32 min read


Maija Nieminen

BA Maija Nieminen is a graduate student of Musicology at the University of Helsinki. She spent the academic year 2017–18 at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and will continue her MA there starting from the Fall of 2018.

“Rimbaud writes this letter and he says… in the future when women get away from their long servitude to men… they’re going to have new music, new sensations, new horrors, new spurts…”

(Patti Smith cited in Reynolds & Press 1995: 355.)

One of the few women to give her name to an otherwise all-male group, memorable for the image on the cover of her first album Horses (1975) of her swinging a jacket over her white shirt with a boyish look, Patti Smith is often described as the ultimate female rock musician (Hattenstone 2013). A poet, a musician, a photographer, a painter to name a few, she is considered a female Messiah even though most of her literary influences such as Arthur Rimbaud or Charles Baudelaire derived from the French male Romantic tradition (Reynolds & Press 1995: 355). This junction has allowed her to ”simultaneously hold both the Ordre des Artes et des Lettres from the French ministry of culture and a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame” (Barton 2015). Nowadays at 71-years-old, she is more prolific than ever. She has published multiple books including the award-winning Just Kids, an autobiography of her life with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe and keeps on making music, namely Banga (2012), acclaimed as her finest album in a long time. In addition, she continues with the photography, the drawings, the poetry, the political activism, the touring. (Hattenstone 2013.) Even though she does not regard herself as a rock musician, Patti Smith embodies and equals a voice for past and future generations.

After moving from New Jersey to New York in the end of the 1960s, Smith found herself surrounded by mostly male rock musicians and spending time in venues such as CBGB’s where she came to be known as a regular performer. There were women musicians before her time such as Nina Simone or Joan Baez, but they were rather exceptions than the norm. With the emergence of punk rock from the mid-1970s onwards, angry women appeared and protested for equality through ripped dark clothes, electric guitars and noise. In this paper I will analyse this evolvement of women’s role in popular music, focusing especially on Patti Smith. It is well recorded that Smith did not partake in feminist movements or speak for gender equality, mostly due to the fact that she did not identify to any gender herself for a long time. Even so she is regarded as an icon in terms of carving the way and making space for women in a male-dominated arena.

Each popular music genre has its own ideal and representation of the female gender. The sister of folk, the sassy queen of R&B, the femme fatale of pop or the angel of country. In punk rock the ideal was a tough and anarchist woman who, however, was still feminine and a sexual object of desire. Punk is often said to have opened up a “do-it-yourself” space of spontaneity where the change and discovery of individualism was possible (Whiteley 2000: 97). Punk allowed for anyone to form a band and make music without actual mastery or specific talent. The amateur style of punk culture gave many women the confidence to perform (Kearney 1997: 215). The key elements relied on the lyrics and self-expression, a perfect playground for the outraged and previously over-shadowed female musician. It is exactly in these frameworks why studying Patti Smith is meaningful. Her punk rock way of life combined with her genderless persona is transparent in her music and demands a closer look into how this asexual being had such an important impact on shaping gender questions in rock and popular music, even though she never actively fought for women’s rights or even identified as female.

Feminist criticism has evolved in literary as well as art research encompassing film studies, musicology, philosophy and art history amongst others since the 1970s (McClary 1991: ix). This in return has allowed a wide range of new areas for musicological research. Judith Butler states in her book Gender Trouble (1990) that sexuality and gender are ongoing processes that are performed and therefore take multiple forms over time. She denies the distinction made between biological sex and culturally constructed gender, and argues that a sexed body does not exist without gender which leads to the conclusion that both notions are socially constructed. Gender is therefore simultaneously constructed and always under construction. This theory of gender performativity is relevant in the case of the “beyond gender” Patti Smith while it can also reveal new aspects for studying women in music.

A starting statement for the inequality and distinction between genders is the term female musician/composer/artist and so forth. The need to emphasize female before any profession is exactly the core problem – the need to, so to speak, marginalize women or placing them outside the mainstream which would then require and explain the need to specify the gender. However, American musicologist Susanne Cusick argues that it is inefficient to try to put female and male performances on the same pedestal or try and neutralize them. It is inevitable that there are differences between the two since gender “is designed to give men and women different experiences of life” (Cusick 1994: 9). Furthermore, the issue with feminist theories is, as with many other theories, self-identification. Cusick suggests that the first problems one has when understanding or becoming a feminist is self-identification including questions such as race, ethnicity or sexuality (Cusick 1994: 8). When talking about feminism, one approaches the topics involved through one’s own experience. A privileged young white female university student – such as myself – will observe Patti Smith and her femininity inarguably differently than a middle-aged African-American man.

