This is the chapter called "JONI MITCHELL - The Singer-Songwriter and the Confessional Persona" from the book Rock Star: The Making of Musical Icons from Elvis to Springsteen by David Shumway.
Why has Bob [Dylan] been so thoroughly canonized and Joni so condescended to over the years? Maybe, in part, because when Joni was uppity, she was considered a bitch, and the media retaliated. From day one, however, Bob could be as uppity as he wanted, and the great mammoth rock press lauded his behavior as rebellious, clever, renegade and punkishly cool. Maybe it's also because Bob's songs are inherently more masculine (go ﬁgure) and have therefore been viewed as more universal, while Joni's writing, which has a more feminine perspective, is put in a box labeled "girl stuff."
The women's movement that represented American feminism's second wave found relatively little expression in rock and roll, Aretha Franklin's recording of "Respect" notwithstanding Joni Mitchell's emergence as "rock's leading lady" in the early 1970s shows how the movement did impact popular music. As a singer-songwriter and as a women's artist, Mitchell represents two new dimensions of rock stardom. Mitchell certainly had a signiﬁcant male audience, but she became known as a performer who expressed a distinctly female perspective. Mitchell has long rejected the label "feminist," but her stardom needs to be understood in the context of the women's movement's inﬂuence and the changes in consciousness and behavior that it helped to foster. Mitchell's songs illustrate the notion that the personal is the political by the way in which they deal with the power dynamics of intimate relationships.
Mitchell's success also demonstrated that a singer-songwriter could become a rock star, and her confessional lyrics gave an added dimension to the tension between persona and private self. While critics such as Lester Bangs inﬂuentially attacked the singer-songwriters as the antithesis of rock and roll, it can be argued that rock and roll was the practice in which the singer as songwriter ﬁrst emerged with Chuck Berry and then the Beatles.1 But as a distinct kind of performer, the singer-songwriter is a creature of the early 1970s, when performers such as James Taylor, Carole King, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, and Mitchell herself began to perform their own songs.2 Taylor and Mitchell in particular were described as "confessional" songwriters by association with the then inﬂuential school of poetry that included Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Although Mitchell has denied that she was inﬂuenced by the confessional poets, in many respects the term better describes her work than it does the poetry. Mitchell's success at creating a sense of direct address to the listener deﬁned her persona. This represented another modification of stardom, where the intimacy that fans had imagined they might have with the person behind the persona is now offered as integral to the persona itself. Mitchell's confessional persona may have made it more difﬁcult for her audience to accept her transformations as she moved away from the confessional mode beginning in the later 1970s.
The pop singer Jewel suggested in 2005 that Joni Mitchell was more an icon than a star, because "she is quite unknown to a lot of people."3 I think Mitchell remains a star, but it is true that she has not had a commercial hit album or song since 1975 (when The Hissing of Summer Lawns reached number 4 on the Billboard chart). Whatever her current status, in the 1970s she was a major star, "Rock 'n' Roll's Leading Lady," as Time put it.4 And if we can agree that she is an icon, what does she represent? When David Wild interviewed Mitchell in 1991, it was all too clear to both her and her interviewer that she was, as she said, "Spokesperson for a Generation" and "That Woodstock Girl."5
While those associations remain, they are no longer quite so obvious, and we are now able to see that Mitchell's cultural signiﬁcance is much more interesting and complex. The title of Sheila Weller's 2008 triple biography, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation, suggests one way in which the generational association has become more nuanced. In Weller's formulation, she represents the journey not of an entire generation but of the girls of that generation.6 This view is supported by historian Judy Kutulas, who argues that the three women represented an alternative to traditional expectations of love and marriage that fused free love, the counterculture, and second-wave feminism. These performers created songs where "the woman was the subject, not the object, modeling her own sexuality: her feelings, her delight, her satisfaction."7 It's not just that she is a woman - though there are precious few female rock icons - but that she stood for women, not in an overtly political sense, but rather in the world her songs depict. Mitchell clearly had male fans; she is, though, an icon more for women than men. Unlike Janis Joplin and many other female singers who seemed to present themselves mainly for men, Mitchell developed a multidimensional and conﬂicted persona that allowed her to build such a powerful identiﬁcation among her female fans. Although her gendered appeal may be the reason that to this day Joni Mitchell has not received the recognition she deserves from a rock press still dominated by male writers, she nevertheless succeeded in providing rock and roll with a woman's voice and vision.
