7 The ‘other’ and Joplin
Joplin’s extravagant image and intense performing style led several commentators to describe her as ‘erratic’, ‘crazed’, or ‘hysterical’. The activity below will enable you to explore how critics responded to Joplin.
Consider the extract from Jack Shadoian’s review of Pearl. This appeared in the American popular music magazine Rolling Stone in February 1971. As Pearl was released posthumously, this review also served as quasi-obituary for her. How does Shadoian describe Joplin’s voice? Why was he disappointed with Kozmic Blues and why did he find Pearl to be a more satisfying album?’
She [Joplin] was a remarkable, if erratic, singer, and she proved it, live and on record […] With Big Brother, Janis was free to leap and range; the band was always there to break any falls […] ‘Kozmic Blues’ was bound to be a disappointment […]
Janis seemed displaced. The new band didn’t help much and her voice, subjected to studio clarity, sounded more strained than expressive. Her style, too,transplanted to a tighter setting, seemed overblown and uncontrolled […] Full Tilt Boogie, the band that backs her on Pearl […] are simply a better band and more congenial to Janis, which is a big reason why Pearl is more satisfying […]
It is also clear that Paul Rothschild [sic, the producer who worked with Joplin on Pearl] was working hard to find the right material and the right context for Janis, to shape her gifts and give them direction and balance […] Her urge for drama, sometimes too hasty and spurting – not developed and sustained – is controlled by the solid foundation Full Tilt Boogie provides. She stays in control, and invitations to hysteria notwithstanding, gives a fantastic performance.
Shadoian describes Joplin as an ‘erratic’ (though admittedly also a ‘remarkable’) singer. He claims that Kozmic Blues (I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama!) was disappointing as it subjected Joplin’s voice to ‘studio clarity’, which resulted in her sounding ‘strained’ rather than ‘expressive’ and in her style coming across as ‘overblown and uncontrolled’. He asserts that she has an ‘urge for drama’ which is ‘sometimes too hasty and spurting’, and that this can lead to ‘invitations to hysteria’. He claims that both the better backing band (Full Tilt Boogie) and Paul Rothchild’s (1935-1995) input as producer were major contributing factors in making Pearl a more satisfying album.
Like many male commentators on female musicians, Shadoian associates Joplin’s creativity with mental illness, often crudely labelled, as in this review, as ‘hysteria’. In the case of women musicians, ‘Female madness […] has long been condemned within Western rhetoric as a signifier of instability, dangerousness and sickness. Madness in women has not marked them as creative geniuses, but has served as a strong device to cast them as Other’ (Hamer, 2019, p. 276). The ‘Other’ is a concept widely drawn upon in Popular Music Studies, Gender Studies, and Cultural Studies more widely. It is used to demarcate one (often supposedly minority) group as being in some way(s) different to the majority group. Othering frequently has negative associations, as it has been used to portray the minority group as deviant from the majority group. When women have been othered, it has been to portray them as deviant from men.
Marion Leonard has noted that rock journalists have used ‘the notion of mental torment […] in reviews of male musicians to construct a profile of the tortured romantic artist’ yet ‘associations with mental ill health are called upon by journalists to dismiss or “other” female performers’ (Leonard, 2007, p. 69-70). Shadoian’s review casts Joplin in the role of erratic female ‘Other’. It implies that her instinctive musicality as a singer (which, as we have seen, has been constructed as natural and innate for women) needed to be reined in and controlled by the skilful male backing bands and producers with whom she worked.