Taylor Momsen's The Pretty Reckless Cracks Rock Radio's Boys Club

Taylor Momsen
Paul Harries

Taylor Momsen

Former 'Gossip Girl' star is just second female singer to top Mainstream Rock Songs in 24 years

The same Taylor Momsen who once starred on the CW hit "Gossip Girl" is far away from New York's tony Upper East Side. She's half-naked, gothed up in black eye shadow and surrounded by burning books and tatted-up teens in the video for "Heaven Knows," the hit song from "Going to Hell," the sophomore album by her band The Pretty Reckless, released March 18 on Razor & Tie. Aided by the edgy video, "Heaven Knows" is spending its second straight week at the apex of Billboard's Mainstream Rock Songs radio airplay chart dated March 29. But the song is notable not just for Momsen's first breakthrough as a musician -- it's also just the second No. 1 on Mainstream Rock Songs in the last 24 years to feature a woman singing lead.

Does today's mainstream rock radio have a gender problem? Momsen, 20, doesn't think she gets treated differently than her male counterparts. "I mean, I get my own bathroom once in a while," she jokes.

But Momsen concedes she models herself after male rock icons. "I grew up wanting to be Robert Plant, Chris Cornell and John Lennon," she says. "All my influences have always been men."

It's not surprising: Rock has been dominated by men for Momsen's entire lifetime. Last April, singer Lzzy Hale topped Mainstream Rock Songs when her band Halestorm's "Freak Like Me" went to No. 1 for two weeks. Before that, one has to go back to 1990, when Alannah Myles' "Black Velvet" ruled for two weeks.

Momsen's manager, David Sonenberg, is much more scathing than her in his assessment of rock in 2014. "It's a very misogynistic world; people think that girls are posing," he says. "I don't want to be misogynistic myself, but maybe it's easier for girls to craft a pop tune than a credible rock tune."

In the 1980s, the Mainstream Rock Songs chart featured 13 female-fronted No. 1s, by Heart, Stevie Nicks and others. However, since the Alternative Songs chart's debut in 1988, the mainstream rock format has become tougher, rougher and much more male. Grunge led alternative in a gritty direction from the mid-'90s to the mid-'00s, but the format has recently shifted to softer sounds with crossover potential (Mumford & Sons, Lorde) -- leaving mainstream rock to focus on hard-rock acts like Avenged Sevenfold and Volbeat.

Mainstream rock station WTZR Johnson City, Tenn., is the biggest supporter of "Heaven Knows," leading all stations with nearly 500 plays through March 17, according to Nielsen BDS. "The format could use more stuff like this -- it's like Queen's 'We Will Rock You' with Joan Jett vocals," says PD Jay Patrix, adding that he hopes female-fronted acts like In This Moment and Butcher Babies will continue the trend.

Nonetheless, Momsen doesn't shy from using her sex appeal to push the song in a male-focused genre. At one point in the "Heaven Knows" video, which she co-directed with Jon J, she strips naked, obscured partly by body paint and strategic lighting. The cover of "Going to Hell" references the racy moment, featuring an image of her nude back, cropped just so.

"Heaven Knows" also has been boosted by Momsen's fans from "Gossip Girl," where she played social-climber Jenny Humphrey, before moving away from the show after forming The Pretty Reckless in 2009. "It helped and hurt at first," she says. "It took a minute to have people see me outside of my character. But there was a fan base already there that I could introduce to the music."

"Going to Hell" may sell between 25,000 and 30,000 copies in the week ending March 23, according to industry forecasters, a big jump from The Pretty Reckless' 2011 debut, "Light Me Up," which arrived with 9,000 sold. Momsen and her bandmates -- all men, by the way -- are pushing the album by opening for Fall Out Boy in Europe, followed by a U.S. club headlining tour through May. In the meantime, Momsen is hoping her musical talents will dispel any questions about sexism in rock: "I don't really think about it as gender-separate -- if you can write a good song, you can write a good song."