Three years ago, ’80s rock icon Pat Benatar titled her autobiography “Between a Rock and a Heart Place.” That alone invoked the presence of another prominent rock act of that era, but there was no actual mention of the band Heart.
Last year, Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson published “Kicking and Dreaming: A Story of Heart, Soul and Rock & Roll.” That oral history of the band had no mention, in any form, of Benatar.
Okay, technically, there’s no reason to assume that either act would mention the other. Does every male rock act acknowledge every other male rock act?
Yet, even if it was because of a lack of enlightenment among PDs, the two acts did end up battling for the same franchise at radio. Through the ’80s, there was only one instance when both acts had real hits simultaneously.
Heart’s initial streak of hits—”Magic Man,” “Dreamboat Annie,” “Barracuda,” “Straight On,” etc.—pretty much grinds to a halt when the tough-talking Benatar (famous publicity quote: “If you hurt me, I’ll kick your ass”) shows up in 1979 and makes them seem sort of quaint. Heart’s “Even It Up” comes out amid the excitement about Benatar’s ironically titled “Heartbreaker” and gets lost quickly.
A year later, “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” confirms Benatar’s stardom. Heart’s remake of “Tell It Like It Is” is actually the bigger chart hit (No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 for Benatar, No. 8 for Heart), but it’s easy now to tell which one was the real hit.
Not every Benatar title connected. The singles from her next project were the more perfunctory “Fire and Ice,” which spent its follow-up excitement quickly, and less pop-friendly “Promises in the Dark.” It’s at that moment, when Heart is also between projects, that Quarterflash’s “Harden My Heart,” Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” and Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock & Roll” all explode.
But Benatar remains a regular chart presence, offering up “Love Is a Battlefield” and “We Belong.” Heart goes cold and leaves Epic. Shortly thereafter, it signs with Capitol, starts using outside songwriters and unleashes a string of videos featuring sexier outfits that they describe as their “leave it to cleavage” period.
In summer 1985, Benatar is in the top 10 with “Invincible.” Heart’s Capitol debut, “What About Love,” also hits the top 10, launching a five-year comeback. It’s the only time both acts have smashes simultaneously. Benatar never cracks the top 10 again.
There wasn’t only one slot for male rockers—some combination of REO Speedwagon, Styx, Foreigner and Journey often co-existed on the charts in the early ’80s. Styx’s new wave opus “Mr. Roboto” is a hit at the same time as Journey’s similarly ambitious “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart).” At most, all those acts benefited from Boston helping create the category, then taking so many hiatuses.
“Kicking and Dreaming” extensively chronicles the many awful things that were said to and written about the Wilsons as breakthrough female rockers in the late ’70s and early ’80s. But if the Wilsons sensed a Benatar rivalry, or even a male-led industry insistence on creating one, it doesn’t rate a mention. If the two acts had mutual admiration and hated being played off against each other, nobody says that either.
Even in the ’00s, you would hear about acts “taking each other’s slot” at radio. Kelly Clarkson and P!nk profited from each other’s dry spells. Chris Brown seemed like a fresher, less personally encumbered Usher, until he wasn’t. Now, multiple acts can share a hot producer and have similar feeling hits at once. Demi Lovato cracked radio on the heels of Selena Gomez’s breakthrough, and the two are happily sharing the charts again.
As for the “female rocker” slot, it famously dried up entirely in the late ’90s/early ’00s. Evanescence broke the log jam. A decade later, being a female-led rock act is, happily, no longer news in itself, but all “rock” acts—whether Imagine Dragons, the Lumineers or Paramore—compete for the few top 40 slots not earmarked for rhythmic or “turbo-pop.” Those slots have expanded, but not proportionate to available product.
Amid that backdrop, there’s no consistent female rock hitmaker, unless you consider that Benatar’s “I’ll kick your ass” mantle has long been taken up by P!nk. But she’s the one asking, “Where’s the rock’n’roll?” in her songs, not the one actually filling the need. If Heart and Benatar sharing one radio slot was backwards three decades ago, we somehow seem to have moved backwards since then.