PBS Arts from Cleveland: Women Who Rock will premiere tonight on PBS. The documentary celebrates the legacy of female musicians in rock, featuring interviews and live performances by trailblazers such as Bessie Smith, Mahalia Jackson and Mother Maybelle and contemporary stars such as Heart, Darlene Love, Deborah Harry, Bonnie Raitt and Le Tigre frontwoman Kathleen Hanna. Rolling Stone caught up with Cyndi Lauper, the host of the program, to chat about what inspired her to get involved with the film, and her favorite female rockers from yesterday and today.
How did you get involved with the Women Who Rock documentary?
I always have been saying [the Rock & Roll Fall of Fame] should include women. I was in Cleveland and I took my cousin’s son to see it, because he wanted to see it, and they asked if I wanted a VIP tour and I said “Not really, because you don’t really include women in your curation here.” There’s hardly any women, and I feel funny walking this kid around, explaining who the women were who were around at the time. The curator looked at me and it just so happened that there was a young woman who was trying to get them to do an exhibit of women in rock and they came to me, maybe because of that. You know, everybody grows and hopefully it will be more inclusive. I’m really glad they included the women they included.
I had an argument with a well-known, not a rocker, a folker – I wouldn’t call him a rocker – and he was inducted. But he was a part of the rock & roll culture, I guess. And he was telling me he was going to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and they were going to induct Elvis. And I said, “What about Big Mama Thornton?” And he said, “She’s a blues person,” and I said “Yeah, but she made that song popular and now it’s a rock song.” And I said “And also, what about Wanda Jackson?” And he said, “There were no women in rock.” And so it’s fortunate, at this time at her age, she is finally being acknowledged for the work she did. She was always a rocker and she still rocks.
Did you feel a kinship with other female musicians who were kind of coming in around the same time as you back in the Eighties?
Well I had my alter-image, Madonna [laughs]. No matter what I did, there she was, and no matter what she did, there I was. And it wasn’t similar and it was never intentional. We inspired each other. I am inspired by her because she still does it and she looks great and I’m always on a diet, I can never keep a diet, but she looks fantastic, she always does, so that’s inspiring.
Do you think having her around made you raise your game as an artist?
No, in the Eighties I was really heartbroken that they would pit us against each other. Because I’ve always believed sisterhood is a powerful thing and I just wanted to have a friend in the industry. Another rocker. But they always isolate you when you become popular, when you become famous and then you’re isolated all of a sudden. Nobody can get to you, I guess because everybody wants to get to you.
Is there anyone coming up right now that who has impressed you?
Yeah, there’s a few of them, Nicki Minaj, but she’s been around for years, I’ve heard her on other people’s music. She’s fantastic. When I came out as a solo artist, or even in Blue Angel, we knew then that you wouldn’t just listen to music, you’d see it, and that music would forever be changed that way. And for me that was very exciting because I always saw myself more as a performance artist. And you know, people like Lady Gaga, who is a performance artist, it’s really inspiring to see her and even to work in a campaign with her. I think that you can mix art and music and that’s exciting.
I think Deborah Harry was always exciting. She influenced us with her fashion sense and the throw-back to the old movie star, that kind of fifties movie star look. It was really exciting to see her. That was exciting. When I was in Blue Angel I used to go watch Blondie. We were all rooting for them. We wanted someone to make it out of New York. So it was either going to be Blondie or The Shirts. And the Shirts didn’t quite make it. And The Ramones, we used to go see The Ramones. They were from New York!
It was an amazing time. The possibilities were endless because there was a possibility. But the thing is, there’s always a possibility. It got so industrious that people couldn’t develop anymore. It got so industry-heavy. I think now that the industry is changing so dramatically, it now opens the door for more people. I think even women, but you gotta use the internet, you gotta use your smarts, you gotta be on top of it. And I think unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of club scenes anymore. And that was important for people to grow. It’s starting especially in New York, it’s starting in Brooklyn a little bit, but it certainly isn’t what the East Village was to us back in the day.