Music from the heart: How Heart influenced rock and roll.

Heart (1970s) | Courtesy of Ultimate Classic Rock

When one thinks of the musical hall of fame, names such as The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Pink Floyd, AC/DC, Guns N’ Roses, and Metallica are sure to come to mind.1 One band, however, deserves to be brought back into the spotlight due to the rigorous trials and tribulations they went through during a time when people thought that only certain people could rock and roll. The band in question is the legendary female-led rock band that went by the name “Heart.” Heart was founded by one of the two sisters, Ann Wilson being the start of the band and Nancy joining in later into the band’s career. Their story doesn’t start with just the two of them though, as Heart actually started as a full band in Canada, one that tried its hardest to make a name for itself before dipping its feet in the United States. More specifically, their story starts in the year of 1975, in a Canadian tavern named Lucifer’s, the place that the band would go to for gigs while they waited for their careers to gain traction. They had no desire to be a band that stayed in one nightclub; they wanted to produce albums that would get their name out into the world. At that point in their career, their songs “Dreamboat Annie” and “Crazy About You” had both been released in Vancouver, but, much to their dismay, each song received very little coverage anywhere else. At this point, the band had little hope of getting noticed, unless they succumbing to “going disco”ーsomething that the two sisters outright REFUSED to do.2

Official Heart Logo | Courtesy of heart-music.com

It especially didn’t help that the Wilson sisters couldn’t go out and perform at the various local nightclubs without overstaying their welcome or possibly “bringing in the wrong crowd,” as customer management often thought they were cheapskates. Some of the nightclub managers would even go so far as to tell the two to leave whenever they played anything for their patrons that wasn’t disco. To make matters worse, the manager of Lucifer’s kept demanding that the band stop performing their original work, and instead play disco covers, something that Ann considered to be akin to working at an insurance company with a crabby boss.3 Sure, the band got to play music, but it wasn’t the type of music that they wanted to play. In the minds of the sisters, they were constantly constricted by a strict iron grip, one preventing them from following their dreams to play what they wanted to play in order to garner a name for themselves. As fate would have it, their train of bad luck didn’t end there. One night, before performing, they were served food that tasted of Pine-sol, and Ann made a snarky remark to the crowd asking them if “their food tasted like Pine-sol,” too.4 Unfortunately for the band, Ann’s little remark landed them a swift boot off the premise, with the loss of their contract with the establishment. While disheartened, they didn’t let their contract loss deter them from their goal to make themselves known to the world. Even though this was their first time experiencing the defeat that comes with losing a gig, they had a backup plan should the very possibility of this situation arise. With their heads held high, the band packed up their belongings and boarded a train to Montreal in pursuit of their latest line of gigs for the foreseeable future: they would open for the British rock musician Rod Stewart.5

The 1970s was an interesting time for musicians of all genres and backgrounds—no longer were the masses interested in listening to music that only a select group of people could listen to. No, the people of the 1970s were only interested in being able to find some common ground that all of them could relate to, some type of genre or concept that people of all nations and heritages could understand and appreciate without fear of being judged for their interests. The mentality created in the time period is exactly what allowed the genre of rock and roll to come onto the scene in an unexpected flash that caught millions by storm. The type of aesthetic that rock music gave off was what many considered to have a sort of “local and authentic” feeling to it, a type of feeling that broke down all types of social barriers and musical cliques in order to create a field that all people could flock to and find common grounds with. Many people liked to think of it as a culture that surpassed all normal cultural boundaries that became set in stone by other musical genres like Italian hip-hop, Algerian pop-rai, and Chinese xibei-feng, to name a few. With rock and roll, anyone could create any type of sub-genre for the music they liked and they would still be able to find an audience regardless of their place of origin or any language barriers set in place. The genre of music was clearly something that belonged to no one true person or community; rather, it was something to bring to all people, a type of cultural gift if you will—something that was supposed to belong to and connect everyone together in order to allow the world to ultimately become a better place.6

