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It's a Man's World: Why Popular Culture Left Joni Mitchell Behind Print-ready version

On International Women's Day, we remember one of the most influential, and widely underrated, singer-songwriters of our time.

by Issy Beech
Noisey Music by Vice
March 8, 2017

On International Women's Day, we remember one of the most influential, and widely underrated, singer-songwriters of our time.

"I never wanted to be a star," Joni Mitchell said in an interview with Joe Smith in 1986. "I didn't like entering a room with all eyes on me." She's said things like that all her life. As a teenager, learning everything there was to learn about her, I used to think that maybe Joni Mitchell wasn't beloved in the way her contemporaries like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan were because she just didn't want to be. Had Joni Mitchell spoken so often about her distaste for adoration and accolades that the world stopped giving them to her? Four albums in?

Now, older and with even more love for her than I had then, I know that isn't true. Least of all because both Dylan and Cohen were also documented denouncers of celebrity, and most of all because I understand people better. Sexism and misogyny towards women - in and out of the spotlight - is just... never not present.

As it turns out, it was likely Joni's female-ness that kept her from skyrocketing into stardom. Which is not to say she doesn't have legions of appreciators - she does. Just way less than she ought to. As a songwriter, Joni was unapologetically human, much like Billie Holiday had been. Vulnerable and still venerable; full of both joy and sorrow; emotionally intelligent and still, at odds with the world at large, and all the people in it. As a singer, Joni was sentimental, soaring off into undeniably feminine falsetto on a whim and writing labyrinthine lyrics that often seemed dewey-eyed. But there were always deep-laid criticisms of that very thing sprinkled through. On "Woman of Heart and Mind," Joni was characteristically self aware: I am a woman of heart and mind / With time on her hands / No child to raise / You come to me like a little boy / And I give you my scorn and my praise.

In 2010, Rolling Stone listed Joni Mitchell as number 62 of the world's 100 Greatest Artists of all time. Not so great as Aerosmith, Metallica, or U2. Naturally. Flanked by men - save the indelible Tina Turner - Joni is one of only seven female artists included in the list. I'm not joking: Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Patti Smith, The Shirelles, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Besides the fact that Joni herself has been called an influence by (at least) three of the artists that featured in the top ten, there were obvious omissions: Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, Erykah Badu, Sade, Dolly Parton, Etta James, Stevie Nicks, Dusty Springfield, Bikini Kill, Debbie Harry. I mean, where do you even stop?

When Joni Mitchell had her aneurism two years ago, I was terrified that she would die. Because that seems to be the way things go now; you read a couple of status updates, or see a tribute on Instagram, and then you accept that they're gone. For a minute, before I realized she was alright, I was heartbroken. Joni had, much like Emma Thompson says in Love Actually about this very thing, had taught me how to properly feel.

At 17, I sat down and listened to some of my parents' records. Blue, of course, left an imprint. Miles of Aisles showed me she knew rock and roll. Clouds, with its closing track "Both Sides Now," made capturing the human essence in under five minutes seem possible. But it was 1972's Song to the Seagull that really changed me. "Cactus Tree" was track 10, and it chronicled a woman traveling the world, men grasping at her heels to stay, and love them.

It was the first time I'd heard this story from a woman. Like any good kid hoping to write someday, I labored over Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson at fifteen. I read story after story of men who left women and families to travel the world and see new things. Restless men with dreams of something bigger. When Joni sang it, what I feared about adventure felt validated: if a woman were to do the same, to live life adventurously and with independence, she'd be dragged back by the persistence of the men in her life.

Joni's restlessness, and her unwillingness to settle down felt real to me, unlike Hunter's mescaline-fueled exploits had. And maybe that's why she was never praised like Dylan or Cohen. Because a woman who doesn't desire you isn't desirable. A woman who doesn't need you isn't needed.

More than that, people tend to remark that Joni isn't contrary or disruptive enough to be considered a changing force in music. Even though she's widely regarded as one of the most inventive guitar players of the late 20th century. It's still a common conversation: she's too sweet, too gentle. So much so that the words themselves hardly matter. "All my battles were with male egos," she said, a couple of years ago in an interview with New York Magazine. "There are those moments when I wax feminine and I get walked on."

