him.
Alanis Morissette? It is often argued that her success belongs to songwriter, Glen Ballard, who wrote the songs on her breakout album, Jagged Little Pill.
Joan Jett defers business decisions to her long-time producer, Kenny Laguna. But long before Kenny, Joan’s first band, The Runaways, was heavily influenced by male producer and limelight stealer, Kim Fowley.
No matter what she does musically, Shania Twain will forever be entwained with her ex-husband, producer Mutt Lange.
Ronnie Spector? Some people believe that producer and husband Phil Spector was entirely responsible for the hits. “Anyone could have sung those songs,” a pro-Phil journalist once told me.
And once you have divorced your musical partner, can you ever go back to being just yourself? Carole King? Gerry Goffin. Ellie Greenwich? Jeff Barry. Cher? Sonny. Carly Simon? James Taylor.
Fleetwood Mac? The material culled from two couple break-ups within the band proved to be more than just Rumors.
Even one-time tough gal Pat Benatar co-bills her husband, guitarist Neil Geraldo on the marquis.
Janet Jackson owes her career to the five male Jacksons that came before.
Miley Cyrus long-ago eclipsed the fame of her “Achey Breaky” dad but probably would not have had a shot without him. Jessica and Ashlee Simpson both had father Joe in charge.
Would anyone care about Lisa Marie Presley if it weren’t for her ultra-famous DNA? And I don’t mean Priscilla’s.
My pal Jeff argues that the reason so many female artists appear to have male svengalis at the helm of their careers is because, “there are just more of them,” he says. But I disagree. I believe the music industry frowns on women who don’t show up with a male stamp of approval to get them through the door.
Of course, there is Madonna and Bonnie Raitt and Patti Smith and Tori Amos, artists we all agree are indisputably in charge. But it sure has been a long time since one female artist showed up that everyone knew and agreed that, without question, was the one that wore the pants in both her songwriting and her business decisions.
The only example I can think of where the reverse scenario is true is with actor, Tom Arnold, who rode Rosanne Barr’s coat-tails to fame. But that’s not about music.
It may seem like we’ve come a long way, baby, but in some r-e-s-p-e-c-t-s, when it comes to being taken seriously on their own as musicians, women still have a long way to go.