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Joan Jett on Owning Her Bad Reputation: ‘I Always Wore It as a Badge of Honor’

When Rolling Stone asks Joan Jett about memorable advice she’s received over the years, she cites a time when she was hanging out with Robert Plant. After mentioning the singer’s name, she pauses. “Of the Led Zeppelin gang,” she adds. “For the younger people that don’t know Robert Plant.”

Jett recalls being on tour in England with the Runaways in the Seventies, when the band asked Plant how they could commemorate their trek overseas. “He said [Zeppelin] would collect hotel room keys, and you could show people where you were,” she says. “When it was an actual, ornate key, as opposed to a card.” The Runaways promptly started their own key collection, but they hit a snag when they went through a metal detector at customs and were arrested for theft — an incident they recounted in the song “Dead End Justice.”

“I would’ve paid for them,” Jett says. “I don’t want to steal stuff. I don’t rebel against that kind of shit. I rebel against what people say girls can do.”

Jett has been doing exactly that for nearly five decades, continuing with her new album Changeup, which features acoustic renditions of Blackhearts classics like “Bad Reputation,” “Crimson and Clover,” the Runaways’ “Cherry Bomb,” and more.

In an interview for Rolling Stone‘s Last Word column, where iconic artists reflect on the scope of their careers and what they’ve learned along the way, Jett spoke to us about the new record, her upcoming tour with Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, and Poison, how she’s still reeling from the death of Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins, and more.

Your new album includes an acoustic remake of “Bad Reputation.” Why do you think that song still resonates all these years later?
Everyone feels maybe they’ve got a bad reputation in one area of their life or another, or maybe [have been] unfairly accused — or just a misconception of who you are, and people throw that label at you. I always wore it as a badge of honor, because what people were saying to me was I had a bad reputation because I played an electric guitar and I had black hair and a leather jacket, and maybe I swore. … So I turned around the meaning of it, and I’m proud of my bad reputation, if that’s what it is — making people uncomfortable because you’re not used to seeing women do this or that.

But it’s not just music. It’s every walk of life. When I speak to women and girls pursuing their dreams … there’s that hard glass ceiling. It’s still there. But we have good PR, so we feel like we’ve come farther than we really have.

Freaks and Geeks finally started streaming for the first time last year. I really can’t imagine any other theme song would be as fitting as “Bad Reputation.”
That’s funny, and so true. I’m glad that’s finally out, because so many people would mention that show to me and how much they loved it and that it was gone. Back when it was out, I saw an episode or two. I thought it was great.

You’re part of a huge tour this summer with Mötley Crüe and Poison, bands who have sometimes been accused of misogyny in the past. As a woman, does that faze you at all?
It’s very prevalent, all over rock & roll. Look, all I can do as the woman I am is go out there and show an alternative view and do it my way. If I had to weed out every band you thought was problematic, I mean, there wouldn’t be very many left. And I think everyone’s being a little … Chill out, it’s music.

Overall, do you think rock is less misogynistic now than it was in the Eighties?
That’s a good question. The bands I listened to weren’t necessarily at all misogynistic, but I’m talking about guys like Fugazi. I would say [it’s] probably not as misogynistic [now], just because of their openness to getting criticized about it, because you get creamed online and people seem to care about that. That doesn’t mean that it changes who they are, so maybe that’s dangerous. It goes underground. But I think things are changing.

Are there any young female performers you think are carrying the torch?
I know a couple of bands that we work with that are women and are out on the road. Rock & roll punk bands. A band called Fea, who is actually on our label [Blackheart Records]. They’re from San Antonio. And Jackknife Stiletto. I don’t see a lot of [solo] artists singing rock & roll, particularly. Maybe I’m just defining it more narrowly than other people would. If we’re including pop music, then there’s a lot of people that are out there trying to do something, but that’s not really the music I listen to.

What advice do you wish you could give your younger self?
To try to control my emotions a little bit better. When I was younger, [I was] very emotional, in a sense that I would take great offense to people talking about, “Girls can’t play rock,” whatever it was. I was quick to anger, and so I would just try to be a lot more patient. And I’ve never been one to read my own press, because I figured if you believe the good stuff, you got to believe the bad stuff, too. You’re only going to find misery.. … I would definitely encourage people not to do that — not to Google yourself.

What’s the most indulgent purchase you’ve ever made?
My Toto toilet. I love that. I don’t know. I’m not very extravagant. I live in a bachelor pad.

What music still moves you the most these days?
A lot of the stuff that I grew up listening to, which could be anything from British glitter music in the early Seventies — Suzi Quatro to Sweet to Slade — all three-minute rhythm-guitar songs that had a lot of gang vocals, big choruses. I really connected with that. And at the same time punk rock was happening and we got to go to England. I saw the Clash play in ’76 and saw all the kids jumping up and down — they called it pogo-ing at the time and [I’d] never seen anything like that before. 

So I’d gone over to England dressed as a glitter kid, but came back as a punk rocker, which is really funny how quickly the influence can take over. But it was quite fascinating for me. And I just thought Europeans and [the] English understood the Runaways a little bit better. They’re used to seeing different kinds of music, whereas Americans weren’t as used to that.

We’re speaking shortly after Taylor Hawkins’ death, and you’ve also dealt with the loss of a drummer, Sandy West of the Runaways. Is that still difficult?
Totally, but with Sandy I wasn’t actively working with her at the time. But, yes, it’s really fucking painful. … I just hope all those badass drummers up there are doing some serious soloing.

You entered the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame back in 2015. This year, Dolly Parton initially tried to withdraw her nomination. Do you see her as a rock star?
I mean, they use the phrase [“rock & roll”] to pretty much describe anybody who’s big and famous, and has a following like Dolly. But Dolly has influenced rock & rollers. So on that level, I think she absolutely deserves to be there. But I understand what she’s saying. She doesn’t feel like a rock & roller, and it feels weird to her.

Yeah. I feel like it might be time to change the Rock Hall’s name.
Yeah. But people like the word “rock & roll.” That’s the problem, because it gives a little edge.

Did you fill out your ballot already?
I did.

Did you vote for Dolly?
What do you think?

That’s a very Joan Jett answer.
It is. I’m not going to say.

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