Use Your Voice: Joan Jett

Use Your Voice: Joan Jett

by Brian Heater / photography by Rodolfo Martinez
Nine living legends of music, the causes they believe in and the worlds they envision. Welcome to PAPER's Use Your Voice portfolio. Get ready to get inspired.

Her love of rock 'n' roll is arguably a moral imperative in itself, but recent Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Joan Jett is also an inveterate supporter of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PeTA). We were lucky enough to get a moment with Joan during her Use Your Voice photo shoot on Long Island. Below, she talks about her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, her friendship with Miley and her personal definition of rock 'n' roll.

So, Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony. You're on tour with the Who.  You're at the top! Where do you go from there?

It's been a great year, really wonderful, and it feels like I'm achieving what I set out to do -- I know that I'm achieving what I set out to do, but that other people are noticing, and not just other musicians or fans, but the business, and so that was sort of startling: to finally realize that some people are really recognizing me. It was emotionally overwhelming 'cause I've fought for so long and so hard just to be in a band and be taken seriously, you know, which you don't think is gonna be a big deal, but it had been all these years. And the tour with the Who is incredible because they helped the Blackhearts get our start. We couldn't get signed in the beginning, and we had music to make and I was working with Kenny, and Kenny had worked with the Who for years. We were kind of in a spot, and the Who basically said, "Go record, do what you gotta do, pay us when you can," and that album was Bad Reputation. So really they enabled us to get a start without having to resort to signing a terrible record deal, and it was really amazing of see it come full circle now.

You felt like you weren't getting that recognition until recently?

Well yeah. It's hard to talk about... I try to have humility about what goes on. You can't do anything without the fans, but also you can't get heard without radio stations, without magazines writing about you, without all these things. We didn't have a lot of that because we didn't have the big labels, and the fact that we did things on our own and had success with it -- we had 23 record labels, major and minor, listen to "I Love Rock 'n' Roll," "Crimson and Clover," "Do You Wanna Touch Me," "Bad Reputation" and one other song, and all of them said, "There's no hits here, lose the guitar," -- when we then went and did it ourselves from the street, when DJ's used to still be able to play the music they wanted and we had some friends in the Northeast that would play our records, and it was this groundswell between the radio and the fans and then media starting to take note. And then we have this huge number one record with a song that everybody laughed at, so to me it felt like the industry was saying, "Way to go! Now do it again without our help." The fact is, we did it and we survived, and all these years I felt like people had that attitude of, You did it on your own; you don't need help from us and we're not gonna help you. I don't know if anything shifted on any kind of major level, but when you have a lot in the industry, whoever was there, standing up for you, and it's instigated I heard by people like Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, you feel good about that, you know?

That's as good of a recognition as you could possibly get, the Who and the Beatles.

Totally. I remember being in my bedroom and listening to Paul McCartney's first solo album, and it's so freaky the way things, you know, move around. I remember, right after forming the Runaways, getting to hang out with Robert Plant and Jimmy Page and them wearing Runaways shirts and thinking, Damn man, literally three years ago I'm in my room getting yelled at by my dad going, "What the fuck is that?" It feels like a fantasy life, so I just kind of roll with what the rock 'n' roll gods bring me.

You had all this help early on from all these icons. Now that you're in that position, do you feel the need to mentor people? I know you're friends with Miley; do you see yourself in the role of the mentor?

I feel kind of like that's not humble if I say "Oh yeah I'm the mentor." I think that, yes, if you've got something to impart to people, certainly I would love to tell people what I know -- if they want to know. I think that the friendship Miley and I have struck up is born out of genuine... from what I can tell, that she's a fan. She told me she auditioned for Hannah Montana to "I Love Rock 'n' Roll" and "Do You Wanna Touch Me?" I first met her the year that Oprah was going off TV. I think it was 2011. So she was having a few people on, Miley being one of them. And Miley was supposed to pick someone she looks up to, to sing with, and she chose me. We sang a couple songs on Oprah and from then on we've just kind of been friends. She's much more into rock 'n' roll than people know. As a fan, she listens to a lot of varied music; I think people would be surprised at the variety that she listens to.

What was your impression of her before you actually got know her?

To tell you the truth, I didn't really think about it a lot because it wasn't in my world. I wasn't young enough to watch Hannah Montana and I didn't have kids that would watch it.

But did she surprise you at all when you met her and started talking about music? 

Well it was a pleasant surprise to find out that she loved rock 'n' roll, if I can be cliché and use that term. But she pleasantly surprised me in a lot of ways. Unfortunately a lot of people in this business can be pretty full of themselves and not have humility, and I don't like that, man. I think you've got to always be thankful. You didn't do any of this stuff by yourself. People help you on the way, and when people think that they did it all themselves, it really bothers me. Miley seems to be very down to earth, very real, very approachable, and I like that. It's hard for me to just work with somebody; I have to kind of like them too.

