Janis Joplin: the singer who screamed a very American pain

When did pop first show that it had the capacity to feel bad? Not bad in the sense of feeling blue or worried or cross or cray-zee, or bothered by intimations of existential dread, but bad in the sense of feeling disturbed. That pop, rock, soul or whatever had the potential to take both hands off the banisters and let itself fall backwards without thought into abysmal, chaotic feeling. When did rock first show signs that it had the power to express what we might now call, for want of a better expression, pathology?

My first encounter with extreme feeling in pop music came a couple of years before I was capable of registering any kind of extreme feeling myself. In 1971, Janis Joplin was the sound of approaching anguish for my generation of 11-year-olds. Her sandpaper howls were for us, I suppose, what we thought of when we thought of the existential scream of nature, as we often did: an auditory update of Edvard Munch for the post-hippy generation. When she let rip, the world formed its mouth into an O and put its hands up to the sides of its face.

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