Love Guns, Tight Pants, and Big Sticks
cock rock: To some, the term conjures up images of rock gods in white jumpsuits, long hair haloed by a rainbow of lights, fans waving their Bics in unison as an immaculate guitar solo screams out from a tower of amps. To others, it evokes backstage legends of drugs and debauchery, the triumph of malecentric hedonism over social conscience, the unapologetic celebration of sleaze. To still others, it’s shorthand for memorable riffs with a backbeat that makes you want to throw some devil horns and bang your head.
The term was originally coined in the early ’70s to describe the preening, strutting style of bands like Led Zeppelin and, later, Aerosmith and AC/DC; in the ’80s it was used—usually contemptuously—to dismiss the overweening excesses and jokey double entendres of Van Halen, Ratt, and any other band featured in Hit Parader. In their 1978 essay “Rock and Sexuality,” cultural critics Angela McRobbie and Simon Frith identified cock rock as “music making in which performance is an explicit, crude and often aggressive expression of male sexuality,” suggesting a thread that ran from Elvis Presley to Mick Jagger and onward. But while the definition of cock rock could be limited to the stylistically outrageous but utterly derivative genre that formed around a few gifted innovators, it could also include all rock music that automatically places men on stage and women in the audience—that is, almost all mainstream rock. For most contemporary listeners, it also has to include ironic—intentionally or not—appropriations like This Is Spinal Tap, Penelope Spheeris’s documentary The Decline of Western Civilization Part II, and even the theme song from Beverly Hills, 90210.
No matter where they might be ranked on the cock-rock scale (one person’s thunder rock could very well be another’s glitter rock), the musicians, music, and performances discussed here all had a few key things in common. There was the hair, for one: Throughout the ’70s, ’80s, and early ’90s, big hair was the bare minimum requirement for acceptance into the cock-rock world—hence the synonym “hair bands” for ’80s cock rockers like Mötley Crüe and Night Ranger. Though teased-out man locks befuddle us now, long rock hair in its many forms was accepted as both sexual signifier and universal rebel currency for years. (It’s mystifying that the same men who were flouncing around in spiral perms and floppy velvet hats could project such disparaging attitudes toward women, but rejecting the crew-cut generation of their fathers—even if their politics barely differed—was crucial to rock rebellion.)
Then there were the pants. Cock rockers took the late-’70s vogue in snug trousers to new heights, with improbable bulges proudly displayed at eye level to screaming fans, a medium for the band’s sexual connection to the audience. Elsewhere, the suggestive was made explicit by lyrics veiled only by the most transparent euphemisms, from Def Leppard’s “Pour Some Sugar on Me” (“You got the peaches, I got the cream”) to Aerosmith’s naughty teaser “Big Ten Inch” (“I cover her with kisses/And when we’re in a lover’s clinch/She gets all excited/When she begs for my big ten inch/Record”). It’s hard to work up much of a huff over lyrics like these—they’re laughable in spite of, or perhaps because of, the earnestness with which they were delivered, pelvic thrusts and all.
Finally, there was the spectacle of the stage shows—the lasers, flashpots, and dry ice; the wicked guitar and drum solos; and the sexually charged presence of the frontman, who, along with the lead guitarist, functioned as a conduit for the music’s erotic energy. Through stage antics that have long since become cliché—humping the mic stand, positioning the guitar at crotch level and thrusting it toward the audience during a solo—cock rockers telegraphed the centrality of the phallus to rock music, both onstage and off.
In recent years, some of these elements have enjoyed a revival within indie music and fashion circles. Vintage Guns N’ Roses and Cheap Trick t-shirts retail for five times their original arena value; white belts and mullets are being embraced by kids who were watching Sesame Street when Quiet Riot hit MTV. The most sensitive emo boy will give it up for the Rolling Stones and boast of Metallica albums buried somewhere in his past. Bands like the Darkness have ridden the zip-up-jumpsuit, killer-guitar-solo wave to greatness in an effort that’s almost entirely stylistic. Cock-rock appreciation circa 2005 is simultaneously ironic, nostalgic, hard-core, and self-deprecating—standard traits of any decent hipster fad.
But what happens when it’s women taking on the cock in rock? It’s a question worth posing to the new slew of all-female cock-rock tribute bands. California alone is home to Hell’s Belles, AC/DShe, Cheap Chick, Black Sabbath tribute band Mistress of Reality, the Iron Maidens, and more. When female musicians dress like their rock forefathers and play what is, by its very moniker, assumed to be male music, do they necessarily suggest a feminist critique? Visit their websites and you’ll get a range of answers. Mistress of Reality, for example, pride themselves on the authenticity of their tribute, but seem uninterested in exploring the gender politics of metal. AC/DShe say they play because they’re the “biggest AC/DC fans around”—a subtle hint of gender equity in the music scene, but little more. Cheap Chick happily claim an “estrogen-loaded homage to the golden age of stadium rock” and celebrate their “gender-bending twist,” and Hell’s Belles leave no room for doubt when it comes to political agenda, solidly “representing for a new generation of women who won’t be intimidated.”
