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Translated by Chloé Sautter-Léger
A purely academic approach to history cannot enable us to pin down the essence of the music that marked a generation (Ross, 2007). Conversely, a close examination of music, which nurtures the body and mind, allows us to perceive and feel a historical period, while offering a legible grid of human sexuality.
While sex and drugs are fundamental components of the rock music mythology, one of the main figures behind the sex-drugs-and-rock-androll triad is often forgotten: the Groupie.
But how should we recount the prominent figure and heritage of the Groupie today? Perhaps as a symbol of the counterculture and sexual revolution at the origin of the 1960s rock music. The Groupie had an ambiguous relationship with the Rockstar, often begging the question of whether their relationship was simply based on inequalitarian gender biases, or rather, a mutually beneficial open relationship? This article suggests that despite undeniable elements of sexism, heteronormativity, and homosociality inherent to rock culture, the first Groupies were important proponents of the sexual liberation that occurred in the 1960s, through their assertion of sexual agency. In particular, this relates to their ability to see themselves as subjects rather than objects, with respect to their sexuality, giving voice to their own desires (Slavin et al., 2006; Tolman, 2002).
History of a Name
The term “Groupie”, initially referred to as a social identity in the 1960s, progressively evolved into a term that degrades women who openly displayed their infatuation with male celebrities—generally musicians (Des Barres, 2005; Des Barres, 1987; Howe et al., 2015; Harsen, 2017). Similar to the term “sluts,” women are called “Groupies” when their sexuality (real or imagined) is disrupted, all while being subjected to societal double standards (Attwood, 2007; Crawford and Popp, 2003; Shirazi, 2010). Studying the figure of the Groupie more in depth can help us shed light on the ways in which these women decided to explore their sexuality through rock music.
Groupies had privileged access to rock musicians, often exhibiting their ostentatious choice for a partner, who corresponded to their desires and fantasies (Farber, 2015). In his memoirs, guitarist and co-founder of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards, describes Groupies as “beautiful young women who knew what they wanted and what they needed to do to get it” (2011). A “super Groupie” from California, Pamela Des Barres, who has had relationships with Jimmy Page (Led Zeppelin), Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones), Chris Hillman (The Byrds), and Keith Moon (The Who), explained that she “just wanted to show [her] appreciation for their music, for their taste in clothes, for their heads, hands, and hearts” (1987).
Contrary to popular beliefs introduced during the twenty-first century, the first Groupies were complex, but not limited to a role of sexual partner. Sexual contact was frequent and acknowledged, but Groupies were also sought after for their friendship and support during long tours (Des Barres, 1987; Farber, 2015; Richards, 2011). Although their roles were gender-stereotyped, the role of the Groupie was that of a friend, a lover, and a companion. For Keith Richards, Groupies were “brave girls who liked taking care of guys. Very maternal, in a sense.” In a way, they served as “the nurses, the Red Cross of rock ‘n’ roll” (Richards, 2011).
The Red Cross of Rock’n’Roll
Viewing Groupies as “nurses of rock ‘n’ roll” comes with two perspectives. First, Groupies are perceived as essential for the functioning of rock tours, offering emotional and sentimental support to the musicians. This is typically depicted through short affairs on the fringes of monogamous relationships. Second, like nurses, who were historically subordinate to physicians, Groupies involved themselves into a male-dominated industry—rock ‘n’ roll (Larsen, 2017; Petrusich, 2015; Tringali, 2005; Walser, 1993 qtd in Howe et al., 2015).
Although De Barres (2005) claims her actions were feminist, many third-wave feminists disagree, arguing that the first groupies reinforced gender stereotypes and undermined the presence of women in the rock industry (Farber, 2015). However, this discourse discards the sexual agency they demonstrated, overlooking the sexism permeating the music industry as a whole. In addition, this way of thinking was in line with slut-shaming attitudes, since the Groupie’s sexuality is presented as deviant and undesirable (Attwood, 2007; Fetterolf and Sanchez, 2015; Howe et al., 2015; Larsen, 2017).
Cock Rock and Rock Star Fetishism
Despite the gender normativity in their behaviour, Groupies also demonstrated their individual power and sexual emancipation, both through conscious explorations of their desires and fantasies around the rock star figure. Throughout the 1960s, Groupies positioned themselves outside the norms of socially accepted behaviors expected of women (Farber, 2015).
A large number of fans managed to take advantage of the sexual freedom permitted at rock concerts. Reminiscent of the early years of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards writes that, for the fans who came to the show, each concert was “a revelation, a moment in which they suddenly decided to let go [...] The air was thick with sex” (2011).
Beyond explicit references to sexuality, eroticism was also present in the music itself. Roxana Shirazi, a Groupie from London active in the early 2000s, describes the atmosphere at hard rock concerts through use of many references to seduction: “Bare chests, eyeliner, leather, sweat, I-wanna-fuck-you-baby attitude” (Shirazi, 2010).
Although this description is brief, it seems to subscribe to the “cock rock” subgenre, which aims to entrench a specific conception of masculine sexuality. In cock rock culture, phallic symbolism (in microphones and electric guitars), yelling, and aggressive rhythms, and references to the Rockstar’s sexual feats through lyrics and gestures, correspond to the norm rather, than the exception (Frith, 1981 qtd in Auslander, 2004). The term cock rock, which was first employed to highlight the sexism that pervaded rock music, is now used to refer to hard rock more generally (Tringali, 2005). Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones, and the Doors (Jim Morrison) are part of the cock rock tradition:
According to psychologist John Cohen, the apparent erratic behaviour of fans, interposing themselves on the scene during Rolling Stones concerts and clawing at Mick Jagger, was motivated by a yearning to capture the artist’s essence, rather than an act driven by violent impulse. This unruly desire for proximity is, as Cohen explains, similar to the collecting of the relics of saints (Morgen, 2012). In order to stand out from other super Groupies, Cynthia Plaster Caster, in the 1960s, fabricated numerous sculptures of rock stars’ penises, using molds she fashioned in the presence of the subjects represented—including Jimi Hendrix (Shafer, 2015).
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Petrusich (2015) contends that the Groupie’s desire for proximity to the artists is not an abnormality. It is a way of appropriating the “magnificent” and of accessing emotions through contact with art. Developing intimacy with the Rockstar was thus a way of uniting with the object of desire and of celebrating the music that brought about this unification in the first place. Although, of course, an exploration of the figure of the groupie cannot deny the hetero-cissexist attitudes that pervade rock music, representing the groupie as a fundamental figure of the 1960s counterculture can allow us to conceive of rock music in the light of its erotic potential and of the phenomenon of desire for the magnificent, which it instantiates.
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