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10 March 2016

I never could stand Janis Joplin’s voice – until I began to understand her

I have to confess, Joplin's singing had always set me on edge. But seeing the way she struggled to be free made me love her.

By Tracey Thorn

Someone asked me the other day whether I’d ever considered writing more about singers I hate. I blushed and admitted that in fact I’d half-written a chapter entitled “Nails on a Blackboard” for my recent book, but abandoned it, not wishing to start slanging matches with rival groups of fans. Yet it’s fair to say, isn’t it, that we can all think of certain voices that set our teeth on edge; and here I’m going to confess that one of those, for me, is Janis Joplin.

So it was with some trepidation that I went to see a documentary about her last week. Early on there was a clip of the folk/blues singer Odetta, one of Janis’s heroines and supposed influences, followed by a recording of Janis singing the same song. A contemporary commented that they’d been astonished when they first heard her voice, thinking, “My God, she can sing like Odetta!”

At this point I became the awful pedant in the front stalls, muttering to myself: “No she bloody couldn’t.” The two clips side by side showed up glaringly that she never sounded anything like her heroines. In fact, she sounded more like Robert Plant, who by happy coincidence is another voice to which I am allergic. It’s entirely valid for singers to take influences and make something new of them, so it shouldn’t matter that Janis didn’t sound like an authentic blues singer. What does matter to me is that, when I hear her voice, I am reminded more than anything else of Grace Dent tweeting “WHAT A FACKIN RACKET” whenever a real foghorn took to the X Factor stage.

But here’s the mark of a great documentary – by the end of the film I loved Janis. Not her voice, which to me will always sound thin and screechy, but her, and the battles she fought to be a free woman. An outsider at school, she turned to music for validation. A contemporary described her heartbreak at being voted Ugliest Man of the Year in a college yearbook, and I wanted to go back in time and punch people on her behalf. You sensed that her parents hadn’t understood: her last letter to them gave a return address to which, she wrote, all criticism could be directed.

In her quest for freedom, Janis became a symbol of the sexual revolution. Not that she seemed to get as much out of it as the men, complaining that they took chicks home every night while she drifted back to her hotel room alone, with some heroin for company. The more of her story I heard, the more my heart opened to her: I started to feel bad for not liking her singing.

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Two days earlier, I’d seen the Mavis Staples documentary (cheerily titled Mavis!). The women had coincided chronologically, and Mavis, too, was influenced by Odetta and inspired by the civil rights movement. Janis may have been a compelling performer – wild, uninhibited, druggy – but Mavis also knew about onstage abandon. She learned her singing in church, where you worked to get shouts from the congregation, and she still knows how to whip up a crowd even in her seventies. Her band commented (with a wink, it seemed to me) that once she got started there was no stopping her.

Janis embodied the younger generation’s rebellion, sticking it to the man, while Mavis performed much of the time with her dad, whom she clearly and heart-warmingly adored. Janis was criticised for being too sexually open, while the Staple Singers had to be gently persuaded, against some initial reluctance on Pops’s part, to sing “Let’s Do It Again”.

In the end, I was moved by both stories. Mavis, to me the better singer, with a voice that Dylan described as “deep and mysterious”, never quite achieved the solo career her talent deserved. Janis was dead before she had the chance to mature. Her film had the same name as the recent Karen Carpenter biography, Little Girl Blue. As for Mavis!, that exclamation mark seems determinedly upbeat.

We have to avoid being drawn more towards the tragic trajectory when it comes to female singers. I’m guilty of that, too. But it was clear to me that there was something triumphant about both Mavis and Janis, despite everything.

This article appears in the 09 Mar 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Psycho