Nobody likes to be labelled, especially in the music industry. Major Label is a series that takes the often-negative labels and stereotypes attributed to women in music and reclaims them in a positive way.
I, like many others, was deeply saddened to hear about David Bowie’s death a few weeks ago. I mourned by listening to my favorite songs and albums of his, by checking out and contemplating his work in “Black Star,” and by reading countless articles and watching interview videos about the man and the legacy he left us. For a beautiful, brief couple of days, everything written or posted about Bowie was overwhelmingly positive.
I guess when you’re a classic rock enthusiast, you have to learn to tolerate the fact that probably every male rock star of the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s had sex with hundreds, maybe thousands, of groupies, and that many of these were likely underage girls. Or more accurately, as Stereo Williams points out in the Daily Beast piece, we learn to ignore these instances of clear statutory rape in favor of venerating talented rock stars. The fact is, both exist simultaneously—yes, these men were and are extremely talented and deserve their places in rock history, and yes, they raped young women. We can assert their grievous wrongdoings while still loving their music. That’s about all I’ll say on that matter.
My area of interest in this subject, instead, is the women (or girls) who call themselves groupies and how they view themselves. How do these women conceive of their place in rock and roll history? Are they contributors, historians, fame chasers, liberated feminists, exploited victims, or just women having a good time and doing whatever they want?
First, a definition, because the term “groupie” means slightly different things in different contexts. A Google search led me to a standard dictionary definition, which says a groupie is “a person, especially a young woman, who regularly follows a pop music group or other celebrity in the hope of meeting or getting to know them,” and an Urban Dictionary definition, saying that a groupie is, “a young woman, often underage, who seeks to achieve status by having sex with rock musicians, roadies, security, and other band-related guys.” The Urban Dictionary one is the meaning I’ll explore here, as it’s both the most common and the most negative.
I don’t think I need to explain the negativity associated with groupies—they’re seen as slutty, manipulative, opportunistic, and worst of all, devoid of talent beyond their looks. What’s interesting is that these stereotypes surrounding groupies seem to spring more from women than men.
Most of these female fans and women who date musicians are quick to distance themselves from the “groupie” moniker, and some even admit to assuming women in attendance at a concert are there more to ogle the musicians and not to listen to the music. There’s some obvious assumptions and slut-shaming happening there, but nevertheless, there is a distinction to be made between these different types of female fans and women who date musicians. Most female fans are not groupies—it is a distinct subculture that emerged with the nascence of rock in the 50s and flourished into the 60s and 70s. (For a very brief groupie history overview, read this.)
Most people’s concepts of groupie culture begin and end with the movie Almost Famous, which is certainly a good place to start. Penny Lane is reportedly an amalgam of several highly sought-after groupies of the late sixties and seventies, including Lori Mattix, Sable Starr, Pamela Des Barres and the rest of the GTOs, and likely countless others. But Cameron Crowe’s website claims Penny Lane is mostly based on a woman named Pennie Trumbull, whose story you can read here. It’s clear from her story that the film embellished some elements, and completely created some like the overdose. Nevertheless, we see Pennie Trumbull emphasize her commitment to supporting the music, and similarly, the “groupies” in the movie disdaining the term “groupie;” according to Penny Lane, “Groupies sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. We’re here because of the music…we inspire the music.” However, Penny Lane and the others also claim that they don’t have sex to avoid exploiting their bodies and hearts, which is neither true of the movie nor of groupie culture in general—as we’ll see, they did have sex, and they really didn’t feel too exploited about it. But the first quote is the most relevant—to groupies, it is all about the music.
Groupie culture was very much a way of life in the 60s and 70s, with its own philosophy and aesthetic. Magazines devoted to groupie culture, like Star, taught young girls the groupie way of life, with features on beauty tips, how to find your own SUPERFOX and avoid the “going steady trap,” comics and fanfiction about romantic encounters with rock stars, and, perhaps surprisingly, interviews with prominent musicians focusing entirely on their music and creative processes. Read all five issues of the magazine here for a good introduction to the groupie movement.
