Posthumous Narratives: How Janis Joplin's Authority Can Be Recovered through Inner Child Theory

28 minutes to read
Romy Mennen

Celebrities and cultural icons play a significant role in today’s media culture. Many people idolize their talent, and looks, or enjoy the forms of entertainment they offer. However, celebrities’ roles in society also go beyond entertainment and consumerism because as scholars on celebrity culture argue, famous figures often have a pedagogical and moral function within a culture (e.g., Johansson 2006; Marshall 2010). Celebrities offer examples of how to create a public image, which can influence how other people present themself in a society as well. In addition, celebrities form a sounding board on which a society can negotiate their values and morals. This happens for instance in gossip magazines when the actions of celebrities are either being celebrated or harshly criticized. The discussions that often arise based on celebrities’ actions, demonstrate how a society judges these actions. 

These public narratives about famous people, however, are also very profitable, so they often get exaggerated or even made up. When a celebrity is alive, they have some agency in the public image that materializes through all these discourses. Even though many narratives will be told about them without their consent, they have the agency to react to these narratives. However, this dynamic changes completely when an artist is not alive anymore, but still has a public presence as a cultural icon. As Alice Masterson writes in A Woman Left Lonely:  Pariah Femininity and the Posthumous Career of Janis Joplin, “the stories of dead musicians provide a narrative platform from which commenters can create and promote meaning” (2). As an example of this, she analyzed how a posthumous image was created of one of the only female rockstars of the 1960s, Janis Joplin, who died at 27 from an accidental overdose. Masterson examined a large collection of posthumous writings such as biographies and magazine articles and compared them to writings about Joplin before her death. 

Based on this analysis, she concludes that Joplin was characterized as a lost or troubled soul posthumously, which took away her own agency in her life narrative. Interestingly, Masterson argues, the same characteristics that made her “tough” when she was still alive, were posthumously used to demonstrate her vulnerability. In addition, her desires were framed differently posthumously, making her appear lonely and lost. When this then gets related to her drug use, Joplin’s hedonistic philosophy and her successful career are continuously being explained as a reaction to her trauma rather than just a purely hedonistic desire (10).

Inner Child as New Perspective on Traumatic Past

When I examined two of the most recent biographies on Janis Joplin, the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue (2015) by director Amy Ber, and the written biography titled Janis: Her Life and Music (2019) by Holly George-Warren, I found that in both of these biographies, Joplin’s childhood trauma played an important role in the narrative of her vulnerability. In Little Girl Blue, she is even being portrayed as essentially still a little girl. This reminded me of how in today’s popular culture, childhood trauma is not always linked to vulnerability, like it is done in the biographies of Joplin, but also to strength and agency, especially when people try to heal their trauma by connecting to the needs of their “inner child.” Since the way childhood trauma is used in the two recent biographies only diminishes Joplin’s strong character and her agency, I wondered whether the upcoming, more positive discourse about healing childhood trauma could offer a new reading of Janis Joplin’s life narrative by reframing Joplin’s agency in relation to the role that childhood trauma played in her life. 

Currently, the hashtags “inner child,” and “inner child healing” have 2 billion and 1,1 billion views respectively on TikTok alone and high-profile celebrities like Kendall Jenner are openly speaking about the inner child work they are doing. This shows how present the idea is and it can be argued that it became so popular because it resonates with larger sentiments in today’s society about generational trauma, self-improvement, and individualization. 

In contemporary popular culture, the inner child is becoming a symbol of emotional strength: if you are in touch with your inner child, you are taking care of your inner needs. It means being aware of your trauma and addressing it rather than repressing it. People share stories of how they healed their inner child and how it improved their life. Compared to the "little girl blue” in the documentary, the idea of the inner child offers a completely different take on the way that adults can relate to their childhood trauma, with connotations of strength and agency rather than pain and victimhood. 

