When in 1964 two young sisters at home in Seattle watched The Beatles perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, they decided right then they wanted to be just like the band. Almost immediately they formed their own group, practiced without instruments, till the elder sister aged 14, bought her first guitar.
Had she been told then, that 42 years later she would be ranked one of the “Top Heavy Metal Vocalists of All Time” by Hit Parader magazine, and that she would always be regarded as one of the best female vocalists in rock music history, I doubt Ann Wilson would have believed it.
Ann and her sister Nancy went from just wanting to be in the music business, to a duo in the world famous band Heart, who were successful in the 70’s, hit a small decline in the early 80’s and made their comeback in 1985.
It was darn nigh impossible for women in rock in the ’70s. There wasn’t a mold if you were a woman and you were in the entertainment in the ’70s. You were probably a disco diva or a folk singer, or simply ornamental. Radio would play only one woman per hour.” – Ann Wilson
I first heard a Heart song when I was almost a teen. “If Looks Could Kill” was not a new song by then, but I definitely didn’t care about that when I listened to it. And, I mean I actually listened to it. It was difficult to not completely focus on the driving musical arrangement, which was accompanied only by the powerfully belting voice of the singer, who to my surprise was a woman. I loved rock music, but it was mostly male dominated in my limited experience, and I had never heard a female voice quite like that before. Her voice rang in my ears for weeks after, only because I kept playing and replaying the song, singing along with it totally off key and marveling at just how awesome she was.
By the time ‘Alone‘ was released in 1987, I was a solid Heart fan, and a die hard Ann Wilson one, because of whom I searched for more female rockers and discovered the likes of Joplin, Hynde, Benatar and later Melissa Etheridge and Stevie Nicks, to name a few.
‘Alone’ by Heart was a massive success. Wilson’s voice was simply stunning, incomparable really, and propelled the song up the global charts where it raged on and on for weeks. I still consider it the song/performance which secured Carrie Underwood her American Idol win in Season 4.
Drawn in completely by Wilson’s amazing voice and rocking performances, I listened to a lot of Heart songs back in the 90’s, watched their videos on MTV, knew the lyrics to many of their numbers and even sought out all of their 70’s stuff. Barracuda, a massive 70’s hit and much before my time, still remains a favorite.
It wasn’t till later though that I began to feel a vague sense of unease while watching Heart’s music videos, both 90’s and from the 80’s. Something always seemed off about them, and it took a while to notice that Ann who was the lead singer of the band, did not for some reason get as much screen focus as lead singers in other bands did. It was difficult to pinpoint exactly how this was happening, or if it really was, because, rock music videos are faster paced and the camera tends to swing from frame to frame with a lot of lighting effects and what not. However, I learned later that it was in fact deliberately being done.
Ann had weight issues, which the producers and directors thought would not be well received by the public. Stories emerged of the singer struggling with her weight, of the big wigs pushing her to lose it for the sake of appearance and celebrity. They felt the band had an image to maintain and her being overweight was not acceptable. Desperate to pacify them, she began to starve herself in an effort to reduce the poundage. It came out later that this wasn’t the first time Ann Wilson had been targeted because she had the tendency to gain weight due to obesity. As a child she was severely bullied in school for the same thing.
Her efforts did not work out well, so ‘creatives’ began shooting Heart’s music videos with special clothing for Ann, as well as ‘special angles’ and effects when focusing on her, and then cutting to full length shots of her sister Nancy who played lead guitar and was much slimmer.
You have to also provide a video for it, look a certain way and big hair… If you’re a woman it’s even more strange with fake fingernails and corsets and all this stuff that was big in the 80s.” – Ann Wilson
All of this sort of spoiled my viewing of Heart’s music videos, and when I watch them now it makes me angrier than it did before. Personally, I loved Wilson’s style, the way she carried herself and rocked on stage, her famous tattoo, her jewelry. She was the entire package. We didn’t love Heart because of how thin or fat both the sisters were. No true rock fan gives a good God damn about crap like that. It’s the music that matters, the presence, individual style, the passion, arrangements and voice, and if singers and bands gave us that, we loved them forever. – Ann Wilson gave it to us in spades.
Aside from the music, that’s really the only thing which pacifies me now when I watch old Heart videos. Despite all the bullshit surrounding her weight, her struggles and battles, nothing stopped Wilson from singing to the best of her abilities, or putting herself out there the best way she could. For me, it was what made her classy. There was nothing and not many who could, (and still can’t) touch her when it comes to the incredible range of her voice and her brilliance at being a true rocker, both on and off stage.
Topping with 10 albums on the Billboard Album Charts in the 70’s, 80’s, 90’s and 2010’s, inductees in the Rock and Roll Music Hall of Fame, #57 in VH1’s ‘100 Greatest Artists of Hard Rock’. You can’t achieve all that by being just body perfect and without a voice, without hard work, dedication to your craft, and insane amounts of commitment to honing your real talents.
But, when Ann Wilson underwent weight loss surgery in 2002, I understood why she eventually did it, when she revealed she had also struggled with alcohol and cocaine abuse through her career, but finally got sober, I felt sympathy and admiration. It never touched how I felt about her as a musician though. It never will.
She’s a legend, and one of the strongest musical influences in my life, who will always remain that.
Ann Wilson of Heart – Singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist. A phenomenal Rock Star.