Patti Smith is an iconic singer, songwriter, musician, poet, and author. She got her start in New York City in the 1970s as a part of the punk scene and poetry scene, running with contemporaries like Janet Hamill, Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, and of course, Robert Mapplethorpe.
No secret to experimentation, over the years, Patti Smith has engaged with art of nearly every medium. She’s acted in plays and done performance art, written for Rolling Stone and Creem, published countless books of poetry and memoir, posed for photography, and sang in the Patti Smith Group, with iconic songs like ‘Dancing Barefoot’ and ‘Because of the Night’.
Unlike plenty of artists of her era, Smith has evolved with the times, recording studio albums well into the 2000s, writing literary smash books like Just Kids, and taking to Instagram for poetic captions and elusively artsy images. Patti Smith is one of those artists that’s both classic and contemporary, making for a multi-talented feminist icon.
However, Smith actually doesn’t like being referred to as a “female artist” at all. When speaking on women in music, Smith has said, “I think we’ve made tremendous strides. When I was young, I never saw any girls playing electric guitar, but now girls do whatever they want. But in terms of equality, I’m more concerned, truthfully, with the equality of people having water, people having food, people dying of starvation all over the world. I don’t worry about whether rock and roll is equal for one gender or another. That’s a fight each musician can fight on their own. I have sympathy for mothers who can’t feed their children.”
Precisely, when she has been asked about being a feminist icon, she echoed some of her long-held ideas, “One of my goals was to create space for women, but I also was hoping that we didn’t have to label ourselves as a ‘female artist’. I resented that. To me, I was an artist. We don’t use the expression ‘male artist’.”
While this might be a slightly older and detached idea from current rhetoric, her own personal choice isn’t up for debate. Patti Smith can classify herself however she sees fit as an artist, whether that perception evolves over time or stays consistent. On her early days, Smith even commented, “I had my time of being a real arrogant little s— when I was younger. I tend to be self-centred, the way artists have to be. I’d rather die unknown and poverty-stricken having done great things than be celebrated for mediocrity.”
The artist, who is now 75, has a National Book Award under her belt, in addition to numerous hit albums and songs. Whether she’s a feminist icon or simply an icon (to drop the qualifier), it doesn’t seem that she’s stopping anytime soon. As she said herself, “I need to restructure some things in my life, but I’m not retiring. I have enough songs, and we would have gone into the studio next year. But I really don’t know what’s going to happen. What I do know is I can keep writing through anything.”