To explore how these ideas of the inner child can provide a new understanding of Joplin’s life, in which her childhood experiences played a large role according to recent biographies, I will analyze Joplin’s autobiographical songwriting through the lens of inner child theory, and compare it to how  the idea of the little girl is used in the documentary Janis: Little Girl Blue and in how her childhood plays a role in the Janis: Her Life and Music. This written biography aims to go beyond the victim narrative by presenting “a deeply satisfying portrait of a woman who wasn’t all about suffering” ("About the Book").  Nevertheless, Joplin’s childhood trauma still plays a large role in this biography, so it will be an interesting source to analyze in relation to Janis: Little Girl Blue and Joplin’s own songwriting through the lens of inner child theory. 

In her autobiographical songwriting, Joplin has much more agency than she has in the posthumous narratives about her, because she wrote these lyrics herself. As Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson write in Reading Autobiography: A Guide for Interpreting Life Narratives (2001), “in their autobiographical acts, narrators claim the “authority of experience” both explicitly and implicitly” (27). The reason for this is that the experience and interpretation of readers, or in Joplin’s case, listeners, depends on it. If the writer and singer of a song has lived the experience of the song's lyrics, the performance will be perceived as more authentic, which was also very important for the counterculture environment in which Joplin performed, because authentic self-expression was a fundamental characteristic of their movement (Cmiel 1994; 271). Therefore, Joplin's autobiographical lyrics are a relevant case study to examine her autonomy in her self-presentation. Whether or not these lyrics are completely truthful to herself, she wrote them, so she made the choice to present these ideas and experiences to the outside world, and that is where her agency lies in this case. 

In inner child theories, a child also functions as a symbol, not only of vulnerability, but also of knowledge, creativity, or purpose.

Ultimately, I want to research whether specific attention to her autobiographical writing in relation to the concept of the inner child can reframe the existing narrative of Janis Joplin as a famous rockstar who was deep down just a hurt little girl. I will approach it as a theoretical concept that can offer a new interpretation of how Joplin’s childhood experiences have played a role in her life and career. In existing biographies, the child is used as a symbol of vulnerability and innocence to give meaning to Joplin’s life narrative. In inner child theories, the child also functions as a symbol, not only of vulnerability, but also of knowledge, creativity, or purpose. I will specifically pay attention to the way in which characteristics of the child and childhood trauma are used in the existing biographies and what purpose they have within the life narrative that the biographies present. I will therefore analyze how this concept of the inner child that currently circulates in society, can reframe the posthumous narrative of Janis Joplin and I will argue that it can reframe the narrative because it will rearrange where the agency resides, allowing for more authority for Joplin herself.

Dialogues with the self 

In the early 1990s, the idea of the inner child gained popularity in popular culture through the self-help book Homecoming: Reclaiming and Championing Your Inner Child (1990) by John Bradshaw, but before then, it was already being used in the field of psychology. In her book, Recovery of Your Inner Child: The Highly Acclaimed Method for Liberating Your Inner Self (1991), Lucia Capacchione explains the history of the idea and starts by explaining how the child has always played an important role in culture, especially in myths and legends. She argues that the narrative of the vulnerable child is present in these myths and legends because it represents a universal human experience. She explains that everyone has experienced physical or emotional mistreatment as a child to some extent, which is why it is so easy for most people to identify with these stories (20). She refers to mythologist Joseph Campbell to further explain how in many myths and legends, the vulnerable child eventually goes on a quest and undergoes trials “until his true heroic nature is revealed” (20). The fact that this same structure reappears in narratives so often, she argues, demonstrates that it resonates with many people. However, these myths are still fictional, so this does not mean that they automatically represent a universal human experience. Therefore, Capacchione combines Campbell’s findings with psychoanalyst Carl Jung’s research on the importance of the child in psychology. Jung analyzed how the child affects people’s psychological experiences and he saw the child as an archetype that is present in everyone. According to Jung, “the ‘child’ paves the way for a future change of personality” and it is “a symbol which unites the opposites” which is very important in the individualization process of which the goal is the “synthesis of the self” (Jung qtd in Capacchione 20–21).

