In the wake of #MeToo, we explore the complex and evolving role of groupies
by Yasmine Shemesh
Penny insists they aren’t groupies. Groupies, she says—her eyes sparkling behind purple sunglasses—sleep with rock stars because they want to be near someone famous. “We’re here because of the music. We inspire the music.”
That’s the audience’s introduction to Penny Lane, the soulful, self-proclaimed Band Aid (which for her is a more accurate description of what a groupie actually is) in Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical power ballad about a teenage rock journalist who joins the fictionalized band Stillwater on tour for a dream assignment for Rolling Stone. The 2000 film takes a loving look at the 1970s rock scene through the eyes of its 15-year old protagonist, William Miller. Two decades later, Almost Famous has endured as a coming-of-age classic and a consummate film for music enthusiasts and journalists alike. But, let’s be honest: The real star of the film isn’t William. It isn’t even Stillwater. The brightest, most dazzling light of all radiates from Penny Lane.
Portrayed by Kate Hudson in her breakout role, Penny Lane is, at once, the band’s muse, their rock and their biggest fan. Based on a few young and iconic groupies of the time, like Pennie Lane Trumbull and Pamela Des Barres, as director Crowe told Des Barres in her memoir, Let’s Spend the Night Together, the character of Penny represented a feeling: pure love for the music.
But the role of groupies, who also sometimes had relationships with the musicians they followed, has always appeared complicated under the scrutinizing gaze of popular culture and, Des Barres tells FLARE, is still greatly misunderstood. As Almost Famous turns 20 in a world reckoning with its problematic treatment of women through movements like #MeToo, that role feels more complex than ever.
The heyday of groupies was a time of cultural, spiritual and sexual revolution
While the world in which Penny Lane thrived may seem like the stuff of movies, for many people it was a reality. The late ’60s were brimming with youth culture and idealism—and the possibility of creating change through protest, feminism and sexual liberation. The revolution was a response to socio-political changes like post-war gender roles, new forms of birth control, and the growing momentum of the Civil Rights Movement. Des Barres, who was a friend and lover of Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger and Jimmy Page, among others, as well as a member of the Frank Zappa-produced experimental music project, the GTOs (Girls Together Outrageously), was in the thick of it all. “You really believed that you were making a difference just by being wild and free,” Des Barres tells FLARE from her home in Reseda, California. “I was taking my birth control pills right on the street. I was my own kind of feminist.”
Counterculture reverberated through generation-defining music. In Los Angeles, Sunset Boulevard became an epicentre for rock and roll. Venues brought in bands like the Doors, the Byrds and the Rolling Stones, helping cultivate a legendary scene. Des Barres had always been deeply moved by music and wanted to be part of that world. The first time she went backstage, at 16, was at a Byrds show on the Strip—she just knocked on the door. Guitarist Roger McGuinn opened it and handed her a joint. After high school, she fully immersed herself in the scene. Her friend, Don Van Vliet—the artist Captain Beefheart—introduced her to Frank Zappa and, as part of the GTOs, Des Barres had knocks on her own backstage door. She would also meet bands at other shows. Page, who she went on to have a relationship with, courted her at a Bo Diddley concert.
“There was so much going on,” Des Barres recalls. “There were so many clubs to go to and so many gigs every night, you couldn’t decide which one to attend. Of course, I spent most of my time at the Whiskey a Go Go. They did have all the great music. [Led] Zeppelin would play the Forum one night and they played the Whiskey the next night for 250 people, because it was the coolest place to be.”
Groupies have always held a divisive—and misunderstood—role
One of the most misconstrued notions about groupies is that sleeping with a rock star is their entire impetus (and also, so what if it is the only reason?). For many groupies, Des Barres included, sex was only one part of the job description. More predominantly, the groupie’s role is deeply rooted in being a muse—a guiding spirit that helps an artist reach the heights of creative genius—according to Des Barres.
Draped in hand-cut velvet mini dresses, feather boas and antique lace, Des Barres herself was a major fashion influence on some of the bands she most adored. Making shirts for Jagger and Page and taking them vintage shopping, Des Barres contributed to the bohemian aesthetic that’s synonymous with the time and those acts.
“I took Zeppelin, Rod Stewart, [and] Jeff Beck to their very first vintage store in Hollywood called the Glass Farmhouse,” Des Barres recalls. “And I took all of Zeppelin to [Nudie’s] Rodeo Tailors, where I worked for a very short time, to get did out in country clothes. You could find a lot of pictures of Jimmy wearing Western gear for a certain point in time. You know, people, they wanted to be with us. We were women who understood what they were doing and loved what they were doing, would talk about music with them, turned them on to different music, and vice versa. It was very equal.”
