For The Love of Women...
My intention was to glorify Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse for all of their contributions to music regardless of their gender for International Women’s Day. The way they turned their personal stories into art is not only moving but also inspirational. Two geniuses whose songs had the ability to distort the way we perceived reality simply through the power of words, chords and intonation. With everything they’ve done for us artistically, I could not help but reflect and think that we have failed them as human beings. The strides they made for women in the industry by being true to themselves were weapons turned against them, which in the end they were martyred for.
They were the best of their class. Their music transcended gender and generations. We all loved them and they had the planet’s attention. However, if we truly loved them, why have we been hell-bent on seeing their self-destruction? Entertainment and vanity. The idea of bold women unapologetically parading their talents in an unconventional way made us uncomfortable. Janis Joplin was the female lead of Big Brother and the Holding Company in a male dominated epoch. She was living and working with musicians of all nationalities, going against her parents to pursue her dreams and also owning her sexuality; once again going against societal conventions. Then you have Amy Winehouse, who also owned her sexuality during a decade when many female musicians had theirs marketed for them. She wrote all her songs, refused electronic instrumentation and to be seen as a pop act. She loved her idols and wanted to pay homage to them. The only way she could accomplish that goal was to create that path herself. Her lyrics were controversial and her way of life, very risky. As talented as they were, they threatened the pre-conceived notion that girls should aspire to either become princesses, follow the herd or even abandon their dreams for the sake of surviving in a world we have so neatly created for them. It was only natural to want to see these heroines brought down by human vices; a shinning example of the consequences to be faced for those who refuse to conform.
What made them amazing writers was that they took their experiences and made them relatable. They shared tales of unattainable love: on one hand, Joplin with David Niehaus (just one example) and on the other, Winehouse with Blake Fielder- Civil. They felt a strong desire to belong, despite clinging to their own personal identities while seeking artistic approval from the public. Emotional heartbreak translated into hits, which led to self-destruction. Strength can only last so long when you feel alone and unloved. Lyrically, they kept us informed about the turmoil going on in their lives, yet we did nothing. It was entertainment all chalked up to being a publicity stunt on their end.
I don’t presume to know anything about the industry or their lives. I’m basing this on two documentaries and a series of articles that may have omitted information for the sake of creating an engaging story. But still as humans, we shouldn’t have to know the whole story to see that something was wrong. The lyrics, interviews, the actions all led to the same conclusion, they weren’t happy. All of their experiences, once again, neatly packaged into record-breaking albums, I continue to ask questions: if this many people heard and enjoyed the album, why were the lyrics ignored?
We always assume the writing process is therapeutic but what about the performers who have to relive that experience night after night because it is what the crowd demands? It was difficult seeing Amy go through such effort to rehabilitate herself only to be drawn back to material she had written during a dark time in her life by being forced to tour when she clearly was not ready. Sam Beste revealed that she was hesitant to perform Back to Black because that lifestyle was no longer relevant to hers, yet she was forced back into it. Addiction is not something you can just turn off. You want to stop but you can't. You know you’re destroying yourself but it's also the only immediate medicine available for your chronic pain. Even if it's a temporary form of relief, that uncomfortable sensation is far too powerful to ignore. Those brief moments of alleviation are far better than that constant feeling of distress. And the more you engage in those destructive habits, the more it takes a toll on your physical appearance. You’re fully aware your scars are showing but you don’t think they’re that bad because, as terrible as they are, you've been locked behind closed doors when they’ve been at their worst. Going out in public means that it is best you've looked in while, the best you've felt in a while. You assume that the public will see and understand this, but you’ve forgotten that you’ve hidden your worst from them.
Honestly, this was not the article that I intended to write. If it were, I’d have a lot more facts and figures. But after watching AMY and Little Girl Blue, I saw common themes in both stories. Then reflecting on Ke$ha’s legal situation, Lady Gaga’s assault, Sia’s battle with depression and addiction, Britney Spears’ 2007 meltdown and dawned on me that this is an issue that is far too common and acceptable.
A few weeks ago, I asked local musician, Sharon Nuntazi, what do women in the industry need? Her response, “emotional support.” To be quite frank, I did not quite understand. But after getting a glimpse into these women’s lives, seeing what is happening with Ke$ha, I can’t help but agree. It is an industry dominated by exploitation. But whose role is it up to address these issues?
In their desire to be unique and true to their desires, Winehouse and Joplin made powerful statements which all led to isolation, desolation, substance abuse and eventually death. It’s not until a tragedy happens that we go, “Hmmmm, someone should have helped her.” But who would come to the rescue when a star’s self-destruction is that profitable? Their antics sold magazines, became topics of conversation for networks, talk shows and even made the primetime news. Yet, we grieved when we lost them. Not saying they went through the exact same struggles BUT at the same time, they went through A LOT, alone. I hope there would be more support for female musicians out there so that they know they have a support system there for them should they need one. As a male, I can’t pretend to understand the struggle that females musicians are facing so for the love of women, how can we help?