You live in a town with one store, dirt roads, no TV, no internet, your parents are poor, the country only tolerates the full cooperation and conformity of its residents and runs the only radio station and media.
Sound like a back story for a fictional character?
It is the true start of the story of a young singer from a small town in the former USSR. It doesn’t get any easier for them. They lie about their age to sneak into a talent show, leave their home only to sleep on a cot in a derelict building and eat rice for three months to survive in a foreign country with no friends and not knowing the language. They continue to make their own clothes, love to sing and somehow maintain such a courage and passion in their childhood dreams that they endure.
Kerli Kõiv’s story is quite amazing and ongoing now. Its inspirational and not the first time a young woman has defied all odds. Not the first to ignore all the agendas of those around them and all calls to be reasonable, to instead pursue a dream, and touch those fortunate enough to hear their hearts and souls come though their songs. Kerli has stated influences including Janis Joplin and Bjork, which are very strong examples of the topic of expression from those who have overcome “the odds”.
Janis Lyn Joplin was also born of an unremarkable life in a small town in Texas and a target of ridicule for her individual style and outlook. She was a beatnik poet who had has had few (if any) equal in the ability to pour a raw energy and emotion into her singing voice. I remember thinking I held me breath the whole length of her singing Ball n’ Chain the first time heard it. Janis’s personality was a force of nature to those who spent any time with her.
Primarily a painter while still in school, she began singing blues and folk music with friends. While at Thomas Jefferson High School, she stated that she was mostly shunned. Joplin was quoted as saying, “I was a misfit. I read, I painted, I didn’t hate niggers.” As a teen, she became overweight and her skin broke out so badly she was left with deep scars which required dermabrasion Other kids at high school would routinely taunt her and call her names like “pig,” “freak” or “creep.”
Joplin’s death in October 1970 at the age of 27 stunned her fans and shocked the music world, especially when coupled with the death just sixteen days earlier of another rock icon, Jimi Hendrix. Music historian Tom Moon wrote that Joplin had “a devastatingly original voice.” Music columnist Jon Pareles of the New York Times wrote that Joplin as an artist was “overpowering and deeply vulnerable.” Author Megan Terry claimed that Joplin was the female version of Elvis Presley in her ability to captivate an audience.
It’s always brings sadness when I think of Janis. A lot of what if? In the Movie “Blade Runner” a line comes to mind; “A flame that burns twice as bright, burns half as long”. That seems to be poignant to Janis “Pearl” Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison. All of whom passed from this earth within months of each other.
Björk Guðmundsdóttir was born of well-known activist parents in one of Iceland’s two large cities. A matter of right place, right time occurred when her piano teacher recorded her at age 8 and sent the tape to the radio station who then made the youngster a mini star. Sounds charmed? Bjorks mettle and character would be tested in the years to come.
Arguably the most unusual sounding voice in music for years, Bjorks career has had to sustain intense pressures to survive and make her the iconic individual she has become in current culture. It is hard to really grasp what success draws in influence peddling. Bjork has been targeted as a standard-bearer for many movements and quasi-political activist groups. Her real stances remain her own, Her music, style and at times scandal causing actions have all been against the mainstream perception of what an international star should be like.
Two incidents stand out to me. One I commented in elsewhere was the 2000 Academy awards for her performance in Dancer in the Dark, where she happily dressed in a charming and typically “Bjork” way a dress resembling a swan wrapping her body. She was so happy to wear the artistic piece her friend had made. The Hollywood media were just brutal, but like water off a “goose’s” back I guess you could say, as Bjork remained her magical self.
The second was while performing in communist China in 2008 when she dedicated the song “Declare Independence” to the Tibet freedom movement during a Shanghai concert, chanting “Tibet! Tibet!” during the song caused an “international outrage” and the Chinese government to pledge even stricter limitiations on outside performers from their territories.
Live performances are the validation for me of the artists I am discussing today. I have some personal caveats of differentiates an artist and an entertainer. That is a topic for another time. Instead I want to add one more pillar to this particular piece and exemplifies a live performer you should see (Even if only on YouTube) before you die, and that is Ani Difranco.
Angela Maria DiFranco was born in Buffalo, NY and didn’t waste time getting out there as seen performing Beatles covers, busking for tips at age 9. Ani is most commonly associated with her strong political views, and it is sad to me as if that in any way affects your opinion of her immense talent. The more important feature is the almost brutal guitar style that requires some of her guitars to be modified to protect them from the onslaught. Her songs clearly show her passionate attachment to the subject and not just catchy tunes. Many believe if it wasnt for her independently produced and owned Righteous Babe label, she may still be busking on street corners. Thankfully, that isn’t the case.
