The Heart of the Matter: From Janis Joplin to Heart and Beyond

WITH HER HAIGHT-ASHBURY HIPPIE STYLE and a vocal delivery inspired by the gospel, folk and R&B artists she admired (Bessie Smith, Odetta, Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Nina Simone), Janis Joplin kicked open the door for women to take their place in what was then the male-dominated realm of rock in all its evolving and splintering forms—from American folk and psychedelic rock to metal, punk, grunge and beyond.

Joplin was nothing like the female pop artists who were charting at the time. Motown girl groups of the early and mid-60s such as The Shirelles, The Marvelettes, and of course, The Supremes, capitalized on an ultra-feminine look and a slick doo-wop flavored sound that featured polished tight harmonies and choreographed stage moves. At almost the same time, the American Folk revival of the period saw the rise of singer-songwriters such as Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, Judy Collins and Carole King, whose work blended folk, rock, country and pop riffs to create story-songs with themes ranging from political to romantic to anthems of new feminist freedoms.

Joplin brought a completely different sensibility to the concert stage and it was electrifying. Fronting first for Big Brother & the Holding Company and later the Kozmik Blues Band and the Full Tilt Boogey Band (both bands of her own creation), she could be by turns rough or soft or outrageous and she could hold her own against the backdrop of rock’s signature heavy drums and wailing guitars. Her breakout appearance at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 brought her to national prominence and launched her career, which ended abruptly only three years later when she died at the age of 27. Despite the brevity of her stardom, Rolling Stone included her on both its 2004 list of “100 Greatest Artists of All Time” and on its 2008 list of “100 Greatest Singers of All Time.”

Joplin’s influence can be felt in the musical bravado of her contemporaries Grace Slick (Jefferson Airplane and Jefferson Starship) and Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac). Says Nicks, “She was extraordinary. She had a connection with the audience that I had not seen before, and when she left the stage, I knew that a little bit of my destiny had changed… In the blink of an eye, she had changed my life.”

Sleater-Kinney and JanisThere is no doubt that Joplin also paved the way for the rockers who came after her. From Debbie Harry of Blondie to Joan Jett & the Blackhearts to Courtney Love to Patti Smith, women were making the rock world sit up and take notice. From the mid-60s to the mid-90s, the Pacific Northwest music scene mirrored the evolution of rock music taking place both in San Francisco and on the East Coast. Homegrown girl groups came and went, some cutting single records and others never recording. The late ‘60s and early ‘70s saw the discovery of powerhouse singers such as Kathi MacDonald who performed with Safety Patrol, the Rolling Stones, Ike and Tina Turner, and Big Brother & the Holding Company.

In the 1970s, women around the Pacific Northwest were making inroads into new forms of rock including punk and heavy metal bands, both joining the boys on stage and creating groups of their own. But it was Ann and Nancy Wilson and their band Heart that jumped out of the Northwest to national prominence with the release of their album Dreamboat Annie in 1976 and in 1977 with Little Queen and its charting hit “Barracuda.” Nancy Wilson cites Janis as a musical inspiration. Says Wilson, “I think she allowed women to have their pain… her amazing talent was because of the pain she had… she was so intelligent, emotionally intelligent and what came out of her was almost beyond what her physical body could do.” Ann Powers, music critic for the LA Times, also saw the connection between Heart and Janis Joplin. “Heart is so singular and we forget how many women have really made an impact on mainstream rock… Hard rock, you can count them on one hand, and Ann Wilson is Number 1, along with Janis Joplin.”

As punk, grunge and later New Wave music took hold in the ‘80s and ‘90s, Nirvana and Pearl Jam were the iconic Northwest bands to watch. But women on the local scene were making waves of their own. From all-female punk groups such as Dickless and 7 Year Bitch, to Hole led by Courtney Love, women were fearlessly owning styles of rock that had been considered off limits to female musicians. The idea that women couldn’t play with the same power, strength, skill or abandon of their male counterparts was fading fast. In Olympia, a new generation of third-wave feminist women were exploring gender politics, female empowerment and other social issues through their ‘zines, meetings, and of course their music. The Riot Grrrls, as the movement came to be known, produced a number of successful bands including Bikini Kill and Heavens to Betsy. No doubt the most successful of this period was Sleater-Kinney. With Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tucker on vocals and guitars and Janet Weiss on drums, Sleater-Kinney impressed critics and fans alike, even earning the accolade of Best Rock Band of 2001 from Time Magazine. When interviewed for the TV special “Bad Girls of Rock,”Weiss points directly to Joplin, recalling her emotion and passion on stage. “Maybe that’s part of being ‘bad,’ walking the fine line of being consumed by it [the passion] and being powerful enough to be in charge of that sort of rawness.”

Sleater-Kinney broke up in 2006 but the musical beat has continued giving rise to alt rockers like the Gits, Girl with 100 Heads, Black Cat Orchestra, Hell’s Belles, and many more. As music journalist Gillian G. Gaar put it, “Far from being a unique trend, women in rock have instead been a perpetual trend.” Today girls who want to rock can look to role models of all sizes, shapes, races, and genders for inspiration. They can also remember Janis Joplin’s legacy of fearlessness and honesty, along with her own words of encouragement, “Don’t compromise yourself. You are all you’ve got.”

By GRETCHEN DOUMAFreelance Writer
Design by KEVIN HARRIS, Graphic Designer

Author: The 5th Avenue Theatre

The Nation's Leading Musical Theater

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