Beehives to Bra Burning: Women and Music in the 1960s

By Elspeth Sweatman

Janis Joplin, the musician at the center of A Night with Janis Joplin, “belonged to that select group of pop figures who mattered as much for themselves as for their music,” says music journalist Ellen Wills. “Among American rock performers, she was second only to Bob Dylan in importance as a creator–recorder–embodiment of her generation’s mythology.” But how did the female artists who came before Joplin pave the way for her unique, iconoclastic music and image?

The Supremes, 1965. Photo by Jac de Nijs. Courtesy Nationaal Archief.
At the beginning of the 1960s, the airwaves were dominated by the distinctly female pop sound of girl groups. An estimated 1,500-plus groups were formed between 1958 and 1963, largely composed of young women aged 11 to 18. On the surface, it would appear that many of the songs in this genre upheld the traditional feminine values of the previous decade (chastity, modesty, demureness), but upon a closer look, there is a subversive undercurrent. Doo-wop language was often used to cover up references to sex and other “improper” activities. Sometimes even just cleverly disguised lyrics could let these young women and their listeners explore taboo subjects.

Following the arrival of The Beatles in 1964, the style and sound of these girl groups split into two camps. On one side was the sophisticated, feminine front of the Supremes—with their satin dresses and coiffed wigs—and on the other, the rebellious, groovy chick–style of the Shangri-Las. Both groups continued to sing about taboo subjects like dating the bad boy (“Leader of the Pack,” 1965), infidelity (“Stop! In the Name of Love,” 1965), and children born out of wedlock (“Love Child,” 1968).

As the protests of the Civil Rights and anti-war movements gripped the nation in the mid-1960s, female singers saw the power of civil unrest and speaking up for what you believe. They asserted their right to independence and equality in songs such as “These Boots Are Made for Walkin’” (1966) and “Respect” (1967). It is in this atmosphere of change that Janis Joplin burst onto the national scene in the summer of 1967.

A Night with Janis Joplin runs through July 16 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets through our website. Want to learn more about America in the 1960s? Click here to purchase Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

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