New York native soprano Pat Benatar came crashing onto the rock and roll scene ready to change the landscape of the male dominated music industry. Four time Grammy award winning Benatar kick-started her lengthy list of accomplishments by being the first female artist to be played on MTV — performing her hit “You Better Run” on August 1, 1981 — later becoming one of the most heavily featured artists on the network. Benatar was among the wave of female pioneers who took the Top 40 singles chart by storm – 15 of her songs were featured on the chart which included popular singles “Hit Me With Your Best Shot,” “We Belong,” and “Love is a Battlefield.” Benatar’s first single “Heartbreaker” propelled the rock star to platinum status with her debut album In The Heat of the Night.
After a tour date at the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles, co-headlining with Melissa Etheridge, we spoke to Benatar about her history in rock music as a feminist, her memoir Between a Heart and a Rock Place, her inspirations and more.
What was it like to be the first woman played on MTV?
Thrilling, odd, crazy and fun. We had no idea what was about to happen — we thought we were just doing another performance video that would be shown on TV. The idea that the video would be played 24 hours a day — was unfathomable. In one week, our lives were forever changed.
Did you feel any sort of pressure to play to the changing landscape of the music industry or play to that video star persona?
Absolutely not, we were part of that emerging landscape. We were creating the video star persona organically, we were just being ourselves.
Getting control of your career and fighting the over-sexualization of your image wasn’t an easy thing to do. What was that battle like?
The struggle to take control of the image was difficult. When it was my idea, it worked, but it was very limiting and became tedious. But of course, by that time, the record company had a winning combination and fought hard to keep it, we fought constantly and bitterly for the rest of our time there.
Catch A Rising Star was a place where a lot of comics got their breaks. What attracted you to it as a singer?
I was living in Richmond, VA playing in a local band and going to school. I had read an article in the New York times about Catch, it mentioned that up and coming singers could audition there as well. I missed New York so much and wanted to go home, it was the perfect excuse.
How did The Zinger shape your transition into rock and roll from a more lounge inspired style?
The Zinger was such a campy production, it really was more musical theater than rock and roll. It didn’t really have much of an influence on my future career. Working with young songwriters at Catch, helped me find my voice. And of course, meeting my muse, Neil Giraldo, putting the band together and working side by side was the most important factor — the catalyst that propelled everything forward.
How do you think your career has influenced your daughters’ endeavors?
As for our youngest, Hana, who is the singer songwriter, she was born feisty! I’m sure some of it’s genetic, but she is a highly motivated, talented, tornado. Her genre of music is vastly different from ours. Our oldest daughter, Haley is a designer. I think — I hope– both of our daughters witnessed the power of hard work and commitment from both parents. They certainly saw first hand what can be accomplished as a female. They are both very smart, confident, kind and talented young women.
You were nominated for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance eight times are tied for most wins in the category. The category merge in 2005 came with a lot of scrutiny on both sides of the argument. On one side, there’s the idea that distinguishing male and female vocals is sexist and they should be judged together. But the other side is that, since the merge, only six women have been nominated, even though there’s certainly not a lack of outstanding female performances each
year. What are your thoughts?
This is always such a difficult topic. I have mixed feelings — I hate the idea of being singled out as a “Female Rocker.” It defeats the entire argument that we are all the equal. At the same time, the sheer number of males versus females will always tip the scale. Because of the era grew up in, it’s hard to shake that nagging rub, that being separated, labeled as “female” in some way is a slight, a way to subliminally suggest inferiority. It’s interesting, because personally, I don’t feel that way at all. I’m proud, so secure, and even a little arrogant when it comes to being a woman. I wait for the day when that feeling permeates everything!
How has your self-identification as a feminist influenced your career and the ways you’ve given back to the music community?
Yes, definitely. Mentoring young women is where my heart is. Having two daughters has made it my mission.
What about the music industry would you like to see change, from a feminist perspective? Why were you reluctant to write your memoir Between a Heart and a Rock Place?
There has been so much progress in the music industry, but the old prejudices and ideas still exist. Old habits die hard! Thankfully, we now have laws and legislation to protect us, for the most part. There is still much to be done. I do feel confident that women today, are very aware and take a strong, passionate stance about their rights. I thoroughly enjoyed writing Between a Heart and a Rock Place. I was a little reluctant to write it because of the time necessary to get it done properly. I only said yes because they promised I’d have help. The co-writer, Patsi Bale Cox, came to me and said, ”You can do this. You should do this. It needs to be in your own voice.” So I did. She helped me organize the stories and all my thoughts and then she pushed me “out of the nest.” In the end, she was right and I loved every moment of the process.
You were on the We Live For Love Tour with your husband Neil and singer Melissa Etheridge through the summer. You chose to continue to play in states where anti-LGBTQ laws were passed, such as Mississippi and North Carolina. Why is that?
Neil (Spyder) and I have been staunch advocates for LGBTQ rights for 37 years. We felt that we could better serve the community by continuing to support them the way we always have, by standing in defiance, to those who seek to squash their rights. We discussed this with Melissa and she agreed.
What social issues inspire you to try to make change in the world?
Hunger, children’s rights, the elderly’s rights, women’s rights, animal rights, racial and sexual equality — we don’t have enough time. We all have the ability to make changes in the world, everyone has the power to do good.
If you could give your 25-year-old self advice, what would it be?
My 25-year-old self? You are about to begin an amazing adventure, do not be afraid! Listen to your gut, it’s always right. Be kind, be loving, be smart. All you have at the end of the day is the people you love and who love you, and your integrity. Lighten up and try to have a little fun along the way.
To read our full interview with Pat Benatar, order Inspirer’s fall issue here!