When Taylor Swift boldly educated an attorney about the location of her rear end in a Denver court room last August, Heart‘s Ann Wilson felt a twinge of compassion. After all, the last time a 27-year-old superstar took on sexism in the music industry was when the singer wrote “Barracuda” 40 years ago.
“I went through things like ‘lizard,’ ‘snake’ – but ‘barracuda’ just had a wickedness that I thought sounded good. It had rhythm. It just seemed more threatening, more despicable,” Wilson recalls. The idea for the song was born backstage in 1977 after Heart finished opening for the Kinks in Detroit. A cloying record promoter burst into Ann’s dressing room asking where her “lover” was, referencing a distressing full-page advertisement their record label planted in Rolling Stone that framed the future Rock and Roll Hall of Fame–inducted sister duo as an incestuous gimmick.
“That pissed us off. It went against everything we were trying to initiate, trying to invent – and the fact that our first time in [Rolling Stone] had that lascivious implication,” Wilson says. “For [this promoter] to imagine us together in an incestuous lesbian relationship – the sleaze factor really dawned on me in that moment. Those lyrics were written by my true nature, in true rage. I hope that that song will come in handy now when women are thinking about what they want to do and not do.”
In a candid interview, Wilson sounded off on sexism in the music industry then and now, the “bubble of power” that protects predators, and why she turned to drugs and alcohol at the height of Heart’s fame.
You’ve been singing “Barracuda” night after night, a song that pre-dates #MeToo by 40 years. Do you feel frustrated that this reckoning has taken decades?
It went on in 1977 and it still goes on now. Back then I didn’t know why [that was happening] and now I know we were just being cast as cute girls rather than people who had ideas and abilities.
Look at someone like Taylor Swift and what she’s gone through. She put herself on the line about this guy groping her, and took it all the way to court. There was a lot of eye-rolling about that, but she’s making a point. Somebody thinks that they have the right to come around at a meet and greet, reach up her skirt and grab Taylor Swift’s ass. And that it was OK. He can go and brag about it in a bar.
Did you have experiences like Swift’s?
Many times. In our early twenties, we’d go into radio stations and they’d say, “We love your tits.” It was irritating. And if they touched me – that was just the most icky, nauseating feeling ever. But in the Seventies, if I’d have said to my manager, whatever DJ touched my shoulder in the wrong way … who would get fired? Me.
You really thought you’d be fired if you spoke up?
Maybe not fired, but passed over; told “fuck her” or “what a bitch.” I heard that tons. People talk about each other in the worst way, especially when you become a product for sale. You’re just a thing. “Is it nice? Is it pretty? Is it amenable? Will people buy it?” …
Like, “How wild can you two sisters be together?” “They must be in a lesbian incest relationship.” That whole idea of two sisters, young, still nubile, being together in a frame being sexual is a really big diversion. It’s a way of taking emphasis off of our music and our message.
Do you think, looking back, that those marketing ploys had an impact on Heart’s career?
I think it made it harder for Heart to break into the mainstream, commercially. And there are lots of shows or theaters that are a little sleazier but really good money, like Playboy Mansion–type things. They would pass on us because we weren’t sexy enough. On the other side [laughs], we were approached by Brigham Young University a few times.
And told to make sure nobody was cursing or exposing any nipples [laughs].
Does displaying sexuality hurt women more than men in the music industry?
It’s just not a fair trade. And that’s a problem.
How is it unfair?
Women accept willingly that they have to turn themselves inside out to be good enough – big, plump fish lips, makeup, fuckable. It’s really problem for young women in their childbearing years. They need to realize they are more than wombs. They need to realize they are valuable.
There are always a few who will come out and go, “Hey, natural is good! I’m a natural woman. I don’t have a landing strip, I let my underarm hair grow!” There’s a few Patti Smiths in every generation. But the bulk is scared to look anything but super-excellent and as they assume the other gender wants them to look. And now there’s not a gender; there’s a rainbow of people that want to look fantastically sexy as a way of feeling excellent.
What about artists who say dressing and acting sexy is empowering?
Well, I think young women just coming into their power can mistake their sexual power for their actual power. I think that idea of “because I’m sexy, I’m a feminist” is kind of immature. But as long as women think being sexy is what makes them beautiful and powerful … then it will continue.
“The power monster is so fucking hungry and thuggish … If we’re truly going to drain the swamp, Trump can’t be exempt.”
What’s been your reaction to this post–Harvey Weinstein reckoning?
I had mixed emotions about it. I’m into truly equality of the genders. I don’t harbor any anti-male feeling in my heart. I know that the mothers of feminism, including Gloria [Steinem], never wanted to be anything except 50-50.
Can these men be redeemed?
I don’t know if there is redemption for people like Charlie Rose or Garrison Keillor. An apology helps, but what really matter are deeds.
The music industry has been relatively quiet in terms of women coming forward about sexual misconduct allegations.
[It’s] painfully clear that [the music industry] sort of trades in being inappropriate.
So how can the business protect female musicians?
