Janis Joplin: Lessons in Authenticity
The voice is unmistakable. Nobody sounded like Janis Joplin, and nobody has since.
Called the first lady of rock and roll, Janis Joplin was a fighter from the start. As an overweight teenager with acne, she rebelled — choosing to wear men’s shirts. Other students cruelly called her a pig.
She had few, if any, girlfriends preferring the company of males.
Janis Joplin and her guy friends shared the same interests — music, and what was then called “the beat generation” which rejected the standard norms of society in the 1960s.
Joplin moved on to college to study, of all things, secretarial work. When her interest in that died, she studied art at the University of Texas where her music career began — singing folk songs on campus.
From the very start, audiences were in awe of her powerful, gutsy style. Joplin sounded and looked tough. She was the farthest thing from a typical female singer at the time.
Despite her short life, Joplin’s rise to fame can be attributed to more than just her voice. She had what today is an elusive quality — authenticity.
“You are what you settle for.”
For the longest time, Joplin’s music career went nowhere. She tried to ditch her rebellious ways and become like everyone else. She dressed like a woman and put her wild, messy hair into a bun. But transforming herself to fit into society didn’t work. She wasn’t herself. And worse yet, the transformation didn’t lead to work offers. Joplin decided to return to being herself. It wasn’t long after that she was invited by a friend to audition for the band “Big Brother and the Holding Company.” She blew the band members away and was hired on the spot.
“On stage, I make love to 25,000 different people, then I go home alone.”
Eventually, Janis Joplin became a solo act. She became famous with millions enjoying her music. It was then that she realized fame was a bit of a con. Being famous made her rich, but it didn’t give her true friends, true love or any of the things we humans value in this life. She was amazed how she could perform before tens of thousands one minute, and be sitting at home, alone and depressed, the next. The lesson here for all of us: Seek not fame, but rather, connect with people — face to face, one on one — because relationships are what will enrich our lives.
“Audiences like their blues singers to be miserable.”
Joplin knew what audiences wanted. As a blues singer, she could showcase feelings of despair, anxiety and trouble. Her voice and her attitude matched the lyrics. But what made it all work was her authenticity. Joplin wasn’t faking it. To truly relate to others, we absolutely need to be ourselves.
“I won’t quit to become someone’s old lady.”
Often, we feel the pressure to do what others want us to do. Friends, family and strangers are seldom short on advice. In her day, marriage was considered essential for acceptance in society. But the independent Joplin would have none of it. Her strength was in being able to say no to what others felt would be best for her. Deep down, we all know what is best for us. Let us follow our instincts, above the advice of others, regardless of how well intentioned they may be.
In her performance at Woodstock in 1969, Joplin spoke to the audience before she sang, telling them “You don’t need to take anyone’s shit, man.”
Janis Joplin struggled with life. Like many famous musicians, she turned to substance abuse. She did not want to die young. But an accidental heroin overdose in a Hollywood hotel on October 4, 1970 put an end to that incredible, distinctive voice.
She was only 27 years old.