JANIS: LITTLE GIRL BLUE. Singing For Her Feelings To Be Heard

“I sing because I can experience a lot of feelings…” Janis Joplin had no one to hear her feelings. The most chilling part of Amy Berg’s documentary, Janis: Little Girl Blue, is to witness the cold formality of Mother and Father Joplin. No one could miss Janis’ hunger for love. Less obvious were the roots of that hunger: the trauma of a childhood with impenetrable parents. Dorothy and Seth Joplin, in their uncanny similarity to Grant Wood’s “American Gothic” farmer with pitchfork and wife, were emotionally remote and had no warmth. Neither could hear Janis’ feelings of loneliness and hurt. Janis Joplin was one of the greatest Blues voices since Ella Fitzgerald. Yet, although a hit sensation at the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival and much loved by her fans, she never felt loved. Being unable to please her parents filled Janis with self-doubt. She apologized repeatedly for “being so bad at The Family.” The Blues expressed, in a way nothing else could, the deepest reasons for Janis’ loneliness and depression. The songs she sang were autobiographically resonant. First and foremost, she needed a Mama she could tell her feelings to.

TELL MAMAYou need a sweet lovin’ mama, babe …Someone to listen to you Someone to talk to you Someone to hear you Someone to want you… Someone to hold you… Janis needed to be held. It’s unlikely there was physical affection in the Joplin family. Tellingly, when asked if Janis had received much affection growing up, a characteristically remote Dorothy Joplin replied, “Well, she got her share.” Just as important as being touched is a Mama who intuitively listens and emotionally holds a child’s difficult feelings, helping her not to feel alone. Janis didn’t have that kind of Mama. This put her in a constant state of despair about not being lovable or good enough, having to turn to other methods to manage her fears.

SUMMERTIME Living wasn’t easy for Janis. She struggled, using drugs and unsuccessfully trying to find love. The lyrics, “So hush little baby, don’t you cry” and those from Piece of My Heart: “I’m gonna show you, baby, that a woman can be tough” both reveal how Janis dealt with the necessity of managing her feelings on her own. She couldn’t let herself cry and developed a thick skin around her needs. Tough stock, she said, is what she came from. Some people can’t be tough. Janis couldn’t. She used heroin to escape; yet wanted to believe she was too tough to let it kill her. Without any other form of help, her feelings overwhelmed her. Singing her heart out, she tried to please her audience as she tried to please her parents. Yet, in spite of how hard she worked at it, Janis never felt good enough.

WOMEN IS LOSERS Men always come out on top …Well you know, if they told you they want youThey’ll come around by your door. Whoa I say now, if they don’t desert you, They’ll leave you cryin’ for more. If we replace the word “men” with “mother”, Women Is Losers conveys Janis’ longings and fears. The harsh aloofness of her mother left Janis crying for more; afraid she’d be deserted for being a loser. The documentary ends with a letter written just before she died: “Dear Family, I’m awfully sorry to be such a disappointment to you … I guess I’ll write more when I have more news. Until then, address all criticism to the above address and please believe that you can’t possibly want for me to be a winner more than I do. Love, Janis” Janis expected judgment and felt she deserved it. When a child internalizes a parent’s unwarranted criticism and believes no matter what she does or how much she accomplishes that’s what she’s going to get – it can destroy a life.

BALL N’ CHAIN Why does every single little tiny thing I hold on goes wrong? Yeah it all goes wrong, yeah…Hey, here you gone today, I wanted to love you. Some children in families with emotionally neglectful parents withdraw. Others become angrily rebellious. Janis’ brother said this about Janis: “She was the first to find out if you rocked the boat you might get noticed …” Being provocative might get you noticed, but it doesn’t erase the certainty you’re always doing something wrong and it doesn’t draw people near. As lonely as Janis was, closeness probably felt like a ball and chain if she had to do things someone else’s way in order to be loved. Janis told her parents that singing was the “truer me,” but they never understood or supported her. In fact, when they saw her perform with Big Brother and The Holding Company, it wasn’t pride they felt. Her sister overheard one parent tell the other: “Well, dear, I don’t think we’re going to have much influence anymore.”It wasn’t only being controlled that Janis wished to avoid. She didn’t expect to be wanted. She withdrew, used drugs alone, and watched while others got love. In “The Family”, if her brother and sister did what was expected, Janis likely felt they were the favored ones. Believing this must have torn her heart.

PIECE OF MY HEART Each time I tell myself that 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. Take another little piece of my heart now, baby …Break another little bit of my heart …What killed Janis Joplin were the pieces of her heart taken little by little in so many attempts to be loved. All she wanted was love. She never felt it. At 14, her cute looks changed. She had severe acne, put on weight, and her flat chest couldn’t compete when other girls began to fill out. Peers bullied her. She called herself ugly. When a girl isn’t given the love she needs from her mom, she feels either ugly or bad. Angry at how little acceptance she got, Janis could no longer be a compliant daughter.The negative attention she provoked and capitalized on pitted her even more against her mother. Her sister became the “good girl.” She was faced with constant lectures and cruel accusatory remarks (“you’re ruining your life; people will think you’re cheap and a harlot”). Her hurt went unnoticed. Being sadistically voted “the ugliest man of the year” in 1963 by a fraternity at the University of Texas crushed her. Love was something she kept trying to get. It was always out of reach.

TAKE THIS LONELY HEART Janis’ belief she was unlovable made her turn to heroin and away from people. Her friend, Dick Cavett, said: “If everyone loved her, it was OK. But, if anyone didn’t, they could destroy her in a minute.” When Cavett asked her: “How can you assure me you aren’t taking heroin?” her answer was: “Who would care?” After her death, Dave Getz, drummer for Big Brother and The Holding Company, recorded a song called Can’t Be The Only One with lyrics Janis wrote: “I can’t be the only one cryin’ at night … too much sadness in this world … take this lonely heart from one lonely girl…” Janis died on October 4, 1970 at age 27  – never knowing that David Niehaus, her love from Rio, had sent her a telegram. He helped her kick heroin once, but couldn’t stick around and watch her when she relapsed.  She loved him until the day she died but believed that he, like her family, found her a disappointment and didn’t love her. David’s telegram said something different: “I really miss you. Things aren’t the same without you. I’ll meet you in Kat Mandu any time, but late October is the best season. Love you, Mama, more than you know.” This telegram was waiting for her on the hotel front desk the morning she was found dead in her room.

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