Joan Jett talks anxiety, 'armor' and why 'girls playing rock 'n' roll... is sexual by its nature'

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Joan Jett may have just released two Joan Jett & The Blackhearts 40x40 graphic novels to commemorate the 40th anniversaries of her landmark Bad Reputation and I Love Rock ‘N’ Roll albums — but the rock ‘n’ roll superheroine insists that she’s not quite so badass, “mean,” or “scary” in real life. In fact, she says much of her reputation, bad or otherwise, is the result of her “armor,” which she “preemptively” built to protect herself during her fraught teenage years with trailblazing and controversial all-girl band the Runaways.

“If you're a naïve, trusting person — which I tend to be — you gotta watch your ass,” Jett tells Yahoo Entertainment.

The 'Joan Jett & The Blackhearts - 40x40: Bad Reputation/I Love Rock 'N' Roll' graphic novels (Photo: Z2 Comics)
The 'Joan Jett & The Blackhearts - 40x40: Bad Reputation/I Love Rock 'N' Roll' graphic novels (Photo: Z2 Comics)

But now Jett is showcasing her softer side on Changeup, an unplugged album that can be traced back to the well-received acoustic shows she and the Blackhearts played at the L.A. and New York premieres of her 2018 documentary, Bad Reputation. The album features acoustic remakes of some of her biggest hits (“Bad Reputation,” “Fake Friends,” the Runaways’ rallying cry “Cherry Bomb”) as well as deeper cuts, with many of the lyrics taking on poignant new meaning against the stripped-down arrangements. Jett says with a smile, “This is kind of really stepping into the unknown for me and the band, but we're having a great time.”

Jett really stepped into the unknown in 1975 — a time when she “could feel that there was this threat in the air” over what the Runaways were doing, and a time when they teen band even “took s*** from feminists” for using their sexuality. “I didn't really get it, because we're just girls playing rock ‘n’ roll. We're not hurting people! I didn't really get what was sort of threatening, initially,” she muses. But nearly a half-century later, Jett is still pushing herself artistically, taking control of her post-Runaways narrative, and embracing change.

Here, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee discusses Changeup, the media’s unfair treatment of the Runaways, the Runaways’ bonkers seven-minute mini-musical “Dead End Justice,” and what is the biggest misunderstanding about her.

Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (Photo: Shervin Lainez)
Joan Jett & The Blackhearts (Photo: Shervin Lainez)

Yahoo Entertainment: You just released your first-ever acoustic album, Changeup, featuring acoustic versions of your classic songs. So, I'm gonna start with the obvious question, which is why you decided to revisit your material in this way.

Joan Jett: So, this past year, last year and this year, is the 40th anniversary of both the Bad Reputation and I Love Rock 'n' Roll albums. In a way to try to give fans some extra material, some things to listen to that might be interesting and different, we thought, “Why don't we try and record a few songs and see, to give to the fans?” And once we got in the studio and started recording stuff, we just kind of kept going, and we recorded pretty much everything that we could do live. And it came out, it sounded great. We did the hits too, but we didn't necessarily want to revisit that specifically on this new album.

What is the one song you would say is the most transformed in that way, when you do it stripped-down?

I would say “Victim of Circumstance,” only because if you know the melody, it's an obvious change. Right away, it hits you, when the melody starts, that it's different. So, to me, that's dramatic. But something like “Cherry Bomb” is really fun and different, and I love the way it came out. … And it was just really, really interesting for me and different, because I'm usually very… I like to stay in a pattern that I know and I'm familiar with. So, this is kind of really stepping into the unknown for me and the band, but we're having a great time.

Awesome. Well, since we're talking about anniversaries, the 35th anniversary of the movie Light of Day was very recently, and “Light of Day” is the last song on this Change Up album. You don't seem like someone who's intimidated by much in life, but I do wonder if [making that movie] was a daunting experience. It was your first acting role. And it's Paul Schrader. It's a Bruce Springsteen song. It's Gena Rowlands. It's Michael J. Fox at the absolute height of his post-Back to the Future fame. This was big, and you pretty much had to carry the film. Was this a daunting experience for you?

It wasn't —because I guess I wasn't thinking about all those things just named! [laughs] I wasn’t aware of it. It could have really been daunting, because I can get very anxiety-ridden. I think you have to figure out a way, if you're an entertainer or in this field, how to control [anxiety], because it's tough. Apparently a lot of performers have anxiety issues, which is really weird! Like, why would you choose these professions where you are almost inducing anxiety just every day? I don't know what that is, if that's like the human nature to work on your issues and kind of find things to conquer — because you'll always have another chance to be anxiety-ridden and get ahold of it.

I was saying that seems like nothing intimidates you. but you said you do have issues with anxiety. I think people would be very surprised by that. You have this very tough, steely, badass image. Is that image something you use to protect yourself?