My most eye-opening window into groupie culture came by way of Pamela Des Barres’ insanely funny and revelatory memoir called I’m With the Band: Confessions of a Groupie (note that Des Barres embraces the “groupie” label!). Dave Navarro wrote the preface, and mostly got it right (although his advising girls not to be jealous and guys to read the book with a box of tissues handy—not for crying, obviously—made me physically ill). He points out that Des Barres is a rock and roll historian, and that although the book you’ll read is written from her personal perspective, she details events in rock history from the inside. Des Barres herself recounts how she wanted to be close to rock music because of how deeply, in a raw, emotional, sexual way, it made her feel, and she wanted to support the rockers who made her feel that way. And in sharing her story, she offers a window into the true, naked (pun intended) culture of rock and roll, and how the music was about far more than just the musicians who made it. Still, as I was reading her self-assured, unabashedly pleasure-seeking memoir, I had one overwhelming thought—why didn’t it ever occur to her to pick up a guitar and make music herself? Was she settling for sleeping with rock stars when really, she wanted to BE a rock star?
To be completely fair, Des Barres was a member of the short-lived music group the GTOs, or Girls Together Outrageously, made up entirely of groupies in Los Angeles and curated by Frank Zappa. The women read poetry and sang their lyrics while Zappa arranged sparse rock instrumentals for them (listen here if you’d like; it is, in a word, unique). She was also an actress, and for a while designed and sewed outfits for rock stars, so she did have creative outlets. And although she spends much of the book looking for one rock star to support forever, and ends up hugely disappointed as each one inevitably leaves her or cannot commit to her (or she can’t commit to him!), she expresses few, if any, regrets. She views herself as inspiration for the music, and thus a heavy creative influence, refuting any “talentless” stereotype. And now, she chooses to share her perspective on rock music and what it meant to its fans as a sort of participatory historian. So really, she didn’t become a rock star because she didn’t want to—she was doing exactly what she wanted to be doing, and nobody, including myself, has the right to judge or pity that.
The running thread between the different groupie accounts I’ve encountered thus far, including Lori Mattix’s interview above, is that these women largely did not feel exploited or taken advantage of. They really felt incredibly in control of their sexuality, proud, powerful, desirable, and free. Des Barres writes in her book about how it was empowering to her that these influential, famous rock musicians were cowed by her sexuality, her body. They wanted her badly and she loved it! For these reasons, groupies have had a tempestuous relationship with feminists; groupies emerged within the second wave of feminism, when some feminists would criticize their reliance on their looks and sexuality for success, and some would applaud their free-love, sex-positive attitudes. Some sex-positive feminists even argue that statutory rape laws are inherently sexist, as they imply that teenage girls are naïve and pure and must be protected from evil older men. I certainly can’t support that line of logic completely, though I see where it’s coming from. But I’ll point out that statutory rape does not exclusively apply to female victims or to male rapists, and that teenage girls are legally free to sleep with as many teenage boys as they want. The age gap is the source of the predatory tone here, regardless of gender. But any implication that consenting adult groupies are somehow innocent victims of experienced rock stars and their drug-heavy lifestyle grossly ignores the groupies’ perspectives. They wanted sex with rock stars, they got it, and they got it exactly when and where they wanted it. This is just mounting evidence that the groupies of the sixties and seventies were pioneers in sex-positive feminism, with its merits and flaws, at a time when it was still controversial.
And so, I confer no judgements on young groupies, or on consenting adult groupies and their rock star lovers—or at least, I try my best not to. The term “groupie” is a badge of honor for them—they contributed to a liberated sexual movement that influenced the creative outpouring of rock and roll in its early days. Not everyone obsessed with music wants to be a musician; and, I hasten to add, not all women who sleep with or date rock stars are groupies. It’s a specific, sex-positive, music-appreciating, cultural identity, and one that is crucial to understanding fully the nuanced history of rock and roll and of women’s involvement in that history. The worst thing we could do would be to ignore them, or tolerate their existence while lauding the rock stars they accompanied. The groupies were an integral part of the music and the culture; they saw it all, and they’ll talk about it unabashedly. That’s definitely a perspective worth hearing.
For more on groupies, check out these blurbs about different groupies and their lives: http://learni.st/users/4054/boards/67310-some-girls-a-guide-to-the-classic-groupie
And for another positive groupie perspective, read here: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/we-support-the-music-reconsidering-the-groupie