The obvious way to open a story on Joan Jett's headlining of PrideFest is surely some variation on the old "Is she or isn't she" question, a coy evaluation of Jett's aggressive but ambiguous sexuality. Although Jett doesn't dwell on the subject herself, her sexual orientation is a source of prurient fascination, partly because she's a woman playing rock in a patriarchal society and partly because of a quarter-century's fixation on chains, dog collars and lots of black leather; high-profile collaborations with Riot Grrl/queercore legends such as Kathleen Hanna (Bikini Kill, Le Tigre), L7 and Amy Ray; and near-iconic status in the gay and lesbian community. And then, of course, there's the fact that she's headlining PrideFest this year.
Naturally, when Jett grants the RFT a five-minute phone interview, we assume she's amenable to discussing her reasons for performing at the festival, which, as everyone knows, commemorates the origins of the gay-rights movement. Big mistake. "Wow," she says flatly, sounding a little disgusted. "It's a gig. I don't really discriminate. We've been doing these shows for years, and I don't really look at it as any kind of anything. I really don't give it much thought." At this point, a rational person might assume that she'd rather not continue along this line of inquiry, but we bulldoze gamely forward, nattering on about her position as figurehead, the gay-rights cause, blah, blah, blah. Jett retains her composure, but her irritation is palpable: "You have to give me a moment, because it's early in the morning and I just woke up."
Holly, our contact at Blackheart Records, who's listening in on another line, jumps to the rescue: "Excuse me, but I don't think the record company really expected this to be tilted completely in that direction. You should probably redirect, because that would be easier for Joan; it's what she's more prepared for."
Finally taking the hint, we ask Jett whether she's working on a new record. She explains that she's been busy working on the off-Broadway production of the Rocky Horror Show for the past seven months but that she's also writing songs for a new album. She won't hazard a guess as to the release date, though: "Since we've been trying to get a new record out for five years now, I've stopped trying to predict that; every time I make a prediction, it doesn't come true. I'll just say it'll be out when we get it out."
Subsequent conversational gambits fall flat. When asked whether the oft-discussed Runaways retrospective is still in the works, Jett sounds cautious: "I'll just have to wait and see how things develop. Personally, the way I feel is, trying to recreate the Runaways, trying to make it happen 25 years after it did, will not work. I think if you didn't see it when it was happening, you should just read about it or listen to the records. Trying to recreate it or hoping for a reunion is really not the way to go." Asked whether today's climate is any more accepting of women in rock than it was during her tenure as a Runaway, Jett is adamant. "Not at all," she says. "Let's put it this way: Twenty-five years after the Runaways, I still don't see an all-girl rock band. You're not talking about the cover of Rolling Stone; you're not talking about mainstream. You're talking about underground, about alternative. People like to give lip service and pretend that they're evolved, and 'Yes, we think women are equal,' but in the realm of music, that's absolutely untrue -- unless you're doing pop music; then you're allowed to." A long, awkward silence ensues. "Can we just move on to the next question, please?" Jett asks, polite but clearly annoyed.
Whereupon we make the fatal error of mentioning Kim Fowley, notorious entertainment impresario and Runaways manager-cum-Svengali. "Wow," Joan exhales after an excruciating pause. "That's really not what I expected to talk about. I didn't realize I'd be doing an interview on the Runaways. I thought you just needed a few questions answered, and that would be it. I didn't realize you wanted an in-depth interview."
Holly breaks in again: "Maybe a few more questions, and we'll wrap it up."
"No," Joan says suddenly. "I'd like to answer the question. Kim Fowley didn't have anything to do with my persona. My persona is who I am. He did not create any of that. It's a big misconception, perpetuated by the fact that people want to believe that girls can't do anything. If they're women, of course someone had to help create the idea. If it's guys, you know, nobody even gives it a thought. It's a little irritating that it's even brought up, and the assumption is perpetuated just by the fact that you asked the question."
Ouch. The interview, which has been limping along for the past few minutes, seems, finally, to grind to a halt. Where to turn? She doesn't like talking about her forthcoming record or plans for the future; she doesn't like talking about her fascinating past. She doesn't want to answer the stereotypical questions everyone asks her (the ones listed on the "35 FAQ" list, forwarded by her record company along with the recommendation that we not ask her anything on the list); she doesn't want to answer questions she's not prepared for. For someone who claims she doesn't give a damn about her bad reputation, she sure as hell seems to expect the kid-glove treatment.
On the other hand, it's Joan Jett, the woman who gave us "Bad Reputation," "I Love Rock & Roll" (her biggest hit), "Cherry Bomb," "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)" and "Crimson and Clover." Any singer who can deliver a line like "Relax while I pound your ass" (from "Fetish") without sounding ridiculous clearly deserves a few get-out-of-jail-free cards. Yeah, the interview was a total debacle from the start -- and Jett's reliance on her Blackheart rep was just plain weird -- but the fact is, it's pointless to interview her. You might as well expect the Sistine Chapel to do your dishes or ask a solar system to explain your retirement benefits. The proper focus of any article about Joan Jett should be her music, the inviolate perfection of her sound. Alas, this topic, too, is a dead end, although Jett seems to greet it with relief and enthusiasm: "I don't want to expand; I don't want to evolve. People don't do what I do anymore, so I don't want to change it. It's rock & roll. There's no other definition."
It's true: Jett may be more technically proficient today than she was in 1976, but her music remains beautifully consistent. Those distorted guitars, that gravelly, surprisingly tender snarl -- even if you're not a fan of Jett's sound (and how could you not be?), you recognize it as hers and hers alone. She can toss off an oldie like "Cherry Bomb" on her latest record, the underrated Fetish, and it isn't jarring in the least. She'll probably play "Crimson and Clover" -- a hit single for her nearly 20 years ago -- at PrideFest, and the smart money says it'll segue seamlessly into her new material. In a world where rock stars take pride in routine self-reinvention, the perverse need to dismay fans and entertain pundits in the name of experimentation and innovation (Radiohead, Beck, Madonna, Dylan -- the list goes on and on), Jett's refusal to change is both brilliant and brave. She never sounds like anyone but Joan Jett, and no interview, no matter how expertly negotiated, could possibly shed any light on how she accomplishes this. Like all great rock & roll, it's a mystery.