In EBF, we had junior high, which I guess was middle school for some people. Since our high school could only handle three grades, there were no freshmen there. Instead, junior high had grades 7-9. Big deal, right? When I think back on it, actually, yes, really big deal.
There is a pretty sizable difference between a high school freshman and a 7th grader. Now granted, I was a pretty sheltered 6th grader. I didn’t have older siblings. I had an older cousin who came to stay with us during the summers, but that didn’t start until I was already in junior high, and that’s a story for another time. Most of the kids in my neighborhood were my age. The ones that were older were relatively mild-mannered types, or thankfully immature boys, who still got a kick out of playing dodgeball in the street after suppertime. But even taking all of this into account, I don’t know how things are now, but back then, the most scandalous thing you did in elementary school was learn how to curse. And possibly some boys and girls held hands or kissed.
Until I started junior high school, all the music I had been exposed to came from relatively safe sources. My father played music, but it was either old Beatles’ albums (not edgy Beatles, but She Loves You Beatles) or Kishore Kumar’s greatest hits. The radio played music, but in EBF this meant that you heard some J. Geils’ Band and whatever happened to be on American Top 40 that week. One of my masi’s was a disco fanatic, so occasionally, I got to listen to ABBA or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack. We finally got MTV in EBF when I was nearing the end of elementary school, and so I got to see Michael Jackson, Run DMC, Prince, and Duran Duran.
The thing is, I can think back and realize that a lot of the music I was listening to, even before I started elementary school, was not appropriate for a kid. Prince songs? Definitely racy. J. Geils’ Band singing about finding out a girlfriend made some change on the side by posing as a playmate? Also not appropriate (nor was the video in retrospect). Even Adam Ant bemoaning “don’t drink, don’t smoke, what do you do?” is far from the right message to send a pre-teen. Still, none of that music seemed at all scandalous when I was listening to it in those days. For one thing, we conveniently were too naïve to understand the innuendos and inappropriate messages. For another, the music in those days was so bubbly and playful, it was easy not to take it as anything forbidden or dangerous.
Which is why it still stands out in my head, a day early in 7th grade. Riding the bus was terrifying in those early days. The 9th graders sat in the back, and looked like they could eat you alive. I didn’t grow up in the rich part of town. These 9th graders had been around. They smoked. They wore tight jeans. They had aggressively feathered hair, and I don’t mean that in a girly way with Aquanet and curls- it looked like an animal’s mane, unkempt and scraggly, like they’d been in a fight with a lawnmower. They looked like they were just waiting for an excuse to tell you to shut up. I remember one of them would snap, “what the hell are you looking at?” the moment your eye wandered in her general direction.
Because they knew you were looking at them. It was hard not to look at them. They looked dangerous. They looked like they had crossed lines you were afraid to, and they carried themselves as if they thought you were a weakling for staying safely within the boundaries. They were decidedly un-ladylike, but unapologetic about it.
So I still remember that day on the bus. The 7th graders were sitting in the front as we always did, nodding our head along to Madonna or whatever stupidity was playing. The reception went fuzzy, and the bus driver switched the dial slightly, and suddenly, there it was. The driver was about to change it, but the girls in the back yelled, “Don’t touch it!” and “Leave it on that!” And when I think back on it, it’s kind of funny, because I am quite certain that even the bus driver was scared of those girls. Because the bus driver froze and left it on the station.
It’s not even her most aggressive song, not even her most suggestive song. She didn’t even write it herself. But wow. There was the alarming drum roll, the angry hand claps, and the, well, demanding guitar. As a kid, you just heard that some girl liked rock’n’roll and wanted the jukebox to play another song. At least, you knew that’s what you were supposed to be hearing. Just harmless fun.
But there was nothing harmless about hearing that song as someone about to become a teenager. It was a dangerous song, no getting around it. The guitar and the beat and that flattened what-the-hell-are-you-looking-at voice. Joan Jett was the patron saint of the girls on that bus. She was like nothing I had heard prior to that. And she was always alarming. My father, who would put up with us listening to Madonna and Michael Jackson and even Run DMC, would blanche at the idea of leaving Joan Jett and the Blackhearts on. Because this was a girl who did what she wanted and would not be swayed. You could say you were all for women being able to do a man’s job, but Joan Jett showed up and actually did it, and it was discomfiting. Because she wasn’t demure about it, she wasn’t batting her eyelashes and modest. She had a swagger. And this was not the kind of strong woman my father had in mind when he issued platitudes about being independent and doing anything I wanted.
It’s obviously no coincidence that I’m bringing all of this up, when a biopic about The Runaways is soon to be released. I probably won’t watch the movie, but the constant commercials reminded me of those early days, the fear and the fascination. I was too young to listen to the Runaways when they were together, but I listened to them plenty later, in junior high. I never became one of those girls at the back of the bus. I was never that strong, never that aggressive or angry. But I was rebelling, and my favorite way to do that in those early days was music. When it came to Joan Jett and The Runaways, no one had to issue the dare, no one had to actually voice the words, “this is wrong” or “girls shouldn’t do this.” It’s like it was programmed in all of us. The moment you heard the songs, the first time you heard it, you knew it was wrong, you knew it in your core. It went against everything that was ingrained in everyone at the time. It wasn’t just for the girls either. I remember how the boys both liked Joan Jett and were confused by liking Joan Jett.
Later on, Pat Benatar showed up and gave everyone something safe they could like, a watered down version. But Pat Benatar, for all her scowling and pouting and threatening pimps, never frightened me. Joan Jett scared the crap out of me. And it was awesome.