You’re born with the name Patricia Mae Andrzejewski. Your mom is a beautician and your dad works with sheet metal. You pursue health education at State University of New York at Stony Brook. After graduation, you make ends meet as a bank teller in Richmond, Virginia while your Army-serving husband is stationed in Fort Lee. You watch Liza Minnelli perform in town and are inspired to quit your job and pursue a music career. You’re a woman.
This is a reminder that Pat Benatar’s life does not hinge on an entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. She already overcame mind-boggling odds the first day she walked into a professional recording studio. But if anybody is worthy of a vote into the 2020 Class, it’s her.
Go ahead, give me a reason why she doesn’t deserve it. Because she’s not influential enough? Please. As a solo female rock-pop act that dared to start her career in the late 1970s, she was sexy yet powerful, glamorous yet vulnerable. That’s only the blueprint for every female artist featured on a Millennial’s Spotify playlist right now. And, mind you, Benatar accomplished this feat in an era when the industry was loaded with dude rockers growing out their hair and doing blow and trying to churn out as much material as possible using sex as a metaphor in the lyrics. Madonna herself was still clubbing inside Danceteria when Benatar’s “You Better Run” video premiered on MTV on Aug. 1, 1981. It was sandwiched between The Buggles’ iconic “Video Killed the Radio Star” and Rod Stewart’s “She Won’t Dance with Me” during the network’s opening moments of existence. That’s not a fun pop-culture footnote; that’s a damn badge of honor.
Benatar never did have the inclination to go on American Bandstand to declare to Dick Clark that she wanted to rule the world. She preferred to empower females through her work. So you’re a real tough cookie with a long history? She can withstand it and triumph (“Hit Me With Your Best Shot”). Appreciate what you have right now or else she’s out the door (“Treat Me Right”). In “Love Is a Battlefield,” she implored young women to be strong in solidarity. These anthems weren’t coming from the perspective of a teen giving herself a pep talk after a fight with a crush. She was a 26-year-old divorcee who didn’t have time to mess around when “Heartbreaker” was released in 1979. (Benatar would marry her guitarist, Neil Giraldo, in 1982.)
But who needs a heartbreaker when you’re a hitmaker. Perhaps Benatar’s true brilliance lies in the fact that she packaged these vital, ahead-of-their-time themes in ridiculously catchy and radio-friendly songs. She placed 15 songs on the Billboard Hot 100’s top 40 and earned six platinum albums over the course of a decade. Hits such as “We Belong,” “Shadows of the Night” and “Love Is a Battlefield” continue to be go-to staples both in movies and in karaoke bars all over the country decades after they peaked on the charts. You don’t have to be an anti-social hipster still clinging to your vinyl collection to listen to Benatar’s music, let alone appreciate it.
Mind you, I suspect this truth is also the knock on Benatar. In a boys’ club of a business, she lacked the punk edge of peers Joan Jett or Debbie Harry and didn’t twirl to the beat of her own drummer like Stevie Nicks. She also never reinvented her image to amazing effect like Her Madgesty. Benatar admitted that she felt uncomfortable jutting out her hips and dancing in the “Love Is a Battlefield” clip. And yeah, the neon green gloves and ill-fitting white suit in the “We Belong” video detracted from its yearning message. But it’s wrong to discount her success just because she was a mainstream, wholesome-looking pop star. Even the “pop star” label isn’t entirely accurate: Many of Benatar’s biggest hits were enhanced by Giraldo’s brazen guitar (he’s part of her Rock Hall nomination). She also won the Grammy for best female rock vocal performance for four years in a row, from 1980 to 1983.
Pat Benatar is now 66 years old. She’s been eligible to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for 15 years, and yet she achieved her first-ever nod on Tuesday (Oct. 15) along with the likes of newer favorites such as Soundgarden, The Notorious B.I.G. and The Dave Matthews Band. She declined to release a statement on Tuesday thanking the Hall for the honor and she doesn’t need to. But I say the timing is perfect. Really. You appreciate recognition more when it doesn’t come easily. And little has come easy for Patricia Mae Andrzejewski. That is, except for her vocal talent and her verve. Yup, she belongs.