Mitchell has often rejected the idea that she is a feminist, saying in 1991, for example, "That's too divisional for me."8 But that should not lead us to discount her pathbreaking role or her signiﬁcance as a political ﬁgure. Her rejection of feminism is of a piece with Dylan's abjuration of "ﬁnger-pointing songs" and the Grateful Dead's opposition to "politics." As Ani DiFranco has explained, "She is such a notable feminist in terms of her own life."9 DiFranco notes that Mitchell has retained control of the publishing rights to her songs and that she has had complete artistic control of her albums. In other words, Mitchell insisted on retaining power over her own life in a way that women (and many men) in the music industry often have not. She famously refused to marry Graham Nash, then the man she was describing as the love of her life, because she feared having to sacriﬁce her artistic goals to play the role of helpmeet and homemaker. She became the ﬁrst woman in popular music to be recognized as an artist in the full sense of that term. She rose to popularity at a time when women were still primarily singers of other people's songs and who were marketed almost exclusively on their sex appeal. Though Mitchell undeniably had the latter, it was not what made people buy her records or love her songs. Whatever Mitchell's stated views of feminism, what she represents more than any other performer of her era is the new prominence of women's perspectives in cultural and political life.
The Emergence of the Singer-Songwriter
Joni Mitchell was able to become a rock star without conforming to any preconceived notions of what rock or stars should be. She adopted and adapted folk, pop, jazz, and rock styles, carrying all of them off convincingly. One could argue that Mitchell exempliﬁes the way rock absorbed other practices, the '60s folk scene out of which she emerged being almost completely absorbed by rock by 1970. But her career also reveals the degree of resistance that rock has often shown to musical innovation. Her work with jazz great Charles Mingus, for example, was rejected by rock critics and audiences. It is to take nothing away from her originality and her achievement to suggest that Mitchell's success owes something to the phenomenon of the singer-songwriter, the name that rock culture gave to performers like Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, James Taylor, and Jackson Browne. It was the emergence of this category that allowed Mitchell's distinctive persona to develop and her music to ﬁnd a popular audience.10
Writing about singer-songwriters in general and Joni Mitchell in particular poses an interesting challenge in a book about rock stardom. For one thing, such performers exist at the most remote extreme from those such as David Bowie and Brian Ferry, who ﬂaunt the artiﬁciality of their personas, the singer-songwriters' appeal resting on their convincing us that we as listeners are being given access to their very souls. As a result, singer-songwriters may seem to lack star personas altogether or to manifest ones that are indistinguishable from their private selves. It is one of my tasks to show how this experience of direct address is produced; my assumption is that the Joni Mitchell the songs reveal is as much a performed role as is Mick Jagger's, Bob Dylan's, or even Brian Ferry's, and that would be true regardless of the singer's intentions. Secondly, there is the long-standing objection to treating singer-songwriters as rock and rollers; they often have been relegated to the margins of its history - as in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, where no singer-songwriter gets his or her own chapter. Those critics who championed rock and roll purism see the singer-songwriters as representing something like the nadir of "rock," the bastardized form that they see as emerging in the 1960s.
Surely the strongest statement of this view is offered by Lester Bangs in "James Taylor Marked for Death."11 There was more, I think, to Bangs's condemnation than aesthetics, however. Such critics identiﬁed rock and roll with a particular version of masculinity that Taylor's songs didn't ﬁt. He was too sensitive, too vulnerable, and not angry. Joni Mitchell and other female singer-songwriters also suffered under this macho aesthetic, but they weren't as likely to be so viciously attacked. They were, after all, only women, and what more could one expect? After the moment of punk in the mid-1970s, the anti-singer-songwriter hysteria declined, but the critics of that moment had left their mark. Singer-songwriters are still often written out of rock history. The truth is that the singer-songwriters of the late 1960s and early 1970s reﬂect the development of forms and styles that were nurtured and practiced in rock and roll rather than in folk or pop. The singer-songwriters, in other words, are part of rock and roll as a cultural practice and represent one of its most important aesthetic outgrowths.