Capacchione continues to trace how the idea of the child developed in both culture and psychology and notes how the inner child became more popular in psychology in the 1960s. As examples of this, she mentions Hugh Middildine’s book Your Inner Child of the Past (1963) and Eric Berne’s idea of “Transactional Analysis.” Subsequently, the concept got developed even further and in the 1980s, Capacchione writes, the model of “Voice Dialogue” was developed, in which the inner child was increasingly seen as a sub-personality that often got neglected by adults. In addition, the addiction recovery movement grew in the 1980s, and treatments oftentimes included going back to childhood experiences to discover the roots of the addiction (21). Then, in 1987, medical doctor Charles Whitfield published the book Healing the Child Within, in which he writes about the principles of recovery from childhood trauma.  This study became very popular and also influenced Capacchione’s own psychological practices (22).

Since the 1990s, the idea that shapes inner child theory is that during childhood, the demands and outlooks of adults are being projected onto the child, which drowns out their inner instincts. Later in life, this can lead to emotional conflicts, because the feelings and instincts of the inner child will try to come out. This can happen in various ways. According to Capacchione, there is the vulnerable child, the playful, the creative, and the spiritual child and it is important to listen to all of their needs (69): “for the Inner Child holds the key to intimacy in relationships, physical energy, and well-being, as well as enthusiasm and creativity in work” (14) However, inner child work does not only consist of listening to this inner child. Another important part is reparenting the inner child. According to Penny Parks in The Counsellor’s Guide to Parks Inner Child Therapy (2012), the job of the inner parent is to monitor your actions and behaviors, but also to acknowledge your accomplishments ("Effects of Childhood Trauma: Parent").  

Inner Child through (Auto)Biographical Lens

In Janis: Little Girl Blue and Janis: Her Life and Music, the vulnerable child plays a large role in particular, but in a very different way than it does in inner child theory. In both biographies, Joplin’s childhood is described in a certain way to frame her life narrative, and the idea of the vulnerable child is used to describe Joplin as a victim of trauma, whereas in inner child theory, the vulnerable child plays a role in the healing of trauma.

The autobiographical songwriting especially plays a key role in this analysis because it can be explained as a form of inner child work. In this form of therapy, the inner dialogue is important, and therapists who help patients with inner child work often try to connect with the inner child through a dialogue in which the inner child can express themselves, through writing, speaking, body language, or other ways (50). When relating these techniques to autobiographical songwriting and performing, it becomes clear that both of these actions can function as effective forms of inner child work, because the dialogue with the self also returns in an autobiographical narrative. As Smith and Watson write, narrators of autobiographical texts “engage their lived experience through personal storytelling. Located in specific times and places, they are at the same time in dialogue with the personal processes and archives of memory” (14).

Autobiographical writing materializes the personal dialogue. For inner child work, this would then mean that the desires of the inner child can manifest in the lyrics and performance of a song. The structure of autobiographical writing is that the author expresses their own lived experiences; sometimes from a present point of view looking back and memorizing, but sometimes they also try to embody the perspective of their past self. This recalling of a past version of the self is also what happens in inner child work, where someone tries to recall what their desires were outside of adult expectations and restrictions. Autobiographical songwriting can therefore function as an instrument to embody this past self, especially when the songwriter also performs these lyrics because performing is a highly embodied act. As Smith and Watson explain, the authority of experience also resides in the body, because the body is a site of autobiographical knowledge. People’s life experiences are embodied, so the memories of these experiences are embodied as well (37). Moreover, since these lyrics are always written and performed by a present self, the autobiographical act allows the artists to reflect on and connect past and present senses of selves and their desires.    

Smith and Watson also make this connection between the therapeutic effect of autobiographical writing when they refer to Suzette A. Henke’s “scriptotherapy,” which is a form of therapy in which the autobiographical narrator uses words to give a voice to thoughts or feelings that were unspoken before. This, they explain, can possibly lead to a cathartic experience and change someone’s views on life experiences or themselves (22). 