It’s no secret that rock music has long been the domain of men, but it wasn’t always this way. In the ’50s and early ’60s, the biggest consumers of rock ’n’ roll records and concert tickets were teenage girls. As the music grew in technical prowess and political consciousness in the late ’60s, fans grew with it. Concerts became a site of psychological, social, and sexual experimentation, and while the scene wasn’t exactly utopian, it did provide a space for women to explore a long-repressed sexuality that was only just emerging in the public mind.
But then a strange conversion took place: Rock ’n’ roll became rock, and female fans were transformed into dates, groupies,While groupies haven’t exactly enjoyed feminist iconhood, it’s important to note that they did their fair share of objectifying rock stars. My favorite example is the legendary Cynthia Plaster Caster, whose plaster casts of rock’s cocks (which she still makes today) reverse the more conventional “rocker as artist, groupie as muse” relationship. or stay-at-home fans. Enter cock rock.
In her groundbreaking 1970 article “Rock Around the Cock,” Patricia Kennealy-Morrison attributed the decline of female attendance at rock shows to multiple factors. For one thing, as the music became more technically oriented and invited a more educated critique, it was claimed as boy territory—supposedly beyond female comprehension. The rise of rock criticism in mainstream media was fueled by the notion that writers could capture the true genius of musicians by casually hanging out with them, and that translated to a no-girls-allowed obstacle for a number of female critics, including Kennealy-Morrison herself. (Female rock writers who did spend time with bands were always under suspicion of being mere groupies looking to make time with their fave raves under the auspices of journalism.)
And as the music got harder, its sexual overtones intensified, and they didn’t generally provide a girl-friendly vision of male sexuality. Lyrics such as “I didn’t know if you were legal tender/But I spent you just the same” (AC/DC) and “You’re wearin’ clothes that fit you well/Baby, baby, you’re not hard to sell” (KISS), while steeped in a blues tradition,Nearly all of rock’s sexual expression is based in the blues, but white male interpretations of that sexuality have largely lacked the original nuance of the blues performers. As Charles Shaar Murray put it in Crosstown Traffic, a song like “Whole Lotta Love” was sweet and seductive in Muddy Waters’s hands, but became “thermonuclear gang rape” when performed by Led Zeppelin. seemed to unabashedly endorse the objectification of—if not violence against—women. The combination of misogynist lyrics and aggressive delivery created a space for some male fans to engage in gross acts of disrespect toward female fans, most commonly manifesting in molestation. Whereas concerts had always been slightly anarchic, they became generally unsafe for women to attend alone.It may have appeared that women’s interest in rock faded out altogether, but it’s more likely that it simply retreated indoors. Cock rockers had a huge presence in fan magazines: Teen rags like Bop, Tiger Beat, and 16 ran constant images of Roger Daltrey, David Lee Roth, Jimmy Page, and even Meatloaf, for display on bedroom walls. Rock! even ran a “Win the Shirt off Ted Nugent’s Bod” contest.
While female musicians found success in the rock scene, they were more often than not regarded as novelties. Heart’s “Barracuda,” for instance, is arguably one of the greatest songs of the ’70s, but its popularity at the time was tempered by critics’ claims that bandleaders Ann and Nancy Wilson were lesbians—as if that, and not the quality of their lyrics and riffs, were the real issue. The Runaways—self-proclaimed Queens of Noise—featured Joan Jett and Lita Ford, both formidable guitarists. (Ford would later be the first woman inducted into Circus magazine’s Rock Hall of Fame.) A band of Hollywood teenagers assembled by industry provocateur Kim Fowley, the Runaways attracted an audience largely consisting of screaming teenage boys, dispelling the notion that male fans had a more rational appreciation of music and women were the ones who went into fits. But because of both the band’s gender and its provenance, male critics met the Runaways with predictable contempt. (One review opened simply with “These bitches suck.”) Jett recalled these reactions to her band in a 1998 interview in the Onion AV Club: “First, people just tried to get around it by saying, ‘Oh, wow, isn’t that cute? Girls playing rock and roll!’ and when we said ‘Yeah, right, this isn’t a phase; it’s what we want to do with our lives,’ it became ‘Oh! You must be a bunch of sluts! You dykes, you whores.’”
