Today is the 35th anniversary of Janis Joplin‘s death. It would be wrong to let the date go by unnoted, so, although I don’t have time or energy to write a new essay, I can re-publish here a piece I wrote exactly five years ago marking the 30th anniversary. The article originally appeared on my Janis Joplin website, which I no longer maintain but is still on line here. For a full-on appreciation of Janis, see my review here. For a reflection on Janis in relation to artists of today, and a quick snapshot of the state of Internet marketing for indie artists five years ago, read on.
THIRTY YEARS ON
Originally published October 4, 2000
As we approach the 30th anniversary of Janis’s death, I find myself thinking about the great music being made today that most people never hear because of the nature of our music industry.
Digital recording technologies and the Internet have opened up new opportunities for independent artists, but the challenges of attracting notice (not to mention funding) have only become tougher. It’s now within the power of anyone with time and a few thousand dollars to put out a professional-quality CD. Then all one needs is Internet access to publicize and market it. But these developments have also increased competition and made it enormously difficult for an artist to stand out from the crowd.
Also, the listening public has fragmented so much that it’s hard to imagine an artist like Janis breaking through today. Janis was many things: a blues singer like Bessie Smith, an R&B singer like Otis Redding, a stunningly original interpreter like Billie Holiday, a rock star, bandleader and songwriter. It takes not only a supremely talented and driven artist, but a welcoming public too, to make a superstar out of such a confluence of qualities. Because of her lifestyle, her early death, the searching nature of the era’s young music fans, and of course the intensity of her performances, Janis became greater than the sum of her musical parts: she became a cultural icon.
It’s hard to imagine a Janis-style performer (not that there could really ever be such a thing) becoming a cultural icon today, with “culture” split into so many pieces and musical taste along with it. Web sites that feature new music are constantly trying to figure out what genres, sub-genres and even sub-sub-genres to define and include. No one can keep up with it. The last white pop musician to become such an icon in the US was Kurt Cobain, who lived and died before the Internet explosion made every struggling artist his own publicist. Janis, with her unpretty voice and face, could probably attain no more than niche popularity if she appeared on the scene today.
ARTISTS AND POPPETS
All of which makes the continued public fascination with Janis even more interesting today, three decades down the road. Myself, I was just a child in 1970, and one who’d had no exposure to rock music. But here you are, reading my words about her. And it continues in today’s children: since putting up this website, I’ve had many requests for information from kids who are doing reports on Janis for school, or are budding singers, or simply want to know more and so they contact anyone they think might be an authority.
I love the fact that these kids are interested in Janis. But at the same time I wish I could do more to turn them on to the living artists who are making great and passionate music right now, but don’t get a fair hearing. Everything these courageous (or foolhardy) artists do, from recording and manufacturing CDs to gassing up their vans, comes out of their own pockets. Thus they are not splashed all over MTV, commercial radio, record store windows and big-name corporate websites like the latest major-label poppet, and that’s a damn shame.