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 into my ears. I was floored.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult that I really listened to Janis again, this time with different ears. Classic rock pulled me into its psychedelic arms around the age of twenty-one, in the flower of my young adulthood, and it has never really let go since. I pored over her albums, picking and choosing the most soulful and wailing tunes as my favorites. I spent a lot of time dancing to her music, pulled by the wild energy she always exuded and inspired by the insane musical boundaries she broke with her voice.
Those years I’m always nostalgic for, when I was in the midst of becoming a dreaded flower child. I slept on a mattress pad on the floor of my room, a potato box used as my desk. I wrote so much back then, notebooks scribbled full of wild thoughts and ideas. I had the notion that gods communicated with me through my writing and I ran with it, scribing long conversations with interdimensional beings while psychedelic music streamed through my ears.
I experimented a lot in those days, on a quest to find myself. Janis’s voice followed me wherever I went, sending a message I wasn’t yet ready to unveil.
A few years ago, I watched a documentary on Netflix about Janis. I was bored one night, still reeling from fresh heartbreak that signaled the end of those flower child years, when I selected the movie. It took me a long time to let go of the naivety and innocence that that time afforded me but I feel like a much wiser and better person because of it.
It’s partially because of Janis Joplin.
The documentary was absolutely riveting — hearing her voice, her brashness and her fire, over those old recordings set my skin alight. I’d always been the sort of woman that she represented: a little bit too bold, a little bit too loud and opinionated. All my life I’d felt relegated to the corner because I didn’t fit the simple feminine stereotype. But Janis took that stereotype, so many decades ago, and flipped it on its head. She decided she would be as loud as she possibly could, so that maybe someone who was listening could hear her pain. It inspired me so much and still does to this day.
Janis put herself out there completely, and her voice was not only strong and soulful, it was painfully and beautifully real. She sang in the great tradition of the rhythm & blues singers that were her heroes, but she brought her own dangerous, sexy rock & roll edge to every single song. She really gave you a piece of her heart. — Stevie Nicks
But as her short life went on, this brashness and this fire seemed to implode in on her. She took up with the drugs that would eventually kill her and her identity seemed to morph into almost a caricature of itself. Her brashness and boldness turned to an intensity that seemed abnormal. Her fashion choices, always interesting on her good days, turned into costumes. Because of her fame, she got wrapped up in her image, at least from what I saw in the documentary. Her image became more important than her well-being.
I’ve long ago let go of the dream of being a pop star — I save my singing for the shower and the car these days. But I’ll never forget those lessons that Janis taught me. Even on her worst day, she was more herself than anyone I know personally, and I will always admire that. But she also taught me that it’s a mistake to get too wrapped up in the idea of who you want to be. In my case, it was embodying some hippie stereotype that I no long ascribe to.
I shaved my head a little over a year ago, dreads shorn off to mark a new phase of my life. I’ll never stop being myself — my loud, brash, fiery self — but I’ve learned that time will shape you and carve you into different versions of yourself. This is just the version I am now, as that girl was back then. And if I ever want to transport myself back to those days, I can just turn on a little bit of “Summertime”.
Just goes to show: we all have as many phases as the moon.