Like most women, Joni was discredited - and still is - for sounding like a woman.

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Jamie Dow on

Joni was way more popular in her day than Cohen. And while Joni's catalog pales in comparison with Dylan's, remember that his first album of ballads didn't fare well at all. What in fact is not favored in Rolling Stone are folksy balladeers. Joni bests both James Taylor, which I agree with, and the Eagles, as well as the country legend Hank Williams who arguably wrote more great songs in a very short lifetime than anyone else. I know it is fashionable to reference everything in terms of gender or race, but really don't see that here. No doubt the record moguls walked over Joni, but walked over many men as well. Joni also lost a lot of her following when she went jazz. Remember Pete Seeger trying to cut the cable to Dylan's amplifier when he went electric, and was resoundingly booed during his European tour for the same reason?

luckyvic on

My first collection of Joni albums came from a boyfriend in high school as a Christmas present. I played those albums until the grooves were worn out . I couldn't wait until a new album appeared and no matter how poor I was in college, I'd scrape money together to get her new album, tape and CD. She gave words to feelings I had inside and couldn't express. She was like an older sister that knew the way and wasn't afraid to share. I didn't think I was a pathetic romantic when I listened to Joni . She made it OK to have feelings, feel disappointed in love and hope there was another Romero coming down the road. She also spoke honestly about work, being an artist, global warming long before it had a name and political causes to numerous to mention. Bless you Joni! Thanks for the support along the way and may you realize how much I and my peers loved what you did for us.

golumpki on

Nothing kept her from skyrocketing into stardom - the problem is, you weren't born yet when she did.. on

There's an avalanche of evidence supporting the main theme of this article, too much to go over. However, Leonard Cohen is one of the few male artists who does not undeservedly overshadow Joni. That's because he doesn't overshadow Joni at all. There may be a few critics and a small audience that rates him higher than her, but, in the main, she is better-known and more highly rated and deservedly so. I say this with all due respect to Mr. Cohen.

Slandrew on

One of the things I read about Joni, was that although exzcept for a few very successful albums, commercially, that whenever she put out an album, they consistantly sold about 300,00 copies, enough to more than break even. That's why she wasn't dropped from her laber for decades. She had an enormous following who always bought her new records.

Stldjen on

I'm a 62-year-old male. Actually, Joni was as big a star back in the 60's and 70's as these other mentioned artists; but, she was never a mainstream artist. She took her own road, and that's what made her so very successful. There was a big problem with the public when she worked with Tom Scott, switching to jazz. I remember attending a concert of hers during that period. The audience booed when she presented them and she rightfully stated that she wouldn't perform under those conditions.

At any rate, I do believe that the reason she was not mainstream had nothing to do with men in the music industry. It was her choice to do and try new and different types of music and she was very highly successful; she is greatly respected by many of us old timers.

BeauJangles on

What more can be added in honor, or commentary praise, to the brilliance of Joni Mitchell? Aside from the struggles of her childhood days, she became a tremendously talented poet, artist, singer/songwriter, and fantastically accomplished musician. A star indeed of her own creativity, and one that fades not away. Not in this once young heart and soul of mine.

Bruce.Lieberman on

60 year old guy, used to play pro many years ago.
My friends and I revered Joni, I used to joke that I would bear her children :)
Her compositional genius was just so entrancing.
That she was easy on the eyes didn't hurt, but it was that big brilliant brain that drew us in.
We recognize her place in musical history regardless of what some folks say, and that seemed
to be fairly universal among most of the musicians I knew and/or worked with. Still is.
So many ways she connected with us musically and pulled us in brilliant new directions,
If not 'adoration', MAD respect.
Genius. Pure genius.

John R on

I'm 64 years old. I started listening to Joni in high school. She really got to me in college, then stayed with me the rest of my life. She takes up a big chunk of my personal playlist; I don't think there's a day that passes without hearing some Joni. There's no better artistry. Astounding talent.

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