Of course, historians and critics of rock and roll have always made an exception for one singer-songwriter, Dylan. As Dave Marsh observes, "The singersongwriter archetype was Bob Dylan, but Dylan was so changeable that the reference was confusing."12 I would argue that Dylan only became a singersongwriter after Taylor and Mitchell had created the role. I mean this in two senses. One is that Dylan couldn't be perceived as a singer-songwriter until the category was created. Before that Dylan existed in a class by himself, and there is a sense in which he still does. Secondly, Dylan's work prior to Blood on the Tracks - his great contribution to confessional songwriting - did not in the main depend on the sense of direct address that deﬁnes the singersongwriter. Dylan's very early work is folk, and folk derives its authority from the claim to represent "the people" rather than the isolated self. Dylan's songs were heard as public music and not private revelation, even though as early as "It's All Over Now, Baby Blue," he was writing songs that were rooted in his private experience. There are detailed autobiographical references in several songs on Another Side of Bob Dylan, and Joni Mitchell has said that she was inspired by the directness of "Positively Fourth Street," Dylan's screed against the folk community.13 Despite this, Dylan continued to be imagined as the "voice of a generation" and not as a tortured soul. This has a great deal to do with the style of his lyrics and music, which do not often suggest vulnerability. Moreover, beginning with songs like "Chimes of Freedom," Dylan gives us virtually the opposite of direct address. We get instead heavily coded lyrics that disguise much more than they reveal.
But if Dylan only belatedly took up the singer-songwriter mode, he was indispensable to its emergence. That may seem obvious, but so too are Elvis and the Beatles, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. Prior to Elvis, popular music of most genres - some kinds of jazz were exceptions - assumed that the performer was acting as a medium for the song, a product either of a professional songwriter or of tradition. The song was not understood as the personal expression of the singer; that expression was present only in the performance. The best a great interpreter of songs might do was to become identiﬁed with certain songs. Frank Sinatra did this more frequently than anyone else of the prerock era, but his songs were a glossy surface. They were deﬁned by his vocal style, but they helped to deﬁne the larger style, perhaps even a lifestyle, that Sinatra embodied. "My Way" tells us of the singer's insistence on doing it his way, but it doesn't give us a clue what that way is. To mention another extreme, Woody Guthrie was a singer who wrote most of the songs he performed, but his lyrics imitate the public and traditional forms of folk, while his music depended heavily on folk tunes. A great deal more of Woody's personality is revealed in his prose and his drawings than in his songs.
Elvis, like Sinatra, was an interpreter of other people's music. The difference, however, is that Elvis did not record standards, songs that other people commonly interpreted. The songs for which Elvis came to be known were not merely identiﬁed with him. They came to seem as if he had written them, as if they were his personal expression. It doesn't matter that Big Mama Thornton had already released a recording of Leiber and Stoller's "Hound Dog." Elvis's recording and television performances of it made the song his just as surely as if he had written it. More importantly, Sinatra and the other singers of the swing era came off as self-conscious stylists, while Elvis appeared to be revealing his inner core by the intensity of his singing and dancing.
Prior to the Beatles, most rock and roll recording followed the pattern of pop, in that singers usually recorded the work of professional songwriters. By recording mainly their own compositions, the Beatles set a new pattern for the rock and roll of the 1960s. However, the Beatles were not rock and roll's ﬁrst auteurs. Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, and others recorded their own songs, but Chuck Berry is perhaps the most important 1950s precursor of the singer-songwriters. This is true in spite of the musical dissimilarities, for Berry's music, lyrics, and performances were all distinctively his own. Like the other rock and roll songs of his era, Berry's lyrics do not depend on the convention of direct address. In fact, what is probably his most personal song, "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man," is indirect in numerous ways. Though it is likely that this is a song about Berry himself, it is sung in the third person. And, while the protagonist is described as brown-eyed, this is clearly a reference to his race. The song thus celebrated black pride long before most popular music would begin to deal with such matters. The point here is not that Berry invented the conventions of the singer-songwriter style but that he represented a signiﬁcant change in expectations of popular singers. Berry was not just a performer; he was an artist expressing himself in all of the various media in which he worked.
