By Lily Grae and Ashley McFaul
Chrissie Hynde isn’t known for possessing soft edges and sentimentality. Then again, Chrissie Hynde isn’t one to let anyone define or label her as anything but a jobbing musician. She’s never shied away from saying what she means, popular opinion or not, and for some reason, this is surprising to people.
Hynde was part of a subculture — punk. Punk rock has an entire legacy that exists outside of today’s trendy t-shirts hanging from department store clothing racks. Punk had its own code. Punk rock was controversial. It was riotous. It made people ask questions. Punk rock was as much a reflection of the artists who created it, as it was a reflection of the way those artists viewed the world around them.
Hynde’s band, The Pretenders, were off the beaten path from punk’s roots when they formed in the late ‘70s — toeing a line between punk and new wave instead, with Chrissie’s more melodic songwriting and original guitarist, James Honeyman-Scott’s guitar playing accenting more jagged moments of punk influence. Songs like “Brass in Pocket” and “Stop Your Sobbing” are still among some of the most recognizable tunes from the era, and there’s a reason for that longevity: Chrissie Hynde absolutely doesn’t give up, and say what you will, but that’s to be admired.
Over the last couple of years, Hynde hasn’t been a favorite where the media or feminists are concerned. Her 2015 memoir, “Reckless,” got much praise, until it didn’t. The memoir traces Hynde’s steps from a childhood and adolescence in Akron, Ohio, to her time spent in the thick of London’s ‘70s punk scene, where she wrote for NME and eventually found herself associated with members of (and in some instances as an early member of) bands that would later become The Clash, The Damned, and The Sex Pistols. She slept on floors from Paris to Arizona and back again, often going where restlessness happened to take her right up until the formation of The Pretenders.
Promotional interviews for the book quickly turned focus on Hynde’s recount of an experience with sexual assault — an experience for which she took full responsibility. Hynde was consequently raked over the coals, but she didn’t seem to mind. In response to the backlash, Hynde responded, “I told my story the way I saw it. I’m not here to advise anyone or validate myself or justify anything. I regret a lot of things I did.” Isn’t it anti-feminist to attack a woman for speaking her truth? You can’t ask someone to play the victim in their own story; it’s counter-intuitive.
Hynde just went on nonplussed. In February, Arena released an hour-long documentary “Arena: Alone With Chrissie Hynde,” on BBC4. The documentary, which is a preview of a 90-minute version, follows Hynde through more intimate settings: her homes in London and Paris, and her adolescent stomping grounds in Ohio. Mostly the camera follows Hynde doing what she does best — whatever the hell she wants.
She’s a rockstar who loves meandering through cities, hopping on city buses, and soaking up the culture around her. Hynde’s rise to fame came about when making music was about making music — not about the celebrity status, and it damn sure wasn’t about likes and follows. Watching Hynde hang out in parks and walk around hometown shopping malls makes it more understandable why, in our hyper celebrity-obsessed climate, she would come off as defensive, when at every turn, someone is trying to label her as something other than an artist, or, better yet, trying to get her to label herself.
The title of the documentary comes from one of the singles off of the Pretenders’ newest album by the same name, “Alone.” In both the song and the film, she shows you how she’s perfectly content being her own company. The closing line of the documentary sums Hynde and her feelings up perfectly: “I’m a prize, if people don’t pick up on that, fuck ‘em!”
Since October, The Pretenders have been on a very successful double bill tour with Stevie Nicks. The tour has crisscrossed the country twice, bringing fans of both artists together in celebration. The show is equal parts leather and lace, edge and sentimentality. The night kicks off with Chrissie and the Pretenders punching you square in the face, followed by Nicks to swaddle you.
Here’s the thing, if you’ve seen the show, you know Hynde is quick to call out anyone on the front row with a cellphone in her face — she’s not going to hesitate to speak her mind. You want to know where her heart is? You want her story? Listen to her songs. Where there is strength, there is vulnerability. Her lyrics stand for themselves — a channel of emotions and thoughts and stories from Chrissie Hynde, the lead Pretender, a jobbing musician who persevered.