In fact, groupies like Pennie Trumbull and her Flying Garter Girls held a lot of subtle power in their roles as cultural intermediaries, a role reflected through Penny in Almost Famous. In the film, Penny quite literally helps get William’s foot in the tour bus door—he arguably only gains the truly intimate access to Stillwater that he does through his connection to Penny and her Band Aids.
“The things that the women in the movie do are incredibly important parts of the music industry,” says Dr. Paula Harper, a postdoctoral fellow in musicology at the University of Washington in St. Louis. The way in which the Band Aids navigate connections and curate parties, she says, is actually akin to public relations and marketing work—labour they would be paid for if they were men and not negotiating whether they were also sexually available or not.
But this autonomy—and influence—is often overlooked when we think of or discuss groupies in this period of time. Perhaps similarly to why Penny distanced herself from the word “groupie,” Des Barres also balked against it for a while as it became, she says, a pejorative term and a finger-pointing jeer for a “loose woman” desperate to bed rock stars. And don’t get her wrong; there were girls, she says, whose goal was to sleep with musicians, roadies, managers and sound check people, but the fact is “Nothing’s wrong with it,” as Des Barres says. “That’s another thing: you can do what you want with your body. You’re not hurting anyone. If that’s what you want to do, do it.” Even though Des Barres married a musician—her former husband is English rocker Michael Des Barres—which, she says, is what she wanted, the label groupie has followed her around her adult life. “I had to try to redeem that word [groupie] for decades, because it’s a misunderstood concept,” she says.
Judgement is something Des Barres faces to this day. “I’m still called and labelled—at age 71, almost 72—a slut, a whore,” she says. “And it’s usually [by] men. Misogynistic men on Facebook—that’s the worst—making horrible, lewd, disgusting comments on my photos with Keith Moon [that] I put up, or whoever.”
In large part, this misogynistic response to groupies stems from long-held societal ideals around the safeguarding of girlhood. “So much of white middle-class culture in America is built around this idea of the preservation of girlish innocence,” Dr. Harper says. “It’s all well and good for you to pick your favourite Beatle and imagine holding his hand, but as soon as you’re like, ‘I would also be interested in having sex with him,’ it’s like, whoa, whoa, whoa, no, no, no. Young girls are meant to be virginal forever. You’re never meant to think about sex, much less have sex.
“As soon as this precious girl has sex, there’s no protection anymore. All that societal concern and need to sanctify goes away, and the fault lays squarely on the shoulders of that ‘fallen woman.’”
But it’s a disservice to compare the ’60s to now
Des Barres wrote her first memoir, I’m With the Band, in 1987. The book was trailblazing in how it unapologetically defined her sexuality on her own terms, despite being lambasted as too racy, mostly, she says, by other feminists who saw her as subservient to men. (“So not the case,” Des Barres emphasizes.) “So very few women talked about their sexuality at that point,” she adds. As such, her candour was unique, exemplifying the importance of women speaking out honestly about their sexual experiences, positive or negative.
And that includes up to today. Since the 2017 resurgence of the #MeToo movement, sexual misconduct allegations against celebrities have emerged almost daily; and with rock’s history of glorified excess and debauchery, debates have been ignited over consent, power dynamics and underage girls, particularly around “baby groupies” like Sable Starr and Lori Mattix, who famously lost her virginity to David Bowie at 15. Des Barres stresses the importance of #MeToo, but also says the times can’t be compared in retrospect.
“I would certainly not agree with [musicians sleeping with underage girls] now—not that I agreed with it then, but it was a different timeframe,” Des Barres says, speaking to how much older men having sex with much younger women, or girls, was more culturally acceptable in the late ’60s and into the ’70s. She cites Loretta Lynn, who was legally married at 15 in 1948, as an example. “I know [how] that sounds, in today’s world—you’d probably get shit for that, for even printing me saying that ‘it was a different time frame’—but you have to put things into context and perspective.”
(Still, while this behaviour was more widely accepted then, that doesn’t mean it was ever OK. Thankfully, there are more platforms available within which to discuss these issues—and the nuances around them—today.)
Des Barres, who has become close with Mattix over the years, adds that “[Lori’s] had to deal with a lot of shit because she was underage.” When asked in an interview withThrillist if she felt exploited, Mattix responded on the contrary—she looked back fondly on that time in her life. “Who cares what people said about me? I feel like I was very present. I saw the greatest music ever. I got to hang out with some of the most amazing, most beautiful, most charismatic men in the world.”