Patti Smith has been an object of study of many, mostly Anglophone academics and music critics. She has mostly, however, been studied from an essentially feminist perspective, with little attention paid to the music she made. Furthermore, there are many articles, reviews, interviews and other documentation of her past and present. In addition to Judith Butler’s gender performativity theory, my primary research material will consist of Whiteley’s Sexing the Groove (1997) as well as Women and Popular Music (2000), both addressing the connections between popular music and gender, as well as sexuality. Simon Reynolds’s and Joy Press’s book Sex Revolts (1995) is a thorough look on women in rock, a mix of music criticism, cultural studies, and gender theory. Additionally, Patti Smith’s autobiographical books Just Kids (2010) and M Train (2015) contain valuable information not only on autobiographical facts, but capture the inner mentality of this influential rock artist.

In the first part I will analyse the role of female musicians in jazz and rock music in order to gain a better understanding of the environment in which Smith started out her career in the early 1970s. I will also develop Butler’s performativity theory, a key approach that will be used throughout the paper. The second section will firstly describe how Smith grew up from a romantic and insecure genderless child into a self-assured punk icon, and secondly analyse what Smith’s description of herself as “beyond gender” means and how it manifests in selected songs and performance.

– Female musicians from all-girl swing bands to early punk

“Oh, she looks so good, oh, she looks to fine”

In order to better understand the conditions and environment in which Patti Smith as a female musician arrived in New York and started to perform, it is meaningful to not only look at who came before her, but also who surrounded, allowed and challenged her to become who she was. Sherrie Tucker has written a notable book (2000) on the role of female musicians in all-girl bands in the 1940s in the United States. In her introduction, she already states that girl bands “lacked an intangible, yet crucial, ‘authenticity’ possessed by men’s bands” at the time (Tucker 2000: 3). Consequently, most of these girl bands were not considered real, which in turn explains their absence in the recorded history of popular music. When they would be addressed in magazine articles or reviews, they would be complimented on their looks or moves on stage rather than their musical abilities. Even with music education training gained from school bands, church or hobbies, women were never awarded the same prestige or titles as male musicians. (Ibid.: 3, 25, 38–39.) Female swing musicians were performing their gender according to heteronormative conservative norms and values dictated by the society, that did not allow them to be seen on stage more than as wallflowers, pretty things to look at.

After the attack on Pearl Harbour, American men were summoned and left for war, leaving women to take care of everything on the home front, including music and swing bands. While quoting Viola Smith, a drummer and a girl band member since the mid-1920s, Tucker argues that the space and importance that girl bands occupied during wartime by keeping up the mentality with swing grooves and rhythms had a compelling importance. Furthermore, it made a group of women realize their rights and the fact that they were not merely substitutes of men during wartime. Viola Smith’s editorial emphasizes just this and calls for women to stand up and assume their place in the field of popular music. She asserts that women are musically equal to men and therefore should keep on performing. If women are working in factories amongst men, why should this not be the case in music as well? Viola, however, was not the first one to question women’s stand in the popular music industry. Previous debates on this topic exist, while other issues related to race, ethnicity, or religion persisted. (Ibid.: 44–46.)

It is not a foreign conception that swing and jazz bands of the 1930s and 40s actually paved the way for racial integration. Before starting to hire white female musicians, African American all-girl bands would take light-skinned or mixed-race women to perform with them. (Ibid: 147, 149.) The mixture of coloured and white female musicians helped to promote African American artists such as Billie Holiday, who would in the mid- and late 1930s collaborate with Lester Young and other members of Count Basie’s band, not only creating a new approach to modern jazz, but most importantly to challenge existing gender dynamics in music. According to Holiday, what she appreciated the most was that Young did not overpower the female musician, she was not merely aesthetic decoration on stage. Together they re-defined the role of the jazz singer as equal to the jazz instrumentalist. (Ibid.: 213–14.) In the same way as Billie Holiday was defining in the 1930s and 40s, the inarguable symbol of the 1960s for women as well as the Civil Rights Movement in the United States was Nina Simone. Comparable to Patti Smith, Simone was an outspoken and influential activist with her protest songs, concentrating, however, mostly on racial equality rather than feminist battles. Nina Simone did not regard herself as a jazz musician but rather an activist and spokesperson for minorities, a similar mental struggle gone through by Patti Smith.

