For Janis Joplin, On Her Sixty-Ninth Birthday

The first time I heard Janis Joplin, it was by chance. I was at the home of an acquaintance, a bona fide Popular Girl who argued feminist positions along with me in our junior-year literature class, making her my favorite of the in-crowd. I’d been assigned a class project with her, and she had a small group of us over to her home to work on the task. We sat cross-legged on the floor, sipping sodas and plotting our work, when a quiet wail in the background caught my ear. I tuned out the conversation and tuned in to the wail: I couldn’t make out the words, but the sound itself was urgent, pained, and undeniably female. I interrupted the conversation to ask who we were listening to, and the popular girl smiled. “Janis Joplin,” she said. “Isn’t she great?”

I’d heard of Janis Joplin before, but somehow she had slipped through my musical upbringing in favor of The Beatles, Fleetwood Mac, and Bob Dylan. My parents owned Pearl—as I’d learn later that night when I’d ask my parents about Janis with the same sort of feigned-casual tone I might use to inquire about an it’s-no-big-deal-really crush—but she wasn’t a part of the household repertoire. After commandeering Pearl and realizing there had to be even more Janis out there, I went to the public library and found every bit of material on her that I could. I borrowed CDs to make illegal tapes of them; I read biographies; I watched Monterey Pop. I went barefoot for much of my senior year of high school because it seemed like something Janis would have done; I strolled the halls with my long hair, tie-dye T-shirts, long necklaces, and ripped jeans, and imagined myself to be channeling some part of her. Forget that as a classic good girl, any rebellious streak I had was forever turned inward, not outward; forget that I was 17 and had no idea what phrases like a woman left lonely, piece of my heart, and get it while you can could possibly mean (or rather, forget that I’m an adult critiquing my adolescent understanding of her work; at 17 I knew the meaning of those words as well as anyone).

I wouldn’t say I wanted to be Janis, or even that I considered her a role model. I’d quickly learn how she lived, I’d quickly learn how she’d died, and I didn’t want to shape my life in that way. But I admired her. I’d call it a “girl crush” if I didn’t usually apply that term to women who reminded me of a better version of myself, which Janis wasn’t. Janis Joplin was nothing like me. That’s part of why—I’ll use this phrase, and not lightly—I loved her.

It wasn’t until I had read multiple biographies of her that I began to recognize something that felt like a nonsensical gnat at first, but a gnat that appeared in every major work about her: Janis Joplin wasn’t pretty. I mean, yeah yeah, eye of the beholder and inner beauty and all that, but Janis Joplin was not considered to be pretty. She was an outcast growing up, teased for her looks—her acne-plagued skin, her tendency to gain weight—and she never carried the mantle of the pretty girl. Even when she became an icon of the late ‘60s, it wasn’t because she was a beauty. None of that mattered to me, though, because I had no idea she wasn’t supposed to be pretty.

There are plenty of reasons why I didn’t think about Janis Joplin’s beauty. The obvious would be that she was so extraordinarily talented that her voice took a backseat to her looks, or perhaps that her talent made her beautiful to me. Hell, maybe it was because Janis came to me through a Popular Girl, so I conferred the qualities of that girl onto Janis herself. And perhaps all of those are true, but that’s not what was really going on.

It was more this: Famous women are pretty, and Janis Joplin is famous, ergo Janis Joplin is pretty. That was it, that was the logic, and I didn’t question my faulty syllogism. Janis Joplin had to be beautiful, because known women are beautiful. I didn’t need to actually look at her to know it must be true. To be clear, it wasn’t that I had some special ability to see a female performer as beautiful because of her talent alone, or that I thought her looks were unimportant. It was quite the opposite: I thought looks were incredibly important. I was so stuck on connecting beauty with talent and “making it” that I superimposed a physical beauty onto anyone with talent. Rather, I superimposed the concept of a woman’s looks, to the point where the actual physical “truth” of it (if there is ever a “truth” about beauty) became beside the point. I’d like to think that Janis’s looks didn’t cross my mind because my attitude on the matter was so progressive, but in truth it was because my attitude was regressive, or at least adolescent. I prized beauty, so I tethered skill, talent, tenacity, boldness, attitude, charisma—the things I actually loved about Janis—to it.

I don’t remember what I thought the first time I saw a picture of Janis. I do, however, remember looking at pictures of other women from the era and wanting to be like them because they were pretty. Grace Slick’s tilted head and dark eyes on the cover of Surrealistic Pillow, Mary Travers looking pertly fabulous under her boa on Album 1700, even, as a child, the pretty smile of Marlo Thomas on the back of Free to Be You and Me: I loved all of these albums from childhood on, and probably would have even if Grace, Mary, and Marlo were less pretty than they were. But their looks were a part of the fantasy portal they created. Grace and Mary were beautiful women surrounded by men (who I saw as being of lesser talent, whether or not that’s true), and Marlo—well, she was That Girl, right? Was it any wonder a girl who longed to be both pretty and accomplished would look up to these women?

