SCREEN: PBS’ Women Who Rock celebrates a perpetually groundbreaking legacy

by Marcus K. Dowling

Women who truly rock are inherently gifted with the ability to create passion from a place of honest emotional desire. Once you realize this notion, the truth comes to light that the world’s most stereotypically male-dominated musical genre , as James Brown once stated, “would be nothing without a woman or a girl.” PBS teams with the  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for new documentary “Women Who Rock” which debuts on national PBS affiliates on Friday evening. Eschewing overdrawn commendations for a select few that dominated the popular consciousness for celebrating the wide reaching effect of feminine trailblazing, the hour-long show is a must watch success.

Producers Susan Wittenberg and Carol Stein identify the touchstone ideal that has driven women to the top. Hearkening back to turn of the century guitar picking groundbreakers like Wanda Jackson to rockabilly queens, sixties bad girls, riot grrls and glam obsessed pop divas of the current generation, stereotypical ideas of women’s emotional directness are proven true at every turn. Legendary Brill Building singer-songwriter Carole King is praised by NPR’s Ann K. Powers for the “honest reality” of The Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.” The song expresses the emotional tumult of a  one night stand in less than five minutes and it stands the test of time in approximate the feelings of generations of women worldwide, setting an untouchable standard.

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1960s vocal and performance powerhouses Tina Turner and  Janis Joplin are noteworthy here as well. Women Who Rock correctly points out the scores of male artists who have built successful careers from attempting to mirror Joplin’s legendary Earth-bound and alternating between heaven and  hell bound propulsive vocal style.  As for Turner?  In matching strength of mind with constitution of will, she created forceful dance interpretations that men have copied for years, yes, even including   those Maroon 5 celebrated wildly gesticulating moves like those used by Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger.

The documentary correctly shows that in creating precise interpretations of the pulse of the national and international consciousness, women stay at the forefront of rock and roll and its many related genres. Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, while having one of the most voluptuous timbres in rock history, sings not just of love but of women’s liberation as well in the post-punk “Brass in Pocket. ” She’s “special, so special”,” yes, but also backed by an all male band entirely of her choosing. Cyndi Lauper sound tracks unparalleled freedom for professional women of all shapes, sizes and races on “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” and when safe sex became a problem in the urban community, Salt-N-Pepa definitely knew that it was time to suggest “Let’s Talk About Sex.” Madonna and Blondie? “Material Girls” with “Hearts of Glass” who made sensuality into big business, blending traditionally evil notions of femininity into commercially respectable motivations.

Women Who Rock opens as a narrator states “Women are the 21st century’s top-grossing recording artists. . . Now is the time to look back and discover how we got here.” In one hour, Wittenberg and Stein succeed in matching the concussive impact of women in rock to a swift-moving hour-long program. Mother Maybelle Carter becomes Bonnie Raitt. Salt-N-Pepa birth Nicki Minaj. Etta James is Christina Aguilera, and Ronnie Spector morphs into Beyonce. When history is remembered correctly, nothing remains new and everything tremendous becomes legendary.

Women Who Rock airs on Friday, November 18th as a part of their Arts Fall Festival. Check local listings. 

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