In Praise of the Teenage Girl Rocker

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Why do we fuss over 17-year-old Miley Cyrus’ sexy stage shows, same-sex kisses, and, um, underpants when 16-year-old Taylor Momsen is wearing ripped fishnets and smudged eyeliner, smoking cigarettes, writing songs called “Make Me Wanna Die,” and, well, also kissing ladies? That’s what Amber James at PopEater would like to know. And while we see her point and would love it if the girlhood police would mind their own damn business re: Miley, we also see some big differences between the two teens. Whereas Miley started her career as a pure, chaste Disney icon, Taylor’s first claim to fame was playing scheming little sister Jenny Humphrey on Gossip Girl — a show that’s never professed to have a moral center. Public transformations can mean public scrutiny, especially if you’re playing up that tiresome good-girl-gone-bad vibe.

As for Momsen, who writes her own songs and just generally seems more in control of her image, she is starting to remind us of our favorite teenage rocker girls of yore. After the jump, we revisit some famous musical bad girls who made their first splash before they were legal.

The Shangri-Las

Image via NY Mag Sisters Mary and Betty Weiss and identical twins Marge and Mary Ann Ganser ranged in age from 15 to 17 when they signed their first record deal in 1964. They may look tame to contemporary eyes, but the Queens-bred Shangri-Las, with their songs about motorcycle boys (“Leader of the Pack”), underage marriage (“Give Us Your Blessings”), and death (both of the above, and most of the others), were the badasses of their time. Mary Weiss in particular was supposedly investigated by the FBI for transporting a firearm across state lines.Essential track:Leader of the Pack”

The Runaways

Everyone knows about The Runaways, a group of high-school-aged ruffians that coalesced in the mid-’70s around all-purpose Los Angeles producer/manager/impresario/creep Kim Fowley. In a few short years, the girls presaged punk, gave juvie women an anthem (“Cherry Bomb”), and launched the still-truckin’ careers of Joan Jett and Lita Ford. It may all have ended in implosion, but we can’t imagine rock ‘n roll without The Runaways. Essential track: “Cherry Bomb”

The Slits

Ari Up was a mere 14 years old when she co-founded The Slits at the height of the British punk movement in 1976. (So, yes, that means you’re still looking at an underage girl topless and drenched in mud on the cover of 1979’s Cut.) Co-conspirator Tessa Pollitt was only slightly older. At first, the young ladies could barely play their instruments, but their style grew more sophisticated as they reached in the realms of reggae and experimental music. Although they broke up in 1981, The Slits reunited in 2005, featuring a still-youthful Up and Pollitt, along with some new blood. An album of new material, Trapped Animal, appeared last year. Essential track: “Typical Girls”

Lydia Lunch

Perhaps the toughest, meanest lady — scratch that, person — to ever take the stage, Lydia Lunch is the living embodiment of New York’s chaotic, every-bitch-for-herself streets, ca. 1976. So it’s no coincidence she arrived in the city that very year, at the tender age of 16, and started the No Wave band Teenage Jesus & the Jerks with co-conspirator James Chance (later of the Contortions). Since then, she’s continued making music under a variety of auspices, acted in underground films, written books, and performed spoken word. Oh, and when we caught a rare Teenage Jesus reunion gig in 2008, Lunch was as sharp and ferocious as ever. Essential track: Teenage Jesus & the Jerks — “The Closet

Lora Logic

Girl-punk groundbreakers X-Ray Spex were fronted by the awkward and wonderful Poly Styrene, who wasn’t yet in her 20s when the band formed. But the band, in its earliest incarnation, also boasted a 16-year-old saxophone player named Lora Logic. She departed X-Ray Spex before they could release their first album, due largely to tensions with Styrene, and went on to front one of post-punk’s best bands, Essential Logic. Essential track: Essential Logic — “Aerosol Burns

ESG

Back in the late ’70s, a mother in the Bronx found a novel way to keep her girls off the streets: She gave the teenage Scroggins sisters — Maria, Renee, and Valerie — instruments. Together, they and their friends formed ESG (which stood for Emerald, Sapphire, and Gold). While they mostly toiled in obscurity during their heyday, they’ve been sampled on countless hip-hop tracks and recently sparked a revival, with fans finally appreciating their prescient combination of post-punk and funk. Essential track: “You’re No Good” (Live at Danceteria!)

Throwing Muses

Stepsisters Kristin Hersh and Tanya Donnelly co-founded Throwing Muses in 1981, when they were less than halfway through high school. Hersh was something of a musical prodigy, inspired (or perhaps possessed) to write songs after being seriously injured in a car accident. They self-released their first EP in 1984 and, after some major-league buzz, signed to 4AD. Donnelly left in the early ’90s and the band folded entirely in 1997, but both women still have active solo careers. Hersh has just written a captivating memoir of a year when she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, the band recorded its debut album, and she gave birth to her first child. It comes out in late August. Essential track: “Fish”

Alanis Morissette

Morissette may have been (barely) legal when her blistering Jagged Little Pill, featuring the dirty Dave Coulier takedown “You Oughta Know,” appeared. But her music career began years earlier, as she spent the early ’90s releasing teen pop albums that were quite popular in her native Canada. And, since this is a music post, we won’t even mention her mid-’80s stint on You Can’t Do That on TelevisionEssential track: “You Oughta Know”

The Donnas

Rock ‘n roll middle school: The Donnas formed way back in eighth grade and were playing together for over four years when they released their first, self-titled studio album in 1997. The California band definitely takes its sexy, swaggering inspiration from The Runaways, as well as a healthy dose of KISS and The Ramones. Still together after over a decade and a half, the ladies may release their next full-length as early as the end of this year. Essential track:Rock ‘n Roll Machine

Care Bears on Fire

Perhaps the youngest band on this list at the time of their formation, the trio Care Bears on Fire started rocking out in 2005, when the members were in fifth grade. Five years later, Sophie, Izzy, and Jena are still making catchy pop-punk as they collaborate with folks like Adam Schlesinger from Fountains of Wayne. They’ve already put out two full-lengths and an EP, which is a hell of a lot more than we accomplished by the time we hit 16. Essential track: “Barbie Eat a Sandwich”