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Piece of My Heart

For me, Women’s History month means Janis Joplin
Abby Johnston, 2:20pm, Thu. Mar. 28, 2013
photo by David Johnston
My fourth grade self as Janis Joplin

March remains set aside as a celebration of Women’s History, as if we need a 31-day window to pontificate on the achievements of women. Regardless, these last few weeks let me reflect on my favorite characters in this ever-swelling chronicle.

I thought of the suffragettes, the crusaders, the rule breakers. They were artists, writers, lawmakers – astronauts, CEOs, entrepreneurs. There’s a growing list of women who have made it possible to exist in a society that accepts me as an outspoken, college-educated, feminist. They set fire to and scoffed at a “man’s world,” beginning a fight that I hope I further each day.

As a music writer, my thoughts on the subject continually return to one woman: Janis Joplin. She was, perhaps, my first lesson on having the proverbial balls to kick down any door — even to the boys' club. Thanks to my dad’s music tutelage, the Port Arthur native was introduced to me at a young age. Before I was 10, I had memorized every word on Pearl. I knew about the Full Tilt Boogie Band and Big Brother & the Holding Company.

In short, I was a father’s dream at a time when Christina Aguilera and Britney Spears painted a bare-belly picture of femininity for my peers.

Joplin’s form of feminism was a direct product of her time. She never campaigned for any specific cause, while contemporaries like Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan led the charge on bra-burning feminism. Joplin’s influence was more subtle.

While rock music maintained a subversive lifestyle, sexist undertones encapsulated much of the counterculture message. It was a “Foxy Lady” society, where the liberated chick emerged as sexually adventurous and powerful, and yet became canonized in songs that set her as an object of desire for equally liberated men.

Rock was still a psychedelic sect of a decade just beginning to break from Leave It to Beaver family gender roles. In stepped Joplin. There was no guise of sexual icon from a woman who received the cruel title “Ugliest Man on Campus” by the University of Texas student body.

Joplin was freed of being sexualized by her own insecurity. It was never the goal. Rather, she relied on devastating blues as a vehicle for her music, using that to rise above crippling stereotypes.

In Joplin’s love narrative, she never acted as the submissive, but instead purveyed a genderless longing and desire, confronting a still relevant problem of gender-infused lyrical directives. She tackled the imbalance of equality with Big Brother & the Holding Company on “Women is Losers.”

Women is losers/ And then women is losers/ I know you must-a heard it all/ I said now men always seem to end up on top anyway.

It wasn’t a drum march for equality, but a middle finger to a conceptualized view of her world. This was an idea Joplin was able to overcome with undeniable talent.

The fourth grade talent show was no joke at my school. I went on after a girl sang Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?,” likely an age inappropriate choice in retrospect. I donned a tie-dyed shirt my dad picked up at a blues festival over an all-sequined purple dress. Add in blue sunglasses, a woven headband, and a blue feather boa, and I had transformed into a 10-year old version of my favorite singer.

The kids laughed when I walked onstage, and I felt a brief twinge of terror and regret as a mom backstage hit “play.” The giggles continued through the guitar build-up, but as soon as I grabbed the microphone I left my fears behind. This was my favorite song, and this was my moment.

“I’m gonna show you baby/ That a woman can be tough!”

Those words resonated. I reached the “come on” refrain of “Piece of My Heart,” swinging the boa around in a softball pitch windup. Finally I launched it over a crowd of unsuspecting elementary school students as I shrieked, “TAKE IT.”

Likely, none of the crowd members still munching pizza Lunchables could identify my muse, but Principal Woods laughed until she cried in the back of the cafeteria. My dad beamed from the floor.

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