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.

Turtle Blues

Ball and Chain (07_Ball_And_Chain.mp3)



27 Responses to “Janis: A Personal Take”

  1.   Howard J Says:

    I believe that Janis is one of the most honest performers that I have ever listened to. Most musicians say that they don’t do it for the money or fame etc, but they certainly do not truly mean that. I appreciated the interviews in the video because Janis was so upfront and honest as well as humorous. You could really see that she was not putting on a face, that was just her. Also, even though Janis was not the most physically attractive singer, she was attractive in the way she carried herself and I think that is why so many loved her music. Her character, voice, energy, moves, and lyrics were unlike any other of that time. I also liked how Janis took the spotlight on stage without trying to (if that makes sense). She was definitely the leader and the driver of energy but I believe that it was natural and not a show. She loved to involve the audience as well as give credit to her band on stage. Janis was a musician and singer because that was her destiny and purpose here, to be a true musician that lived and sang for the love of music, not for any other reason.

  2.   Evan Says:

    I agree with everything you said professor, as well as what Howard J said. Janis was able to become so successful while being at a disdvantage because she was an unattractive woman. She was able to overcome this with her passion and love for music and singing. The screaming and funny dancing was annoying at first, but the more you watch and listen the more mesmorizing her performances become.

  3.   Kelly Whiting Says:

    I cannot deny that I admire her for her I-don’t-take-shit-from-anyone-attitude, nor-do-I-care-what-people-think-about-me-attitude, or this-is-me-take-it-or-leave-it-attitude especially being a female at Clarkson and a businesswoman, not man (sorry guys but I had to say it!) And honestly, I couldn’t imagine if everyone in our world was as honest and pure. I have to say thought, I do think, as Prof. Duemer hinted, that some of the things she said were the “hippie bullshit” or the dope slipping through a little, but this is not to discredit her talent, but maybe just some of the things she said that I just can’t come to believe that it was her being philosophical (or musical) such as saying that she is not “writing” songs but “making” them. However, on the other hand, maybe that is just her passion, which is very evident in her interviews and performances, that is just overcoming her and her speech, which very well maybe the case. Honestly, like in my last post, I am again still torn with Janis. I do know one thing though, anyone that can allow us to have such an in depth discussion about is truly noteworthy and remarkable person in our history.

  4.   Mary G Says:

    I still contend that I do not personally agree with a lot of her music or her style. However, I don’t know many females in the world today who couldn’t take a few hints from her in-your-face, i-don’t-care-what-you-think-about me attitude. Off topic-too many women today don’t believe in themselves or who they want to be; whether it be physical or mental. It drives me nuts to see some women so insecure because I really believe that we are all unique and wonderful people in our own element, whatever that may be. So, for Janis, she was a woman of her own element. And for that I applaud her for paving the way into the liberation of women. Maybe we’ll have a female president someday soon…..haha…however I doubt that it will be sooner than later (but I am not so pessimistic as to say, if ever).

  5.   jd Says:

    Kelly, there was certainly a lot of BS in the cultural attitudes of the sixties. Just as there has been a lot of BS in the cultural attitudes of every decade since. Same bullshit, different decade, if you get my meaning.

  6.   Kelly Whiting Says:

    Good point (“same shit different day” idea) and I couldn’t agree more, maybe I am just caught up in today’s BS and don’t even notice it. It is just such a stereotypical time period of the hippie, make love not war, smoke dope, peace man, etc. etc. that keeps sticking in my head. However, all in all, I have to agree with everything Mary just said in her last post about Janis and her role as a woman in our history. (Mary just said it much better!)

  7.   Tony Says:

    Like Professor mentioned in class, the movie Festival Express is really worth checking out. There are really great performances by Janis as well as other greats like The Band and the dead. It gives more candid views into Joplins life, as well as how she interacts with people from the same “scene”.

