Tonight at 8/7c American Masters will air Amy Berg’s documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue on PBS. The film is the first to offer an intimate insight into Janis’s life through the eyes of her friends, siblings, and footage of live performances, interviews, and personal letters written to her family and past lovers.
Janis Joplin was many things—trendsetter, trailblazer, rock and roll icon, wounded, passionate, talented, and yes, an addict who left this world much too soon. It’s unfair, though, to let her death define her when her life was so important. Janis was an inspiration to many while she was alive, and the timelessness of her music has caused her legacy to live on, allowing it to reach out and inspire new generations.
Back home, in the small town of Port Arthur, Texas, Janis was a misfit. She got kicked out of choir for not following the rules, and she stood up against segregation in a town with an active Ku Klux Klan chapter. She didn’t look or act like everyone else, and, as a result, she found herself ostracized and the subject of relentless adolescent bullying. Rather than letting that silence her, however, Janis rebelled by adopting a more beatnik aesthetic. She painted, immersed herself in literature, and listened to one blues record after another.
Janis had a voice and stage presence that truly remains unmatched. She was a pioneer for women in rock and roll. She came in, blazed the trail, and she didn’t do so quietly. Janis came along in a time when women (white women, more specifically) in music were soft and subtle, rather than edgy and soulful. Edgy and soulful were for the boys, and the boys dominated the rock scene, both on and off stage. There was something decidedly masculine about Janis–she had a tough girl persona that allowed her to become one of the guys, but she didn’t shrug off her qualities that made her feminine. Janis was vulnerable and sensitive and naïve, but she delivered those traits in a way the world had yet to witness. Joplin took to the stage weighed down by a heavy heart and let it break her to pieces in front of a captivated audience. She screamed out her pain, shook and raised her fists, she stomped her feet, and by doing so, she transferred energy with more than just her voice. She created a new type of identity for women as a harsh reflection of a harsher world, and people were incredibly responsive to that image.
The video below shows an impressed Mama Cass (of The Mamas & the Papas) watching an electric performance of “Ball and Chain” at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967.
The letters in the film, which are narrated by Chan Marshall (a.k.a Cat Power), show the side of Janis not seen on stage—the side of her that desperately sought approval from her family, her hometown, and her peers. These weren’t letters written by a woman conscious of the fact that she was almost singlehandedly dismantling the rock and roll patriarchy. Janis seemed completely unaware that she was giving young women of her time someone to look up to, so it seems safe to say that she probably didn’t think that decades later, she would still be a light to so many. Janis’s goal was to be herself and to be loved and accepted. Not only did she accomplish that goal, but she changed the world for women of rock in the process.
I’ve been looking around and I’ve noticed something—after you reach a certain level of talent, and quite a few have that talent, the deciding factor is ambition, or as I see it, how much you really need to be loved, and need to be proud of yourself. And I guess that’s what ambition is—it’s not all depraved quests for position or money. Maybe it’s for love. Lots of love. Ha.