Though songs like Hello Birmingham clearly challenge those with intolerant views, 32 flavors touched a far deeper personal level. I love the song Napoleon which draws on views of success and friendship. Her progressive and very liberal activism has groups often trying to attach themselves in a similar manner Bjork has endured. This led to an incident where after photographs released showed a very contemporary looking Ani dressed up for a night on the town with Andrew Gilchrist in 1998, some feminist groups voiced outrage. Ani released a response as “They were just coming to know their own anger, and it hadn’t deepened with an awareness that feminism is truly about women becoming themselves”
There are many woman who can be included here from Grace Slick to Madonna, but I’ve settled on four to keep this from becoming a sprawling commentary with little to say. Lets focus…
These woman have one thing in common that goes beyond foot tapping, humming, dancing or emotional reaction to their music, they make you think! Included in their music are deeper statements than just a catchy tune or inspiring performance. My Mother was a self-proclaimed Beatnik and Jazz fan. I grew up with those LPs being part of the world I lived in. I never felt I cared for the style. I just didn’t “get it”. Then, in my teens we were living near London, UK and my mother had made friends with Joop Visser, a well-known Jazz producer and man who truly LOVED Jazz when they took me with them to Ronnie Scott’s renowned Jazz club. I saw the music, felt what it was and finally “got it”.
Though all of these ladies have composed and performed some of the best studio works today, the real expression comes when they share it all though their performances. It is then you’ll “get it” and I mean really be prompted to a greater understanding, or challenge to your existing grasp of the world around you. Socially, politically, cultural and musical convictions will be explored.
The “earthy” Janis Joplin just overwhelms the room with a visceral presence through her voice. It almost seems unnatural to push that hard and stay in tune and the heart wrenching tragedy of her life touches the coldest heart. It’s an expression of the earth, immutable solid and suffering though it can not change what it is.
To the air with Bjorks soaring vocals. Like chaos theory mathematics, though a casual first look may see chaos, it’s actually all connected, a reason why it blows hard or a gentle breeze, it changes with seasons but remains above the world and closer to the universe beyond our experiences, and gives it an ever ethereal form. Newer material like Human Behaviour and collaborations like Army of Me with Skunk Anansie shows there is a lot more to come from my favorite vocal innovator.
Fire can destroy a land but it also is the cause of new life. It combines only within the right environment naturally but can be set to blaze my mans carelessness. Ani DiFranco can warm your soul or torch establishments with a firestorm of rage and powerful imagery.
Water is an unstoppable force and a medium of healing and transportation to connect distant worlds. It is very mutable and can be a light floating mist or hard ice. Kerli keeps moving, from a light Goth Rock sound of her earlier “Love is Dead” sound to the Synth-Pop she is experimenting with today.
I hate synth-pop. I also hate that I’m finding myself humming “Army of Love” all the time. The song taken as it stands; has several elements I do not care for. The modulation of her voice is tragic. Kerli has the pipes to soar and guide you through her world. The producers crutch on the hip new trends in production do a dis-service. Also, synth pop usually sounds like some auto generating beat machine. Now, having said that, Kerli’s character somehow comes through and I find myself including the song in playlists. The horror!
It reminds me of how much I disliked small dogs till I started training dogs for a living. Their incredible little personalities, dauntless determination and sheer love of life changed my mind totally. Kerli makes her own outfits (Learned to make clothes from her mother in Estonia) and creates the worlds we see in her videos. I first heard her a few years back when a savvy friend in NYC sent me. “Walking on Air“, which I shared with others. The common reference many of us made was Bjork, I never actually saw her till about a year ago. The many comments comparing her to other pop girls have made me laugh based on her songs alone, but in video we see that wild styles so many of the new popular girls are trying to use. Difference with Kerli, that really IS her style. Not the direction of a consultant or studio She did her own hair, made those over-the-top platforms and the gravity defying dress. I think Kerli has hit on something with her “Moonchildren” movement.
Moon Children is the title Kerli has given her fans and is transforming into a movement that follows her core principles of “Integrity, Love and Unity” exemplified by the three “moon-marks” she is adorned with in her videos. It makes me think of the progression from Janis, Bjork and Ani. The courage to go on and love the people Janis lived her life as, Bjorks social conciseness and honesty despite of success, Anis ferocity and ability to be self-aware. Kerli has maybe taken all of this into a positive concept. One of tolerance, empathy and desire to heal a fractured world.
Kerli was chastened and largely rejected by her homeland Estonia when she left. She has never had a bitter word on that. Not too long ago she was the star and honored guest of an elaborately staged concert to celebrate the country’s history and independence. All eyes of Estonia were on the little girl from the dirt roads of an abandoned mining village in the forest. One poignant moment was the performance of a song she wrote for her grand parents “Stay Golden“, the other was Kerli leading the Estonia national anthem at the largest televised event in the country’s history.
The stories of these woman, their honest expression of their opinions and reflections of life are inspiring to say the least. The next time you think your life isnt’ working out because of lack of money, friends, supportive family, education, opportunities or handicaps, I suggest you listen to a little Pearl, Ani, Bjork, or Kerli.
Ani DiFranco – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ani_DiFranco
Home Page: www.righteousbabe.com/ani
Bjork – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bj%C3%B6rk
Home Page: bjork.com
Janis Joplin – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janis_Joplin
Home Page: janisjoplin.com
Kerli – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kerli
Home Page: kerlimusic.com