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Rock music is full of icons, from individual artists who changed the way that we experience music to looks that shaped the fashion of a decade, but who are the most iconic women in rock? As in most things, the contributions of women to rock are often overlooked or underplayed. As a result many people may not be able to think of very many female artists, even if they love the songs that those women have produced. In order to help fight back against this unfortunate system, we have established this list, in no particular order, of the most iconic women in rock.
Janis Joplin might be the first name that people think of when they think of women in rock. She made a huge splash in the music scene with her powerful and commanding voice that seemed to be able to express every human emotion all at once. She started as the singer for the band Big Brother & the Holding Company, a San Francisco based blues outfit. After helping catapult that band to fame, Janis was offered a solo deal and set out on her own in order to make music history. She remains an iconic figure in pop culture, influencing everything from fashion to musical styles, and has served as an inspiration to women for decades. Her hit songs include “Piece of My Heart,” “Ball and Chain,” and “Me and Bobby McGee.”
Few artists in rock, men and women alike, have the star power of Stevie Nicks. Part of the legendary rock outfit Fleetwood Mac, Stevie Nicks has inspired thousands, if not millions of women and men around the world with her soulful and expressive lyrics. A number of her songs were based on her relationships with her bandmates, which included her husband as well as her lover. Many of her most famous songs, such as “Go Your Own Way” tell the stories of these events, and give listeners an insight into the soul of a women in her most joyous and painful moments. As a result she is easily one of the most iconic women in rock history, and likely will remain so.
Alanis was a smash success seemingly out of nowhere when her first album, Jagged Little Pill, first hit shelves back in the 90s. It featured a number of songs that would make Alanis Morissette a household name. Generation X found that tracks such as “Ironic” and “Jagged Little Pill” encompassed the mood and feeling of their generation. As a result Alanis has gone on to even bigger fame. She helped pave the way for solo female artists in the 90s and helped to shift grunge rock to alt rock with her powerhouse performance. Many listeners still fondly recall where they were the first time they heard her sing and she has remained an important influence on modern female rockers as well as women in general around the world.
Lauryn Hill first made a splash as a member of the band The Fugees. However, she is probably best know for her first solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, as well as for her MTV Unplugged special. Lauryn Hill sealed her status as one of the most iconic women in rock with her powerful and melodic voice, along with her insightful lyrics. To this day many women, both inside and outside the music industry, credit “Miseducation” as one of the primary influences in their life. Another lasting contribution is the way that Lauryn Hill brought soul and R&B sounds back into the spotlight. As a result, we can thank her in part for the soulful turn that the late 90s took. We can also thank her completely for providing a voice to the fears, concerns, hopes, and dreams of young black women everywhere.
Easily the most well-known person from Iceland, Bjork is one of the most iconic women in rock not only for her musical abilities, but also for her outspoken political activism and performance art. Her initial solo album, Debut, went platinum in the US, and singles from that album still continue to influence artists all over the world. Her song “Declare Independence” has been dedicated to a number of different groups seeking political autonomy, including Kosovo, Tibet, and Scotland. In addition to her work in politics she is also a staunch environmentalist and has participated in a number of protests and causes. Finally, Bjork has also played the role of mentor for a number of female artists, Magga Stina, Leila Arab, Tanya Tagaq, and many others.
Love her or hate her, Courtney Love is a rock icon. One of the founding members of the band Hole, Courtney is best known for her relationship to Nirvana front man Kirk Cobain. Despite the controversy over his death, Courtney was, is, and will continue to be a force in rock culture. Hole was one of the biggest female lead groups of the early 90s, with hits like “Celebrity Skin” getting airtime to this very day. Courtney Love is often outspoken and unapologetic. As a result she has influenced not only women in the rock world, but the way that the world in general sees women, pointing out double standards and sexist attitudes was, and continues to be, one of Courtney Love’s calling cards. She has always claimed to be influenced by Stevie Nicks, another member of this list, and that influence really comes through in her music.
One of the biggest artists of the 70s and 80s, Joan Jett paved the way for women to take part in the punk rock genre with her first act, The Runaways, one of the first all-female rock groups. Following her success with this group she launched a solo career that has been incredibly influential. Bands such as The Talking Heads and other acts that came out of CBGB in New York can all be said to be a product of Joan Jett’s success. She is most famous for her song “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll," which became a smash hit in 1981. She has also spoken out about treatment of women in the music industry and has been an active advocate against rape culture and sexual abuse.
The most iconic woman in rock in the late 80s and early 90s, Madonna revolutionized the way that the decade talked about sex, as well as how the danced. Madonna was one of the first artists to bring gay culture into the mainstream with her song “Vogue,” which was inspired by watching the now iconic hand dancing taking place at the gay clubs she frequented. Since her debut, Madonna has gone on to be a force in rock and pop music, producing many songs for movie soundtracks and continuing to record music for herself. She showed an entire generation that there was nothing wrong with a woman being comfortable with herself, her sexuality, or sex in general.
Pat Benatar is widely recognized as the first popular female hard rock act. Her famous song “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” helped to launch MTV into the media powerhouse it is today and gave Pat her first big break. These days she sees herself as a singer-songwriter, but she has influenced millions with her take-no-prisoners lyrical style and aggressive, confident guitar licks. As a result Pat Benatar has been one of the most powerful forces in the modern music scene. In fact, it could easily be argued that without Pat Benatar a number of the women on this list would never have been discovered, leaving a huge hold in musical culture.
Grace Slick was the singer for Jefferson Airplane and its other associated projects, such as Jefferson Starship and Starship. She is most famous for her psychedelic masterwork “White Rabbit,” but was also the brain behind a number of Jefferson Airplane’s other hits as well. Jefferson Airplane was not only a tremendous cultural force, but its latter incarnations also heavily influenced the soul and funk genres, giving rise to acts such as Parliament-Funkadelic, the Talking Heads, and many others. As a result very few people have had as much of an influence on modern musical culture as Grace Slick, and her music is still enjoyed around the world to this day.