Ranking the women of 'rock'

VH1's list of the 100 greatest female rockers will cause arguments -- and maybe that's the point.

Pop Music

July 25, 1999|By J.D. CONSIDINE | J.D. CONSIDINE,SUN POP MUSIC CRITIC

Is Billie Holiday one of the 100 greatest women of rock and roll?

What about Mahalia Jackson? Tammy Wy-nette? Ella Fitzgerald?

Not rock and rollers, you say? Well, what do you know? Because each of these legendary singers has a place in VH1's "100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll," a five-part series airing on the cable channel this week.

Jazz singer Holiday, in fact, is No. 6 on the list, perched right between singer/songwriter Joni Mitchell (No. 5) and Pretenders leader Chrissie Hynde (No. 7). Gospel great Jackson (No. 78) flanks another Jackson, R&B star Janet (No. 77) and folk-rockers the Indigo Girls. Country legend Wynette (No. 73) is sandwiched between rapper Queen Latifah (No. 72) and soul singer Anita Baker (No. 74). And Fitzgerald (No. 13), one of jazz's greatest virtuosos, is ranked above velvet-voiced Stevie Nicks (No. 14), but below Blondie's Debbie Harry (No. 12).

While we're on the subject, let's talk about those rankings. That Aretha Franklin tops the list is no surprise -- no woman in rock has enjoyed such enduring popularity and impact as the Queen of Soul. Likewise, Tina Turner and Janis Joplin, the second and third singers on the list, are such undeniable legends that it would be unimaginable to have a list of great rock and roll women without putting them in the Top Five.

But does Bonnie Raitt belong at No. 4? Sure, she's talented, popular and influential, but is she really superior to Mitchell, Madonna (No. 8) or Carole King (No. 10)?

For that matter, what is rough-voiced rocker Joan Jett (No. 32) doing six positions above Motown diva Diana Ross (No. 38)? How did ragged punk rockers Hole (No. 68) top the polished pop of ABBA (No. 70) and the pioneering new wave of the Go-Go's (No. 78)?

And are we really to believe that German chanteuse Nico (No. 87), Sonic Youth bassist Kim Gordon (No. 91), and Breeders frontwoman Kim Deal (No. 98) are in fact greater than megastars Mariah Carey, Shania Twain or Celine Dion -- none of whom even made the Top 100?

Who came up with this list, anyway?

A lot of rock and roll women, actually. VH1 hasn't released a list of all the voters, but among those ranking the 100 Greatest Women in Rock were Lauryn Hill, Harry, former Ronnette Ronnie Spector, and Lilith Fair founder Sarah McLachlan, as well as some non-musical celebrities, including actress Sandra Bullock, director Penny Marshall, and writer/ activist Gloria Steinem.

"We wanted women to vote for women," says Lauren Zalaznick, executive producer for the series. As she explains it, VH1's "100 Greatest Women" project was envisaged as a sequel to its 1998 series "The 100 Greatest Artists in Rock."

"We took all the women artists who had been sent ballots for 'The 100 Greatest Artists,'" she says. "We added any [major woman musician] who had come up since, and then we decided to open it up to the most influential, powerful, substantive women in a number of industries. That included women in politics, women in film, women in sports, women in the arts and women in the music industry."

In all, something over 100 women voted for the 100 Women. Each was sent a ballot, and asked to rank their 100 favorites. Each vote was then weighted ("Your No. 1 choice gets 100 points, your No. 2 choice gets 99 points, etc.," says Zalaznick). VH1 then tabulated the results, and assembled the TV shows.

Zalaznick isn't bothered by the fact that this "rock and roll" list includes quite a few singers who didn't rock.

"The fact that people took to heart the influences of their lives, as listeners or as musicians [was compelling]," she says. "It was an immediate recognition of influence, and that was borne out in the interviews." Indeed, each segment alternates performance footage with soundbites from rockers singing the praises of the 100.

Besides, she says, the term "rock and roll" is meant very loosely with this series. "We couldn't say 'The 100 Greatest Women of Rock and Pop and Blues and Hip-Hop and Soul and Punk,' " she says. "Doesn't work."

Zalaznick adds that even though the "100 Greatest Women" is VH1's show, the music channel makes no claims about the list. "We made a decision," she says. "It was extremely important for VH1 not to vote on this ballot."

That may explain why many of VH1's favorite women aren't on the "100 Greatest" list. For instance, several stars of the "VH1 Divas" shows didn't make the 100, including Carey, Dion and Twain.

Nonetheless, Wayne Isaak -- VH1's executive vice president of music and chief diva wrangler -- is not worried.

"We had ce-lebrity voters, and it was completely their call," he says. "When Debbie Harry, Lauryn Hill, Penny Marshall and Gloria Steinem vote, they vote for the people who influenced them. And in the case of Mariah, Shania and Celine, I'm not surprised that they weren't inspirers of these women."

"There's nothing to argue about," adds Zalaznick. "It wasn't us."

Actually, there's plenty to argue about with the list -- but then, that's kind of the point. "You can argue, 'Gee, how could Karen Carpenter be higher than Sinead O'Connor? That's ridiculous!' " says Zalaznick.

"But those kinds of things make for a great television special. You're sticking around because you can't believe you want to see that Dolly Parton package."

VH1's "The 100 Greatest Women in Rock and Roll" will air Monday through Friday at 10 p.m. on VH1.

The VH1 Top 10

The Top 10 finishers in VH1's poll of the "100 Greatest Women of Rock and Roll":

1. Aretha Franklin

2. Tina Turner

3. Janis Joplin

4. Bonnie Raitt

5. Joni Mitchell

6. Billie Holiday

7. Chrissie Hynde

8. Madonna

9. Annie Lennox

10. Carole King

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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