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The Southwest Unbound: Janis Joplin & The New Feminism

by Jerome L. Rodnitzky - The Feminist Art Journal

Janis Joplin was born January 19, 1943 in Port Arthur, Texas during World War II. In October, 1970, at the age of twenty-seven, she died of a heroin overdose while the Vietnamese war still raged. Although Joplin was clearly of the cold war generation, her malaise, unlike that of some rock-culture stars, seemed unrelated to national dissension or world strife. Joplin’s former lover, rock singer Country Joe McDonald, for example, felt that since really grasping the reality of Vietnam would probably drive him insane, he intended to "take drugs...turn up the music very loud" and "build a fantasy world where everything’s beautiful." 1 However, Joplin’s move toward a drugged personal world was clearly linked to a long drawn-out struggle with her psyche. Joplin was killed by a far more subtle war than Vietnam - the war between the sexes. Ironically, she was a victim of sexism within the sexual revolution that she helped fuel. This is but one of the many contradictions in her rise as a rock superstar, but perhaps the most important irony was her role as a feminist symbol in a male dominated, sexist rock culture.

At first glance it seems odd to describe the rock world as sexist. Rock, after all, was an integral ingredient of a youth culture that championed unisexual clothing and sexual freedom while revolting against conformist middle-class values. Yet rock lyrics almost universally stereotype women as sex objects, while rock music is almost entirely written and performed by male musicians. Similarly, female, rock-oriented disc jockeys are few in number. Rock festivals, however, would be impossible without a plentiful supply of "groovy chicks." There is one primary difference between the "groovy chick" and the more traditional American Sweetheart. The "groovy chick" is a willing sex partner who seldom fails to perform in the lyrics of rock songs. 2 Likewise, the stage patter of rock performers is obviously geared to males. Comments are invariably addressed to "you and your chick." Janis Joplin was an anomaly - a groovy chick who was performing and rapping with the audience rather than passively enjoying the scene.

There was little in Joplin’s background to suggest that she would become either a feminist symbol or a rock superstar.

Her hometown, Port Arthur, was an oil refinery center with a population of 60,000, located in Texas’ Southeastern corner. Houston is 100 miles away and Louisiana is just across the river. Port Arthur has a mixed population of native Texans, Louisiana Cajuns, Chicanos from Mexico, and blacks from around the country - all drawn by the good union refinery jobs. When NBC-TV’s "First Tuesday" show did a feature on Janis Joplin in February, 1971, they simply described Port Arthur as "drab." On balance, Port Arthur is a typical Texas boom town - the Southern Baptists hold the religious power, the Democratic Party holds the political power, and oil companies hold the economic power. Not surprisingly, NBC found that the average citizen was proud of Port Arthur, hostile to the Federal government, and suspicious of the "Eastern" media.

However, Joplin’s parents were not particularly average Port Arthur residents. Her mother, Dorothy, moved to Port Arthur from Amarillo at age twenty-two, and, after a one-year courtship, married Seth Joplin in 1936. Dorothy has a high school education and usually worked as a businesswoman, while Seth holds an engineering degree from Texas A&M University and has worked for Texaco corporation ever since coming to Port Arthur. The Joplin’s had three children, including another daughter, Laura, and a son, Michael; Janis was the first born. 3 As the eldest, she basked in attention as a baby and by most accounts was a happy, normal child. Seth Joplin was a resourceful and active father who Janis often refereed to as "a secret intellectual," who only had one other person in Port Arthur he could talk to. Traditionally, American feminists have had a strong intellectual relationships with their fathers, and Joplin seemed to enjoy such a paternal bond during her formative years. In a July, 1970 interview Joplin reminisced about her father’s influence and noted: "My father was like a secret intellectual, a book reader, a talker, a thinker. He was very important to me, because he made me think. He’s the reason I am like I am, I guess...the biggest thing in our house was when you learnt to write your name, you got to go and get a library card. He wouldn’t get us a TV, he wouldn’t allow a TV in the house."