“I can’t write a song unless I’m really traumatic, emotional, and I’ve gone through a few changes, I’m very down.”

For Joplin, performing a song, connecting with her audience, and using songwriting as a way to explore her thoughts on life, were all extremely important. In an interview with David Dalton, she talks about her song "Kozmic Blues" and explains how her trauma played a role in her songwriting: “I can’t write a song unless I’m really traumatic, emotional, and I’ve gone through a few changes, I’m very down” (1971; 52). Moreover, she explains how personal and autobiographical her writing is when she says, “I gotta hear it, I gotta believe it or I can’t sing it” (52). Her writing process could thus potentially have worked in a therapeutic way, because like scriptotherapy, making music is often used as in creative forms of therapy to elicit emotions and writing lyrics is used most often to reach this goal (Stewart and McAlpin 4). This again can be related to inner child theory, because in this sense, autobiographical songwriting cannot only help the artist to connect with their inner child, but it also provides a way to creatively express what usually gets repressed, which helps to release trauma. Joplin also talks about these effects, because even after she had written “Kozmic Blues,” she continued to use her autobiographical lyrics to express and reflect on her own inner thoughts: “I like the song and I still believe in it to a degree, but I am still working on it. . . . I just realized, the other night (…) I transcended the thing, I went into another stage, man” (Dalton 52). 

As Joplin’s statements in the interview show, songwriting had a personal and therapeutic function in her life. When we then relate this personal dialogue with the self that is present in songwriting to the dialogue in inner child work, it becomes clear how inner child theory can offer a different take on the way in which Joplin’s trauma played a role in her successful career compared to the documentary and biography. 

Little Girl Blue or Authentic Artist?

Biographies are an interesting genre when it comes to the public image of a famous person because they can shape and frame the image people have of this person. Moreover, they can reduce the meaning of one’s life to a limited narrative. When considering the educational value celebrity figures have in society, it becomes very important to become aware of the shaping and framing that is happening in a biography, because it can say a lot about the values of the society in which, and for which, the biography is written.  

In Janis: Little Girl Blue, the framing already starts with the title, which guides the viewer into forming an image of Joplin. Even before watching the documentary, the viewer is invited to see Joplin as a "little girl blue” and throughout the documentary, this image only gets reinforced. This happens, for example, through the structure that is used for the documentary, because it is centered around the letters that Joplin sent to her parents throughout her career, showing that even though she was a very successful rockstar, she always also remained her parents' child. What is also interesting about this, is that the letters are autobiographical, which means that Joplin has authority in these letters. However, these letters are not presented objectively in the documentary; passages are selected and explained by people from Joplin’s surroundings. They are placed in a larger narrative which frames Joplin as essentially a sad girl who always tried to prove herself to her parents and others and got lost in this. 

In the first few minutes of the documentary, Joplin herself is heard, and one of the things she says is that “after you reach a certain level of talent (…) the deciding factor is ambition, or, as I see it, how much you really need, need to be loved and need to be proud of yourself (03:33). Again, these are Joplin’s own words, so she does have some authority in this, but by using them at the start of the documentary, they are given a lot of meaning and guide the viewer to see her as someone who seeks a lot of validation. Joplin’s longing for love and validation plays an important role in the victim narrative, because it suggests that her extreme need for validation led her to this unhealthy and drug-filled life. Moreover, it suggests that this search for love was the driving force behind her success, rather than her talent or ambition to become a good singer and performer. While this narrative of Joplin as a deeply insecure person, suffering from childhood trauma might be true to some extent, Masterson argues that it is a “reductive account of a complex situation” because it reframes and over-simplifies Joplin’s hedonistic attitude and her longing for attention, sex, or drugs" (2).   