Exactly. It is. I think it's armor. It's something that early on, I probably just sort of felt safer, you know? I'm not saying that I can't be tough and I can't be strong. I am those things. But I think people also, they are fearful… I just don't want to be taken advantage of, as a woman or as a person. And I think at a younger age I really couldn’t put a finger on what I was doing, but I was doing it. I realize now, as I look back and reflect on it, that it is sort of an armor and a protection against being hurt, having people get too close, being intimate. And I don't mean that in a bad way; it was just the only way, I guess, that I could feel safe. But then it's weird, because then it's tough to let those walls down as well, because you have good reason not to trust. … There's good reason to have all those ideas about how people can treat you, because that's all around as well. So, you just have to live and learn as part of it. And if you're a naïve, trusting person — which I tend to be — you gotta watch your ass.

Jackie Fox, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford  the Runaways in 1976. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Jackie Fox, Joan Jett, Sandy West, Cherie Currie and Lita Ford the Runaways in 1976. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

What made you feel like you needed to put up that armor, so to speak? Did you get burned a lot in the industry?

No, I don't think it was anything specific. I think it was preemptive, you know what I mean? Preemptive. I knew when we started the Runaways and we were in rehearsals to go on the road for the first time, we had done a couple of local gigs and stuff, and you could just feel that there was gonna be stuff coming your way. I couldn't put my finger on it, but I could tell, you could feel there was this threat in the air. People felt threatened, you know? And I didn't really get it, because we're just girls playing rock ‘n’ roll. We're not hurting people! I didn't really get what was sort of threatening, initially.

But you know, girls playing rock ‘n’ roll... rock ‘n’ roll is sexual by its nature. So, girls singing about it is them owning it. And people don't want that, or they're intimidated to hear that teenage girls think about sex. Well, it's a reality, so you can either acknowledge it or hide from it. And I think we chose to acknowledge it and just express it, in our own way. And we did the best we could, and we took s*** from feminists for using our sexuality. But shouldn't we be able to? If Mick Jagger can, why can't we? You're saying we have to cut off a really big part of who we are just to satisfy… what, I don't know? I don't know what you're trying to say here. I don't know who wins with that. But you just have to be careful all the time and vigilant all the time, and that can get tiring. … And so, I think part of it was preemptive, and part of it is genuine, it's real, it feels like who I am. It's not an act — it's who I am — but it's like an extension. I bring those characters out of myself, so they're stronger.

Joan Jett in 1977. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
Joan Jett in 1977. (Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

You've definitely had an image where it's very clear you've called the shots and taken control, and it's a certain form of sexuality that isn't maybe the typical image for the male gaze. But did you ever feel pressure in the industry like, wear this thing, or wear this makeup, or do this sexy video that wasn't on your own terms? And how did you deal with that?

I didn't feel any pressure from within our own world, like within the band. … I'm sure there were a lot of record companies and things like that that wanted to see us in a different sort of, you know, softer, girlier kind of image. And I think even if you look at the stuff that happened when [the Runaways] went to Japan, that little booklet that came out, that was put out, that we didn't know about, the rest of the band we didn't know was happening: [Runaways frontwoman] Cherie [Currie] did a photo shoot that very looked like soft-porn-y kind of things, posed shots. It just totally freaked us out, because we didn't know that was going on, and it seemed very calculated. And it was exactly the opposite of what we were trying to do, because the whole corset thing was one song. It was “Cherry Bomb.” It wasn't what the Runaways were all the time, you know what I mean? And that sort of got stamped as “our look,” that it was this corset.

We were coming out of a very theatrical time. We liked the British glitter stuff, at least me and Cherie, and also I was coming out of wanting to be an actor, coming out of loving Cabaret and stuff like that. So, it was all sort of mixed up together — that sort of campiness, the over-the-top makeup, over-the top dress was par for the course in the ‘70s. ... Like the same time Queen came out and did “Bohemian Rhapsody,” I remember we even tried to do a song similar to that, that we called “Dead End Justice.” Cherie had blood packets in her shirt and it was about girls escaping juvenile hall. l breaking out of jail. And, onstage, it was acted all out. You'd have to listen to the song to hear it. Cherie escapes and Lita [Ford] is the police and she shoots her with the guitar, doing riffs and she jumps and blood comes out of her mouth. This was like every night! It was part of the show! Just like with “Cherry Bomb,” [Cherie] wore a corset, but we didn't walk around with blood! So, people definitely took advantage of the narrative, and of the Runaways. … I think we were too naive or young to know that that was what was going on, with the press taking control of your narrative and how to sort of combat that.

But you obviously took control of your narrative. And I think it's interesting that, like I said, there's this idea that you're tough and badass which you are but this Changeup album shows a softer side. What do you think is like the biggest misunderstanding about you in general?

I think it might be that thing that… not that I'm mean, but just people are scared. And I don't want to scare people! In a way, I want to scare you if you're supposed to be scared — you know, you should be scared if you're doing the wrong thing, so don't do that! Ans I'm just saying that for any wise-guy. But that, I think, is a misconception: I'm not mean. I'm not gonna bite your head off. So, that's nice — I get to meet people and allay their fears that I'm not so scary. They're so scared, and then they're not! And that's good.

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