In the end, the war did not mark the beginning of an era for female musicians, but it did settle a ground and question their importance and overall existence in the field, while changing work conditions for both women and men. The female musicians of the 1940s carried on throughout the 1950s and 60s in bands or alone, whether they were married and had children or not. (ibid.: 48, 322.) These structural changes called for a redefinition of femininity and the female gender, the way in which society characterized women and how they acted in that society. The cheerleader of wartime turned into to the soulful jazz vocalist, to the angel singer-songwriter of folk and later on to a powerful yet submissive rock groupie. The 1960s saw a development of the feminist movement, later on called the second wave of feminism. Rock’n’roll culture allowed for women to discover and assert their sexuality, leading to partial liberation. The fight for gender equality was not only related to questions regarding reproductive rights, but touched topics such as the control of men over the female body or the image and representation of the female sex and gender. However, in rock music women performers’ situation stayed for a long time unchanged, never awarded the same prestige as male musicians. Their status remained conventional as good-looking lead singers, never composers or instrumentalists, since their main role was not to sing or to be valued for their musicality, but were merely objects of desire for the audience (Whiteley 2000: 51).

In the 1970s New York, young people started to increasingly express their identity, to protest, and to demand distinctive rights. The rebellion – later called punk rock – proclaimed itself through noise, black outfits and electric guitars. Anyone who picked up a guitar would be a musician; as long as they expressed and were true to themselves, there were no restrictions. This genre rejected all romantic and heteronormative sexuality attitudes, witnessed evidently in lyrics, but also in the rhythm and sound, which was often aggressive and hard to dance to in a sensual manner. Sexuality was open and for anyone to grasp – the queerer you were, the more interesting and accepted you became. It was a crowd that was still difficult to enter, guarded by the likes of Andy Warhol who celebrated the opposition as well as the testing of boundaries of the mainstream society, especially with regard to gender construction. A scene where social status was determined not by wealth, but by the specific intellectual capacity and avant-garde artistic style. These were the frameworks that eventually allowed the androgynous personas of Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe to enter the scene. According to English-born biographer Victor Bockris: “No one [at Max’s] knew quite what to make of them at first. Were they lovers, siblings, or best friends? Straight, bisexual, or gay? Artists, writers, or groupies? Luckily, no one really cared: Max’s housed a scene where such ambiguity was itself a form of cachet” (Bockris & Bayley 1999: 58). Patti had therefore found a place amongst her icons, where both her unique intellect as well as her gender uncertainties were admired.

Women had a place in the punk rock scene on the occasion that they were granted the status by their male colleagues. They were either excluded from the inner circle, or then they were “one of the boys” (Whiteley 2000: 72). Women were therefore allowed to perform and be on stage, but they had to identify as male. According to Butler’s theory, they had to perform the male gender in order to be accepted. In this sense, it is no surprise that artists such as Janis Joplin – or later on members of the Riot Grrrl wave – are often discussed in terms of their masculinity. In order to break from the conventional standard asserted to female musicians, one had to act like a man and give up the traditional representations of feminine beauty. Janis Joplin, still alive when Patti Smith moved to New York, had an impact on femininity questioning whether female and male musicality was different while highlighting the importance of female musicians composing, performing and producing their own songs (Whiteley 2000: 69). This culture and community that guided and surrounded Patti Smith was central in order for her to not only understand gender, but to express and perform gender through personal appearance and dress.

“Girl in white dress, boy shoot white stuff”[2]

Judith Butler argues that gender, in addition to an unavoidable social construct, is characterized by an ongoing process of performances or acts that define the male or female gender. This goes together with Simon de Beauvoir’s famous statement that “one is not born a woman, but rather becomes one” (Beauvoir 2010 [1949]: 267), which suggests that womanhood is a process of becoming that does not have a start or an end (Butler 1990: 33). Butler believes that society, however, limits and dictates with an unspoken set of rules and norms the way our gendered identities are formed. Since our surroundings control how we can act or perform as a woman or a man, Butler argues that “when the relevant ‘culture’ that ‘constructs’ gender is understood in terms of [an established social] law or set of laws, then it seems that gender is as determined and fixed as it was under the biology-is-destiny formulation. In such case, not biology, but culture, becomes destiny”. (Butler 1990: 11.) With this statement she is bringing the notion of gender, a social construction, closer to sex, the biological anatomy of a person. Therefore, any deviation from the degree of conventional masculinity or heterosexuality present at a given decade or time will create conflicts at a larger scale, most probably leading to a change in gender dynamics.

