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Pioneers with pipes, passion

PBS documentary celebrates history of women in rock, pop music

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It'll come as no surprise to anyone that women can, and do, rock. What's interesting is just how long they've been doing it.

The new PBS documentary Women Who Rock, which airs Friday at 8 p.m. (Prairie Public TV) as part of the U.S. public broadcaster's fall arts festival, traces the history of hard-rockin' females back several decades before the birth of what is recognized as rock 'n' roll music.

It's a fascinating film whose only weakness is that it's too short to be an adequate celebration of the pioneers and boundary-pushers who have advanced the cause of women in popular music for the better part of a century.

Quite fittingly, given the subject matter, Women Who Rock opens with archival footage of James Brown singing It's a Man's Man's Man's World (which contains the lyrical qualifier that, "It would be nothing without a woman or a girl"), then quickly cuts to Christina Aguilera's show-stopping performance of the same song at the 2007 Grammy Awards -- a powerhouse rendition that essentially claimed ownership of the tune for the clearly not-weaker sex.

From there, Women Who Rock is a chronological exploration that begins with the early blues stylings of Bessie Smith and ends with the contributions of current chart-toppers as Beyoncé, Pink and Lady Gaga.

Like many aspects of popular music through the decades, women-as-rockers have their roots in traditional gospel music of the American south.

"Church is a place where women have often dominated, and gospel music is a site where women have always been stars," says music critic Ann Powers, pointing to early recordings by the likes of Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe as blueprint-setters for the waves of influential women that followed.

Interestingly, adds author/filmmaker Nelson George, it was the relatively sheltered church environment that allowed female performers to cultivate the assertive styles that served them well in the secular-music world.

"Most black singers had an aggressive style in the church; ironically, what you're seeing when you talk about rock 'n' roll is a church intensity brought into a blues context," he says.

At the same time that Etta James, Ruth Brown and Brenda Lee were melding gospel with R&B, other female pioneers such as Wanda Jackson were applying a feminine touch to the emerging country/rockabilly sound.

"They sang with their whole bodies," says Powers, "and they expressed their pleasures, their needs and their anger in ways that I think we can still learn from."

It's a building-block exercise from there, with artists such as Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Janis Joplin and Joni Mitchell blazing a path for the likes of Heart and Stevie Nicks, who in turn opened doors for the punk- and R&B-influenced performers (including Patti Smith, Debbie Harry, Cyndi Lauper and, later, Madonna) who inspired the current wave led by Beyoncé and Lady Gaga.

There are loads of priceless performance clips in the film, including sequences from Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremonies showcasing Darlene Love, Bonnie Raitt, Lauper and Mavis Staples (it's worth noting that the Cleveland-based music museum is currently running an exhibit called Women Who Rock: Vision, Passion, Power).

One of the most touching moments in the film doesn't include anyone on the Hall of Fame list; instead, it features a group of female youngsters taking part in a rock camp for girls. Led by former Bikini Kill frontwoman Kathleen Hanna, the pre-teens belt out Joan Jett's I Love Rock 'n' Roll with an enthusiasm that lays to rest any doubts about the future of rock's female faction.

"You see so many women artists -- new ones every day -- selling millions of records and dominating the scene," Powers concludes. "Finally, the guys are on the margins -- not that they'll ever admit it -- so it's a great moment."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 17, 2011 E10

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