18 August 2015, Columbus, Ohio: I’m behind the wheel of an eight-passenger van pulling out of Ohio Stadium. The van is full of dirty laundry belonging to the band One Direction and their crew, and I had barely shifted into drive before security was forced to remove a throng of young women—including one in a full-length wedding gown with a poster board that said “MARRY ME, HARRY”—from the hood of the vehicle. Some of the fans had been standing outside since 6 a.m., and later that night, their reactions would give the decibel levels at any Beatles performance reasonable competition.
Backstage, though, the electric charge of celebrity culture I often sense at stadium shows, clearly felt by the fans outside, was replaced by a hum of annoyance. Just weeks earlier I had worked wardrobe for a Rolling Stones date in the same stadium, and the difference was remarkable. I accompanied the head of security for the night on his pre-concert rounds, helping to tape up signs with bright orange gaffer tape and listening to his horror stories about the extreme measures some fans would take to meet their idols. The sign featured a photo of the band and a message reading: “Access all area at all times, no pass required. At no point to be ever stopped!” The expectation seemed to be that, even among people who made a living in the entertainment industry, few from the local crew would recognize the members of One Direction or even take the time to Google them before enforcing backstage security protocol. Why would anyone treat seriously a band whose main draw was teenage girls? I couldn’t help but wonder at what point Mick Jagger did not need to be explained in this way anymore, and under what circumstances Harry Styles might ever be allowed to make that transition.
Although the performance rivaled many I’d seen in the same venue for quality, a tepid review in the newspaper the next day said little about the music, focusing instead on the group’s commercial success and its mostly female audience. As Sarah Dougher and Diane Pecknold have written of other news coverage about One Direction, however, the piece quietly “rehearsed the stereotypical portrait of girl fans as hysterical, driven by uncontrolled sexual urges, and completely bereft of critical discernment.”1 What rang in my head after the experience of that show was not just the screams of appreciation or the song “What Makes You Beautiful,” but also the words Dr. Norma Coates published in this journal in 2003:
Although rock culture, as it emerged in the late 1960s, was largely populated by upwardly-mobile white middle-class youth, it embraced and honed an oppositional relationship to mainstream culture. It was not enough to designate women as low Others and to ignore their contributions to rock culture. They had to be actively disdained and kept in their place. At the same time, women were very necessary for the maintenance and coherence of rock masculinity, as sexual objects as well as adoring subjects. This contradictory need and disdain for women in rock culture exemplifies displaced abjection. Combined with the Modernist aesthetics mapped onto rock music and culture by early rock critics, strategies of displaced abjection succeeded in making women and girls marginal in and to rock culture. Their combined effects linger still.2
The tension between the public and private parts of the stadium that day were a visceral reminder that that these effects linger still in many aspects of rock culture. In rock criticism and scholarship, efforts to change this have been underway. I see “Teenyboppers, Groupies, and Other Grotesques: Girls and Women and Rock Culture in the 1960s and early 1970s” as both a vanguard of that turn and as a roadmap for work we still have before us.
Coates brought the representations of women and girls into focus for many scholars working at the intersections of popular musicology, fan studies, and media history. Her article came out during a reckoning with how we talk about authenticity and significance in rock; the year after “Teenyboppers” was published, discussions of “rockism”—which Miles Parks Grier summarizes as the “name for the jurisdiction straight white men exercise over matters of taste in popular music”—were in full swing in music criticism.3 Coates begins her piece with a confession: as a girl, she loved the Monkees. She also notes that in the masculinized realm of rock criticism, this was decidedly uncool: “As someone who is passionate about popular music, and who prides herself on her exquisite taste and refined ear, I’ve denied my Monkees obsession for years, preferring to present my 4th and 5th grade self as a precocious fan of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. . . . Rock critic aesthetics had already entered my thinking.”4
By 2003, critical appraisal of bands like the Monkees had shifted somewhat. As Doyle Green writes, “The Monkees underwent a critical redemption as producers of well-crafted pop music and the inventors of music video in the 1980s” thanks in part to reruns of The Monkees on MTV.5 Coates wasn’t the first to treat the band seriously. But while critics and scholars were becoming less dismissive of teenybopper-oriented acts, particularly in the wave of “poptimist” reactions to rockism, this did not always extend past the craft of their pop hits to include their young, female fans and the mass media through which they became popular.6 Coates allowed her fifth-grade self to also have a say in the matter. In doing so, she helped activate the voices of girls in the discourse on rock music and provided methodological freedom from the still-extant pressure to compensate for girls’ fandom as we think about music that they enjoy. This is important, for as Diane Pecknold puts it: “when we fail to take girls’ musical engagement seriously, we overlook an opportunity to understand one of the central mechanisms by which they become political thinkers and actors.”7