To go deeper into the type of cultural subspace created by rock music, even though the genre can be separated into different types of sub-genres, it all nevertheless ties back to the principal idea that rock music is easily accessible and understandable by a large variety of individuals. Indeed, the main purpose of the music is to create a type of identity that many people can flock and relate to, to act as music written by the people for the people. People wanted to listen to it and producers wanted to make money off of it, and this combination of interest created a giant musical following that held its own for a very long time. In fact, it was actually this genre of music, and the love of The Beatles, that inspired Ann and Nancy Wilson to want to become rock stars in the first place. Having the ability to reach all kinds of audiences despite an evident language or cultural barrier was surely an easy ticket to fame, and, with all kinds of musicians getting a slice of the “rock and roll pie” in order to gain fame and fortune for themselves, why wouldn’t they want to become rock stars? However, the fact that there hadn’t been many female rock stars on the scene meant finding fame would be a lot harder than originally anticipated.7 But they truly believed that if they could just find a way to make it work as a female lead band, they’d be able to turn more heads and be able to bring in a larger audience and grow their publicity!8

After a long train ride, coupled with a much needed rest, the two sisters, along with their fellow roadies David and Michael, arrived in Montreal. The venue they were performing at was much larger than the usual nightclub venues they were used to, and given everything that had happened back in the Lucifer’s nightclub, the band was nervous to say the least. Throughout the trip, they managed played acoustic music to try and lift their spirits, and while it worked for the duration of the trip, they weren’t in the safety of their train anymore, and things were getting increasingly interesting. They found themselves in a new venue playing for a much larger audience who spoke a language completely different from their own, and the band wondered if their audience would even be able to understand them, if their music would be up to snuff. So many questions raced through their minds before they realized something: the crowd was going wild already and Rod Stewart hadn’t even stepped on stage yet! The two sisters had trouble figuring out what was going on until Michael had revealed to them that one of the French Language Radio Stations had played their songs on the radio for everyone to hear! Ann and Nancy’s spirits were lifted beyond all spiritual and emotional comprehension that day. Knowing that the crowd was cheering for them because they loved their music was enough to get the sisters back into rocking and rolling, because now they had solid evidence that despite a language barrier, it was possible for them to find an audience. They figured that, if it was possible for them to make it with a crowd that didn’t even understand the English they were speaking, then it would be possible for them to make it in the United States. Wanting to take it one step at a time, however, the two played “Magic Man” for the crowd that night, and even if it was only for one night, the members of the band were the stars of the city.9

Of course, even if they were the stars of Montreal for the night, it didn’t change the fact that the world around them still didn’t think that women could truly make it as rock stars. From the night they rocked Montreal, Ann and Nancy were constantly asked questions that always fell along the lines of “How does it feel to be a woman in rock?” or “How does a woman rock?” That these questions were being asked by men and women alike didn’t help matters, and the sisters tried their best to give as positive an answer as they could—it wasn’t easy trying to be a rock star when everyone around them doubted that it was possible for them to even be one in the first place. Not every response they got was positive, however. The sisters would always ignore snide comments about how people always assumed that their instruments were unplugged or that they were just lip syncing the entire time. No, no one really thought that the two of them were capable of having any type of musical talent simply because it was out of the norm for women to be into the musical scene. During this time, men dominated the field of rock and roll, and very few female musicians were able to make a name for themselves, because it wasn’t “normal.” Even if the world continued to push their band down because they weren’t led by men, Ann and Nancy refused to give up. After all, they’ve even said themselves that they wanted to be rock stars because they loved the music and had a passion for it. At the end of the day, they knew that it would be difficult for them to achieve their goal because of the gender relations of the time, but they also knew that they didn’t want to be stopped by something like that and give into failure.10

