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Radicals, Renegades and Rock Stars

Radicals, Renegades and Rock Stars

Feminist scholar explores social change, pop culture and music of 1960s and 1970s

By Pamela J. Johnson
April 2006

Alice Echols disarms her students with her relaxed manner and infectious laugh.

The associate professor of English and gender studies will nod emphatically and offer an affirming “right-right-right-right-right” after a student’s particularly insightful comment.

Whatever Echols is teaching — from feminism to popular music — she encourages students to critically engage, rather than blindly accept their textbooks and assignments.

Echols was, in fact, drawn to feminism partly because it allowed the prep school graduate to engage in the rough-and-tumble world of intellectual engagement.

Attracted to unconventional figures who dare to break society’s rules, she wrote a book about Janis Joplin, Scars of Sweet Paradise: The Life and Times of Janis Joplin (Henry Holt and Company, 1999). While chronicling the life of the tragic blues singer who revolted against traditional femininity, the book offers historical and cultural analyses of the times.

“I’ve always been a bit of a renegade,” Echols said, adding, “I grew up during a time of social turbulence.”

An expert in social movements and popular culture of the ’60s and ’70s, she also wrote, Daring to Be Bad: Radical Feminism in America 1967–1975 (Regents of the University of Minnesota, 1989), and Shaky Ground: The Sixties and its Aftershocks (Columbia University Press, 2002). Echols was recruited from UCLA in 2004 as part of USC College’s Senior Faculty Hiring Initiative.

On this day, the classroom discussion on ’60s feminism moved to the family as a site of super-sized expectations — first of men as sole breadwinners in the ’50s, then of women as Super Moms in the ’70s, and now of society’s perceived desire to produce Super Kids.

“Where’s it going to end?” Echols joked to her class. “Superdog? Supercat?”

Later, emphasizing the differences between the analog ’60s and the digital present, she digressed, “Take music videos, most of them move way too fast for me. And I’m an ex-disco deejay!”

Echols wasn’t kidding. During a recent interview, she spoke about why a no-holds-barred feminist like her would work as a disco deejay.

The younger of two girls, Echols grew up in Bethesda-Chevy Chase, outside Washington, D.C. Her father worked in the Veterans Administration and her mother was a homemaker.

In the summer of 1969, the year of Woodstock, Echols was 18 and one of five teenagers chosen to take part in a Quaker-sponsored project to fight racism in the Washington suburbs.

After that summer, she went off to Carleton College in rural Minnesota.

“Carleton offered nothing like the bizarre world of radical politics I had brushed up against in D.C.,” Echols said in her book, Shaky Ground. “The closest I came to civil disobedience in those years was poli-sci professor Paul Wellstone’s course on it.”

Armed with a bachelor’s degree in English, she moved to Santa Fe, N.M. with a group of friends, worked in a sandwich shop and became intrigued by the feminist movement. She soon moved to Albuquerque, where she took a groundskeeper job at the University of New Mexico and attended meetings at the school’s fledgling women’s studies program.

She loved the passionate debates during the women’s studies meetings. At times, however, members greeted her with skepticism.

“When I first joined the group I was still living in arty Santa Fe, not blue-collar Albuquerque,” Echols said in Shaky Ground. “I had long, hippie-length, blondish hair, and despite considerable effort came across as someone who had attended prep school and a private college.”

In 1976, she entered a graduate program at the University of Michigan, where women’s studies was an emerging field.

“Michigan was an exciting place to be,” Echols said in an interview. “We were creating a new field. It was an exciting moment.”

She enrolled in the university’s doctoral program in history, but women’s studies remained her intellectual home.

Inside Echols’ office, jazz musician Alice Coltrane wafted from metallic speakers on her desk. Students popped in, wanting to chat about one of her classes or her favorite new CD.

Echols removed her round, multi-colored-rimmed glasses and conversed comfortably, often breaking into a wide smile or burst of laughter.

She clearly enjoys heart-to-hearts on a variety of subjects, which is no doubt why so much of her research uses oral history as its methodology.

For Shaky Ground, she conducted long interviews with musicians Lenny Kravitz and Joni Mitchell. For her book, Scars of Sweet Paradise, she spent five years interviewing more than 150 of Joplin’s friends, lovers and fellow musicians.

Echols was conducting research for a book about rock and roll when she became intrigued by Joplin’s story. In her book, Echols describes the social scene and culture of the 1960s that helped to create the rebellious “skyrocket chick” of rock, as Jerry Garcia called her.

In her analyses of social movements, Echols studies the prophetic quality of music — or the ways in which music can make audible the future that will become visible.

For example, “Joplin’s voice, raspy and often deliberately un-pretty, foreshadowed the feminist rebellion against the nice-girl conventions of postwar America,” Echols said. “[Joplin] made audible the feminism that would arrive in just a few years.”

Echol’s new book project explores the ways in which disco, often seen as regressive, actually gave a voice and space to those on the margins of the ’60s rock scene — minorities, gays and women.

When students ask how it was that the protest-filled ’60s gave way to the disco years, Echols points to her own experience as a club deejay, when she witnessed all walks of social categories melt away on a dance floor under a twirling, silver disco ball.

“Sometimes,” she said, “they [showed more camaraderie in discothèques] than they did even in the heyday of the ’60s.