“Men make angry music and it’s called rock and roll;
Women include anger in their vocabulary and suddenly they’re angry and militant.”
– Ani DiFranco
Note: Obviously, selecting 11 songs performed by female songwriters/singers leaves out countless similarly deserving titles — so feel free to leave a comment below with any we omitted that you’d put on your list!
- “We Got the Beat” by the Go-Go’s
“We Got the Beat” was the Go-Go‘s biggest hit, reaching No. 2 in 1982. “I was spending New Year’s Day alone, listening to Motown songs, watching a Twilight Zone marathon and getting high on a cocktail of stuff,” said guitarist Charlotte Caffey in Billboard. “All day I was trying to write a song. I stopped and said, ‘Fuck it, I don’t care.’ The minute I did that, boom, an idea popped into my head. I ran to get my cassette recorder and sang ‘We Got the Beat’ into the recorder to document it. I knew I had written something special. It took two minutes. I didn’t labor on the lyrics. It’s a simple song, which goes back to the ’60s, when I had my ears glued to the radio for the Stones, the Beatles and the Beach Boys.”
“A couple of us were concerned about how our peers in L.A. perceived us,” added singer Belinda Carlisle. “With the small amount of success we’d had, people said we sold out, we weren’t punk after all, blah, blah, blah. Hearing the album made us feel like they were right – we sounded like we sold out. Also, my voice on the album is sped up, so it’s hard for me to listen to. I sound like the Chipmunks.
“We’ve been known to change the lyrics when we sing it live. ‘We got to pee.’ ‘We beat the meat.’ It always makes us laugh.”
“We Got the Beat” by the Go-Go’s
- “Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane
“Somebody to Love” was the Jefferson Airplane‘s first hit, reaching No. 5 in 1967. Grace Slick originally recorded the song with the Great Society; it was written by her brother-in-law, guitarist Darby Slick. Grace rerecorded the song for the Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow LP.
“I remember being in front of the microphone, then listening to the playback on four big Altec speakers in the control room,” Slick told Forbes. “I remember thinking, ‘My God, that is amazing – they make it sound like I can really sing.'”
“I do remember when I heard Grace sing the song,” said guitarist Jorma Kaukonen. “I went, ‘Wow.’ To music geeks, that was her Erik Satie period. There was a lot of nifty stuff. It’s important to note that Surrealistic Pillow was recorded on just four tracks, no noise reduction. So you couldn’t overdub more than once or you would degrade the track. You had to nail the parts – you really had just one chance.”
“Somebody to Love” by Jefferson Airplane
“Somebody to Love” by the Great Society
- “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” seems like an odd choice to become a feminist anthem considering it was written and first recorded by a man, Robert Hazard. But Cyndi Lauper changed some of the lyrics and made the song a Top 10 hit in 1983.
“The first time I heard it, I understood how I could sing from my point of view and make it a call to solidarity for women,” Lauper told Yahoo! Music. “In the 1980s, women were still struggling to be seen as equal to men. When the women’s movement really started earlier in the ’60s and ’70s, I felt so empowered and it was thrilling to me. But in the 1980s, it seemed that a lot of the hard work by people like Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem was being forgotten, and women were once again accepting the status quo. We had gotten far – but not far enough – so I sang ‘Girls’ for all the women around the world to remember our power.”
Lauper used the song’s innovative video to spread the message. “I saw ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’ as more of a political statement than anything else,” Lauper explained in Vice. “I was going to get the women inspired by hook or by crook, and maybe I got ’em by both. I put every different race and color of kid I could get hold of in the video so that any girl who sat and watched it would know that she too was entitled to a joyful experience of life.”
“Girls Just Want to Have Fun” by Cyndi Lauper
- “Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin
Janis Joplin recorded Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” a few days before she died in October 1970. The song was included on Joplin’s Pearl album. The single shot to No. 1 in 1971, eclipsing Kristofferson’s original as well as versions by Roger Miller, Kenny Rogers and Gordon Lightfoot.
“The first time I heard Janis Joplin’s version was right after she died,” Kristofferson recalled in Performing Songwriter. “Paul Rothchild, her producer, asked me to stop by his office and listen to this thing she had cut. Afterwards, I walked all over L.A., just in tears. I couldn’t listen to the song without really breaking up. So when I came back to Nashville, I went into the Combine [Publishing] building late at night, and I played it over and over again, so I could get used to it without breaking up.
“‘Bobby McGee’ was the song that made the difference for me. Every time I sing it, I still think of Janis.”
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Janis Joplin
“Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson
- “Everyday Is a Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow
Sheryl Crow co-wrote and recorded “Everyday Is a Winding Road” for her 1996 self-titled album, but she had little confidence in its hit potential. The song first appeared in the John Travolta film Phenomenon then reached No. 11 in 1997. Crow explained the song’s theme on CMT (via Songfacts).
“‘Everyday Is a Winding Road’ started out as kind of a road song, and it really wound up being about being in the moment and not always looking to the next moment and analyzing things. As I look at this record, stepping away from it, I realize thematically a lot of it is about levity, finding levity in life and balance and trying to figure out how to make all things work simultaneously without grand disruption. That’s kind of what the song is about. It’s about jumping in a truck with a guy who just lives life every minute, by the minute. Every once in a while, I have to catch myself and remind myself that life is right now. It’s not two minutes from now.”
“Everyday Is a Winding Road” by Sheryl Crow
- “Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell mixes environmentalism and rejection in “Big Yellow Taxi.” Originally released in 1970, a live version fared better on the charts in 1974.
“I wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ on my first trip to Hawaii,” Mitchell explained in the Los Angeles Times. “I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart … this blight on paradise. That’s when I sat down and wrote the song.