The documentary continues with Joplin’s childhood as an explanation for why she was always searching for this validation. It is said that she was not beautiful, that she was loud, rocked the boat for attention, and that she often got bullied because of this. The most painful example shown in the documentary is when Joplin got elected by bullies for an ugliest man contest and won. Old friends reflected on how much this hurt her. It shows how she did indeed have a very difficult, even traumatic childhood, so this is not a narrative that is invented for the documentary. However, the documentary uses her trauma to explain why Joplin felt the need to become famous and feel admired, by framing it as the main driving force behind her career.  

This becomes clear in the remainder of the documentary because after her childhood events, it focuses on how Joplin finally found her kind of people in San Francisco, and how much love and validation she received from them when she performed. In San Francisco, she could finally develop who she felt she was, which fit with the countercultural lifestyle. The things that made her strange in Texas now made her interesting and successful. Interestingly, however, her persona during this time is linked to the idea of the child in Janis: Little Girl Blue, because the documentary shows a former acquaintance of Joplin, David Dalton, who says that she was “the absolute child-woman ideal of the Haight” (25:18). 

The image that emerges then is that of a hurt young girl who attracts a lot of attention by being very loud and expressive. From this perspective, Joplin’s expressiveness becomes a cry for help, like a child who acts silly to get attention from their parents. If this was the case, it would mean that her actions were not entirely authentic and spontaneous, because she would deliberately act like this to get attention. However, the culture in which this took place, the counterculture of the late 1960s, was fully based on the idea of authentic self-expression because of how this allowed young people to reject the homogenous established society (Cmiel 271). In addition, this authentic self-expression could help them find who they were outside of the expectations of the established society.

When looking at Joplin’s expressive, even childlike behavior from this perspective, it could be argued that her actions were not a cry for help but an attempt to discover who she was outside of, or beyond the restrictions and traumas from her childhood. This resonates with the idea of inner child theory, in which people also try to listen to their inner child’s desires in order to heal their trauma. Through this frame, it could be argued that Joplin was acting in such an expressive or even childlike way because she was connecting with her inner child as a way of finding herself, rather than as a cry for attention. Moreover, her fame can then be explained by the fact that members of the counterculture highly admired how Joplin could authentically express her impulses and inner desires in her performances.

Tapping into Gender Stereotypes

Furthermore, the documentary focuses on Joplin’s drug use, which is mostly framed as an addition to, or a replacement of the love she felt on stage. When she was not on stage, it is suggested, she was lost and lonely, and the drugs could soften this feeling. As Masterson explains, the documentary does also pay some attention to how radical Joplin was, or how influential she has been as a female rock star. However, these characteristics are often related to the idea that she was a “troubled soul”: “her actions were ultimately those of someone who was lost and lonely” (8). Masterson comes to this conclusion by comparing writings on Joplin during her lifetime with posthumous writings, and she writes that the qualities that made her “fierce” during her lifetime, such as the drinking, the unpolished image, or the uninhibited vocals, are posthumously turned into “firmly signs of vulnerability” (9). 

The effect of this kind of framing, according to Masterson, is that it reduces Joplin’s threat to hegemonic gender norms (4). The idea of the rockstar or the rock and roll lifestyle often gets associated with characteristics that fit with hegemonic masculinity. Examples of this are sleeping with many women, drinking a lot, using drugs, or getting into conflicts. When male musicians do this, it is often tolerated or even romanticized as “bad-boy” or typical rockstar behavior. It is not necessarily seen as threatening because it fits with hegemonic masculinity. When a woman does the same things, however, it poses a threat to the hegemonic gender norms, because this masculinity depends on hegemonic femininity (4).  When Joplin’s actions fit hegemonic masculinity, two things happen that make it appear extreme or threatening. Firstly, her rock star behavior feels like a more drastic change than male musicians’ rockstar behavior, because for them it is an intensified form of masculine behavior, but for Joplin, it is the opposition of the feminine behavior that is expected from her. Secondly, since hegemonic masculinity depends on femininity, Joplin’s public “masculine” behavior could challenge the hegemonic gender balance, thus making her a threat (4). 

“It is apparent, and important, that women do not enjoy the same mythologizing as their male counterparts, the gods, the kings, the shamans of rock” (Whiteley 2006; 334).