Both Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe – her life-long photographer partner and colleague – perform their genders in non-traditional ways, therefore creating this conflict brought up by Butler by not submitting to wide-spread gender standards dictated by the society. From a general point of view, Patti embodies a tough and manly exterior, whereas Mapplethorpe was in many ways feminine and fragile. Interested in the human body, Mapplethorpe photographed mostly naked male bodies and was very open about his sexuality as first bisexual and later homosexual. Butler’s idea of performativity in gender was therefore expressed mainly through external appearance, often in opposition to the society’s desire of “regulatory practices of [female] gender foundation and division” (Butler 1990: 23). Patti Smith purposefully called attention to her self-presentation by going beyond gender, as someone without sexual orientations that exhibited masculine and feminine traits. In addition to a “I don’t care” attitude, the reason why Smith was freely allowed to play with these gender roles was due to the fact that the society at the time did not have an existing vocabulary or means for understanding her. American music journalist Carola Dibbell (1997: 279) remarks that “it wasn’t like women had never worn unisex hair or little black vests before. What this skinny weirdo offered wasn’t androgyny per se but a new use for it: to cut a niche in the music that was neither sexual invitation nor sexual confrontation”. This rejection of the femininity and the binary attraction to both genders stemmed from as early as childhood. In Just Kids, Smith writes:

“Patricia,” my mom scolded, “put a shirt on!”
“It’s too hot,” I moaned. “No one else has one on.”
“Hot or not, it’s time you started wearing a shirt. You’re about to become a young lady.” I protested vehemently and announced that I was never going to become anything but myself, that I was of a clan of Peter Pan and we did not grow up. My mother won the argument and I put on a shirt, but I cannot exaggerate the betrayal I felt at that moment. I ruefully watched my mother performing her female tasks, not her well-endowed female body. It all seemed against my nature. The heavy scent of her perfume and the red slashed of her lipstick, so strong in the fifties, revolted me.”
(Smith 2010: 10).
Susan Cusick argues that musicians perform gender mostly with their body (Cusick 1994: 9). Many other scholars have also for quite some time written about the performing body in music while attaching it to questions of gender and sexuality. This performing body has not only to do with physiology and movements but can be linked to Butler’s theory on performativity. It is difficult to analyse a performing body objectively without unconsciously attaching it to gender. In Smith’s case, her body language on stage is not choreographed, she is moving according to the way her body is reacting to the music. Due to the male-centeredness of rock music, it is often argued that the performativity in music is focused on maleness as well. In one of the articles, Sheila Whitely addresses Mick Jagger (1997: 104–138), stating that “there is generally an emphasis on the penis as an absolute insignia of maleness, but live performances disrupt any notion of ‘normative’ masculinity. Rather, they involve a self-presentation which is, at one and the same time, both masculine and feminine” (Whiteley 1997: 67).

Looking at live performances from the Patti Smith Group after the breakthrough of Horses (1975), it is possible to depict Patti’s straightforward can-do attitude. It becomes clear that she uses the stage in order to reaffirm her genderless selfhood. Her performance mainly consists of intimately singing close to the mic, jumping up and down but also moving her hips, using her body in both male and female manners. A good example of this is Patti’s performance of “Gloria” on Saturday Night Live in 1976.

Video 1. Patti Smith Group performing on Saturday Night Live in 1976.

Dressed in her trademark uniform, a white blouse, black pants and a thin black tie, she presents herself as a muse and an artist almost exactly as she did on the cover of Horses. Standing still and confident, she pronounces the infamous first lines of the song: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine / Melting in a pot of thieves, wild card up my sleeve / Thick heart of stone, my sins my own / They belong to me”, reaffirming the audience that she is, indeed, accountable for her selfhood, actions and performance as an individual. As the music escalates, she transitions into more expressive bodily movements, moving dramatically her hands and shaking her hips to illustrate Gloria’s effect on the storyteller. The channelling and reinvention of conventionally male rock’n’roll performance techniques exemplifies her ability to replace the expression of gender and instead focus on the declaration of her genderless individualism. Her performance style is fully in alignment with her artistic aesthetic leaving “no room for misinterpretation or wrongful comparison” (Jahr 1975).

Patti Smith’s use of vocal manipulation in order to invoke authority is inarguably the most important element in her stage performance and decisively influences her body language. Her decisive deep voice with a refined vibrato oozes of authority. She is not only reciting lyrics but understands, internalizes and punctuates each syllable as if she was reciting a poem. The result is a unique style that allows her to transcend the stereotypes attached to mainstream conceptions of a passive and/or predictable female rock vocalist. Her 1979 performance of “Rock N’ Roll Nigger” in Germany is illustrative in exemplifying her full range of diverse vocal techniques which channel both her masculine and feminine characters, demonstrating her need to move “outside of society”.

Video 2. Patti Smith Group performing in 1979 in Germany.

Her masculine body language (jumping up and down, hunching her back and staring at the audience intensively) combined with her deep yet fragile feminine voice reaching multiple registers manifest the duality of her gendered persona. Smith uses her vocal techniques to full-heartedly express her art and individualism, even though sometimes it seems as though she is not fully aware of how to control her voice in terms of volume, tone, transitions from speaking to singing and so on. Interesting also is how, by taking authority through her vocal style, the band and music become very sensitive to these vocal gestures and end up becoming additive compositional layers to her artistic expression.