While the popularity of rock and roll continued to sweep the nation, there were more pressing matters going on behind the scenes in 1970s America. Gender relations between men and women were intensifying, and it felt as if the nation had entered a “battle of the sexes,” as it was most commonly expressed.11 The most notable gender conflict during this time period occurred in 1973, just following the Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision, which swept America with its legalizing women’s right to have safe abortions. In theory, the prior restriction on abortion was supposed to be a humane act of kindness that would keep unborn children from being killed before they were even born; however, there was a quite sizeable group of people, mostly women, who thought otherwise. The laws that were going to be overthrown following the outcome of the case would effectively give women the right to have control over their very own bodies.12 After all, an unwanted child could very much impede and/or ruin a woman’s life if the baby itself was not produced by any consensual means. Not to mention restricting the rights a woman had to her own body was also very questionable to say the least. But both sides of the argument were very persistent on trying to bring their own answers to the spotlight and claim the victory that they so eagerly craved—the debate on this topic got so heated that even moral ethics outside the field of abortion were brought onto the field, and the civic rights of dogs and other domestic house pets and wild animals were brought up to try and justify the means to limit ways women would be able to legally get an abortion. Obviously, the topic itself was starting to pick up lots of traction as time marched on.13

Heart was critically affected by the rise of “gender wars,” which had its roots in the aforementioned Roe vs Wade debate, with a document being created that acted not only as a summary of the Roe side of the debate, but was also allegedly supposed to “teach” an interest/right that isn’t even explicitly mentioned within the constitution. While free speech is protected by the Bill of Rights, the rights that women had over their bodies appeared to be an entirely different matter in itself, one that lacked both official structure and definition. The arguments on the side that ruled against the limiting and the possible banning of abortion eventually argued that the government should not have any control over a parent(s) children in any shape or form, because their basic human rights naturally prohibits it. The most prominent example that was used in accordance with this argument was the idea that, if the government could ban abortion, nothing was stopping them from enforcing a law that, for instance, required all children to go into school and receive an education during their early years. Such an act, in their eyes, would also put the idea of a strong democratic government in jeopardy, as the government itself would be defying the very ideas and regulations that they themselves established in order to maintain a free and fair society. In the end, the examples proposed to the court were enough to put the idea of a citizen’s “privacy” into the pool of religion and marital matters, thus allowing women to have the right to control what they do with their body and allowing them to have access to safe and legal abortions without having to fear interference from the government.14

Cover for Barracuda | Courtesy of Wikipedia

After being able to hit their own record deal to produce much more music with easy distribution and exposure, the morale held by the sisters began to totally eclipse what they possessed before getting the gig in Montreal. Life was starting to hit an all-time high for the Heart band following the debut of their first album, Little Queen, and its widespread popularity. It was chock full of all types of hit singles, and “Kick it out” and “Little Queen” did fairly well on the music charts, scoring fair numbers and earning spots in two “top ten albums” during this time.15 However, one song on that album was destined to become the most popular out of all of their songs, one that became the center of many controversies for the band at that time, and it almost halted their progress as an actual successful women lead band. The song itself, which was released in 1977, was called “Barracuda,” and immediately started hitting radio stations all over the nation.16 While the song itself was created as a response to the ferocious sexism the sisters would receive for being a female lead band, it was more famously known as being a response to the Detroit radio guy Tone-Knee’s thoughts that Ann and Nancy were in a lesbian incestuous relationship, which of course was far from true.17 The mere thought that Tone-Knee honest to goodness believed that the two sisters were in a relationship disgusted and enraged them. While not knowing the true meaning of misogyny during this time they were able to feel it loud and clear. The lyrics for this song, which were written from Ann’s fiery heart and soul, was also supposed to act as a type of guide to help women of all ages know about the stakes of thinking what they both do and do not want to do with their lives.18

But the legacy of Barracuda didn’t stop there. Unbeknownst to Ann and Nancy at the time, their empowering song would have a much more powerful impact in the field of gender politics than they had originally imagined. Over three decades later, both the song and the name Barracuda would be used to help push those running in political campaigns towards victory. Some notable moments and politicians involved in this sudden resurgence of the song was the Republican Vice President candidate Sarah Palin, the governor of Alaska, who was commonly referred to as simply “Barracuda” or “Sarah Barracuda” for her intense play style during the elections. It doesn’t stop there, either. The Republicans liked the song so much that they even played it around the nation to promote Sarah Palin. The song also provided a lovely add-on to the McCain-Palin campaign, even though it was very poorly received by the people, the writers of the song included! Using popular music and other forms of pop-culture isn’t anything new in the field of politics, however. Indeed, it’s actually quite common for politicians to use these types of relevant media to try and win more votes in their favor—a simple yet effective strategy that has worked well in the favor of many. But the fact that Heart’s “Barracuda” was used for a campaign despite being over thirty years old really spells how much of an impact the song had on the American political landscape as a whole.19