This shows how a posthumous narrative can be influenced by the society in which it is created. It is an example of how the way in which female artist are remembered often differs from the public memory of male musicians. As Sheila Whiteley puts it in “Celebrity: The Killing Fields of Popular Music, “it is (…) apparent, and important, that women do not enjoy the same mythologizing as their male counterparts, the gods, the kings, the shamans of rock” (334). Moreover, when it comes to biographical writing, this not only affects female musicians but women in general. In Biography: A Very Short Introduction, Hermione Lee explains that in biographies of women, their private lives often play a large role, whereas biographies of men are filled with external events. When relating this to the moral role of public narratives about people in society, this also foregrounds how much women are being judged based on their private lives, like Joplin, while men are mainly being remembered for their public career (127–28). 

What is noteworthy for this essay, is that in the biographies Janis: Little Girl Blue and Janis: Her Life and Music, this victim narrative not only gets related to ideas of a vulnerable woman but to that of a vulnerable little girl. At the end of the documentary, right before the narrative arrives at the accidental drug overdose, old acquaintances reflect on the final period of Joplin’s life. One of her former band members, Brad Campbell, concludes that “she was like a little girl lost, and then she would be as strong as a mountain lion” (1:36:35). He does emphasize her strength as well, but since this is shown right before it is explained how she passed away, which, subsequently, is followed by the song “Little Girl Blue,” it is suggested that the little girl was not strong enough in the end to survive. Through these characterizations like “little girl lost,” Joplin gets infantilized, and her actions are seen as a result of her (childhood) trauma. This is a very Freudian way of thinking because her trauma is seen as a driving force in her life and her desires are framed according to this trauma, giving the trauma more agency than her own actions and thoughts. Interestingly, Joplin’s own authority is used to substantiate this argument, because the documentary ends with one of her own performances of “Little Girl Blue.” 

“Little Girl Blue” can be regarded as one of Joplin’s autobiographical songs, even though it was originally written by Lorenz Hart for the musical Jumbo. The reason why it is still autobiographical is because she altered the lyrics to make it her own. It is therefore an interesting case study to specifically analyze the choices she made in the alterations; especially considering her earlier quoted statement that she needs to believe the song in order to sing it. A noteworthy example of the alterations she made, is that she added several lines with a first-person perspective, making the song appear more autobiographical. 

Similarly to “Kozmic Blues” and any other song, “Little Girl Blue” can be interpreted in multiple ways. It can be interpreted as it has been done in the documentary. Through the lens of the vulnerable girl, the line “I know just how you feel” can be explained as a confirmation that, despite her strong appearance, Joplin ultimately feels like an unhappy little girl. However, the concept of the inner child again offers an alternative interpretation because, through this concept, it could be argued that Joplin gives a voice to her inner parent in this song, who not only sees her inner vulnerable child (meaning that she recognizes her own childhood trauma), but also understands her, comforts her, and gives her advice like “count your fingers” (Joplin, Genius). 

An analysis of her bodily performance of this song, based on the idea that the authority of experience resides in the body, can support this possible interpretation of Joplin’s “Little Girl Blue”. In a recorded performance of this song, Joplin starts in a modest way (Janis Joplin 1969). She closes her eyes several times, and the performance can feel like it is directed inward sometimes. During an instrumental part, she steps back from the microphone, looks nervous, and takes everything in. Then, she starts singing with more power in her voice and really looks at the audience when she sings, “I feel it's time / Somebody told you because you got to know”. The lyrical part in which she then gives advice, is performed with a very powerful voice and body language. Joplin raises her finger and points to the audience, like an authoritative figure who is teaching them a life lesson. Then, during the final part of the song she grabs the microphone and comes even closer to the audience. She really tries to convey the meaning of the song and some of her hand gestures even make it look like she is preaching. Even though she started small, she eventually takes a strong position through her body language which expresses maturity, authority, and knowledge of the experiences she sings about. This interpretation of the song and the performance demonstrates how Joplin is not a victim of her own vulnerability, but a strong woman who acknowledges her vulnerability and uses it to give a powerful and emotional musical performance. 

