100 Greatest Artists

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Janis Joplin
Illustration by Andrea Ventura46/100

46. Janis Joplin

By Rosanne Cash

Janis Joplin was absolutely a barnstormer and a complete groundbreaker. She wasn't just a great woman in rock — at the time she was the woman in rock. Janis really created this whole world of possibility for women in music: Without Janis Joplin, there would be no Melissa Etheridge. Without Janis, there would be no Chrissie Hynde, no Gwen Stefani. There would be no one.

I was a freshman or sophomore in high school when Janis first connected with me. Pearl was the first record I bought. I remember that I was kind of scared. I think that if Joni Mitchell gave me the idea that a woman could write about her life in a public forum, Janis gave me the idea that a woman could live a wild life and put that out there in a public forum, too. At the time, I was this very proper Catholic girl, and Janis was a frightening presence. But being scared didn't stop me from buying Janis' records, and it didn't stop me from wearing a black armband to school the day she died.

It's hard to imagine now the extent to which Janis was so completely shocking at the time. There had been blues singers who were wild and unrestrained — but even they tended to be a little more buttoned-down than Janis. She always seemed on the verge of being totally out of control. A few summers ago, I watched the Monterey Pop Festival film for the first time in ages, and I was absolutely stunned by Janis. She had this focus that was relentless. She was a spectacle, like some kind of nuclear being bearing down on the crowd. In the film, you see Mama Cass at the end of Janis' performance just shaking her head, and applauding, like, "Oh, my God, what just happened?"

She had an unshakable commitment to her own truth, no matter how destructive, how weird or how bad. Nothing else seemed to matter. She was such an individual in the way she dressed, the way she sang, the way she lived. She loved her whiskey and made no bones about it. This was a full-blown one-of-a-kind woman — no stylist, no publicist, no image-maker. It was just Janis.

The beauty and the power of Janis Joplin as a singer is her complete lack of fear. She held nothing back. She went to the edge every time she opened her mouth. She sang from her toes and from her soul. She could also destroy you when she got vulnerable, like on "Me and Bobby McGee," where you saw the little girl underneath. But through it all, Janis never lightened up. She didn't live long enough to lighten up. She was a very fierce, very beautiful bright light that burned out way, way too quickly.

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