When Ann and Nancy Wilson broke through with Heart in the early '70s, they didn't necessarily set out to be pioneering "women in rock"--but with few other loud ladies leading the way, that's exactly what happened. It certainly wasn't an easy road for them; Heart's famously fierce 1977 signature song, "Barracuda," was in fact all about their dealings with the music business's shady, sexist boys' club of that era. But now, as the iconic Wilson sisters release their 14th studio album, Fanatic--as well as their boxed set, Strange Euphoria, and their autobiography, Kicking And Dreaming: A Story Of Heart, Soul, And Rock And Roll--they admit in an exclusive Yahoo! Music interview that the industry sadly hasn't changed much for women, four long decades later.
"It's probably easier [for female artists] to get noticed today, to get a start--but then once you get started, some of the same pitfalls are still there--the hypersexuality," laments Ann, one of the greatest female vocalists of all time (who never had to rely just on her looks to establish her career). "That stuff hasn't really changed that much; it's just shapeshifted."
"In many ways, it's possibly harder now, because the pop music scene is so extremely sexualized," adds Nancy.
"That's the tricky thing about sexuality, that I would tell my daughter: Sex should not be confused with power. It's not currency," stresses Ann. "Hopefully young women don't confuse their sexuality with their true personal power."
One current young woman that the Wilsons think may have a chance of avoiding those pitfalls, surprisingly, is Katy Perry--although they express similar concerns about Katy's long-term future. "I'm a Katy Perry fan, and I took my kids to go see her," says Nancy, "and it was a great show, and she really can sing and she really can play. And the hypersexual aspect with her, at least it's confectionary; it's very cartoonish. In a lot of ways, comparatively speaking, it's kind of innocent, and to me, that's a bit refreshing. But in 15 years...is she still going to be a candy cane?"
Ironically, Heart's most successful period, at least in terms of commercial sales, was the hypersexualized '80s, an era when they starred in numerous sexy, flashy music videos that received high rotation amid MTV's salacious and bodacious hair-metal programming. But this was not Heart's most successful period when it came to their own personal creative fulfillment, since much of the material they recorded at that time wasn't self-penned. They've happily since returned to writing their own music. "For us, that was a devil's bargain, because we'd always written our own stuff--except for the '80s, when we had our biggest hits," Ann recalls ruefully. "Our creative selves took a seat behind our showbiz selves."
"Then the '90s happened, and we said, 'Thank God!'" laughs Nancy. (Incidentally, the Wilsons hail from the 1990s' musical hotbed city, Seattle.) "That was a really cool time for music, because women were getting into the more rebellious bands like Sleater-Kinney, and the more punk bands."
"It was pushing against the '80s, which was a very vacuous thing, and so women went all the way the other way. Suddenly you had Courtney Love with her makeup running down and mouthing off. So somewhere in the middle, there was progress," says Ann.
With the release of their boxed set and memoir, Heart are finally able to "exorcise" their checkered '80s past and move on with Fanatic, their first new album since 2010's Red Velvet Car (and a very rockin', "really loud," "really muscular" album, to boot). "This is a time when we're sort of offloading a bunch of stuff and walking away lighter," explains Ann. "To go back now and put all this stuff out in a retrospective way, it's like getting rid of some of that tension, because we did come back to ourselves, and we did start to write our own stuff again."
So now, as Heart enter their fifth decade, and as they enter a musical landscape in which real rock 'n' roll is unfortunately under-represented, where do they see themselves fitting in? The Wilsons are quick to dismiss any claims that their chosen genre of music has become obsolete. "You've heard people say, in the '70s, in the '80s, in the '90s: 'Rock is dead.' But somehow it always manages to reinvent itself," asserts Ann. "I'll eat my hat if I live to see a time when rock is completely dead, because it doesn't work that way!"
And what about Heart's place in rock 'n' roll history? Says Nancy: "We're not just 'ladies in rock.' We're weird people! We've come through on a very strange path, and it's all somehow worked out...But if any girls got braver because we did it first, then we did something right." Adds Ann: "I think that if we helped loosen any constraints out there, then I think we have been successful."
Watch Heart perform three very rockin' new songs from Fanatic below--and check out some acoustic classics above!