Coates’s work has therefore become foundational to the branch of girlhood studies concerned with how girls and young women interact with music and related media—and, in turn, how this interaction empowers them to voice their political concerns. In their introduction to a special issue of this journal titled “Girls and Popular Music,” Dougher and Pecknold write that her piece was the “the first serious treatment of girlhood in the pages of JPMS.”8 Even a quick look through recent work that directly cites “Teenyboppers” demonstrates the many productive lines of thinking that have emerged since 2003 across disciplines. Coates writes, for example, that “screaming, even in 1969, is still coded as the female sexual response to rock music and musicians; male fans are there for the authentic musical experience, not for sexual thrills.”9 Nicolette Rohr further explored the “screamscape” of 1960s Beatlemania in this journal in 2017, arguing that girls “faced harsh admonitions about being rowdy or raucous, but found greater anonymity in the space of a concert.” For these girls, the soundscape of a Beatles concert provided psychological safety for individual acts of rebellion. Coates also wrote that much rock criticism “neglected to consider the truly transgressive aspects of groupiedom, or that groupies’ aggressive sexuality could be subversive statements about gender roles in rock as well as mainstream culture” (82). Also in 2017, Gretchen Larsen sought to produce a more nuanced portrayal of groupies in an article titled “‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’: Music Groupies and the Othering of Women,” which analyzes autobiographical writings by self-identified groupies to examine them as “sites of struggle that offer preferred (reinforcing) and/or oppositional (challenging) readings . . . of the groupie identity as produced by rock patriarchy.”10
There is still much to be done. Broadly speaking, work on teen-oriented music, particularly which associated with the Baby Boomer generation, has focused on white stars and centered the experiences of fans presumed to be white, heterosexual, and cisgender.11 If Coates’s article is a call for the voices of girls and women to be heard in the discourse on rock culture—then there remain a number whose voices are marginalized. Among them are those with a complex love of the products of white teen culture or white appropriation of black culture, those who struggled to rectify queer identities with the heteronormative stories told by the music and marketing, and those whose fandoms have always been outside the mainstream as it was defined by American television and other forms of mass media. These stories will be key to reshaping dominant narratives, and there is already interesting work to build on. Again surveying just the work since 2003 that cites Coates, we can find for example Yessica Garcia-Hernandez’s article on singer and songwriter Jenni Rivera and her fans in this journal, which argues that “listening, watching, and performing Jenni helps girls negotiate informal teachings that I call sonic pedagogies. Through these sonic pedagogies the girls have negotiated surviving ‘real problems,’ which they identified as dealing with working-class struggles, relationship problems, and sexuality.”12 We might also look to Jacqueline Warwick’s book Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s—among the first full-length scholarly treatments of the girl group phenomenon—to jumpstart more explorations of how African American girls “from urban, working-class backgrounds. . . came to exemplify glamour, sophistication, and ladylike respectability for a generation of youth from diverse class backgrounds and ethnic identities. During the most active years of the Southern Civil Rights movement, young female singers, such as Diana Ross of the Supremes, were among the most visible African Americans in the United States, and they represented notions of black identity as well as girl identity to fans and detractors alike.”13 There are myriad stories waiting to be told and amplified.
The section of “Teenyboppers, Groupies, and Other Grotesques” about groupies also feels significant in 2019 as we begin to grapple with rock culture in the context of #MeToo and other recent efforts to surface and extinguish sexual abuse. This article could be added to the mountain of proof that women have written about these issues for a long time, but nonetheless it reminds us that rock’s problems with toxic masculinity stem not only from the reprehensible behavior of individual abusers, but also from collective actions that serve to dehumanize women. We know that writing about rock music has been complicit in the perpetuation of a culture where, for example, some rock stars believe they couldn’t possibly harass or rape, because there are so many “groupies” who “want it” that they would never force themselves on anyone. The mechanisms Coates works through in this article are therefore worth revisiting as we also begin to revisit the legacies of abusive artists in scholarly discussions. I have been thrilled both to see more of and to produce scholarship about women performers of rock and roll in virtually every era and style of the genre’s history. But it is going to be important to keep that work in constant dialogue with studies of fan and media culture. As Coates warns, “The use of ‘teenyboppers’ or ‘groupies’ to identify female fans of popular music belies a disturbing reality of rock culture for women: for decades, those were essentially the two ways to imagine the relation of women to rock. The normative power of these prescribed identities remains potent, even though women are increasingly visible in rock culture as musicians and critics.”14
As a rock music scholar, enthusiast, educator at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and occasional freelance wardrobe assistant—I am surrounded by rock culture day in and day out. “Teenyboppers, Groupies, and Other Grotesques” is one of the tools I use to navigate that culture. Coates’s thinking here helps me understand how the misogyny I encounter in those spaces operates and to know its history. It allows me to place myself within a community of girls and women who are fans of rock music and its many offshoots, from boy bands to heavy metal to hip-hop. It also helps me to engage positively with the many different fan cultures I encounter through my work and to check my own attitude and internalized biases when they surface—say while a dozen young women are being removed from the hood of the laundry van I’m driving. So to everyone who is working to change the conversation about women and rock: I enthusiastically recommend a read or a re-read.