Holly George-Warren knows everything about the singer, but can she match her energy?
By Brianna Caleri
Pearl was the name of Janis Joplin’s final, most polished and most personally involved record. It was also the name she wanted to be called when the weight of being Janis grew too heavy. It would be a better title for Holly George-Warren’s biography, Janis. The emotional depth and understanding achieved around such a short life and career is commendable, but it comes at the expense of a bigger, fuller picture of Joplin’s cultural significance. This is a character study of the tumultuous personal life of a very famous and expressive person, and less the comprehensive history of a very famous blues singer.
Joplin was a child for most of her life. She lived only a decade of independent adult life (starting at 17), and she spent most of those years looking to stand-in parents and chosen family to care for and adore her. It certainly makes sense that Joplin’s childhood would occupy several chapters, though it does start to feel slow, and even a little perplexing in moments that seem to veer into irrelevancy. Joplin’s school years begin a concerning pattern in which those closest to her—often presented as her close friends—become her worst antagonizers. The duplicitous nature of Joplin’s personal relationships combined with George-Warren’s meticulous, but largely uncontextualized research, makes for a large and confusing cast of recurring minor characters.
In childhood, this lack of clarity is unimportant, but it graduates to major characters later, like Jim Morrison (lead singer of The Doors), whose context in Joplin’s life is ambiguous (while the context of his own superstar career at the time is ignored). Even Joplin’s bandmates suffer some identity erasure, as they’re described almost exclusively through her own perceptions and experiences. Bob Dylan was one of the few star characters who was introduced at specified point in his career (just before his breakout) and afforded a clear career progression along with the narrative.
Joplin’s parents and siblings are the only perfect creations of the retelling: Their intentions are unambiguous, their development explained from their own births to Joplin’s death, and their love for her is unquestionable. George-Warren consistently comes to the Joplin’s defense when the singer scorned them in the press or to confidants. Similarly, Joplin’s more serious love interests are compelling characters, whose flaws are often simply that they deserved a little more development still.
Music biographies tend to fall into the categories of historical study or personal narrative; the best alternate between both. The former pieces together oral history and preserved media to form a clear progression that explains that person or group’s earned place in history. The latter appeals more to the emotions, reads like a novel and includes literary devices for exciting storytelling. While a more narrative retelling would be the obvious choice for a biography centered on an artist’s emotional development and crutches, Janis is more an oral history. George-Warren’s intricate piecing together of interviews, concert footage and borrowed memories paints a detailed, but paradoxically impersonal picture. Her need for veracity interrupts the narrative as she constantly cites and quotes sources instead of embracing the beauty of a biographer’s duty to paraphrase.
It’s hard to get lost in the stories of Joplin’s life, despite them being some of the most worthy stories in music history. Thankfully, there are long letters to reference, and one of the best chapters of the book strings together touching letters from Joplin about her flaky fiancé. Perhaps no one can tell her stories like Janis can, but a biographer should come close. Woodstock and the Altamont Music Festival were all but glazed over. Joplin’s personal memories with friends were detailed but told dispassionately, and with an air of judgement and pity. There’s no doubt that George-Warren loves and feels for the wayward singer, but the text rarely instigates any emotion aside from pain.
Most disappointing for someone impressed by George-Warren’s credentials is the lack of her own voice in Janis. The author is a two-time Grammy nominee, a frequent achiever in music biographies, a committee member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and most importantly, a contributor to the liner notes for Joplin’s The Pearl Sessions. Yet almost every instance of musical analysis in the book comes between quotation marks and is attributed to journalists or other musicians of the time. This works in her favor when detailing Joplin’s complicated relationship with black music and musicians. It is an interesting (unspoken) twist in George-Warren’s retelling that most of Joplin’s critics who complained about appropriation were white, and it’s a smart choice to let those quotes, both negative and positive, speak for themselves. But there are endless opportunities for her seasoned insight, and she passes each one up.
George-Warren’s book promises in large text on the inside jacket, “Finally, the real Janis Joplin.” The promise acts on the assumption that readers already know a fake Janis, clouded by lore. The fact is, especially now as we get further and further from Joplin’s years alive, there are few people who still participate in that mythology. This book glides over the required reading to build rapport with a character whose greater influence we just have to take for granted. Janis offers an intimate understanding of Joplin’s inner turmoil but maintains distance in its writing style and fails to put the reader in her shoes. Instead of a “definitive biography,” as the testimonials on the back ensure, it’s just myopic in the opposite direction. Can there be a Pearl without a Janis?