Holdin’ On For Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes

Dick Cavett once asked Janis Joplin why more women didn’t do what she did? Her response: “I don’t know, it’s not very feminine, maybe that’s why.” Just over a year later, she died of a heroin overdose inside a Hollywood motel during the recording of what turned out to be her most famous album, Pearl.

When I was growing up, my father––the bearer of much of the great music that has since found its way into my life––always interpreted Janis as the incredible creature she was. He used to say: “She may not have been the prettiest thing around, but there wasn’t another woman like her who ever sang the blues.”

Of course, he was right, and Janis will always exist unto herself. I mean she was completely uninhibited. She was complex, vulnerable, bold. There’s just something about a woman who doesn’t concern herself with what she looks like while that soul content is pulsing out of her raw and flawed for everyone to see.

Lately I’ve been feeling that way about Brittany Howard of Alabama Shakes. I’ll be it that I’m late to the game on this one, but finally discovering her has been the first musical revelation I’ve had in months.

There is something, perhaps it is spirit, which simply escapes her when she opens her lips onto the mic and that absolutely enthralls me. When her eyes squint through the salt of her sweat and she sticks that bottom lip out like she just caught a whiff of the vilest of smells––there’s nothing like watching somebody’s body respond to music.

History would seem to suggest that we are attracted to rock and roll because it relishes in imperfection and that we are compelled to engage with the Janis’s of the world because what they exude feels incredibly human. Why is it then that when someone like Brittany Howard shows up, deep down inside, there is still a part of each of us that defaults to thinking what she’s doing is in some way made more amazing by the fact that she isn’t “conventionally beautiful”? What is that? As if to say: “Congratulations, you are this amazing thing, it must have been so hard for you.” We’re such assholes.

You know, there’s nothing unfeminine about being human; most of us are just too afraid to admit that’s what we are. Before Janis Joplin, the world had never seen a woman expose herself as so passionately tortured and all consuming. When women like her come along, I think we just stand there watching because we wish we could ever be so free. Today, in a world of perpetual indie, rock and roll desperately needs an artist like Brittany Howard. Her presence is completely overwhelming and I think people can feel it.

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