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Music / Janis Joplin

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Oh Lord, won't you buy me a Mercedes Benz...?
And clenching your fist for the ones like us
Who are oppressed by the figures of beauty
You fixed yourself, you said "Well, nevermind"
"We are ugly but we have the music"
Leonard Cohen, "Chelsea Hotel No.2"

Janis Lyn Joplin (January 19, 1943 – October 4, 1970) was a singer and songwriter who achieved stardom in the late 1960s as a vocalist for psychedelic rock outfit Big Brother & The Holding Company. She's famed for her raspy, blues-influenced vocal style, as well as hits like "Piece of My Heart", "Summertime" and "Me & Bobby McGee". She was also one of the performers at Monterey and the original Woodstock, along with her then backup band, the Kozmic Blues Band.

On the morning of October 4, 1970, Janis was found dead in her hotel room in Los Angeles, having succumbed to a heroin overdose, just before she could finish work on her album Pearl. She was just 27 and died only a week after Jimi Hendrix passed away at the same age, also from drug-related causes. Pearl and "Me & Bobby McGee" became posthumous successes, with the latter single going to No. 1 on the Billboard charts.

Janis was a huge fan of blues singer Bessie Smith, the "Empress of the Blues." She identified so powerfully with her that she suspected she was Bessie's reincarnation. Bessie was buried in Philadelphia in an unmarked grave, so Janis, along with Bessie's former housekeeper Juanita Green, designed and paid for a beautiful stone inscribed "The Greatest Blues Singer in the World Will Never Stop Singing."

Albums with Big Brother & The Holding Company:

Solo albums:

  • I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic Blues Again Mama! (1969) (with the Kozmic Blues Band)
  • Pearl (1971) (with the Full Tilt Boogie Band) (released posthumously)

No relation to Scott Joplin.

"I got dem ol' kozmic tropes again Mama!":

  • Epic Rocking: Her songs could get pretty long, especially when she was fronting Big Brother and the Holding Company. "Ball and Chain", running at more than nine minutes, is probably the most famous example on record, and possibly also the longest.
  • Isn't It Ironic?: "Mercedes Benz" as used in a Mercedes-Benz commercial.
  • Metal Scream: Very often, most famously in "Piece of My Heart". This is arguably the vocal style she is most famous for performing.
  • Phone-in Game Shows: In the song "Mercedes Benz", one of the things she wants God to buy for her is a color TV, so she could watch Dialing for Dollarsnote  whenever they called her in.
  • Shameless Fanservice Girl: The story behind the iconic photo of Joplin in the nude is that she showed up for a 1967 photo session with photographer Bob Seidemann, in which the idea was that she'd be topless but wearing a cape and some beads, and would be shot from the waist up only. But after shooting a few rolls of film, Joplin exclaimed "Oh, motherfucker! I want to take my fucking clothes off!" and started undressing. Seidemann tried to stop her, but she stripped off and he went on to take pictures of her. They weren't released until 1972, but soon become among the most memorable photos of the era.
  • Shout-Out:
    • The line I met a girl who sang the blues in Don McLean's American Pie is supposedly about her.
    • Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel #2" from New Skin for the Old Ceremony is definitely about her. (Cohen later expressed regret for some of the song's Intercourse with You lyrics, saying, "if there is some way of apologising to [Joplin's] ghost, I want to apologise now, for having committed that indiscretion.")
    • And ironically, "Me and Bobby McGee" may well have been written about her.