Three stars who broke the mould are back – and could today’s divas learn from their uncompromising stance?
Debbie Harry and Chrissie Hynde – two grandes dames of 70s rock – have new albums out in the next few weeks. Add new material from Patti Smith and UK tour dates from each, and their e-emergence will offer the women of vintage rock a chance to square off against the men.
Harry has cleverly combined her new Blondie album Ghosts of Download with a new greatest hits collection and will play Glastonbury in June. Hynde is releasing Stockholm, her first solo album, on 9 June. She says she is putting it out “to get it out the way”. It was recorded with Swedish musicians, features Neil Young and John McEnroe and she’ll play the Latitude festival in July. Smith contributes a new song, Mercy, to Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah and is setting off on a seven-month tour.
Though far removed from the punk rock aesthetic of Harry, Hynde and Smith, Kate Bush is playing 22 nights at the Hammersmith Apollo in London and represents the most anticipated comeback of the year.
While few are expecting any great addition to the pop and rock canon, the return of the women of the 70s is offering an opportunity to compare them with contemporary figures, from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Karen O, Lorde and Florence Welch to more calculated pop divas like Beyoncé, Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga.
A recent issue of Vanity Fair celebrated Harry, Hynde and Smith as women who have “more in common with Led Zeppelin than, say, Lesley Gore” and described how each created – effortlessly, it seemed – looks that became inextricably linked with their music. All have endured because they were unwilling or unable to accept the stereotypes of pop. “They were not interested in conventional feminine roles, and particularly conventional feminine roles as they’re presented in the media,” author and rock critic Greil Marcus told the magazine.
Bush famously upbraided her label EMI after it wanted to use a picture of her in a pink top for a publicity picture. Later she said: “The media just promoted me as a female body. It’s like I’ve had to prove I’m an artist in a female body.”
Harry told the Guardian that risqué behaviour “is becoming more par for the course, although I think there’s more nudity now”. Hynde recently reflected on the difference between rockers and pop stars or actors. “When I made my first record we walked in off the street wearing what we were wearing and the guy took a picture and that was the album cover.
“These days, even for a rocker, they’ll bring in the stylists and the makeup artists. I can’t go in for all that.”
In some quarters, the return of the old guard has prompted handwringing that their modern equivalents have sold themselves and their careers short by too readily accepting the fickle hand of the multibillion-dollar fashion industry.
Hynde says that, in the era of the Pretenders, the artists at least had the upper hand. Now, when musicians at award shows are asked which style or designer product they are wearing, there is a sense that many have sold out to the generous marketing budgets of luxury conglomerates.
“Clothes alone won’t make you cool,” says Christian Joy, a stylist who helps dress Karen O. “Nowadays it’s all about fashion – who’s wearing Chanel, who’s wearing Gucci. Back then, those girls weren’t going out and buying fashion. They had a style that almost doesn’t exist any more.”
She says that any woman who starts a rock band now looks back to Hynde, Harry and Smith. “At this point their looks are classic. We’ve looked at them so long, they’ve become iconic, despite how heavily their looks have been marketed since.”
The world of contemporary cool might be more difficult to unpick. Sure, Harry, Hynde and Smith were also selling image, said Joy, “but nowadays image is so marketed it can’t be cool any more”.
There are other dangers, too. Lady Gaga’s career is widely believed to have suffered after she lost the services of stylist Nicola Formichetti. Having built a career around fashion, music alone cannot support her, some argue.
It poses an interesting question as to how Bush sells out her 22 London shows in 15 minutes – a record that the 70s rockers couldn’t hope to match. “At the moment, Kate is the one that people are thinking could be really special,” says pop culture writer Michael Bracewell. “Meanwhile Patti just seems to turn up at irritating art events in New York and talk in a pompous way about downtown culture as if it was drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, when in fact it’s someone’s crappy Polaroid from 1986.”
Harry, Hynde and Smith were true originals, “but that’s a long time ago. Isn’t it the case with so much pop and rock now that it’s simply archival?,” says Bracewell. “People want to witness fragments of a true cross. People from their 40s to their 70s have a colossal emotional investment that they just can’t let go of despite the fact the form is pretty burned out. Perhaps these iconic figures save us from having to adjust to how old we’re getting, too.”