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Reviewed by
Jacqueline Warwick
Dalhousie University
Electric Ladyland: Women and Rock Culture. By Lisa L. Rhodes. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. 2005.

The word "groupie" is commonplace, a derisive term used to describe a particular kind of female fan assumed to be more interested in sex with rock stars than in their music. Groupies are understood to be "easy," with low self-esteem, and too stupid about [End Page 170] music to be proper fans, but also—paradoxically—predatory and exploitative of the hapless musicians whose artistry they cruelly ignore in their lust for celebrity sex. For anyone casually acquainted with rock culture, the term describes the most usual position of women in the music of the 1960s and 1970s.

In Electric Ladyland, Lisa Rhodes disrupts this assessment and reveals the diverse, creative and important roles of women in rock that have been obscured in sexist accounts of rock culture. She examines the work of women who were fans, rock critics, and musicians during the tumultuous years when rock dominated popular culture. Most importantly, she sheds new light on the fascinating, complex, and contradictory experience of the groupie.

The book tackles three main areas of rock culture where women's involvement has been obscured: performance, journalism, and fandom. In the first category, it contributes usefully to the dialogue about and history of female musicians, an area already explored in such books as She Bop, She's a Rebel, and numerous articles and books about individual rock stars. Rhodes's discussion is doubtless informed by her own professional experience as a rocker; her 1986 album Shivers led to collaborations with the likes of Aaron Neville, Joan Jett, and Stevie Ray Vaughn, and she was featured in Billboard magazine and the television show American Bandstand.

Nevertheless, Rhodes's original and interesting book draws on archival research, interviews, and thoughtful scholarly analysis, rather than memoir. In its second section, Electric Ladyland presents sustained discussion of the lives and work of women rock critics Ellen Willis and Lillian Roxon, who penned some of the most creative and original rock criticism of the rock era; Roxon compiled, edited, and herself wrote most of a Rock Encyclopedia (1969), and Willis wrote for publications such as The New Yorker and Ms. The work of these two critics indicates the importance of rock music and culture to the serious press during the 1960s and 1970s. In the first serious published analysis of these writers' work, Rhodes deftly deconstructs the sexist, even misogynist, values and ideology of rock journalism in magazines such as Rolling Stone.

In 1969, that magazine published a special issue on groupies, and their prurient interpretation of the groupie's role and function came to be definitive. As Rhodes demonstrates, however, groupies themselves understood their experiences and importance in very different terms, both before and after Rolling Stone gave them notoriety. The third and most exciting part of Electric Ladyland concerns itself with groupies, contextual-izing them in the upheavals surrounding sex roles and sexual relations of the 1960s and 1970s. Giving voice to former groupies as well as musicians, Rhodes helps the reader reassess easy assumptions about the role of women in rock, and, indeed, in contemporary culture.