100 Greatest Artists

47

Patti Smith

Illustration by Johanna Goodman

I was about 19 when I first heard a Patti Smith record. It was Horses. I remember sitting there, very taken by the sound of her voice, this ferocious delivery. Later I was struck by how literate her lyrics were, how intellectual and political. I loved how, in her songs, she talked about anything other than the love in her heart for a man. And I loved her image: this non-glam look with the chopped-off hair, looking like a skinny boy. She was the complete opposite of the images that were pumped into me as a child, of what I was supposed to aspire to as a woman.

She is a folk artist, in the way that Bob Dylan is. I loved that she was a poet involved in visual art. It wasn't just about the music for her. It was everything. And she knew how powerful her image was — that she was really sexy — and how to manipulate that for her art. What Madonna does today, Patti was doing from the beginning. Except Madonna was into selling, period. I felt that Patti's goal was to use her art to bring comfort and grace — to me, personally. The opening lines of "Revenge," on Wave, give me the chills to this day: "I feel upset/Let's do some celebrating."

Garbage played a festival with Patti in Athens years ago, and she signed a set list for me: "Power to the people, Patti Smith." It's a cliché. But clichés, she understands, can work. I once talked with a young man who was refusing to utilize his right to vote, out of principle. As much as I understood his point, I believe individuals are important. One person can make a difference. When Patti sings "People Have the Power," it moves me, because I know I am not the only person out there feeling these things. I can only imagine there are millions of people out there whom she is singing to, who feel like me. And when you add up those millions of people, it's worthwhile.

She is a soldier. She will not be defeated. I look at today's charts, at the women who are selling the most records, getting the most column inches, and I'm terrified by how so many of them are controlled by a male corporate idea of what women and rebels should be. When some teen-pop singer is taken seriously as a rebellious figure, we have a huge problem. I'm just glad that Patti is still willing to get up there and fight for what she believes in. It makes me feel less alone.

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