After the Beatles, performers who did not write their own songs were suspect, and, as we have seen, after Dylan, popular singers were regarded as genuine artists. But rock and roll's development also featured another trend that would enable the singer-songwriters. From the beginning, rock and roll consisted in a mixture of other styles, not just country and western and R&B, but gospel, Tin Pan Alley pop, and jazz, and this is not to mention that country and R&B were (and remain) very much mixed forms themselves. What happened during the 1960s, however, was an opening of rock and roll to inﬂuences previously remote from it, while at the same time its original roots were being brought to the surface. Folk, classical, and jazz elements all became signiﬁcant at various times during the sixties, and all of these new elements set the stage for the singer-songwriters.
The Confessional Mode
The key record for the emergence of the confessional mode is James Taylor's Sweet Baby James, and especially the song "Fire and Rain." This is not to say that Taylor was the ﬁrst of the singer-songwriters. Laura Nyro, Leonard Cohen, and Randy Newman had all released signiﬁcant recordings earlier that were part of the emergence of the singer-songwriter. But it was Sweet Baby James that clearly marked a distinctive new mode. Neither Newman nor Nyro had recorded such personal material, and their music and lyrics remained connected to Tin Pan Alley. Cohen's lyrics were personal - he was an early inﬂuence on Mitchell - but they were also often obscure and his popularity in the United States was limited. Somewhat like Nyro's Eli and the Thirteenth Confession, Sweet Baby James is striking in its musical diversity, with explicit invocations of blues, jazz, folk, and rock and roll, and including a version of the generically ambiguous "Oh Susanna" by Stephen Foster. In another words, in spite of the frequent use of acoustic guitar, the relative softness of the sound, and the foregrounding of an individual singer's own words and music, this was clearly not a folk album. Nor was it folk rock à la the Byrds or Simon and Garfunkel, but another, different remixing of rock and roll's components. More important than its musical innovation, however, was the fact that Sweet Baby James was the ﬁrst record to make confessional songwriting a popular success.
What is remarkable about "Fire and Rain" is the starkness of the pain and despair it reveals. Pop music had long featured laments about lost love, but being pop they seemed to be conventional rather than personal. We can, for example, speculate that Cole Porter's life as a gay man entailed experiences that made him able to give such powerful expression to unrequited love and longing. But that expression did not lead his listeners to conclude that he was writing autobiographically. His songs were understood as expressing universal rather than particular experiences. "Fire and Rain," however, advertises itself as autobiography. Contemporary stories about Taylor report listeners asking if his girlfriend had been killed in a plane crash ("sweet dreams and ﬂying machines in pieces on the ground"), or if he had recently experienced a religious conversion ("won't you look down upon me Jesus"). Yet besides the reference, obscure to most listeners, to Taylor's early band, the Flying Machine, the song does not require the listener to guess the names of those it describes, like a roman à clef. Rather, the sense that we have that this song is autobiographical is conveyed by its manner of performance and lyrical style.