It was probably my experiences with Grace, Mary, and Marlo—and Peggy Lee, and Linda Ronstadt, and Lesley Gore, Julie Andrews, Stevie Nicks, Diana Ross, or any of the other female musicians who populated my childhood—that made me assume, sight unseen, that Janis Joplin must be pretty. Once I started reading biographies of her and saw that writers would occasionally mention that she was hardly Venusian, I dismissed such notions as being beside the point, but I still didn’t question the veracity of their claims. It was only after my fervor had died down a little bit—the poster taken down from my wall, my college boombox finally being relieved of Cheap Thrills—that I studied photographs of her, looking for something other than Janis Joplin, the legend. She made some arresting images, to be sure—sprawled in feathers on a leather settee for Pearl, behatted in furs leaving the Chelsea Hotel. There’s little question that Janis was attractive, in the sense that she attracted you, and for reasons that had nothing to do with her voice. But pretty? No, she wasn’t that.

Still, we loved to look at her. In fact, perhaps we loved to look at her because she wasn’t traditionally beautiful. As rock critic Ellen Willis writes in her 1976 essay on Janis, “Joplin’s metamorphosis from the ugly duckling of Port Arthur to the peacock of Haight-Ashbury meant, among other things, that a woman who was not conventionally pretty, who had acne and an intermittent weight problem and hair that stuck out, could not only invent her own beauty (just as she invented her wonderful sleazofreak costumes) out of sheer energy, soul, sweetness, arrogance, and a sense of humor, but have that beauty appreciated. Not that Janis merely took advantage of changes in our notions of attractiveness; she herself changed them.”

Isn’t it nice to think so? I don’t think it’s true, though, not exactly, or at least I don’t think Janis changed our notions of attractiveness. But I do think that not only is she a prime example of how someone’s raw talent can make a person so appealing as to actually transform one’s looks, she’s also a poster child for the ways beauty serves as a false protector. Janis Joplin, never having been considered pretty, also never had the security of banal prettiness. And as harsh as it probably was to not have that security, it may also have wound up giving her a certain protection against misdirected blame. In “Ball and Chain,” when Janis moans, “I don’t understand how come you’re gone” she has a near-childlike lack of understanding—how come you’re gone? how come? The only thing greater than her gaping incomprehension at why her man would leave a good thing is her pain. But at age 17, I’d have known how come he’d gone: I wasn’t his dream girl after all, I wasn’t pretty enough, I spat when I talked, I’d been too clingy, and my god was I really just fat after all? (I’d have been wrong, of course. We never understand how come they’re gone.) Janis skipped forward through the analysis of the good girl, the pretty-enough girl, the girl who desperately wishes not to repeat her mistakes—the me-girl—landing smack-dab in the searing, fertile garden of pain. We all wind up there eventually. I can’t say she spared herself any grief through her circumnavigation around nice-girl self-blame; Janis didn’t spare herself much of anything. But she grieved the right things. She never had the crutch of prettiness, so she learned to walk without it.

There’s only so far I can romanticize Janis in this respect, of course. She jumped from lover to lover, only rarely feeling satisfied. She sought approval more than her lasting reputation as an iconoclast reveals; one listen to the mediocre Kozmic Blues shows just that. She went to her high school reunion fully expecting the reception she’d longed for 10 years earlier, only to walk away with a tire, an award for having traveled the farthest to attend. (“What am I going to do with a fucking tire?” she reputedly said upon receiving the award.) And, of course, she died in a hotel room, alone, at age 27, of a self-administered heroin overdose. I can’t claim jack shit for Janis’s self-image or appraisal of her own appeal. I can only claim what she taught me.

I’m older now, more mature, and I’d like to think I’m no longer as eager to equate talent and physical beauty. In fact, I’ve come back to that place I was at age 17: Janis Joplin’s looks don’t matter to me, in the sense that they’re unimportant in the larger scope of who she is. I’m glad for that. Janis’s legacy isn’t that of beauty; it’s that of brutal vulnerability, searing talent, and the virtue of being totally unable to be anyone other than oneself. I write here of the importance her looks had for me because this is the place I have to honor her, and here I write of beauty. But when I listen to her—it doesn’t matter what album, it doesn’t matter what song—if I am thinking of beauty at all, I’m thinking of the kind of beauty that transcends. Whimsy, will, and revelation created Janis’s legacy, and they create her beauty too. And today, on what would have been her sixty-ninth birthday, I want to offer her memory a piece of my heart.