“I’M A WOMAN AND AN INDIVIDUAL”[3] – Going beyond gender

“I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City”[4]

Since external appearance has always been a crucial aspect of self-expression in popular music, analysing Patti Smith’s past from her childhood onwards is essential in order to understand her performative gender as a whole. Patti Smith was born in 1946 in Chicago to a family that celebrated books, opera and religion. Her father was an atheist and her mother a Jehovah’s witness. As a young girl Smith would mainly listen to classical music, above all admiring opera singers. The first popular music record she got was Bob Dylan’s Another Side of Bob Dylan, a gift from her mother. Smith often times felt different and estranged from others, a fact that she later on said to be connected with creativity (NPR 2004). Her love for books and literature deriving from the male Romantic tradition becomes clear since her childhood. Her lifelong idol, the 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud, features in many of her works and she has even stated that “I had devoted so much of my girlish daydreams to Rimbaud. Rimbaud was like my boyfriend” (see Moore 1996). She had a romanticized picture of being an artist, struggling with the notion of art and the reasons behind it. Smith felt as though there was no need in adding art to the world next to Rimbaud’s or Kahlo’s masterpieces unless one had something enlightening to say (Smith 2010: 78). This struggle was not only due to insecurities of her own creations, but about her perception that art should not only represent one’s time, but involve with changing it (Smith 2010: 95). Her other objects of admiration were the political novelist and activist Jean Genet, William Burroughs, as well as Jackson Pollock, with whom she identified strongly. The books that she read and art pieces that she saw are vividly portrayed in all of her books – from Frida Kahlo to Jimi Hendrix, from Haruki Murakami to Joan of Arc. Her character seems to have bits and pieces of these personalities: the struggling coffee-drinking writer, the de-sexed martyr inherited from Joan of Arc, the sound of Jimi Hendrix, or the persistence as an artist-muse of Frida Kahlo.

In 1967, Patti Smith moved from New Jersey to New York to live her life as an artist. In her National Book Award-winning book Just Kids (2010), Smith explains vividly the experiences of arriving to New York and the adversities she had to face. Sleeping at train stations or random corridors of apartment buildings, being hired and instantly fired from a job as a waitress, constant starvation, and finally landing a job at a bookshop. In her debut single “Piss Factory” (1974) Patti Smith sings:

“I’m gonna be somebody, I’m gonna get on that train, go to New York City
I’m gonna be so bad I’m gonna be a big star and I will never return,
Never return, no, never return, to burn out in this Piss Factory”
(Patti Smith, “Piss Factory” 1974)

Soon after her arrival Patti Smith met Robert Mapplethorpe, her soulmate who had a tremendous influence on her. She found something similar in Robert, they merged as two separate beings into one pushing each other on with their artistic endeavours. Smith states that she often pictured herself as Frida Kahlo next to Diego Ribera (Smith 2010: 26), as a muse and an artist. She was trapped in a dilemma of wanting a man but simultaneously yearning to be free. She did end up being Patti Smith next to Robert Mapplethorpe, the subject of countless Mapplethorpe’s photographs while, however, simultaneously developing her artistic persona. They developed a passionate romantic relationship which, however, turned out to be problematic due to financial struggles as well as Robert’s sexual identity conflicts. As characters they were often opposite – Robert was very critical of himself and sought for fame desperately, whereas Smith did not care for popularity. She was rarely embarrassed onstage, maybe because of a strong character, or maybe because of a hidden insecurity of never thinking of herself as an accomplished artist (Smith 2010: 322–23).

Starting out with art and poetry, Patti Smith did not have strong aspirations for becoming a musician. Her songwriting career started with her first encounter with the famous poet Allen Ginsberg, who told her that he should write a song to him by the next time they meet. Without giving it a second thought, she agreed and wrote a song based on a poem she had previously written, “Fire of Unknown Origin” (Smith 2010: 218). By 1974 she was performing with the Patti Smith Group consisting of Lenny Kaye, Ivan Kral, Jay Dee Daugherty, and Richard Sohl. They recorded their first singles “Hey Joe / Piss Factory” that year. There is a certain contradiction in her personal and artistic confidence and simultaneously having the feeling of never being able to compare next to her influences in literature, art or music.

