There are things to be said for the old days, when rock was a religion, and not yet an art form. At least it was still possible to tell the worshippers from their gods. The true supplicant was always a young lady (you know that from the sound of her heart, throbbing under a cashmere breast.) Her idols, bless their twangy souls, were exclusively male.
From Elvis Presley through the Beatles the peacocks of pop have always been men. The successful rock chanteuse had to be a pinnacle of demure grace. Not that the big Beat disregarded femininity; it simply defined it in specific terms. that is, the only skin someone like Connie Francis could show was a freckle.
This sexual determination was inevitable at a time when the pop audience was overwhelmingly female. the poor adolescent male was permitted the vague consolation of identifying with an idol. But he couldn’t very well amble down the street in his leather jacket and hubcap-studded boots, singing “Kookie, Kookie, lend me your comb.”
Now, that scene has changed. A vociferous male audience has emerged, and much of the frenzy in modern rock is directed at them. So it is not surprising to find that some of the brightest superstars in the new firmament also happen to be women. Real women, not musical pen-pals. They use their voices as surging, mystical instruments of passion.
Cass Elliot, of The Mamas and the Papas, was the first to prove that a female rock singer could be more than a frill. She throbbed and shimmied through a song, jolting us into the realization that a fat girl could also be glamorous, if only she dared. Then Grace Slick propelled The Jefferson Airplane forward with her sinuous vocalizing, proving that a girl singer could be an integral part of a male group without hanging lace curtains on its driving sound. These pioneers ushered in an era when women could display a seductive power once considered dangerous, and therefore uncool. Their liberated voices made the good old days of rock sound Victorian by comparison.
Following their lucrative lead, groups with strong female voices have sprung up everywhere. Some, such as Spanky & Our Gang, are content to fill the high registers with an imitation Cass. Others, such as the Stone Poneys, are sensible enough to allow their natural presence to express itself. but the most staggering leading woman in rock is Janis Joplin, who once sang folk-blues in Texas bars for the beer and the joy. In San Francisco, she joined an electric band, added a few Otis Redding records to her Bessie Smith collection, and learned to battle the blues as no woman had ever attempted in a white pop setting. In fact, as lead singer of Big Brother and the Holding Company, Janis is far closer in spirit to the black heroines of blues than she is to an age when proper young ladies warbled “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to.”
Janis assaults a song with her eyes, her hips; and her hair. She defies key. shrieking over one line, sputtering over the next, and clutching the knees of a final stanza, begging it not to leave. When it does leave anyway, she stands like an assertive young tree, smiling breathlessly at the audience, which has just exploded. Janis Joplin can sing the chic off any listener.