I noticed a curious thing not too long ago. It’s a fairly common compliment for a woman who sings rock music (especially of the louder and harder sort) to be told that she sings like Janis Joplin. Not Anne Wilson, not Patti Smith, not Big Mama Thornton, not Grace Slick — Janis Joplin. Every time. It’s a kindly meant compliment — the people saying it don’t generally intend to imply that the singer to whom they speak sounds like she gargles a mix of Southern Comfort and straight razors before smoking a pack of unfiltered Russian cigarettes for breakfast. They mean she sounds big, assertive, powerful, interesting, rocking.
I think that compliment, in my experience, has been given exactly once to a woman who actually did capture Janis — the awesome Mary Bridget Davies, who has actually performed with Big Brother and the Holding Company and plays Janis in a touring show, in addition to leading a pretty tight combo of her own. I’ve heard her live, and she is unquestionably amazing. Every time someone kindly tells me “you sound like Janis,” I now say: “Thanks, but no — and you have got to hear Mary Bridget Davies.” In my case, the compliment is sometimes warranted, but the comparison is faulty — in no way, shape, or form do I sound like Janis Joplin. I haven’t had the life for it, never mind not having the right pipes. I sound a lot more like Steve Perry than Janis Joplin (which is a source of some concern…).
It’s curious to me that the rocking women I meet a) are usually complimented via comparison, rather than a straightforward appreciation of their basic and original talents, and b) are, regardless of what they actually sound like, always compared to Janis. It occurs to me that there might be a lot of different reasons for this. Some people make the comparison simply because they like Janis, so another woman rocking in a way they like therefore sounds like Janis because she pleases them in a similar way. Some people just don’t listen to a lot of different women’s voices, so they go for the closest one they can remember or name. Some people have tin ears. Some have been trained by the way the market for music structures our consumption of it to classify voices according to historical genre antecedents of this kind, so the compliment just locates the voice they hear in context.
But why must a voice be complimented by comparison? I’m sure there are any number of reasons for this, too, but I can’t quite figure it out.
Anyway, for today I offer a cover of a song (Dark Road) created by one of my very favorite women’s voices, that of the fabulous Annie Lennox. I was once told (entirely erroneously, as you’ll see in a moment) that I sound like her.
I truly did appreciate that compliment, even if I know I can’t match the reality.
It’s too damn fast — I just can’t get that under control! ARGH! Still, I like the song anyway. If I had time, I’d record it again with the metronome LOUD in my ear. I’d also take a stab at the vocal bridge, which I cut completely because I just couldn’t make it sound good.