2015 Honoree


By Moonah Ellison & Zoe Stagg

Photography: Scott Witter

Forget love — Pat Benatar’s whole career has been a battlefield. ”I had to literally fight every single day, to get anything that I wanted.” Far from battle weary, it’s exactly what made her who she is today. “I relish that time. I relish my job because I’m such a warrior and such a fighter. It was the perfect storm for me.”

Benatar scored her record deal in 1978, a year where five of the top 10 songs were staked out by the Bee Gees or a Gibb, and Working Girl, with all its shoulder pads and power suits, was still 10 years off. It was uncharted territory for a woman who wanted nothing more than to rock as hard as the men.

“We were on the cusp of the change, so we were inventing it as we went along.” Fast forward to a Nicki Minaj or a Miley Cyrus performance, and it puts that journey into perspective. “There are times when I laugh and I think, the amount of shit that I got for what I did at the time I was doing it, compared to what they do now is laughable. I mean I was so, so benign. That’s the only word I can think of for it, compared to what is going on today.” But Benatar is grateful the time she served, has left an impression. “The beauty of it is knowing that you got to be part of the revolution, and I’m happy that they get to do what they get to do now, because all of us went before them.” She doesn’t necessarily see shades of her style in the tough chicks now, but it’s there — even if it’s under the surface. “Everything that goes before you has influence and relevance to what happens next. So everything, even if it might not be directly influential to them, what we did, and what we accomplished, all of us — plays into where they get to be right now. And that’s the beauty of history.” Relishing her part in the war, doesn’t mean she doesn’t wish she’d been able to enjoy a few of the spoils. ”I just think “Ah! If I had just been born in this era, I would have torn it up, because the freedoms are that would be allowed for me right now would be amazing.”

She is still well in tune with the “right now,” blasting her way through her 35th anniversary tour, and keeping up with her legion of fans on Facebook and Twitter. It’s something she loves. “I’m all about the connection. You don’t really make music in a vacuum, and I’m a really private person, I have a very guarded life, because even though we’re obviously… celebrities and everything,” She can barely bring herself to use the c-word and quickly clarifies, “We don’t live a celebrity lifestyle. Our life is very, very simple and pretty guarded and we don’t really do that whole ‘Hollywood’ thing. However, I do love the connection between being an artist and the people you’re performing for.” It’s not a new connection, just one that used to be decidedly more analog in the early days of her career. ”I spent, I can’t even tell you how many hours I spent, sitting on the steps of our tour bus, signing autographs and talking to people who would wait after the show, and we would sit there and talk to each one of them, Spyder and I both. And this is in the old days, when you would get fan mail, bags and bags of fan mail, and we would answer them. So we always did it, it’s just a lot simpler now.”

Becoming the first ever woman shown on MTV, and winning the Grammy for Best Female Rock Vocal Performance, four years running — a sweep that puts her on a short list with Tina Turner and Sheryl Crow — was anything but simple. A hard left turn toward the traditional found Benatar, not on road to Juilliard after high school, but married to her high-school sweetheart and working as a bank teller in Virginia. Walking down that aisle the first time, Benatar says everything in her being was screaming at her to run. She didn’t then, but a few years later she ended up where she was headed all along — on stage in New York City. That taste of a life she didn’t want, made her ready to fight for the one she did. “I think that everything occurred, occurred as it should have been. I would never go back and try to reconstruct or change what was, not ever, because obviously all of it was meant to be, to bring us to the point where we are now. I would never go backwards and even try to second-guess the universe.” That lesson taught her to listen to those voices inside. “I will always listen to that now, even when it seems so crazy, and I try to get everyone that works with us, and surrounds us, to go with it also, which is not always an easy task.”

She’s in a place where she gets to choose who surrounds her professionally now — but that wasn’t always the case. While Benatar was fighting for the same freedoms that men in rock were granted, claiming her position as liberated, tough, and sexy, the industry was busy taking that brazenness and exploiting it. When she cracked open Billboard magazine to find herself airbrushed to look naked, the gloves came off, too. “It was a terrible day. But then you get over it, and you armor up,” you can still hear her set her chin defiantly remembering the battle. ”It was ugly. It was bloody and it was ugly. It was demeaning and it was heartbreaking. That was the saddest part. The realization of how disgusting someone could actually make this beautiful thing that you had, that was heartbreaking for me, and what it did was armored me up for the future, so it was worth it, but I have to tell you, it was truly heartbreaking. I was so naïve, and it was shocking. It hurt my soul.”

Whatever they were trying to sell, trying to turn Benatar into some kind of pin-up, she wasn’t buying. She still doesn’t, even in the present, image-obsessed world. ”Musicianship always trumps image. It only appears that it’s not, but it always does, because image is a short-lived thing. If you have no substance, and everything is based on smoke and mirrors, it doesn’t last.” Money and magic don’t travel in the same circles. ”Art is art. Art takes precedence over everything. Do I think that the selling of art should dictate how it gets done? No. Culture should never dictate to art, art should dictate to culture. Always.” Here’s where it’s clear, having 19 Top 40 singles was never what drove her. It was a much bigger calling. ”Art is divine. It’s a gift. Why you would ever let something as earthbound as marketing or anything else dictate something that was a divine gift, makes no sense.”

Though she still rocks the edgy eyeliner and tousled crop that makes her look as if the last 35 years haven’t touched her, Benatar says she wouldn’t trade places with an industry newbie for anything. Being 62 is where it’s at. ”You’re comfortable, you’re happy to be in your own skin, you like who you are, you like where you’re at, it just affords you the most incredible liberation.” Everything that comes with launching a career — struggling to be discovered, and clawing at the charts — isn’t what making music is about to her, anymore. “I’ve done it. I’ve been there. It was great. But I’m on a different part of my life now. And the part of my life that I’m in, I really, really love.”

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