Joan Jett’s career began at 17, when she started iconic rock band The Runaways with drummer Sandy West in 1975. The Runaways’ story was recently retold in a fairly well-received 2010 biographical film, in which Kristen Stewart played Jett, who also co-produced the film. This “all-girl” band enjoyed great success internationally, but never quite got off the ground in the US, so when they went their separate ways in 1979, Jett was basically starting over from scratch.
No one was going to make it easy on her. Faced with launching her solo career from the Runaways’ ashes, Jett started strong by recording three songs with former Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones while in London. Soon after, she returned to the US, where she recorded the rest of what would become her debut solo album.
One of the songs recorded for this album was “Bad Reputation.” The song was never released as a single, although it did have a particularly memorable video, which -- according to the official Joan Jett website -- is a “reenactment” how 23 US record labels rejected her album “I Love Rock ‘n Roll,” telling her that she “can’t sing” and doesn’t dress or conduct herself in a manner befitting a lady.
Never one to give up, even after being turned down enough times to crush the spirit of anyone else, Jett and producer Kenny Laguna started their own record label, Blackheart Records, and self-published the damn album.
Naturally, “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” -- which was her first album with new band The Blackhearts -- went to #1 on the Billboard charts, proving that sometimes record executives are criminally shortsighted, and sometimes the best revenge is runaway success. The video for “Bad Reputation,” made after her subsequent hits, is Jett’s giant fuck-you to the record industry.
Clearly, said industry did not understand Jett’s appeal -- where they were put off by her lack of feminine graces and her aggressive sound, these were the same things that made her a hero to her fans. “Bad Reputation” is a manifesto for bad girls, inept ladies, and anyone who has been told their behavior is inappropriate for their gender.
I don't give a damn 'bout my reputation
You're living in the past, it's a new generation
A girl can do what she wants to do and that's
What I'm gonna do
And I don't give a damn ' bout my bad reputation
It ain’t Shakespeare, but memorable punk rarely is. Instead, the song is a gravel-throated battle cry in favor of being true to oneself, even when doing so makes life difficult.
Women are far more likely than men to be punished -- socially and professionally -- for failing to adhere to standards of appropriate behavior. Thus, Jett’s declaration is radical in the extreme. Indeed, if she weren’t so successful, her failure would probably be blamed on her refusal to tone it down, to make herself more palatable to an unimaginative public. As it is, this is the very thing that makes her so appealing.
Amazingly, Blackheart Records is actually still around, and Joan Jett is still on the roster. “Bad Reputation” has shown up all over the place in the intervening years, from TV shows to movies to Rock Band 2.
Jett has remained every bit the badass throughout her 36-year career, demonstrating a commitment to rock excellence few have matched. In fact, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts are among the 2012 nominees for induction to the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame. You can vote for her here.
When I was a kid, I thought “Bad Reputation” was about sex, the phrase being colloquially associated with female promiscuity. This is probably a common assumption. These days I think that Jett’s “reputation” was as much a result of her stubbornness, her resourcefulness, her attitude and her insistence that a girl can do what she wants to do, no matter what it is and no matter how anyone else feels about it. That is why this song, for all its simple chord progressions and straightforward bravado, continues to be so powerful.
So I put it to you: What would you do, if you didn’t give a damn about your bad repuation?