What Janis Joplin Taught Me
I first heard Janis Joplin crooning as a child, on the radio. We drove to my great-grandmother’s house that day through the roads that carved the Everglades in half, windows cracked in the balmy summertime air. Sweat prickled on my forehead, intensified by the humidity. Being in South Florida felt like a soup.
My mom reached over and cranked up the volume knob on the stereo. We were in her ancient Dodge Caravan, the one with the rolling door whose sound I came to associate with my childhood. Now, they have the sleek minivans whose doors open with a remote, but back then we had to throw a giant piece of metal open with a roar.
The song was “Summertime”, of course. The announcers had blurted that much out between the insane noises and shockjock debauchery that littered nineties radio. My mom sang along as best she could, her wild red curls thrown into disarray as she whipped her head back and forth to the rhythm. I hummed along to the tune, infected by the glorious voice streaming through the scratchy speakers.
Old music usually made me sad, and there was something mournful about Janis’s rendition of “Summertime”, no doubt about it. But instead of feeling sad, I was uplifted and inspired. A deep-voiced soulful woman on the radio! Thankfully I wasn’t aware of her untimely death at that point — the music just made me grin.
You see, as a child I wanted to be a famous pop star. I made up dance routines and sang along as loud as I could to Britney Spears and Celine Dion CDs. On my tenth birthday, I even called up a record company to see about recording my very first single, an idea that not even my pragmatic mother could bear to quash.
So to hear a voice on the radio that wasn’t so high-pitched it was out of my range, I was absolutely floored. Every pop singer sounded like a triangle dinging against the scratchy, throatiness of my natural voice. I’d never been trained, but I’d always spoken in a lower pitch than most girls my age. I found myself modulating my voice to fit in a lot in school and I hated it. I just wanted to be myself.
And every single part of Janis’s voice screamed MYSELF so loudly and authentically through the radio…