“When it first came out, it was a regional hit in Hawaii because people there realized their paradise was being chewed up. It took 20 years for that song to sink in to people most other places in the country. That is a powerful little song because there have been cases in a couple of cities of parking lots being torn up and turned into parks because of it.”
“Big Yellow Taxi” by Joni Mitchell
- “I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers
“I’ll Take You There” was recorded by the Staple Singers at Muscle Shoals Sound Studios in Sheffield, Ala. Written by producer Al Bell, the song reached No. 1 in 1972. With Mavis Staples performing lead vocals, the family R&B group was backed by the top-flight session players of the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.
“Mavis was just the incredible diplomat and party person,” remembered engineer Terry Manning in Sound on Sound. “What a personality. She’d pal around with everybody and have so much fun, putting everyone at ease, that everyone wanted to play for her. In fact, on ‘I’ll Take You There’ you can hear her talking to the musicians. In the middle part, she’s actually calling their names out when they play different things – that’s live from her guide vocal on the tracking sessions. She was so into it and had such a rapport with the musicians, and that’s one of the things that made those sessions so great. There was a tremendous feel because everyone was really having fun.”
“I’ll Take You There” by the Staple Singers
- “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar
“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” was Pat Benatar‘s first Top 10 hit. The 1980 tune was written by producer Eddie Schwartz, who recalled in the book That Crazy Little Thing Called Love, “I was in a kind of weird therapy when I was in my mid-twenties … One of the things we did was punch pillows, I guess it had something to do with getting out hostility. It all seemed kind of strange, but I remember walking outside of this therapy session and standing in the doorstep of the building I’d been in, this small house in Toronto, and the title just came to me, ‘Hit Me With Your Best Shot’ … I haven’t been to therapy before or since. Maybe I should go back.”
Benatar has occasionally been beset by cranks who say the song promotes violence against women. “It’s bull,” says Benatar. “I mean, what is your problem with this? If you’ve got this much time to care about these kinds of things, you don’t have enough to do. Um, yeah, it’s ridiculous. I mean the song was certainly meant as tongue-in-cheek. And it’s about empowerment, not the opposite. I would say that one of my other purposes in life, particularly because I have daughters, is to lift up other women. I mean that they should stay together always. I would never, ever sell out a sister.”
“Hit Me With Your Best Shot” by Pat Benatar
- “Because the Night” by the Patti Smith Group
“Because the Night” was first written and recorded by Bruce Springsteen for his Darkness on the Edge of Town LP. Unhappy with its progress, Springsteen turned the tape over to producer Jimmy Iovine. Patti Smith had the good fortune to be recording in the studio next door.
“‘Because the Night’ was written by Bruce Springsteen,” Smith told Literary Hub. “I was given a tape of the song. The chorus was his. And the music, it was completely produced. It was just that the verses were mumbled. Like [sings] ‘Na na na na na na …’ So I listened to it. It already had the chorus. And I sat up with it all night writing a song for my boyfriend, Fred. Who was supposed to call me from Detroit. He was supposed to call me at seven, and I was waiting. Eight … Nine …
“And I’m the kind of girl who waits for the call. You know, I don’t say, ‘Well, the heck with it, I’m gonna leave.’ I would sit there for hours waiting for my phone call. And I was so agitated and so antsy that I just took the tape out that I was given to explore the song – Jimmy Iovine gave it to me, and Bruce had given it to him – and I listened to it over and over to try to distract me from waiting for Fred. And that’s why the lyric says, ‘Have I doubt when I’m alone / love is a ring, a telephone.'”
“Because the Night” by the Patti Smith Group
“Because the Night” by Bruce Springsteen & the E. Street Band
- “Heart of Glass” by Blondie
Written by singer Debbie Harry and guitarist Chris Stein, “Heart of Glass” was a No. 1 hit for Blondie in 1979. Harry explained in The Guardian that the song had been recorded as a demo then ignored for years.
“In 1974, we were living in a loft in New York’s then-notorious Bowery area, rehearsing at night in rooms so cold we had to wear gloves. ‘Heart of Glass’ was one of the first songs Blondie wrote, but it was years before we recorded it properly. We’d tried it as a ballad, as reggae, but it never quite worked. At that point, it had no title. We just called it ‘the disco song.’
“The lyrics weren’t about anyone. They were just a plaintive moan about lost love. At first, the song kept saying: ‘Once I had a love, it was a gas. Soon turned out, it was a pain in the ass.’ We couldn’t keep saying that, so we came up with: ‘Soon turned out, had a heart of glass.’ We kept one ‘pain in the ass’ in – and the BBC bleeped it out for radio.”
“Heart of Glass” by Blondie
- “Respect” by Aretha Franklin
“Respect” was written and first recorded by Otis Redding in 1965. Though successful, Aretha Franklin‘s reworking of the song from a woman’s viewpoint became a No. 1 hit – and feminist anthem – in 1967. “I had just moved out of my father’s home and had my own little apartment,” Franklin told Elle. “I was cleaning the place, and I had a good radio station on. I loved it. I loved it! I felt I could do something different with it, and my sister Carolyn, who was an RCA recording artist, and I got together on the background.
“We came up with that infamous line, the ‘sock it to me’ line. It was a cliché of the day,” Franklin told NPR. “Some of the girls were saying that to the fellas, like, sock it to me in this way or sock it to me in that way. Nothing sexual, and it’s not sexual.
“In later times, it was picked up as a battle cry by the civil rights movement. But when I recorded it, it was pretty much a male-female kind of thing. And more in a general sense, from person-to-person – I’m going to give you respect and I’d like to have that respect back.”
“Respect” by Aretha Franklin
“Respect” by Otis Redding