[Pauses] We have to redefine that which we haven’t even touched. This is not a gender problem. It’s a power issue. It’s a problem of respect. When we are able to strip off the gender thing, then we’ll get somewhere. Someone like Charlie Rose or Matt Lauer – they are rock stars – people look to them to say where are we going next. They exist in a bubble of power. And there’s a lot of collateral damage to helping the bubble stay in the air. I don’t think [these men] even remember these people are human with their own boundaries. The power monster is so fucking hungry and thuggish.
And I think if we’re truly going to drain the swamp, Trump can’t be exempt. He has to be the ultimate example of someone who takes responsibility for his actions. It’s not going to be comfortable to anybody. I think that if you’re watching something happening and not doing anything, you’re as guilty as the one committing the crime. So what does that say about all of us who sit by and look at the Oval Office?
Heart helped popularize album-oriented rock, which paved the way for the macho rock-god archetype, complete with all the womanizing and decadence. But that plot line wasn’t available to you.
I always struggled with it, because I couldn’t stand to be part of it. The early MTV years where we did go wearing the groupie clothes and the big hair – those were the years I was unhappiest and the most uncomfortable in my own skin. Most other people I knew who were participating in all that thought it was a harmless little theater to sell units. But I was letting my own ideals go to hell.
What did you feel you were losing?
[Pauses] What I went through in the Eighties was more of a pressure to put out a Number One record – and not being Kim Kardashian. It felt like, I’m not good enough unless I’m onstage in stilettos, a corset, with big fingernails and huge hair. In other words, having no depth.
And everybody says “Oh, you’re so brilliant.” When really, what’s so brilliant about working with a bunch of stylists? It’s the stylist’s work you’re seeing, not mine [pauses]. What bothered me the most was I did it. I agreed to it. I thought, “Well, if I want my career to continue, and I want to be on TV and have Number One records, I have to do these things.” It was sort of like hooking in a way. It really was – the humiliation of doing that.
So what do we do with stories like Led Zeppelin putting a mud shark in a woman’s vagina? That’s just one that comes to mind because they were such a huge influence on you.
The Led Zeppelin mud-shark thing is a perfect example of rock stars feeling that, because they’re onstage every night, they’re kings of the world and the women afterward are subhuman. We know now that all people were consenting, but the behavior was wild and disrespectful. The female with the mud shark in her vagina was just as disrespectful to herself.
A more contemporary consent issue might be – to go back to Taylor Swift – when Kanye West used her naked likeness in his music video allegedly without her permission. Do you think it was valid for West to use the “art” defense or not?
That’s an extremely sound question. That’s what we’re talking about with the introduction of rape culture as normalcy. I’d say, let’s err on the side of it not being normal. Unless [Swift] gave consent to that and she thinks it’s cool and she wants to go ahead with it, for sure. Otherwise, it’s some kind of rape. That kind of publicity isn’t doing anything for young women. Here, it seems it was used as an attack. And that’s just evil.
In the Eighties, was there an image or band that you found particularly demeaning?
I remember the Robert Palmer videos with the identical models. That grossed me out, because it showed women as faceless, emotional robots. The individual was meaningless. That struck a chord. The models dancing onstage with Van Halen, I just thought, “Boy, this does nothing promote the self-respect of women.” … I think we were on the Ratt tour and the lead singer came up to me and planted this big sloppy one on the side of my face and Nancy pulled him off me [laughs]. That’s up for interpretation.
“I remember one day, I realized I was invisible. … You become something that’s not desirable, not fuckable.”
Last time we spoke, about Chris Cornell’s death, you said you felt lucky you survived. Was drinking the way you coped with the pressure of maintaining your career?
Absolutely. It was a way of becoming a female Keith Richards, if you will. [I thought] since I’m not Tawny Kitaen or Pamela Anderson, then I’ll go the other way. I was just like, “Get me out of this disaster.”
What about Nancy?
She lived in a different world. She was married and a lot more moderate than I was with alcohol and drugs. She had that physical beauty that greased her into a lot of situations. I don’t think the men we were touring with expected anything sinister [from her] because she is a beautiful, sunshine-y blond. She went into the other category. They didn’t understand why I wasn’t married; I was mouthy – and that made me highly suspect. People didn’t know how to treat me. In the concert reviews, they’d always have Nancy as the bright, pure angelic one and Ann as the raven-haired dominatrix.
That speaks volumes about how good the music business is at shaming female artists.
Shame is a big one. Shame is almost as powerful as getting fired and the combination of the two would be a persuasive reason to stay silent. But respecting yourself is more important than your career.
What is your advice to musicians who feel too vulnerable to speak up?
If you’re being threatened or harassed somehow, and if you still think it’s more important to feel like a prisoner all the time, then at the very least, you should get counseling. The more women stand up as individuals, the more this problem is going to come into focus.
The music industry also controls and mitigates women through ageism. Have you experienced that?
I remember one day … I realized I was invisible. I could walk down the street. People start calling you ma’am. You become something that’s not desirable, not fuckable. I remember talking to a record guy one time in the last 20 years. He had sought my help as a consultant and said, “We’re looking for the next Ann Wilson.” And inside, I’m like, “Who does that make me? Just a space you’re trying to fill? Are you trying to find the next Robert Plant?” [Gasps] No. Never.