March 28, 2007
Janis: A Personal Take
Janis Joplin was not cool. She wasn’t pretty. She was outrageously sexy. (Ninety percent of popular music is about sex, the other ten percent is about getting high. American popular music has a habit of pushing the limits of what is socially acceptable.) She danced funny. She took drugs & drank. She screamed when she sang. And yet her performances are mesmerizing. And however fucked up she may have been, in the recorded audio & video that we can examine, she always knew what she was ding on stage. She always knew where she was in the music. Watch the performances closely & you will see that she is clearly the leader of the band. (I’d also argue that she never in her brief life had a band that was up to her level of talent.) She was also a woman fronting a band at a time when most women were consigned to the role of backup singer or groupie. Janis Joplin was a great deal like Ma Rainey, another unattractive woman who insisted on having her way. Who insisted on artistic integrity. And who also, even though she understood the business of record-making, refused to be turned into a commodity. In a couple of the interview segments, Joplin says she doesn’t “write” songs but “makes them up.” She says of her concerts that they are “not just performance.” Maybe this is just so much hippie bullshit, but if we take her at her word, and then listen, I’d argue that she is trying to tell us something about what she’s doing. So, no, Janis wasn’t cool. She wasn’t a package that would fit nicely into a music video format. In fact, she hardly ever got played on the radio, except for the rocker “Piece of My Heart,” which she uses as a kind of happy encore in the film, bringing her fans up onto the stage to dance with her. But the song that frames the film is the previous number, “Ball and Chain,” which also opens the film. The song is originally by Big Mama Thornton, yet another strong woman who “didn’t take no shit off no one.” Joplin’s performance of that song, it seems to me, is definitive. As a performance, it makes the human voice into a kind of pre-verbal cry, erasing, at its most intense, the literal meaning of the words, breaking them down into syllables & repeating the syllables until they are no longer language, but pure music. And then she brings us back to language. Joplin’s performance of “Ball and Chain” starts with a person “looking out the window,” then, using the medium of the blues, descends into the depths of despair, taking the willing listener along on the journey, before returning us to ourselves. Except that if we have been open to the experience, we return changed. That’s what I meant in class when I talked about an “almost religious” experience. That journey, by the way, is also a fundamental structure of literature.