Queen of the Scene

Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing
By Ann Angel
(Amulet Books, New York, 2010, $19.95)

Janis Joplin, like contemporaries Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison, died of an overdose at twenty-seven. For that reason, it’s easy to dismiss her as a casualty of the sixties. But in Janis Joplin: Rise Up Singing, Ann Angel breathes life into the rock legend. Refusing to glamorize or condemn Joplin’s drug use, Angel instead explores the conflicts and personality traits that propelled the artist toward excess and stardom.

 In the 1950s, attending high school in Texas was tough – particularly if you supported integration, had friends of the opposite sex, and grappled with acne and frizzy hair. All of the above was true of teenage Janis Joplin, so she developed a reputation for being “loose” and endured bullying from her classmates. After graduation, Joplin vacillated between rebellion and conformity. She embraced bohemia in California and Greenwich Village, where she had a dangerous flirtation with speed, but she also tried working full time and attending college. Although she longed for domesticity and social acceptance, she wanted the free life of a musician. Eventually, her love of performing won out, and she moved to San Francisco to begin her musical career in earnest. There, her earthy voice and powerful stage presence quickly won her a following. Joplin found fame – and alcohol and heroin – irresistible. She cultivated a wild, colorful persona and sought admiration from fans, groupies, and lovers.

Angel discusses Joplin’s many contradictions. Despite her drinking and drug use, Joplin was a perfectionist about her music.  Joplin’s freewheeling lifestyle shocked her parents, but she enjoyed a loving relationship with them and desperately wanted their approval. In a moving introduction, friend and bandmate Sam Andrew describes how Joplin’s outspoken, confident personality belied her insecurity: “She was the Queen of the Scene and the chambermaid, simultaneously.”

Beautifully designed, with sixties-inspired swirls and photos of Joplin and fellow sixties icons, Janis Joplin is an excellent introduction to the artist’s life and work. Today, when bullying is a household word – and popular music has become increasingly banal – Joplin’s story should resonate with many teens. So should her heartbreaking, earthshaking, life-affirming voice.

2 comments

  1. Thank you for the lovely review! Janis was truly a flawed hero, one who served to model independence while also showing us the complexities of life and celebrity. But everytime I hear her voice I know there’s a heaven!

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