An Unsung Hero: Janis Joplin
Tina Turner, Pink, Steven Tyler, Stevie Nicks, Etta James and countless other musicians, what do they all have in common? Janis Joplin. All of these musicians list Janis Joplin as one of their biggest musical influences. Janis Joplin was an icon for 1960’s Rock and Roll, she performed in the most legendary concert of all time; Wood Stock. Janis Joplin died at age 27 due to a drug overdose. Joplin, born in Texas left her mark as a white female, singing what was thought to be a genre of music only reserved for African American men. She paved the way for female artist to be taken seriously in their careers and not to be seen solely as the sex symbols they were portrayed as in the 60’s. Though only around for a short 27 years, Janis Joplin was a leader making a huge impact; not only in the music industry, but the industry as a whole for female artist as well as influencing today's popular Bohemian fashion trends.
Janis lyn Joplin, born in Port Arthur, Texas on January 19th, to parents; Seth and Dorothy Joplin. Reports show Janis was “Encouraged from an early age to take an interest in the arts and literature... she developed an early appreciation for blues and jazz artists, including Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, Lead-belly, and Odetta” (Knight, 2003, p.1). Janis attended College in Beaumont, Texas. “She lasted two semesters before she turned her face to the wind and answered the call of the open road. When she was only seventeen years old, she left home--or, as some more specifically define it, she "ran away" (Janis Joplin, 2006, p.2). Janis became recognized as the musical leader she is after joining with the band Big Brother and releasing the song “Peace of My Heart”. She went on to obtain a Gold Record, performing her greatest hit "Me and Bobby McGee," and quickly became a common name of the 60’s. The Encyclopedia of World Biography states “...onstage and off--Joplin was harnessed lighting unleashed inside a concert hall. She was at once uncontrolled, physically dirty, foulmouthed, yet endearing and inspirational,... Audiences had never seen anything like her before, and they were easily seduced” (Janis Joplin, 2006, p.6). The 60’s was a powerful era for ground breaking music, but Joplin stands out. Why? Female artist, while having a role in the music industry, were not usually seen for their stand alone performances. “Joplin has often been compared with Hendrix and Jim Morrison...Yet Joplin's story is remarkably different in that she was a woman in a world still dominated by men. Though the 1960s produced numerous great female vocalists, none had a voice as bold and brassy as Joplin's” (Knight, 2003, p.4). Joplin moved beyond the typical “background vocalist” and dominated the stage with her overwhelmingly individual and cutting edge style. October 4th, 1970 in Hollywood, California Joplin succumbed to her Rock and Roll lifestyle and passed away due to a drug overdose. Sadly, Janis Joplin died at the young age of 27, leaving the world with one less powerful female leader.
The most important leadership role Joplin posses is that of one of the first Feminist the world has known. Joplin influenced with her music making it socially acceptable for a white female to sing “black music”. “... it was unusual for a white girl to take an interest in "black music," and although Joplin's parents were liberal, she probably exceeded their expectations for nonconformity” (Knight, 2003, p.1). Though Janis reported being inspired by blues icon, Etta James, that influence was a two way street, “Janis was like an angel who came and paved a road white chicks hadn't walked before. I began feeling proud to be her role-model. When I heard her sing, I recognized my own influence, but I also heard the electricity and rage in her own voice. I loved her attitude" (Foy, 2006, p.1). Janis helped women become noticed and viewed as valuable members of the music industry. “By the 1950s, female performers were mostly vocal harmonizers, and they had little in the way of independent reputations...Female artists began to take hold in the 1960s. The exhibit [Female Rocker traveling Exhibit], which includes a timeline to help place the women in the context of national and world events... moves on to counterculture and the birth-control pill in the late 1960s with Janis Joplin, Grace Slick, Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin” (Olson, 2012, p.2-3). Janis Joplin has influenced the lives of many, including the life of Beth Hart who is portraying Joplin in a broadway production. Hart is quoted in the New York Times stating ''I have been so inspired and humbled by the level of this woman's intelligence, love, passion and her uncompromising focus,'' and ''Janis was really a warrior,... God bless her, man'' (Weber, 1999, p.2). Joplin’s presence blankets all different walks of life and Hart's performance makes it tangible for the masses.
The second leadership role Janis plays is that of a fashionista. Janis was never affected by what people thought of her, she was a free spirit and often wore things that were seen as outlandish. However over the top her fashion was, it caught on. “Joplin not only brought soul to white rock 'n roll - she changed the look of it, too. Her signature beads, banges, and feathers were imitated by fans and fellow rockers alike. With a wristlet and a small heart on her breast, she also helped to popularize the tattoo, which hadn't yet found cultural acceptance” (Dennis, 2008, p.1). The icon, didn’t just influence the masses, she influenced future icons to come. Steven Tyler talks about Joplin's’ personal impact on him,“-it was Janis Joplin who was my biggest influence. I always thought that who I am was inspired by Janis. She just was it. I saw her beads and bangles in the '60s when hippies came into play, and I loved it. It was me taking what Janis did, wearing it as a boy, and saying, "I don't care, it's what I like" (Cutruzzula, 2012, p.1). Tyler went on to break through stereotypes, just like his idol and carrying on her tradition.
Janis Joplin wasn’t just a powerhouse vocalist, she was a leader who carved the path for future female artists and left her mark on the fashion industry. Joplin didn’t allow gender or racial roles to curb her talent. She invoked classic blues vocalist that were, for that time period, reserved for only black performers. She didn’t take a back seat to male lead vocalists, she put her unique voice in the forefront which allowed for future generations to follow in her footsteps. Joplin didn’t just dance to the beat of her own drum, she dressed to it as well. Her beatnik attire set trends that transcended through the ages. Though the youth of today may not know the name, Janis Joplin, and sadly, probably can’t even identify her influences, it doesn’t mean they are not there. Though her journey on this world was short, Joplin’s female leadership made an impact that is still prevalent in today's society.
(References go on a new page at the END of your paper.)
Cutruzzula, K. (2012). My Favorite Mistake: Steven Tyler. News Week.
Dennis, A. (2008). 100 MOST INFLUENTIAL PEOPLE IN FASHION. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
Foy, B. (2006). Janis Joplin's Influence on People. Demand Media.
Knight, J. (2006). Janis Joplin. The Scribner Encyclopedia of American Lives, Thematic Series: The 1960s. Retrieved January 23, 2016
Olson, E. (2012). From Bessie Smith to Lady Gaga, on tour together. New York Times. Retrieved January 23, 2016.
Weber, B. (1999). Arts in America: Piece of Janis Joplin's Heart, and Soul, in Cleveland. New York Times.