What is this, a time warp? Here I am in June of 2006, and the face that stares back at me from the promo CD on my desk might as well have stepped right out of 1981. That curled lip. That spiky fringe of jet-black hair. Those thick clouds of eyeliner around the toughest set of sloe eyes in rock'n'roll. It's Joan Fucking Jett: trailblazing female rocker, inspiration for Guitar Wolf's "Jett Rock'n'Roll," and probably the hottest alleged lesbian ever to pour herself into a pair of leather pants. Not only does she look like 1981, though, but blessedly, put on the CD and she sounds like 1981, too: opening track "Riddles" busts out of the gates with the same combination of girl group pop and punkish hard rock Jett has made her stock in trade since the Runaways cut "Cherry Bomb."
But here's the rub: it isn't 1981. It's actually been 25 years since Joan Jett's "Bad Reputation" heyday, and if you and I know it, unfortunately, Jett knows it too. Sinner, Jett's first domestic full-length in nearly a decade, is fully conscious of the quarter century that has elapsed since "I Love Rock N' Roll" exploded on to radio airwaves and MTV; from the generation of strong, independent female musicians she's inspired (Kathleen Hanna of Bikini Kill/Le Tigre/"Riot Grrrl"-coining fame cowrites two tracks), to the now ubiquitous tradition of cleaning up punk rock for chart consumption, to the particulars of today's depressing political environment.
That consciousness is evident from the first lines of "Riddles," and even if the idea of a politicized Joan Jett seems enticing to you, let's just say it looks (nominally) better on paper. Despite the crunchy guitar and fist-pumping "oooh oooh ooohs," Jett's stab at an anti-Bush statement is destined to join a very long list of well-meaning but ultimately embarrassing Iraq War-era protest songs. (Remember the Beastie Boys' "In a World Gone Mad," anybody?) I'd be the last guy to say her heart's in the wrong place, but when the best observation she can come up with is "There's bad stuff happening / And nobody does a thing," I'd just as soon she stick with the snarling bad-girl schtick.
But not even the political cluelessness of "Riddles" can match the depths of "Change the World," which marries similarly naive sentiments to a sanitized pop-punk arrangement right out of the Good Charlotte songbook. Elsewhere, Jett's acknowledgements of her much-questioned sexuality can often feel like excerpts from a brain-numbingly P.C. Women's Studies seminar. If lesbian love song "Everyone Knows" is both endearingly sweet and catchy, then "post-gender" exercizes like "Androgynous" are reminders that even Riot Grrrl bands had kick-ass tunes to cut through the rhetoric – something which Jett desperately needs if she wants to keep moving in this direction.
And the worst of it is, I know she's got it in her. On songs like "Turn It Around," where the (self?-) consciousness finally takes a backseat to the attitude which is her greatest asset, Jett sounds downright vital. Even the gay stuff gets a fun, campy work-out on "A.C.D.C.," in which feminist sloganeering is replaced by a decidedly un-P.C. exclamation of "lesbian it together." It's the best song on the album by a mile, frankly; which can be somewhat disheartening when one considers that it's a Sweet cover of well over 30 years' vintage.
But really, while Joan Jett's heritage is perhaps larger than she's been given credit for – one can hear the echoes of her music in rock'n'roll women from Maja Ivarsson of the Sounds to the Paybacks' Wendy Case – what exactly does that heritage consist of? Is it great songwriting, expert musicianship, or a set of powerful pipes? Not really; more like a snarl here, a purr there, and an image that has, in its way, redefined the Rock Chick miles beyond the old "cute girls with guitars" paradigm. That image is still alive and well. You just might be a lot better served – and a hell of a lot more satisfied – to experience it back where it belongs: in 1981.
Reviewed by Zach Hoskins