In an increasingly closed-minded mainstream scene, many women went underground for the freedom to rock. In the emerging punk scene, female players and fans enjoyed both a diy spirit that allowed girls to be in the know without a gendered “technical” knowledge prerequisite and a political agenda (at least in theory) of challenging the male-only scene. While movements such as homocore and riot grrrl would later call out—and confront—the straight white male hierarchy within the scene, punk sure as hell beat the likes of cock rockers proudly upholding every privilege of straight white masculinity in lip gloss and AquaNet.Just as masculine aggression was a given in cock rock, so was much of it foisted upon musicians by the industry itself. In his 1975 Rolling Stone interview with Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, Cameron Crowe asked them to respond to critics’ claims that their lyrics were “dated flower-child gibberish.” Plant replied, “How can anybody be a ‘dated flower-child’? The essence of the whole trip was the desire for peace and tranquility and an idyllic situation. That’s all anybody could ever want…. Not all my stuff is meant to be scrutinized, though. Things like ‘Black Dog’ are blatant let’s-do-it-in-the-bath type things, but they make their point just the same. People listen.” It seems that rockers were more likely to receive a negative response from the press when they avoided misogynist lyrics in favor of more constructive content.
Cock rock in its many forms has endured for so long because it does what pop does best: It allows white teen boys to express their rebellion within the confines of a materialistic, misogynistic, racially exclusive, and altogether politically impotent scene. However, like a virus that develops new and powerful strains, cock rock’s tenacious influence has also inadvertently provided a space for female musicians to respond to and, in many cases, appropriate it. Patti Smith managed to make poetry rock and still do it harder than most guys. Wendy O. Williams and the Lunachicks aped the genre’s depraved, violent sense of humor and Halloweenish getups; in an era of grunge, L7 and Babes in Toyland mixed cock-rock bravado with feminist lyrics, campaigning throughout their careers to bring more women to hard rock. It might even be argued that without the open misogyny of cock-rock videos, Madonna could never have been lauded as a feminist alternative.
Tribe 8 brought the cock to dyke punk, literally, with singer Lynn Breedlove mocking the male stage presence with a strap-on and then stroking it, leering and strutting, and eventually castrating it with a big shiny knife. Even Tori Amos and PJ Harvey, who are reluctant to identify themselves and their music as feminist, seemed in their debut albums to be responding to a recent liberation from the shackles of the cock. Amos took the symbolic masturbation of the guitar/phallus and created a more vulvic model of pleasure as she straddled her piano bench and feigned vocal orgasm. As for Harvey, it was enough for a skinny English girl to do what the Stones, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and the Who had done before her: take on the blues as though they were hers alone. More recently, the electro-punk Peaches is infamous for sporting a mullet and mirrored shades, thrusting her guitar out from between her legs, and screaming “You came to see a rock show? A big gigantic cock show?!”
In light of the massive advances women have made in rock over the past 15 years, Hell’s Belles’ balls-out feminist declarations might seem redundant. After all, haven’t women always proven they can rock simply by doing so? Well, yes. But if women can, and have, rocked both in defiance of cock rock and in celebration of it, why are female bands that mimic male rockers so darn popular? Most of the musicians also have other projects playing original music, but say their cover bands are much more successful. Unlike those tribute bands made up of sweaty, middle-aged guys who play fairgrounds and tourist bars with no hope of press coverage, these women are guaranteed a fan base not only because they’re good, but because they’re hot. When describing their acts, Cheap Chick, Iron Maidens, and Mistress of Reality are all careful to call themselves “beauties,” as if their rock talent is somehow justified by their fantasy-groupie look. Likewise, male critics have seized upon their appearances. It seems that watching women take on masculine performance styles is fine when it’s “unnervingly hot” (Details) or “AC/DC only sexier!” (the Wave). As one dj said of Mistress of Reality, “Even the purest of picky Sabbath fans will find these gorgeous women to be 100% truly Ozzzzzz-some!” (As if to do Osbourne justice you’d have to be some kind of looker.) Pam Utterback, Cheap Chick’s bassist, described her own experience to the Wave: “It’s fun to pretend you’re a sexy, hot, studly rock star.” So why can’t she just be a studly rock star and play her own material?
While these female tribute bands are showing everyone that women can play as well as men down to the last note, they’re still subject to a hierarchy wherein female imitations of male rockers are regarded by the music world as being more potent and interesting than women reworking the cock-rock canon in their own image. Their popularity exposes the widespread assumption that “real” rock is still a male domain that women may enter only under a masculine guise. Likewise, the women in these bands are presented as being more serious rockers by emulating men than they’d be performing their own material. In many ways, they are the ultimate fans, in the audience even while they’re onstage.
I appreciate the irony that these bands bring to their performance, the questions they pose simply by posing, and the proof they offer that no one needs a cock to rock. Still, I long for the day when music created by women can not only be recognized for rocking as hard as Led Zeppelin or AC/DC, but garner the critical acclaim, popular recognition, and widespread cultural impact that cock rock has always enjoyed, whether deservedly or not. When this day comes it will be women we see when we think of rock, surrounded by a stadium studded with tiny flames, their own solos wailing from the amps. And that will be more awesome than any light show.
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