Heart (Present Day) | Courtesy of Billboard

Heart truly is an inspiration for aspiring women and musicians alike, as they proved to the world that they could rock out despite the fact that their society told them that they couldn’t. The band continued to have outstanding hits throughout the 1980s and 1990s, and their music continues to influence people around the globe.20

 

  1. Tim Grierson, “Rock Music: Its Origins and History,” ThoughtCo (website), October 22, 2018, https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-rock-music-2898293.
  2. Ann Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 8-10.
  3. Ann Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 11-12.
  4. Ann Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 13-15.
  5. Jessica Hopper, “Heart’s Ann Wilson on the Band’s Early Days and Setting an Example,” Rolling Stone (Blog), June 25, 2018, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/hearts-ann-wilson-on-the-bands-early-days-and-setting-an-example-185760/.
  6. Regev Motti, “Rock Aesthetics and Musics of the World,” Theory, Culture & Society 14, no. 3 (August 1997): 125-130.
  7.   Stephen B Groce and Margaret Cooper, “Just Me and the Boys?: Women in Local-Level Rock and Roll,” Gender & Society 4, no. 2 (June 1990): 221.
  8. Claire Fallon, “A History Of All-Girl Bands And The Rock World That Tried To Keep Them Out,” The Huffington Post (Blog), April 26, 2017, https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/making-the-girl-band_us_58ed03a7e4b0df7e2045c149.
  9. Ann Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 13-15.
  10. Ann Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 20-25.
  11. Candice Littleton, Feminism in Rock (Inspired by the Women’s March),” ClassicRockHistory (Blog), January 13, 2017, https://www.classicrockhistory.com/feminism-in-rock-inspired-by-the-womens-march/.
  12. Ruth Bader Ginsburg, “Some Thoughts on Autonomy and Equality in Relation to Roe v. Wade,” North Carolina Law Review 63, no. 2 (January 1985): 375-377, 380, 385.
  13. John Hart Ely, “The Wages of Crying Wolf: A Comment on Roe v. Wade,” Yale Law Journal 82, no. 5 (April 1973): 926-930.
  14. Philip B. Heymann and Douglas E. Barzelay, “The Forest and the Trees: Roe v. Wade and Its Critics,” Boston University Law Review 53, no. 4 (July 1973): 765-784.
  15. Ann Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 15-17, 20.
  16. Ann Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 21-25.
  17. Ann Wilson, Kicking and Dreaming (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2012), 116-117.
  18. Martin Kielty, “Ann Wilson Reflects on Sex-Abuse Message of Heart’s ‘Barracuda,'” Ultimate Classic Rock (blog), January 18, 2018. Accessed October 24, 2018. http://ultimateclassicrock.com/heart-ann-wilson-barracuda-sex-abuse/.
  19. Jack Doyle, “Barracuda Politics,” The Pop History Dig (blog), March 10, 2012, http://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/tag/heart-rock-group-history/.
  20. Martin Kielty, “Ann Wilson Reflects on Sex-Abuse Message of Heart’s ‘Barracuda,'” Ultimate Classic Rock (blog), January 18, 2018, http://ultimateclassicrock.com/heart-ann-wilson-barracuda-sex-abuse/.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. Was browsing through the web and saw the article, I loved it because I am such a huge fan of Rock and Roll. My favorite band is Metallica and im actually in the process of getting it published. Ive heard of the band and actually have listened to their music. Barracuda was the first song that popped up in my head when I saw the picture to the beginning of the article. It drew my attention, and its always great to hear about history of specific bands, and the history of Rock and Roll. Great Article.

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