#125: Janis Joplin, "Pearl" (1971)

125 Pearl.jpeg

Whenever I think of the song “Me and Bobby McGee,” no matter how many times it’s been recorded by various artists, I think of Janis Joplin. She recorded it just days before she died, of a heroin overdose at the age of 27, for her album Pearl. This album is already full of heart-wrenching songs about love, so it’s no question that this song was a perfect fit. A proper send-off to remember this talented, complex, badass woman who damn well knew what love and loss felt like. The song was initially written by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster about a man and his girlfriend Bobby McGee, who hitch a ride from Kentucky to California, where they eventually breakup and leave the singer devastated. The song wasn’t written for Janis Joplin, but when I hear her sing it, I am entirely convinced that it was made for her.

Janis, trained in blues singing from a young age, really nailed that ability to put emotions into her voice. When I hear her rendition of Bobby McGee, particularly the build up of the la-da-da’s, her loud, powerful voice makes me feel every single emotion I’ve ever felt while in love and in heartbreak. Mind-consumption, desperation, frustration, joy, grief, it’s all there as I’m belting out all of the la-da-da’s with her. Bobby McGee is more than a person: it’s the part of our minds where we either desperately swear we’ll never fall in love again, or we can’t even imagine the thought of loving a different person from the one consuming our minds now. I always wonder what she was thinking in the recording studio as she belted those words at the top of her lungs. What did Bobby McGee, or maybe who, represent for her?

I’m an avid believer in expressing emotion through singing. I go to the same karaoke at the same bar every single month, and it is like therapy. It is an energy high that always makes me feel drunk at the end of the night, but then I remember that most of the time I was hitting the sparkling water fountain they have in the back. The high comes from the community of local, enthusiastic people who want to put their ALL into karaoke as much as I do. At this karaoke night, it doesn’t even matter if you’re a bad singer, because everyone else is singing so loudly you can’t even hear yourself sing. The people that show up also know an impressive array of songs; it’s always amazing to sing along to a song you totally forgot you knew all the words to. Now, have I sung “Me and Bobby McGee” multiple times, along with every other woman at the bar? You better believe it. It’s almost always a guarantee that someone is singing that song on karaoke night, and it’s always a woman. Suddenly that room is filled with everyone else’s representation of what Bobby McGee means to them, but it comes out in beautiful, drunk, loud unison.

I think there are a couple reasons for this. The Joplin version of this song is just really freaking fun to sing, and you know it’s going to be a crowd pleaser. But I like to think that there’s more to it than that. Janis Joplin released three albums and made herself known in the rock and roll industry before the age of 27. She was incredibly unique, and she embraced it, and when she wanted something, she went for it. For myself, a huge fan of ‘70s rock and roll, Janis is an empowering icon that made it in a male-dominated industry, and even managed to record songs that called men out on their bullshit. Her song “Move Over,” the first on Pearl, should be a prescription given to men that lead women on and string them along. With her powerful voice she cries, “You’re playing with me, come on now! Now either be my loving man, or let me be!” How many times have we yelled that, or desperately wanted to yell that at someone? Preferably in Janis Joplin’s voice as well. Ladies, tie your indecisive, distant men up and force them to listen to this if you have to. They’ll make up their mind, I promise.

So as I’m standing with a bunch of women and we yell/sing “Bobby McGee” at the top of our lungs while our drinks are sloshing around in our hands and we’re putting our arms around each other, I see women who are at the same age Janis was when she recorded this song. We are also struggling to make it professionally, most likely in a male dominated field. And we have all felt some similar emotions around love. So for that moment, we are all connected. And that makes all of those hard feelings in our 20s appear to be just fine and manageable. For me, Bobby McGee is a great reminder that love comes in many forms, whether it’s romance, friendships with drunk strangers, or just turning inwards and realizing no matter what, you’re going to be okay.

—Jenn Montooth