  8.   Brandon Way Says:

    I agree that a great deal of the appeal of her music was the sheer energy and honesty that she presented with the performance. I think her statement about it being more than the performance depends on what you include in your definition of the performance. It is not just about the singing, or just about the music, but its about the energy and the fans and everything kind of wrapped together. Janis does an amazing job of all of it. Also, to respond to the professor’s comment that the band was not up to her talent, I would agree with that. The recording scene where they couldn’t decide whether it should be played in a major or minor, nor could they agree on which it was being played in (I remember Janis saying “It’s already a major hes trying to get it into a minor”), that whole exchange shows me that she was clear where she wanted the song to be, but the band couldn’t figure out their place supporting Janis. I would have loved to see what would have come out of another 10+ years of recording had she lived.

  9.   Dora Says:

    I agree that Janis was not your typical artist, and there never shall be anyone who touches on the things she did the way she did with the soul she did. She wasn’t particularly attractive or even as popular as she is now, and her voice cracked like a pubescent boy’s. But, the way you insist Janis wasn’t cool seems awkward to me. It seems more to me like ‘cool’ and ‘Janis’ seem to belong together, even if the times, or her classmates didn’t agree. She was very much cool, she was defined by cool, because it was her attitude, her presense which defined the intensity of her performances. She became such a popular artist because of her power and her manic ability to draw people in. she used her ability as an introverted, mostly shunned student to expand into a whole different being, just a complete force of music. While Janis herself may have been plain, Pearl was exuberant.

  10.   Lauren Says:

    I actually found myself laughing at Professor Duemer’s summary of the movie. It definitely was true. I think it’s really interesting that Janis Joplin had such an effect on American Popular Culture. It was definitely quite evident that she was comfortable with herself, and was DEFINITELY in her element when she was on stage, and, if I remember correctly, she said that she just lost herself. She even continues to have an effect on music today. Jay-Z sampled her on his song “Oh My God” (I’ll have to give Jasmine credit for telling me this one). For one of the most unique sounding and looking artist in American pop history, she definitely has been a huge success.

  11.   Frances Says:

    That post pretty much sums up all the thoughts I’ve had about Janis Joplin during the movie and our class discussions for the last few classes. As a few other people have said Janis wasn’t pretty and she wasn’t popular. She was maybe even a little weird. But none of this mattered to Janis and it doesn’t matter to the people who admire her and her music. To them, the most important thing is that Janis gave everything to her listeners. She poured her whole self into her songs and you can tell by her stage presence. The people who loved her probably loved her raw emotion and her enthusiasm. So, because Janis let the music move her, it moved the people who heard her too.

  12.   J. Fenson Says:

    One of my favorite things about Janis Joplin is how she’ll take a word, or just a sound and drag it out, morphing and manipulating it until that sound actually makes you feel her emotions. When I listen to this you can feel her pain or desperation and when you actually see her performing you can see the pain in her eyes and in the distortions in her face. She is the epitome of using music as expression and letter her emotions flow through her songs.

  13.   J. Fenson Says:

    meant to mention someone said that in class

  14.   Ariel Says:

    I have a sort of flinching reaction whenever it is mentioned that Janis claimed that her concerts weren’t “performances” because I think that they are very very very much performances. Although she COULD have gone that crazy every time she sang alone in her bedroom, it seemed to me that the way she behaved was as a result of being on stage. Anyone who has performed onstage (and enjoyed it)knows that is an intoxicating and invigorating feeling and that you quite literally feed off of the energy of the audience. I think that this is what Janis does. Her crazy dancing, the screaming, the antics seem to be her enjoying the experience of performing as much as possible. Note that I am calling her performances genuine, not the opposite. Maybe what she meant when she says that she does not “perform” is that it is not a planned, choreographed show (think: the perfectly synchronized dancing of boybands a few years ago). This I belive completely. She is playing to the audience though. She seems to do everything she can to excite and energize them, which of course, leads her to be wilder still. Okay. Sorry. I just needed to get that off of my chest.

  15.   Tom Myers Says:

    I thought Janis was a little crazy. I do like how she let her fans get up close and tight to her. I think it made them feels as if she thought they were as equals and it surprised me how down to earth she seemed in the interviews. As for her singing its not quite my type but I understand why she was so popular in that time.

  16.   Dan R. Says:

    I feel that Janis was only trying to make a statement and in a way I agree with what she is doing. She dosen’t care who thinks what of her or who wants her to do what. She does her own thing and sings her own music. I am not a fan of her music, but I can support her idea of “the man.”