How is this autobiographical effect achieved? In the ﬁrst place, the song names a speciﬁc time that suggests a particular event: "Just yesterday morning they let me know you were gone." The lyrics seem to be telling us about the singer's life, not just about the general experience of loss. Moreover, this song is about loss - not unrequited love - and the effects of loss on a particular psyche. It is not the named woman, Suzanne, who is the cause of the singer's pain. While the exact cause is not named, what is clear is that it is radically beyond the singer's control. This sense of helplessness is a hallmark of the confessional mode, and in this case the events are so overwhelming that they threaten the singer's very survival. Suicide is never named in the song, but its threat exists just over the lyrics' horizon. Extremity is also characteristic of the confessional. To have loved and lost is a conventional experience that doesn't require confession. Suffering of the magnitude described in "Fire and Rain" is not something that previously characterized popular song but rather typiﬁed one's private communication with a psychiatrist. The music that accompanies this lament seems plain, but it is plaintive. It punctuates the lyrics but never threatens to displace them in the foreground. The song is presented in slow tempo, the verses sung in an understated, almost reportorial manner, while the chorus is only somewhat more of a wail. This direct manner contributes to our conviction that the song is true. The song seems artless, but therein lies, precisely, its art.
Songs like "Fire and Rain" came to be called "confessional" because they resembled a distinctive body of poetry that emerged in the 1960s. Robert Lowell's Life Studies, a book that combines explicitly autobiographical poems with a brief bit of prose autobiography, is usually taken to be the founding document of the movement. Lowell's students Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton brought the style to a wider audience, Plath's suicide giving added confessional force to her posthumously published Ariel. The power of this poetry derived in part from its sharp break with the aesthetics of high modernism, governed as it was by T. S. Eliot's dictum that poetry is an escape from personality. While the modernists were read as tackling the largest philosophical, religious, or formal issues, the confessional poets reported on their private psychological struggles. If modernist aesthetics demanded the ﬁction of formal distance, another important confessional poet, John Berryman, expressed the confessional credo, when, in an interpretation of Lowell's "Skunk Hour," he asserted, "When Shakespeare said 'two loves have I,' reader, he was not kidding."14
In other words, the confessional poets proclaimed the autographical character of their work.
And yet, it is also worth observing that the critic who ﬁrst named the movement, M. L. Rosenthal, did not deﬁne it in terms of the accuracy of its correspondence to the facts of the author's life nor as a matter of guilt to be expiated. The key issue is the way that the self is presented in the poems, the poet appearing as himor herself and not in the convention of an invented "speaker."15 As another literary critic explained after Rosenthal's term had gained wide currency, "A confessional poem would seem to be one in which the writer speaks to the reader, telling him, without the mediating presence of imagined event or persona, something about his life... . The sense of direct speech addressed to an audience is central to confessional writing."16
Rosenthal's emphasis is on the "self-therapeutic" motive for confession, which he found, in 1960, to be best represented in Robert Lowell's Life Studies.17 Rosenthal praises Lowell's poems in terms very similar to those that will be applied to Joni Mitchell about ten years later: "he does not spare himself in these poems"; "uncompromising honesty"; "audacious intimacy."18 The critic, however, does not value Lowell's poetry merely on these grounds. He reads them not as self-absorbed but as revealing "the whole maggoty character" of American culture, "which [the poet] feels he carries about in his own person" and thus looking "at the culture through the window of psychological breakdown."19 Certainly many readers found a similar kind of critique in the poems of Sylvia Plath, which have long been understood as signiﬁcant feminist statements. At the same time, Rosenthal believes "one implication of what writers like Robert Lowell are doing" is "that their individual lives have profound meaning and worth, and that the therapeutic confession will lead to the realization of these values."20 This combination of social critique and the afﬁrmation of the meaning of individual experience is also to be found in the work of the singer-songwriters.
Of course, "confessional" has many meanings, and it is doubtless true that, as the idea of confessional poetry became more widely known, the speciﬁcs of its use in literary criticism were often lost. As a result, the term has been widely misunderstood in popular usage and by some of the musicians to whom it has been applied. It is not clear whether confessional poetry directly inﬂuenced singer-songwriters like James Taylor or Joni Mitchell. The latter, as we will see, has speciﬁcally denied that it was an inﬂuence. But there were connections at the time that seemed signiﬁcant even if they were in fact mere coincidence. For example, James Taylor was treated in the same private mental hospital, McClean, as Lowell and Sexton, and all three wrote about the experience, Taylor in "Knocking Around the Zoo." Indeed, the threat of madness that lurks everywhere in confessional poetry also lurks in the background of Taylor's ﬁrst two albums (although it might be said to lurk a bit like a cartoon monster). This says nothing about Taylor's exposure to the poetry of Lowell or Plath, but it does suggest a context of reception and interpretation for his work.