Despite the just-folks verbal style that Joplin cultivated, she was surprisingly intelligent and well-read - especially in the area of classic American fiction. As a child she was a quick thinker and creative student. As a teenager she showed a flair for writing and a more substantial talent for painting. Unfortunately, adolescence brought physical problems that haunted Janis throughout her life. Her childish good looks dissolved into a general heaviness, complicated by an extremely bad case of facial acne. Thereafter, Joplin would be preoccupied by the fear that she was not attractive to men. As a high school junior she gained male acceptance by becoming an equal member of a gang of four hell-raising males. For the first of many times she tried to be just one of the boys. In the process, she picked up a reputation for bohemian toughness and was ostracized by most of her classmates. Joplin was relieved to graduate in 1960, and she immediately enrolled at Lamar Tech University, a state school, in nearby Beaumont. After an unhappy year at Lamar she traveled to the West Coast, and in Los Angeles and San Francisco the moody freshman became a world-weary hippie almost overnight. Back in Texas in 1962, she tried to impress her old friends with her hip ways, first in Port Arthur and then at the university of Texas at Austin, where she enrolled in the summer of 1962. She had occasionally sung at coffee-houses in Beaumont and Houston earlier in 1962, but in Austin she sang regularly, both at the student union and a bar named Threadgill’s. She was drinking harder now and had become a favorite with the Austin post-beatnik crowd that centered around an apartment complex called "The Ghetto."

Joplin’s happiness abruptly ended in January, 1964, when a thoughtless joke officially named her "Ugliest Man on Campus" in a contest. She then wrote her parents an emotional letter about the cruelty of the Austin campus and told them that she would have to leave. Shortly thereafter, Joplin and a male friend hitchhiked to San Francisco. Joplin would return to Port Arthur and Austin in 1965 before returning to San Francisco for good in 1966. However, Texas was never home for Joplin after 1963. Looking back in 1970, Joplin felt that in Texas she had been "a beatnik" and "weirdo" as she observed: "Texas is OK if you want to settle down and do your own thing quietly, but it’s not for outrageous people, and I was always outrageous. I got treated very badly in Texas. They don’t treat beatniks too good in Texas."

Her father agreed that she was out of place in Texas. After her death he acknowledged that Janis "had a pretty rough time of it in high school," because "she insisted on dressing and acting differently and they hated her for it." Seth felt Janis was "one of the first revolutionary youths" in Port Arthur, and was unable to relate to her peers." 6 Later, a successful Joplin would often gloat over her bohemian image. For example, on a poster of herself she once wrote: "guess what? I might be the first hippie pin-up girl."

After 1974 Joplin gained increasing acceptance in San Francisco, New York and other centers of rock culture. Her crude, natural manner and dress now fit perfectly with the new lifestyles. Unfortunately, drugs were a part of these life-styles and Joplin took to them quickly and passionately. From barbiturates to speed to heroin to liquor and back to heroin, she never got free of the downward spiral. Some rock stars used drugs to "live the life," but increasingly Joplin used drugs to ease the pain of life.

When Joplin returned to San Francisco in 1966 to team up with a rock band called Big Brother and the Holding Company, she was an instant success at the Monterey Pop Festival. Two gold record albums later, she was a nationwide sensation and symbol for gutsy singing and living. Her public image was symbolized by the tentative title of her second album "Sex, Dope and Cheap Thrills," subsequently censored down to "Cheap Thrills." During the next four years, Joplin broke up with Big Brother, formed her own bands and put out another album, "I Got Dem ‘Ol Kozmic Blues Again, Mama." However, her success was always based on the image established during her first triumph at Monterey. From festival to festival and concert to concert, her legend grew while her body and voice deteriorated. Yet her voice was not of primary importance. Joplin expressed feelings rather than lyrics; she communicated anxiety rather than art. She was never much of a vocalist, but her influence as a hip model for youth was considerable.

