Janis Joplin: A Top Ten Diva of All Time

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By Moira Cue

Icon for the ages. Member of the “twenty-seven” club. On November 4, 2013, Janis Joplin received her star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and The Hollywood Sentinel was there, along with Valerie Dussin, designer of the Valou 3 Cap (available through Made for Pearl, the Janis Joplin Estate's fashion and jewelry line) and Dale Dickey, winner of an Independent Spirit Award for Best Supporting Actress in Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lawrence's breakout vehicle, among other luminaries and VIP's. (Dickey, perhaps, best visually represented the “spirit of Janis,” with her flowing red hair and a fabulous purple hat, beaming out smiles.)

Caryl M. Christian Levy

Clive Davis spoke to the assembled crowd of fans and journalists about Janis, saying he could “still hear her voice” today, forty-three years after her death. He thought she would “get a kick” out of being on the Walk of Fame. He admitted he was “angry” when she died, because she “deprived so many” of her “life force.” And Kris Kristofferson echoed the refrain of a “world without Janis” when he took to the stage to play “Me and Bobby McGee,” with nothing more than an acoustic guitar. His vocal performance was low-key; a gravely, enduring whisper of love and youth, both gone.

Life force is the best word to describe Janis Joplin. She was one of those people who possessed a life force so strong that others could literally feed off of her aura; her superstar status, cemented the day she overdosed on heroin (October 4, 1970), has not faded. Her voice is unique among the ages for its raw pain and raging defiance that is synonymous with “power.” Her spiritual beauty continues to radiate.

For every actress in Hollywood, Janis is the dream role of a lifetime. For her former colleagues, she is a fading memory. For the estate, she is part lost little girl, who they couldn't protect before, who must be protected now, and part cash machine. The public demand for all things Janis far outweighs supply, and managing her image is a business. But who was Janis Joplin, really?

I'll call myself an amateur “Janis-ologist.” I have heard rare recordings of Janis, doing something that sounded like experimental sound art with a typewriter being used more like a musical instrument, I've looked at her letters and sketches at the Grammy Museum, and I was honored, thanks to Bruce from Starpower Management and Sam from the band, to meet Big Brother and the Holding Company and hang out backstage back in San Diego in 2009 during their “Heroes of Woodstock” tour with Jefferson Airplane, Canned Heat, and other great acts of the era.

We at The Hollywood Sentinel have a mantra of “only the good news,” so coverage of Janis here will not include elements of her narrative once written from a culturally limited perspective about women, now parroted by others ad nauseam. But we don't confuse a positive outlook with putting the head in the sand about real social concerns; a positive person is the one who does something about negative conditions, even if it's just deciding not to contribute to them one's self.

From the view point of a singer, Janis's life tells another cautionary tale: that of vocal strain. No voice is perhaps more imitated, to more laughable results, than Janis Joplin's. Many singers think or say they sound like Janis, but, in fact, they don't. Perhaps they should all stop trying. “What do you think of Janis Joplin?” I once asked my vocal coach, Gloria Bennett, who has since passed on. “She was destroying her voice,” Gloria responded, with distaste.

If her body had survived a few years more, her voice, after so many years of alcoholism and other forms of self-abuse, very likely would not have, and that, I imagine, Janis herself probably realized and didn't know how to live with. Janis gave as she took: as much as possible, as fast as possible, more, more, more—til the point of explosion. There was something Messianic, to some, an element of self-sacrifice, giving of one's body and blood to the masses, that puts Janis in a category of rock-n-roll martyrs that is almost exclusively male. As Doors producer Paul Rothschild, who was considering working with Janis at the time of her death, said, “What a voice....all of the woman was revealed. The vessel of Janis vanished. For somebody like me, who was always talking about the inner beauty, and all that stuff, it got me big.”

Who is, who was, Janis Joplin, really? Even when she was on top, it was as if Janis couldn't stop screaming, “Do you hear me now?”

Who was Janis Joplin? She was a self-identified misfit. Vulnerable.

Who was Janis Joplin? A goddess. A genius. A commercially successful artist.

To be a diva, is more than having a beautiful voice. It's having a memorable voice, which includes so much more than vocal training or lack thereof, hitting the right notes, and singing the right song. A voice is the essence of the soul, the unique sound of your breath vibrating on your insides. Between having a voice and getting it out there, are many strategies for success including showmanship, forming social alliances and positioning, finding brand partners and, when it comes to touring, investors willing to front the cost of a tour.

Who was Janis Joplin? She was a doorway between nobody and celebrity, power and powerlessness, divinity and depravity. In her last interview, in response to alleged criticism from the other women, she said, “You know, how can they attack me? You know, I'm representing everything they said they want, you know what I mean? Well, I had an opinion about this which you know, is sort of like, you are what you settle for. You know what I mean? You are only as much as you settle for. If they settle for being someone's dishwasher that's their own #### problem. If you don't settle for that and you keep fighting you know, you'll end up anything you want to be. … If they do need more, they'll get more.”

Janis didn't want more, she needed more. Janis didn't ask for more, she took more. She lives on in our hearts today, because she gave us hers, wrapped up in a bow, with a big sloppy kiss, and a note that said, “Love, Janis.”

Wherever you are, Janis, you're still beautiful.

This story is ©2013, Moira Cue, and The Hollywood Sentinel.