After moving in with Robert Mapplethorpe to the Chelsea Hotel in the early 1970s, Smith decided that she needed to change her look, and without thinking about it twice took a photo of Keith Richards and started cutting, again enforcing her gender-neutral character. Later in the evening she went out, and someone asked whether she was androgynous, someone who had significantly feminine as well as masculine traits. At the time she did not know what the word meant, but when the man compared the word with Mick Jagger, Smith thought that it simply meant someone who was part ugly and partly beautiful (Smith 2010: 187). Comments questioning her gender never seemed to have an effect on her. During Patti Smith’s first encounter with Allan Ginsberg, he asked her whether she was a girl. When she said yes, he apologized and replied that he had thought she was just an exceptionally good-looking boy (Smith 2010: 165). Since most of her idols were male, she openly wanted to act and look like them. For instance, Bob Dylan was a living Arthur Rimbaud to her, she could relate to about anything he did. She looked up to Nina Simone and Joan Baez as well, but according to her, “when [she] was a teenager, [she] listened to Nina Simone, another strong female. But in terms of women [she] could relate to, there weren’t too many. [She] related to Lotte Lenya, but related more to Bob Dylan. [She] loved Billie Holiday, but as a performer [she] related more to Mick Jagger” (Fricke 2007: 382). Smith was influenced by these male performers not due to their gender, but due to the artistic and aesthetic qualities they embodied which, in reality, had been accessible to only male artists at the time. It is therefore questionable whether the reasons behind her appreciating but not being able to identify with female musicians was due to the limited availability of female icons or due her own difficulties identifying as a woman.

“The words are just rules and regulations to me”[5]

Patti Smith is an activist partaking in debates and conflicts around the world. She has, however, never openly been an advocate for feminism even though women all over the world find her empowering as a spokeswoman for the female gender. Gender studies professor Mary Celeste Kearney argues, that “many female musicians during the 1970s were hesitant to adopt this label [feminist], either because of the negative connotations heaped upon it by the mainstream media or because they felt their cultural practices did not measure up to the earlier radicalism of the women’s movement” (Kearney 1997: 216). In the case of Patti Smith radicalism seems not to have been the problem, but rather the difficulties she experienced in identifying as a woman. As beyond gender, she has said in an interview that “I don’t limit my ideas of myself to gender. I’ve always fought against that… you don’t say male artist, male painter, […] so for me I don’t like to confine myself by gender”.

Video 3. ”Patti Smith About the Gender Question”.

Whiteley states that Patti Smith “identified as a self-styled asexual who refused to be complicit in her female identity”. This idea of neglecting gender is in contradiction with Butler’s theory, which clearly states that gender is an inescapable social construct comparable to the biological sex. In many regards she was more of an observer of fellow female musicians and the problems they had to face, rather than partaking in a feminist movement. Ironically this role as spectator allowed her to create an aesthetic of self-presentation that propelled the ideal of “female rebelliousness” into fashion.

Patti Smith’s first album Horses (1975) claimed international success and has been hailed as the first punk rock album. The record combined her love for literature and music, therefore representing a fusion of high art and popular culture. Smith has said: “I did it for poetry. I did it for Rimbaud … I wanted to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll” (Barton 2015). The comparison of romanticism and modernism in literature with rock’n’roll is not coincidental. They are both characterized by a loathing of the commercial culture that encourages the artist to leave social life behind and position oneself as intellectually superior (Nehring 2016: 237). This mix of high-cultural poetry and angry rock was prominently present in the New York scene in the mid-1960s (Whiteley 2000: 102). People were immersed in the rock scene but were simultaneously expected to possess at least a certain degree of cultural and intellectual capital. Smith has herself described her style back in the days as “three-chord rock merged with the power of the word” (Bracewell 1996). However, there is little of this self-described amateurism present and the overall sound is harmonically static but unpredictable.


Figure 1. Cover of Horses. © Arista Records

In his review of the album, “Stagger Lee Was a Woman” (1976), Lester Bangs writes that Smith saw it was time for music “to carry both some literacy and some grease that ain’t jive”. Even though poetry holds a dominant role in the album, Bangs states that “this is not a ‘spoken word’ album, it’s a rock’n’roll album and even though you couldn’t understand a single word of English you couldn’t miss the emotional force of Patti’s music”. With a title referring to heroin, Horses is a unique album with concerns ranging from lesbian suicide (“Redondo Beach”) to cosmic anarchism (“Free Money”), from family members (“Kimberly”) to Jimi Hendrix (“Elegie”) or Jim Morrison (“Break It Up”), which allowed Patti Smith a place in the underground New York scene with Lou Reed and Andy Warhol. However, trying to depict subjects for any of the songs is limiting and most probably not the intention of the artist. Like poems, the songs allow for one to make interpretations and let their imagination loose. Horses presents the sort of music that “refuses to be background music, stops the action in the room when it’s on, and leaves its effects when it’s over whether the listeners like it or not” (Bangs 1976). This emotional message and romantic influence behind the music combined with the tough outer look and stage presence she has creates an interesting mix combining her internal word with the chaotic counterculture in New York in the 1970s.