At the same time, predatory people and enabling networks have existed and still do exist in the backstage shadows of the music industry, where power dynamics can become blurred into abusive territory. California label Burger Records recently shut down after many of the imprint’s bands were accused of sexual assault on social media. In 2017, Brand New singer Jesse Lacey was accused of sexual abuse, child grooming, and soliciting explicit photos from minors. Chris Crippin, former drummer for the band Hedley, spoke to CBC about witnessing years of inappropriate behaviour by frontman Jacob Hoggard, who is facing allegations of sexual abuse, and who Crippin says bullied him into keeping quiet. There are countless other examples.
This is, of course, part of a broader problem that we’ve seen repeated across industries—like in film, for example, and the spectacular fall of disgraced producer Harvey Weinstein that was driven by #MeToo and Time’s Up.
“Until we got to the enthusiastic adoption of the #MeToo movement, this was just the widespread norm across a lot of industries: powerful people taking advantage of the fact that their industry is selective and controlled by a small number of incredibly influential gatekeepers, that that structure is deeply exploitable in a lot of ways, one of which is sexual,” Dr. Harper says. “I wouldn’t necessarily say [movements like #MeToo] are the dying gasps of rock star-ism, as much as [they are] endemic to industries that operate with no oversight and with no recourse for people who are treated badly in that system.”
The internet has made space for new forms of fan collectives
Social media has provided a new platform for revealing abuses of power, Dr. Harper adds. And similarly to how the internet has created space for these voices, it has also allowed fan collectives to emerge in new ways.
Dr. Harper suggests there are modern internet versions of the groupie: those who enthusiastically circulate in the fandom spaces of social media and constantly engage with their favourite artists or post about them. The virtual world is another avenue for fan communities to organize, support the bands that they love, and connect with others who share their passion for the music. One of these groups is “stans.”
But are stans—the millennial term for obsessive fandom, as coined by Eminem in his 2000 hit of the same name—actually comparable to the groupies of the ’60s and ’70s? Are they a new form of groupies? Maybe. But some key differences do exist, including the fact that stans are generally a mass phenomenon and less of an individual one, and sex—or the desire to sleep with said favourite celebrity—appears to be less a part of stan culture than some of the groupies before them. Plus, there’s the toxic side of stan culture that can reach dangerous depths to defend their idols against any perceived criticism—a few journalists have recently received the awful brunt of it.
Stans, like groupies, can also possess a deeply meaningful affinity for their favourites. And their ultimate goal is to help their favourite celebrities succeed. In Stan Stories, a series in Paper that explores what it means to be a stan, E and R of the Billie Eilish Twitter account @eilishupdates spoke about how they’ll always love and respect the singer, and that their love for her has given them both great memories and new friendships with fellow stans. They also commended Eilish for how she “wants us to feel like she isn’t unreachable by interacting with us constantly.”
Celebrity, of course, has always been accompanied by feelings of inaccessibility from those on the proverbial outside. But, glamorous facades aside, it was much easier for fans to meet their favourite band a few decades ago than it is now. And while social media has provided a perceived intimate window into the lives of our subjects of fandom, things like tight security at enormous venues, endless entourages, and even millions of followers, can make accessing those stars feel nearly impossible. But, as demonstrated with Eilish bridging that gap by often engaging directly with her stans, Dr. Harper thinks that the internet has just made access available in a different way.
“This is just a new mode of celebrity fan interaction that is maybe not precedent on the fact that you were in the same city as David Bowie, but you are persistent enough at adding Cardi B [on social media],” she explains.
All things considered—and despite the pure love for music that a rock muse radiates—Des Barres doesn’t think the role of groupie will ever be celebrated, simply, she says, because society is so uptight about sexuality and groupies are equated with sex. Any other important labour they participate in, like marketing or public relations, as Dr. Harper observes, is collapsed to sexual availability under the rubric of “groupie.”
But people are still so fascinated by them, Des Barres adds, because they symbolize a bygone era; a rock renaissance. She likens Morrison to Da Vinci and Michelangelo, artists who changed the world with their art. As she writes in Let’s Spend the Night Together, the music made her feel wildly alive and she wanted in on the cosmic secret. To get close to the golden gods.
Sapphire, a Band Aid in Almost Famous portrayed by Fairuza Balk, perhaps brings it home best: “They don’t even know what it is to be a fan. Y’know? To truly love some silly little piece of music, or some band, so much that it hurts.”