Escaping Her Father's Philosophy

In Janis: Her Life and Music, Joplin’s childhood trauma is again presented as one of the driving forces in the narrative about her fame and it can be found especially in passages where Joplin’s strong desire to please her parents, especially her father, is described. George-Warren writes that "Seth and Dorothy Joplin [her parents] doted on their eldest child in many ways but were ultimately put off by her increasing acts of defiance—the same impulses that would eventually bring her fame. Always an attention-hungry rebel, Janis upped her games in adolescence, spurred on by her budding sexuality, her discovery of rock & roll, and alcohol and speed. The wounds inflicted by the clash of wills during those turbulent years in the Joplin home never healed. Much of her life would be colored by the tension of wanting to belong and getting the attention she missed while knowing that the best way to honor her family’s unspoken creed of singularity was to set herself apart" (10). 

One of the things that George-Warren especially points out is that Joplin’s father, Seth Joplin, had a very pessimistic outlook on life, which really impacted her as well. George-Warren describes this as follows: “She embraced life with a joyous ferocity, though she could never escape a fundamental darkness created by loneliness and a bleak fatalism bequeathed by her father. Choosing alcohol and drugs as painkillers just made everything worse.” (11) This again corresponds with Freudian theories, because it suggests that Joplin’s desires arose from ideas that formed her during her childhood, and that they highly influenced her life and career. 

George-Warren uses the Kozmic Blues, one of Joplin’s most important concepts in her life and music—one of her bands was named the Kozmic Blues band, her first solo album was titled I Got Dem Ol’ Kozmic Blues Again Mama! and one of the songs of this album was titled “Kozmic Blues”—as an example of how much her father influenced her. She argues that Kozmic Blues is the name that Joplin gave her father’s philosophical idea that most people falsely believe that if they work hard, they get to feel a reward when they have fun on the weekends, which he called “the great Saturday Night Swindle.” According to Seth Joplin, this reward never materializes, which then ultimately results in constant disappointment (219). By arguing that the Kozmic Blues is Joplin’s name for this concept, George-Warren encourages the reader to interpret the many aspects in Joplin’s life and music that relate to the Kozmic Blues to her father’s Swindle concept.

Together with the idea that Joplin always tried to impress her parents, this narrative suggests that the outspoken opinions and expectations of Joplin’s parents influenced her so much as a little girl that they continued to influence her throughout her career and adult life. This demonstrates that in George-Warren’s biography it is again suggested that Joplin’s childhood experiences, and the trauma which they might have brought on to her, play a central role in her life narrative. Through this interpretation of Joplin’s childhood, her desire for validation can be explained by her parent’s high expectations of her. In addition, the fact that her father’s highly pessimistic philosophy played such a large role in her life and career, can explain the loneliness and depressed feelings that led to her drug use and ultimately her tragic death.  

While growing up, Joplin gained knowledge about life and developed the ability to interpret her father’s ideas in her own, even contrasting, ways.

However, George-Warren’s interpretation of the Kozmic Blues as similar to her father’s philosophy is limited and overlooks Joplin’s agency to consciously form her own outlook on life. While growing up, Joplin gained knowledge about life and developed the ability to interpret her father’s ideas in her own, even contrasting, ways. In fact, her concept of the Kozmic Blues can be seen as an interpretation of the Saturday Night Swindle that does not lead to inescapable “bleak fatalism,” but to a more optimistic interpretation: if you will always get shut down eventually, you should live in the moment, enjoy what you do have and try to make the best of it anyway.  In the interview with David Dalton, Joplin explains her both the Swindle concept and her own Kozmic Blues. She does start by saying that the “Kozmic Blues just means that no matter what you do, man, you get shot down anyway” (53). However, she also realizes that “The Kozmic Blues doesn’t exist, unless you have nothing” and she gets to the conclusion that therefore, you “get it while you can, and while you have it, you have it” (53). 

