Let Us Now Praise Tammy Rock

Tom Maxwell
12 min readJul 29, 2021

Those of you who know me might be a bit surprised by what I’m about to do, which is to make the case for a musical genre. Not only that, it’s one that I made up!

I should say from the start that, to me, genre identifiers are antithetical to good art. They might work as an aesthetic shorthand for non-musicians – — and do wonderfully well as a marketing tool — but by their nature they stifle diversity of expression, which is the lifeblood of creativity. No doubt y’all are aware of my frustrations with Squirrel Nut Zippers being labeled a “swing band.” It was an unhappy situation made worse by the fact that most contemporary “swing” music was formulaic and dull. Not for nothing, I’ve always loved the fact that Duke Ellington’s highest praise of great art was that it was “beyond classification.”

Having gotten all that out of the way, however, please indulge my concept of “Tammy Rock” and all the great music that falls under that umbrella. In general, I’m referring to popular music created by women which achieved its greatest expression in the 1980s. Although there are a number of stylistic identifiers of Tammy Rock, what really binds it together is an unapologetic idea of equality: its protagonists are strongly feminine, but refuse to submit to traditional cultural concepts of gender-typing as disempowering.

Although I don’t consider it part of the genre, special mention must be made of Leslie Gore’s 1963 hit “You Don’t Own Me.” This is a wonderful song of total emancipation, sung to a teeny-bopper makeout arrangement. It’s worth featuring Gore’s David Lynchian performance on none other than the T.A.M.I. Show from 1964. The entire show is a fantastic catalog of popular music from that time, with the title being an acronym for “Teen Age Music International.”

I use the word “Tammy” with tongue in cheek. A tammy, at least to me, was the tough, tomboyish girl who frequented the high school smoking section; somebody who wouldn’t take any shit but wasn’t a bully. Tammys of a certain age would have a roach clip with a feather on the end. They…

Tom Maxwell

Tom‘s work has appeared in Longreads, The Oxford American, Bitter Southerner, Slate, Salon, and Southern Cultures, among others. He usually writes about music.