At the same time, both Joplin’s life and lifestyle lent themselves to the new feminism in America. Indeed, her path to stardom exactly paralleled the rise of the Women’s Liberation Movement. The same year Joplin got her start at Monterey (1967), radical college women began streaming out of the Students for a Democratic Society and forming their own feminist groups and Betty Friedan founded the National Organization for Women. Joplin was largely oblivious to the feminist movement, but she served as an unconscious feminist symbol for younger women. Her most universal influence came through her popularization of naturalistic dress and hair styles. At that point in time millions of young women were beginning to dress in ostentatious poverty, wearing uniforms of blue jeans and workshirts, but their hair and make-up often came directly from Vogue. Moreover, on dates, jeans were usually discarded in favor of pantygirdles and dresses. Joplin hardly originated the natural look that she picked up in San Francisco, but she did spread it nationwide. Joplin helped liberate millions of young girls from lipstick and girdles, while she pioneered the braless look and wild, loose individual clothes combinations. Also, Joplin’s long, brown lack-luster hair helped free some women from an exaggerated brush, wash, set, color and spray syndrome that still grips much of America today. She brought courage to be themselves to girls who had always worn their hair short because they thought they had "bad" hair and their clothes long because they had "bad" figures. The Joplin look was well-fitted to the rock scene. You would not dress otherwise when going to a concert or a festival. As Lillian Roxon observed: "If you didn’t look like Janis when you got there, you sure as hell looked like Janis by the time you left." For Roxon, and for countless other others, Joplin was "personified the new woman - blunt, straightforward, honest, unfettered, impatient and brave." 8 Joplin was hardly unfettered or brave. Rather, she was hung-up and frightened, but her legend was always more important than her life.

Although Joplin’s clothing did not often suggest that she was sexually liberated, her manner usually did. Dress styles aside, the popularly-defined sexy woman must be the pursued and not the pursuer. Joplin was truly liberated; both in her bandstand patter and her private life, she reserved the right to be the hunter as well as the hunted. Joplin had the courage to decline to dress sexily on the one hand yet to act sexually aggressive on the other.

Not surprisingly, Janis’ concert performances generated sexuality. Thus, after listening to her album, Cheap Thrills, Al Aronowitz, a Life reviewer, suggested that, like Mae West, Joplin "could be the greatest lady who ever walked the streets." Aronowitz felt that Janis’ singing made you feel she was "calling out to you from the second-story window of a bordello, inviting you up." 9 Within her sexual style, however, were the typical contradictions of the sexual revolution. Janis reflected the feminist desire to be equal to men and sexually liberated, yet remained captive to the ideal of romantic love. Joplin could not satisfy her own strong sexual longings, but while onstage she held out the promise to others. In the midst of her success Joplin noted: "Onstage I make love to twenty-five thousand people, then I go home alone." 10 The more Janis Joplin gave to her audiences, the less she seemed to get for herself. From the start she became a victim of her performing image. Country Joe Mc Donald felt that Janis often wanted to be just another person offstage, but that other saw her as a conventional sex symbol. According to Mc Donald, people wanted her to be "feminine and dainty," and when she could not comply they treated like one of the guys.

Joplin’s lesbian activities may have been part and parcel of her refusal to be sexy in traditional ways. Her homosexuality has been exaggerated by lesbian feminists, who often suggest that her problems stemmed from not admitting her lesbianism. However, her homosexuality has also been completely ignored by rock writers, who feared it would destroy her sexy image. Since Joplin was aggressively bi-sexual, her lesbianism was more likely just a part of her determination to get as much love or sex as she could - sexual orientation aside. Yet, Diane Gravenities, a close friend of Joplin’s, noted that "Janis was more comfortable, more "herself" the presence of women. She was less on the rack of self-deprecation, less prone to play buffoon, and because she was less driven to sexual priority, was less ridden with anxiety." 12 Possibly Joplin’s ostentatious heterosexual behavior was a compensation for her lesbianism. In any case, as an aggressive bi-sexual, she appealed to all sides of the feminist camp.