  17.   Jeff Crompton Says:

    I have to agree with Howard when he says that Janis is one of the most honest performers out there. No one leads a perfect life but Janis found music to sooth herself through her life and many people could agree and follow what she was saying. She just wanted to live life everyday and leave the worries behind and many people saw her as an icon on how to live their lives to the fullest as well. She didn’t care what people thought and she did what she wanted to do because she loved doing it and she loved expressing her feelings to everyone everyday of her life.

  18.   Christina Says:

    I do agree with Jeff and Howard, that she lived through her music and let her music guide her life. That is something that a lot of people look for. Something that is enjoyable to you and also pleases other people. Even though I did not find her music very appealing does not mean that I dont think that she deserves credit for what she does. She had a tough life and is living it any way she can through her music. I think that is very noticable from the film.

  19.   Megan D Says:

    I thought Joplin had a very powerful voice full of emotion. I absolutely love how she sings as if I can feel every emotion she has in those songs. I like how she doesn’t give a shit what other people think and she got to the point in her career that she knew she could show that. That says something when someone is so good that she can tell people to screw off and not care.

  20.   Laura Says:

    I actually kind of liked Janis. She reminds me a lot of one of my favorite artists, Kurt Cobain of Nirvana. He also has been accused many many times for not having a good singing voice. However, like Janis, he was able to stand for a whole generation of what many considered the “troubled youth.” With his powerful lyrics, less than fashionable style, and intense performances, he too shot too super-stardom and, with his bandmates, changed popular music. Also like Janis, he had problems dealing with the pressure and scrutiny that comes along with fame, and he too died at age 27.

  21.   jd Says:

    You know, I hadn’t though of the Cobain parallel, but it’s absolutely true.

  22.   Sean Cudahy Says:

    Janis was in my opinion dead sexy. Some people may disagree with me, but she had a presence about her that is not found in many women. She had the capability to captivate and audience with her voice and body language. Remember that scene when everyone is on stage dancing? Come on, that was awesome.

  23.   Frances Says:

    I like the thoughts in some of the last few posts. Especially the ones about Janis being an icon and a role model for the youth culture. It seems like she was just a regular kind of girl with a voice that someone might have to learn to appreciate from a small town who didn’t think she would get anywhere but who had a lucky break. I can’t imagine if it had gone differently for Janis. For example, what if she’d stayed in her hometown or married right away or never found her talent? We wouldn’t know about her and she really would be just another regular person. She wouldn’t have the effect she did on music then and now and we wouldn’t have the pleasure of listening to her.

  24.   Jasmine Says:

    That is an interesting point Frances brings up, about the road not taken for Janis Joplin. Janis definitely would not have been the same person and couldn’t have made an impact on ,usic if she were married with children. If she had followed the whole typical American life for women during her era, I don’t think she would have been as happy as she was. Janis seemed to hint that her family wanted her to just blend in and be like everyone else, but it seems very evident that musical artists are no like everyone else. Even when Janis tryed to hide her true emotions and feelings by painting it didn’t bring her as much pleasure as singing does.

  25.   Keri Albanese Says:

    It is interesting how people brought up Janis’ life in a different perspective. I could not imagine her having any children, or even being married. She may not have pleased her parents, but she was a free spirit. She did her own thing, and had her own way of expresing herself, and many people admired her for doing so. She was not the kind of person to aim to please everyone else. The way she would sing and dance on stage, expressed her true personality. She was definitely an individual who will be remembered for her wild stage performances.

  26.   birch Says:

    I dont really agree with Sean about Janis being sexy. She was a good performer and thats about it. She caught the audiences attention because they could relate to her. I think thats the reason people liked her so much. She went from being a nobody to being a star and she was still humble.

  27.   Anne Minor Says:

    I feel that Janis had a lot more than many people thought. I mean that in the fact that she really did want ever she wanted and she wanted to feel every bit of everything that she did. When ever she did a show or sang a song she gave it her all. She wanted to feel it and to have the people that were watching to feel it. Janis knew how to really live. Despite the face that she was crazy in some respects she knew what she wanted, and thats a lot more than most people can say.

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