This shows how Joplin consciously evaluated her father’s concept and reinterpreted it in her own way, which corresponds with different stages that are present inner child theory. It shows not only that she was aware of how her parents influenced her, but also that she was trying to go beyond this by finding her own view. As explained earlier, her autobiographical songwriting played an important role in this evaluation of her own thoughts and outlook on life, especially in the song Kozmic Blues. The following analysis of the lyrics will demonstrate how personal her Kozmic Blues concept is and how much it comes from her own experience of life. 

An important theme in the song “Kozmic Blues” is the passing of time, because it returns in every verse. The song starts with the line “time keeps moving on,” and the verse describes how Joplin herself always keeps going on as well. In the second verse, time has already passed: “I’m twenty-five years older now” and “dawn has come at last”. However, Joplin realizes in this verse that nothing has changed. She is “no better, babe” and she “can’t help you no more than [she] did when just a girl”. In the third and final verse, she builds onto this by singing: “Don’t expect any answers, dear / For I know that they don’t come with age.” She realizes that nothing will change: “I ain’t never gonna love you any better, babe / And I’m never gonna love you right”. Finally, after her journey into the imagined future, she brings her knowledge back to the present and concludes: “So, you better take it now, right now” (Joplin, Genius).

Her journey into the future is pessimistic and really resembles the Saturday Night Swindle: the idea that there is no reward waiting for you in the future. However, where Joplin’s fathers answer to this was to learn to accept this, Joplin herself turns it into a reason to live in the present and to not live solely for the future. This becomes especially clear in the chorus, because after her pessimistic verses about the passing of time, she sings “But it don’t make no difference babe / And I know that I can always try.” In one of the choruses, she even sings, “there’s a fire inside of every one of us,” and in another one, “You’re gonna live your life / And you better love your life.” 

This song is very interesting in relation to the idea of the inner child in two ways. Firstly, Joplin compares her older self: “Well I’m twenty-five years older now,” to her younger self: “Than I did when just a girl”. In her song, Joplin does not assign any superiority to her adult self and recognizes that the answers “don’t come with age,” so she does not repress her youthful naivety or fickleness. Secondly, she makes room for the impulses of the inner child when she sings “I can always try”. As Parks explains, “Individuals who say aloud, and in their thoughts, ‘I’ll try it!’ ‘Let’s go and see!’ are expressing typical spontaneous child statements ("Effects of Childhood Trauma: Child"). The verses demonstrate how her father’s ideas have influenced her thinking, as is also described by George-Warren, but through the lens of inner child theory, it could be argued that Joplin went beyond these repressive ideas by giving voice to her inner child and, her own attitude to life through her music and lyrics like “I can always try” (Joplin, Genius).

A More Nuanced Narrative

In conclusion, relating the process of connecting with your inner child to the process of autobiographical songwriting proves to be an effective way to reframe the role of childhood trauma in Janis Joplin’s life narrative. This new frame allows for an interpretation of Joplin’s life and art in which her own agency is recognized. The biographical elements of her childhood trauma still play a role in this narrative, but the driving force is no longer the trauma in itself, but the way in which Joplin dealt with this trauma. 

The goal of the comparison in this essay between her autobiographical lyrics and inner child theory was not to argue that Joplin was completely in touch with her inner child, because Joplin did struggle with loneliness, addiction, and unhappy relationships sometimes. Instead, this alternative reading of her lyrics opens up the possibility to look at the tragic elements in her life in a more nuanced way instead of attributing everything to her unhappy childhood, or her father’s inescapable “bleak fatalism”. Moreover, it allows for an interpretation of her performances and successful career in which she is seen as a talented artists who turns her emotions and experiences into art. Her voice is then not a scream for attention, but it is performing an autobiographical act that helps her to navigate through her extraordinary life. 


“About The Book.” Book by Holly George-Warren | Official Publisher Page | Simon & Schuster.

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