Thursday 2 July 2009

Icon #16 Janis Joplin

Listening to Janis Joplin, as I'm doing now for the first time in an age, you can't help but be astounded by her voice. It is 'the blues'.

What she did was rock, in a way that no woman had done before. Her throaty, rasping voice breathes life into songs in a way you wouldn't have thought possible.

She made it cool for women to make rock music and inspired many to become performers, opening the door for a wave of women to express themselves in a genre hitherto dominated by men.

Listening to her now, she sounds very dated. It is music of its time and for some of you I imagine that, 'the one about the Mercedes Benz,' is all that will spring to mind. That song was one of the last two she ever recorded, shortly before her death in a lonely hotel room in Los Angeles. Just a rough cut, but her best known track never the less.

The sad thing about Joplin is the the lack of material that she left us. There just isn't very much of it and you can't help but feel that she would have gone on to become so much more than she was.

She has iconic status because she broke new ground for women in music. She played with the boys in their back yard, re-wrote the rule book and she didn't compromise her art to get married and settle down. Yes she took a lot of drugs. The bad kind. But she still continued to sing in a way that few female performers manage. It's just so guttural and soulful, full of melancholy but at the same time strong and totally uncompromising.

I'm reminded of the early Led Zeppelin albums. Not by the music that backs the singing but by the voice. Robert Plant, when a young man, could take songs in another direction to the music, almost forcing the listener to keep going with a song because you could never be quite sure where it was going to end up. Joplin does the same to tracks that largely have fairly ordinary musicians behind them. You can't help but wonder what kind of music would have been produced with a great band at her back.

Sometimes just dying young gets you famous. Sometimes having a god given gift gets you famous. There are elements of both with Janis Joplin. But when you listen to her sing it's the latter that leaves the bigger impression.

'I won't quit to become someone's old lady.'

Tonight's post is dedicated to The Giant and @JMB252.

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