In one sense Joplin was a fake. Blues singers were traditionally black and poor. A blues superstar was a contradiction in terms. Steve Katz, a blues guitarist, felt that although Joplin was "a good primitive blues singer," she was no lo9nger credible since when "you’re making $10,000 a night," you could not "come on hard luck and trouble." 13 But Joplin knew suffering, and to the charge that she could not sing realistic blues, she aptly replied: "You know why we’re stuck with the myth that only black people have soul? Because white people don’t let themselves feel things. Man, you and any housewife have all sorts of pain and joy. You’d have soul if you’d give into it."

Just as black blues had furnished equipment for living for generations of poverty-stricken blacks, Joplin’s blues erased her personal suffering.

Her music also proclaimed joy at times. In dozens of ways Joplin made it clear that she would live for today. She was not going to save her voice, cut down her drinking, or pass by a sexual partner in hopes of happier and healthier tomorrows. Janis Joplin had decided that, philosophically, tomorrow never comes. Her most characteristic song perhaps is "Get It While You Can." This hedonistic stress complemented the impatient mood of youth, but it struck a responsive feminist chord. Women were constantly urged to put off personal pleasure for a more suitable time. Young girls were told to save themselves for their husbands. Wives were supposed to sacrifice immediate pleasures for their children. Even grandmothers had responsibilities to daughters and grandchildren. Joplin insisted that you were number one and that the present was everything. Feminists too increasingly stressed their own primacy, and the slogan "Liberation Now" stressed now almost as much as liberation.

In the final analysis, Joplin made women feel better, but hardly altered their problems. Her songs of complaint suggested things to identify with rather than work toward. Moreover, her attempts to reconcile the traditional concept of femininity with sexual aggressiveness and professional success were so personal and intense as to exclude the possibility of applying any lessons. Joplin’s solutions were always sensory, anti-intellectual and short-sighted. For Joplin, "being an intellectual" created "a lot of questions and no answers." You could fill up your life with ideas and still go home lonely." The only things that really mattered to Joplin were "feelings" and the music that helped release and reflect them. 15 Joplin felt that she had to sacrifice for her music. She could not "quit to become someone’s old lady" because even though being dedicated to one man was "beautiful," it could not touch "hitting that stage at full-tilt boogie." 16 A man could be a rock star, do gigs, and "know that he was going to get laid that night," as Joplin put it, but a woman had to sacrifice love to be a rock singer. 17 Her philosophy was compensatory. She was going to get drunk, get laid, and, in the words of her friend, songwriter Kris Kristofferson, "let the devil take tomorrow." Her simple creed brought back visions of the Greek ideal of a short but glorious life. It was, after all, quite romantic to live fast, die young and have a good-looking corpse.

Janis Joplin’s music raised the right questions, but suggested no answers. Her songs offer solace, but no wisdom. As feminist educator Florence Howe aptly put it, popular songs tell women "to love being a sex object," but they need songs about the pain of being a woman." 18 Joplin told us about the pain of being a woman and how to live with the pain and compensate for it. It remained for other voices to show women how to prevent or avoid that pain. Joplin adapted the black blues tradition to the needs of an affluent, but culturally rootless, youth culture. As Myra Friedman wisely suggested, Joplin was the verbal minstrel; instead of using blackface, she sang with a black voice. 19 Yet, it was clearly a confused generation of white Americans that she spoke to. Her uninhibited style and flamboyant escape from the oppressive and outdated conventions of a small Texas city acted out the conscious desires of thousands of American teenagers. Joplin’s music provided them with a vicarious escape from middle-class America. In the words of Mimi Farina’s memorial ballad for Janis ("In The Quiet Morning") Joplin was, indeed "the great Southwest unbound."


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