In the infamous cover of the album – a picture taken by Robert Mapplethorpe – Smith is dressed in a white-collar shirt, braces and a black jacket on her shoulder. The pose with her Keith Richards hairstyle is oozing of coolness and a nonchalant attitude. With her modern dandiness, she is simultaneously criticizing rock’s obsession with gender while at the same time impersonating the dandy figure by excellence, Charles Baudelaire. She has later on said that “my attire, though carelessly worn, was a deeply conscious choice. Modeling myself as Charles Baudelaire, I elected to wear the uniform of the poet – white shirt and black silk ribbon tie. These threads spoke not of gender”. (Nehring 2016: 234.) The picture has been considered striking at the time, an image where Smith comes across as “both self-assured and sexually ambiguous, challenging and contesting the boundaries of gender” even though, as it later turned out, it was not her intention (Whiteley 2000: 100). For many “it was a new way of looking, a new way of seeing that people didn’t know how to express until then. It opened a door for people who were looking for a door, though they didn’t know what it looked like they knew they would recognise it when they saw it” (Barton 2015).

The constant playing with genders and personalities is best illustrated in her songs. First and foremost as a poet, her lyrics surpass previous conceptions of rock’n’roll form and its conventional methods of handling gender both as subject and object. For instance, in the cover of Van Morrison’s song “Gloria”[6], Patti Smith takes the position of what Sheila Whiteley identifies as “predatory male”, a man in quest for a feminine partner (Whiteley 2000: 101). Already in the opening lines she makes a personal declaration of freedom as a woman and an individual, but more importantly states that God nor other regulators of the society could be help responsible for her actions. This idea clashes with Butler’s idea that a society and its power structures have the capability to “limit, prohibit, regulate, control, and even ‘protect’” its individuals. Smith transformed a song portraying male lust into an anthem of lesbian desire (Reynolds & Press 1995: 237), where the passive male is now a powerful narrator whose gender is portrayed as vague (Daley 1997: 237). Mike Daley claims that “Patti Smith is using gender ambiguities to parody the seriousness of and ‘maleness’ of Morrison’s song” (Daley 1997: 238). Through her vocal style, it seems as though she is taking different perspectives on masculinity, a dominant feature in the song with lyrics such as “I walk in a room, you know I look so proud”, or “I’m gonna ah-ah make her mine”. The breathy and melodic tone would underline the protagonist’s feminine side and passive approach to Gloria, whereas the lines accentuated nasally and strongly would correspond the maleness and the man as a predator (Daley 1997: 238). Smith’s vocal intonation makes the entirety of the song – the way she accentuates every last syllable of each line, the sexual emphasis on verses such as “Here she comes” or the rough, near to yelling pronunciation of “Gloria” and its each letter. This crescendo from a softer beginning to a screaming battle is present in most songs on Horses, “Birdland” being an illustrative example.

In “Rock N Roll Nigger” from Easter (1978), Patti Smith takes a compelling and questionable stand on womanhood. The use of the term nigger in the song has a lot less to do with race than gender. John Lennon and Yoko Ono had written a song called “Woman Is the Nigger of the World” a few years earlier, in 1972, in which women are compared to endure the same struggles as a “nigger”. In Smith’s song the word “nigger” is defined as “an artist mutant that is was going beyond gender”. When interviewed she is hostile and says: “If I wanna say pussy, I’ll say pussy. If I wanna say nigger, I’ll say nigger”, while arguing that the terms are merely slang and should not be regarded as politically incorrect, since she intended to liberate the term “nigger” from its negative connotations of the categorized other. This re-appropriation of the word “nigger” stands to celebrate the social outcast, emphasizing how limiting it is to live according to the norms and rules dictated by the society which tells us how to behave through race, gender, expression of sexuality or other declarations of selfhood. The song can be seen as illustrating the new frontier that is the female rebellion, a battle that would not only be used to fight inequalities between men and women, but to fight justice to all minorities around the world (Reynolds & Press 1995: 242). The song illustrates likewise Smith’s genderless self-presentation in a culture largely affected by preconceptions of what is male and what is female. By acknowledging herself as “outside of society”, as unexplainable in conventional cultural terms, she positions herself in a world where societal constructs of gender are both fantasy as well as useless cultural constructs.