It seems too that you're in a relatively unique position in that when you were out there early on with the Runways, you were maligned by some people. You had trouble getting people to take you seriously. I feel like you're bringing to the relationship an understanding of where she is because she's been doing this music for this specific audience that she might have trouble getting people to take her seriously now.

Yes, and the added thing of the social media world that completely did not exist when I was a kid, so I could do whatever I wanted pretty much and you weren't watched so incessantly every second of the day. I think you have to have some self-policing and just be careful of what you put out there. I remember a time early on, I was 16, and a writer asked me some sexual question and I realized in that moment -- If you answer this question, they will never never ask you questions about music. You must not go there if it's the first question. So I never talk about that stuff unless it's something that I want to talk about because I'm not there to talk about sex; I'm there to talk about music and I have to sometimes remind people of that.

Yeah. Miley has certainly been sexualized by the media.

But you know, look, she's also doing her own thing and figuring out her way and I would not ever be someone to say, "You know what, don't do that." You've got to find what makes you comfortable. Hey man, I did a lot things at her age that were probably more crazy; it just wasn't online. I think that she's very intelligent, she's got a great heart, she's open and I think that she will grow up just fine. And you see that she is using her music to help other people now, and I think that can only grow.

Your main focus in the charity/activism sense has been animals. When did that become the fight that you were fighting?

Well it's not that it's primary. It's just one leg. I just think what Gandhi said; I don't have his exact quote, but that you can judge a nation by how they treat their animals. I used to be a blazing meat eater: bloody red, dripping down my face, I loved I it. And then I started reading some stuff when I was on the road and I couldn't eat heavier meals before I played. I didn't eat meat for about six months -- not really because I was trying not to eat meat but because it was heavy.

It wasn't moral at this point.

No, yeah, it became moral during those six months, because at the same time I was reading a book called Diet for a New America. It was written by John Robbins, of the Baskin-Robbins dynasty. But he wasn't writing it to say don't eat meat; he was writing about what food goes through from farm to table. I found out what happens to the animals and all of the sudden I'm like, "Oh my god! I'm a huge animal lover. Why am I not making this connection?" So I just phased it out, and I have not had any cravings for meat or thought, "Where do I get my protein?" Beans! There's a million places to get protein. So many people love animals, yet they make that disconnect and they want to keep it there. They don't want to know what goes on because if they knew what went on, they'd have to make some changes. You could just put them all to sleep if you wanted to kill them, but the ways we kill them are so horrific. So that is one reason I love to give time and money to the animals. But it's also the environment and children; they're all linked. It really is a three-legged stool.

This gets back to that other idea of people not necessarily taking you seriously. Is it hard as a musician, as an entertainer to get people to take you seriously when you're talking about these important causes? 

I think as I get older, people take me more seriously just because I've been here and they know that I'm not going away. And I think that fortunately or not fortunately, the Hall of Fame gives you a little level of... what would the word be?


Yeah! Maybe not universally, but on a certain level where people want to know your opinions now about things. 

Is there anything that you feel you haven't quite done in your career that you would still like to do?

You know, stylistically, I'm not that interested in changing genres. You know, I love rock 'n' roll, and I love the way it makes me feel.

I like the way that "I love rock 'n' roll" has just sort of organically come up a few times, and I'm assuming that that was part of the creation of that song.

That's how a lot of people feel! They explode when they hear that. But you also know that it was written when music was cheaper, when it was still a dime in the jukebox. Which was really a long time ago. 

I'm curious as to how you define rock and roll, what that means to you. I mean, is it just a kind of music? You'd sort of used the word to describe Miley, which again a lot of people wouldn't do immediately. So what does that mean when you say, "I love rock and roll"?�

Good question. Well, obviously it's a style of music -- it's guitar driven. To me, it's got a little bit of that Chuck Berry, Rolling Stones movement. So it's moving. Really it's about sex, but a lot of it has got to do with having some edge. I'm not saying that things can't be polished, but it's dangerous to try to balance -- you need that balance of listenable but edgy. And really, you've got no limit as to what you can write about. People obviously choose to write about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, but as I grow, I realize I can't always be writing about sex, drugs, and rock 'n' roll because that's just not life. You have friends that die, you have life that changes, you have circumstances that change, you have love that changes. So in this last album, Unvarnished, I wrote a lot about that. I lost both my parents. I lost some good friends. I lost my animal friends. And that kind of loss is really heavy. You realize what made you is gone. That essence, the people who told you go for it, they're gone. How do you fill that emptiness? And it's all those things. It's writing about those aspects as well as writing about falling in and out of love or sex. But now I find it almost richer because I can write about more as long as people are willing to listen about more. Because rock 'n' roll shouldn't be just about those things; it should be about life.

For more Q&As from our 'Use Your Voice' portfolio, go HERE.

Learn more about PeTA here.

Makeup by Jason Araujo // Location: Allegria Hotel in Long Beach, NY

You May Also Like