Janis Joplin and the Sexual Revolution
Janis Joplin and the Sexual Revolution

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Janis Joplin and the Sexual Revolution

8 The sexual revolution and Joplin

In Joplin’s case, her so-called erratic performance style was also linked to her well-documented love of sex and multiplicity of partners. The sexual revolution posed a significant problem for Joplin, as for other women of her generation. O’Brien has commented:

She [Joplin] expressed the confusion of a woman raised with the repressive sexual codes of the 50s, yet embracing the bewildering lack of boundaries that came with 60s hippie counterculture. Before the supposed sexual liberation of the 60s, ‘good girls’ didn’t, and ‘bad girls’ did. Joplin tested this dichotomy, not just in her sexuality, but through her music and the way she lived her life on the cusp of a regressive era and a youth revolution.

(O’Brien, 2012, p. 87)

Activity 4

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Now explore how Joplin tested this sexual dichotomy musically by considering one of her most well-known recordings, ‘Piece of My Heart’. Originally recorded by Erma Franklin (1938-2002, sister of one of Joplin’s great musical heroes, Aretha Franklin), Big Brother & the Holding Company covered the song on Cheap Thrills. The sound of one of Joplin’s other great black musical influences, Otis Redding, can also be heard on this recording. His famous proclamation that you’ve ‘gotta, gotta, try a little tenderness’ clearly influences her grainy delivery of ‘come on, come on, come on, come on’. Read through the lyrics. Do you think that, ultimately, both the lyrics and Joplin’s performance suggest an empowered or a submissive position? Do they perhaps suggest two, rather different, messages?

‘Piece of My Heart’, Jerry Ragovoy and Bert Berns (1967)

[Intro]

Oh, come on, come on, come on, come on

[Verse 1]

Didn't I make you feel like you were the only man? Yeah

An' didn't I give you nearly everything that a woman possibly can?

Honey, you know I did

[Pre-Chorus]

And, and each time I tell myself that I, well I think I've had enough

But I'm gonna, gonna show you baby, that a woman can be tough

I want you to come on, come on, come on, come on and take it

[Chorus]

Take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Oh, oh, break it

Break another little bit of my heart now, darling, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Oh, oh, have a

Have another little piece of my heart now, baby

Well you know you got it, if it makes you feel good

Oh, yes indeed

[Verse 2]

You're out on the streets looking good

And baby deep down in your heart I guess you know that it ain't right

Never, never, never, never, never, never hear me when I cry at night

Babe and I cry all the time

[Pre-Chorus]

But each time I tell myself that I, well I can't stand the pain

But when you hold me in your arms, I'll sing it once again

I'll say come on, come on, come on, come on and take it

[Chorus]

Take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Oh, oh, break it

Break another little bit of my heart now, darling, yeah

Oh, oh, have a

Have another little piece of my heart now, baby

Well you know you got it, child, if it makes you feel good

I need you to come on, come on, come on, come on and take it

Take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Oh, oh, break it

Break another little bit of my heart, now darling, yeah, c'mon now

Oh, oh, have a

Have another little piece of my heart now, baby

You know you got it -

Waaaaah!

[Outro]

Take it, take another little piece of my heart now, baby

Oh, oh, break it

Break another little bit of my heart, now darling, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

Oh, oh, have a

Have another little piece of my heart now, baby, hey

You know you got it, child, if it makes you feel good

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Discussion

Although asserting that ‘a woman can be tough’, the woman in the song ostensibly sings from an entirely submissive and dependent position. Her power rests entirely in her sexuality: ‘Didn’t I make you feel like you were the only man?’ She begs him to ‘take another little piece of my heart’ and ‘break it’. Her desire to subjugate herself sexually to him is clear: ‘come and take it’. It hints troublingly at an abusive and controlling relationship. Joplin’s powerful, bluesy performance, however, deeply undermines the lyrical content and conveys a much more empowered message. Her aggressive, almost goading delivery of ‘come on, come on, come on, come on’ sounds defiant, rather than submissive.

The conflicted message of ‘Piece of My Heart’ echoes the wider position of women’s sexuality within the counterculture, as liberation for them largely equated to availability. As Whiteley has commented:

With the counter culture defining freedom for women almost exclusively in terms of sexual freedom, the concept of sexual liberation had become charged with significance. At one level it signified a symbolic journey, from chastity to freedom of choice, a valorisation of female hedonism, the active female rather than the passive recipient. However, as sexual freedom continued to be defined by the male as availability, a woman who wholeheartedly embraced the dictum of unlimited f****** remained, essentially, submissive.

(Whiteley, 2000, p. 54)
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