Certainly we here at EW aren’t strangers to making lists. It’s fun, it’s hard work, it’s apples and oranges, it’s debate provoking, it’s no-win — people are always going to disagree with your selections, no matter how carefully thought out and heartfelt your decisions may be. So my sympathy goes out to the compilers of VH1’s 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll, five hours spread over five nights, running down a list from 100 to 1. There’s a different host for each evening whose expertise in great pop music is tenuous at best: actresses Susan Sarandon and Julianna Margulies, Courteney Cox (well, Bruce Springsteen did dance with her in a video), ex-Spice Girl Geri Halliwell, and Jennifer Lopez (well, she did plug her debut CD by singing during the Women’s World Cup soccer finals).
How was this list compiled? A voice-over informs us that ”VH1 asked the world’s most influential women” for their choices. Hmmm — world’s most influential. Madeleine Albright? Toni Morrison? Martha Stewart? Who these women were VH1 never bothers to enumerate; one thing’s for sure: The net would have done a lot better if it had hired some female rock critics to provide on-air insight and perspective. Instead, all we get are clips of the chosen greats in performance, interviews with female performers they’ve influenced, and voice-overs by the celebrity hosts and the omniscient series narrator.
A good rule of thumb if you watch: Whenever the accolade is alliterative, it’s probably useless. For instance, calling Siouxsie and the Banshees’ Siouxsie Sioux (No. 96 on the list) ”the original princess of punk rock” is so vague as to be meaningless. And saying of Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon (No. 91) that ”she’s known as the godmother of grunge” only leads you to wonder what idiots the producers have been talking to to arrive at this judgment. It’s doubly insulting to be praised by such banality when Gordon herself happens to be one of the more articulate rock performers alive. The makers of 100 Greatest Women would have done well to check out her essay in the 1995 anthology of women’s rock criticism, Rock She Wrote: Women Write About Rock, Pop, and Rap, in which she explains, ”Before picking up a bass I was just another girl with a fantasy. What would it be like to be right under the pinnacle of energy, beneath two guys crossing their guitars, two thunderfoxes in the throes of self-love and male bonding? How sick, but what desire could be more ordinary?”
Such desires go unexplored here, in favor of Lopez praising Sheila E. (No. 88!!) as ”one of the first women to be seen as a serious musician and as a sex symbol.” Gee, what an accomplishment. For every surprisingly astute choice (Exene Cervenka of the Los Angeles band X, No. 75), there’s a cliché to hobble it (”She was America’s first punk star and antihero”).
There’s a lot of ”Move over, boys — the girls are here!” rhetoric on Greatest Women, but little substantial discussion of specific obstacles overcome, sexism confronted, sisterhood achieved. To watch this series, you’d never know that Tina Turner (worthy, to be sure, but certainly overrated at No. 2, don’t you think?) was battered by her husband/bandleader, Ike, or that the tuneless shriek of Yoko Ono (a shockingly high No. 84) was and is still an object of controversy and derision in rock circles.
Like I said at the top: List makers are always in for arguments. You might think Anita Baker is underrated at No. 74, while I believe country-but-pop-influencing singers Patsy Cline (No. 11) and Tammy Wynette (No. 73) should probably switch positions, but surely we can all agree that the disco pleasures Donna Summer gave us certainly don’t merit the rank of No. 37.
So who’s No. 1? The network doesn’t want me to spoil the surprise, but I’ll venture my endorsement of it as an unassailably logical, well-deserved, kinda surprising (i.e., she ain’t white) choice. On the other hand, No. 3, who shall also go nameless, is someone I consider possibly the most overrated performer, female or male, in the history of rock.
Oh, and this: Joni Mitchell (No. 5) should have been rated higher, and it’s maddening that with five hours to fill, the producers couldn’t have shown us the full performance snippeted here of a radiant, steel-guitar-strumming Mitchell performing ”California” from 1971’s Blue. (And where is this clip from? We’re never told.) Mitchell’s sly-fox intelligence and transported bliss catch everything distinctive about women making rock & roll that this well-intentioned but bloated production cannot. C+