Ultimately, it seems as though Smith is repeatedly positioning herself as an oppressor in her songs, as a male predator who uses women. She has been quoted saying: “Most of my poems are written to women because women are inspiring. Who are most artists? Men. Who do they get inspired by? Women. The masculinity in me gets inspired by the female. I fall in love with men and they take me over. I ain’t no women’s lib chick. So I can’t write about a man because I’m under his thumb, but a woman I can be male with. I can use her as my muse. I use women” (McNeil & McCain 2006: 114). With most of her icons being men, Smith has identified herself with her male peers developing the same sort of relationship to women as them: “’I [Smith] always enjoyed doing transgender songs. That’s something I learnt from Joan Baez, who often sang songs that had a male point of view. No, my work does not reflect my sexual preferences, it reflects the fact that I feel total freedom as an artist. On Horses, that’s why the sleevenote has that statement about being ‘beyond gender’. By that, I meant that as an artist, I can take any position, any voice, that I want” (Guardian Music 2005).


Patti Smith was not supposed to be a rock star, but somehow ended up developing into an icon of American punk (Hattenstone 2013). She defined herself as “beyond gender”, a genderless or perhaps multigendered artist. There is a clear shift between the “lesbian, androgyne, martyr, priestess, female God” (Whiteley 2000: 100) young Smith on stage or in interviews, and the sustained and calm older Smith who is writing autobiographies and novels. However, it is often noticed that the more radical and rebellious the rock artist is as an adolescent, the more conventional their character and writing and become (Greig 1997: 174). As a young girl Smith was as a tomboy revolting against conventional female norms and rules set by the society, while simultaneously identifying with great white male Romantic writers and artists. Smith’s expression of an innate need to reject the conventions of femininity that her mother exhibited can definitely be traced as a root cause of the cultivation of her androgynous aesthetic, and was inevitably part of what drew her to the gender- rebellion of the New York punk scene in the 1970s. After moving to New York, she became an acclaimed and individual rock musician, but ended up abandoning rock’n’roll in order to fulfil the ultimate goal of womanhood: to be a mother and a housewife. (Reynolds & Press 1995: 238.) Even though she never spoke up about women’s rights or participated in the movements, her asexual being, the duality of being both or neither female and male did, however, have an impact and shape gender questions in rock and popular music. Patti Smith inspired, influenced and empowered a whole new generation of female singers, but she would probably not accept the idea of people fawning over her for something she did more than 40 years ago. She was revolutionary in the portrayal of women as people, making masculinity more female and not the other way around.

With these contradictions, the difficulty of studying Patti Smith and gender is twofold. First, she has been overlooked by Anglophone leading academics, especially by the British who tend to see punk as their own cultural heritage. Secondly, her significance in the frameworks of feminism has been criticized in particular due to her lack of public support to women and the fact that she has been surrounded by men such as Mapplethorpe, Kaye, Verlaine or Springsteen for most of her career. (Whiteley 2000: 107.) It is therefore interesting how she has been and still is a role model to so many women not only artistically, but as a tough and genderless icon in feminist debates. Through the immersion of rock with poetry and her being a well-educated and read artist, she managed to shape the question of gender in rock and in popular music in general (Whiteley 2000: 107).

Even though the conditions for female musicians have evolved, the gender expression in rock’n’roll still faces the same general problem. As long as people differentiate male and female performative roles in music according to stereotypes deriving from the mainstream culture or society, the female musician’s character will stay connected with standards of the male musician, judging her as responsible for trying to develop or project her individualism. Belgian feminist Luce Irigay has argued that all that we know about “being a woman, including her sexual desire, has been told us from a male point of view” (Whiteley 2000: 52). The case of Patti Smith has shown that this is not always the case, since she managed to develop her individual artistic style without constantly attaching it to questions of gender, but she is more of an exception rather than the norm. It is in the end up to the artist how (s)he expresses oneself. For Smith, the disassociation from conventional gender norms was, amusingly, an incredibly important part of her gender identification. Denying these conventional behaviours through external appearance as well as artistic expression, she cultivated an inimitable appeal as a person and an artist. As Butler has showed, we may not be fully in control of how the emerging culture around us shapes who we become as individuals, but we do develop and grow the ability to identify what it is about us, our gender preferences, our personal aspirations and our means of operating in a society, and continuously express these assertions through daily actions, creating an honest purposeful sense of one self.


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Cover of the article: Patti Smith performing at TIM Festival, Marina da Glória, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: Daigo Oliva. Source: Wikimedia commons.

Title of the article is from Bracewell (1996).

  1. Patti Smith, “People Have the Power” (1988), Dream of Life.
  2. Patti Smith Group, “Ain’t It Strange” (1976), Radio Ethiopia.
  3. Patti Smith Group, “Poppies” (1976), Radio Ethiopia.
  4. Patti Smith, ”Piss Factory” (1974), Hey Joe/Piss Factory EP.
  5. Patti Smith Group, “Gloria”, Horses (1975).
  6. It is important to notice that this cover song is completely different in structure and form as well as lyrics than the original, making the song rather a reworking than a cover (Daley 1997: 236).