Several weeks ago, Barnard College announced that among the notable women to be honored at the 122nd commencement this year, rock ’n’ roll-punk musician and poet Patti Smith would be on stage. I could barely contain my delight. Patti Smith is one of my artistic role models and one of the most versatile and revolutionary artists of her generation and ours, since she is still creating and performing.
Though I had listened to Patti growing up and loved her music, it was her 2010 National Book Award-winning memoir about her friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, “Just Kids,” that opened the window for me into her life and her search for artistic and personal vision. Up to that point, I had yet to truly identify with a female artist, taking inspiration from rebellious male rock icons like Dylan and Lennon who appealed to me with their resistance to rules and societal norms, even those that helped form their own celebrity. But it was a source of inspiration that I wasn’t entirely comfortable with as a woman, recognizing that it is predominantly masculine energy and power that are closely associated, in the collective imagination, with the electric guitar, the rebel status, and the allure of the unattainable cool. The open road of Kerouac and the Beats, the haunted highways of Dylan, Hendrix, Cobain, and even Springsteen, are all defined by men in a world where women are “babes” and “little girls”—perhaps important characters along the way, but for the most part lacking visionary quests of their own. As moving as their art is, it is difficult to fully engage, consciously, as a woman, without feeling either indignant about their work or resigning oneself to putting a female identity to the side in favor of artistic appreciation and universal ideas.
In her music, writing, and performances, Patti has reconciled this male-dominated tradition with her identity as a woman. She has challenged notions about what women artists should look and act and sound like, succeeding without a traditionally melodious voice (as many male rockers have done) or overtly feminine dress or manner. Instead, she revealed femininity in roughness, claiming for women the roughness or edge that is an essential rock and punk aesthetic component. She takes on what is a traditionally masculine role without feeling a need to explain or qualify her gender in relation to it, as in her song “Free Money,” in which she tells her love she will “scoop the pearls up from the sea. / Cash them in and buy you all the things you need.” She is reversing the norm of the masculine figure being the economic provider and power-holder by claiming that agency for herself, but she is still allowing the image and cliché to retain its symbolic power as an expression of universal human desire. It is in these sorts of ways that she has contributed to a rewriting of the rock ’n’ roll canon by using the very images and situations which have generally been used to express heteronormative power divisions.
In the midst of this fusion of gender identity and performance, it is significant that Smith has maintained an expression of her core values that can be seen as quintessentially feminine. “Just Kids” is a testament to this. With its focus on her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe, it is one of the few memoirs by a famous artist that is a memorial to a relationship rather than to the author’s own life. She writes eloquently of their time together in the early ’70s and how they grew together as artists. It is an effort to both preserve Robert’s memory—to record him for others to see—and also in some way hold him closer to herself as she continues to grieve his 1989 death. There is an unapologetic vulnerability and immediacy in the way that she depicts their relationship, their world as “kids” trying to piece together pennies and scraps to make art from their lives and live off of their art. This innocence, this preciousness to each moment, is, I think, particular to a more feminine energy in artistic creation which has been a powerful force in Patti’s musical and artistic career as a whole.
It is this reshaping of the rebel image—the infusion of the traditionally masculine territory of rock and punk with a feminine identity and a demonstration that the two are not incompatible—which resonated with me when I first discovered Patti Smith, and I’m very grateful that I will be able to see her celebrated as a woman, artist, and leader who has used her voice and art to expand the imaginative possibilities for all.
Emily Neil is a Barnard College senior majoring in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies. She is a former Spectator theater associate. Stolen Moments runs alternate Fridays.