One element of this context is what we might call a particular experience of adolescence, here characterized not by the rebellion that the Rolling Stones expressed but uncertainty, anxiety, and alienation. At the time, these emotions were widely believed to be typical among later adolescents, and the popularity of existentialist literature - which treated these three states of mind as inherent in the condition of modern humanity - among this group seems at least to conﬁrm their interest in these feelings. Confessional poetry individualized these existentialist themes, and Sylvia Plath's poetry in particular was very popular among older adolescent girls. This same late-high-school and college-age group, but including more males, also made up the core of the singer-songwriters' audience. But even if only a minority of Taylor's listeners had heard of - much less read - confessional poetry, surely this poetry prepared cultural mediators to value and make sense of the songs he and other singer-songwriters wrote. Finally, both phenomena need to be associated with larger cultural ones, including the expanding reach of celebrity that made the private lives of the famous ever more public.
There are important differences between the confessional mode of songwriting and confessional poetry. For one thing, the poetry is rarely as open or direct in its presentation of the self.21 It retains elements of the complexity Eliot correctly predicted would deﬁne modern verse, so that the reader often has to work to ﬁgure out just what the poet is confessing. A related difference is that the extremity of the poetry is often much greater. We don't ﬁnd any Holocaust imagery in Mitchell, but Plath makes use of it in Ariel, in poems like "Lady Lazarus," and suicide, more or less explicitly, is often discussed by her and other confessional poets. Paradoxically, this extremity made the poetry seem radical by comparison to the dominant poetic style that favored understatement, but it would have made a young popular songwriter sound all too immature and typical. We will ﬁnd such extremity in rock, albeit in a much less serious form, a bit later in the 1970s with Alice Cooper and some heavy metal acts.
Mitchell observed these differences in a 1996 interview with New York Times music critic Stephen Holden:
She heatedly rejects any comparisons of her work to that of women like Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. "The only poets who inﬂuenced me were Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan," she insisted. "What always bugged me about poetry in school was the artiﬁce of it. When Dylan wrote, 'You've got a lot of nerve to say you are my friend,' as an opening line, the language was direct and undeniable. As for Plath and Sexton, I'm sorry, but I smell a rat. There was a lot of guile in the work, a lot of posturing. It didn't really get down to the nitty-gritty of the human condition. And there was the suicide-chic aspect."22
This analysis would ﬁnd support from some literary critics, for example, Irving Howe, who criticized Plath for the way she represented a suicide attempt in "Lady Lazarus." He accuses her of "enlarging the magnitude of her act through illegitimate comparisons with the Holocaust" and of "a willed hysteric tone, the forcing of language to make up for an inability to develop the matter."23 In describing Plath and Sexton as "posturing," Mitchell is claiming greater honesty, and apparently, a more authentic confession. But Mitchell had other objections: "To this day she bridles at the application of the term 'confessional' to her 1970s' songs because to her, confession implies information extracted under duress. The term she prefers is 'penitence of spirit.' "24 This connotation of "duress" was not one associated with the term in its application to the poetry, where almost the opposite situation was assumed, that the poet was desirous of unburdening himor herself. In any case, Mitchell has not always been unwilling to use the term. In a 1979 interview she said she "became a confessional poet" because her fans' adoration was "too much to live up to. I thought, 'You don't even know who I am. You want to worship me?' ... I thought, 'You better know who you're applauding up here.' It was a compulsion to be honest with my audience."25 The word "compulsion" might be read as an admission that at one time she did believe she was under a kind of self-imposed duress, about which she has since changed her mind.
If we take a confessional poem or song to be deﬁned by "direct speech addressed to an audience" without the mediating presence of "persona," then many of Mitchell's songs seem to ﬁt better than most of the poems that have been called confessional. Indeed, her own statements about her work suggest that such direct expression was her goal. As she said of Blue, the most confessional of her albums, "I have, on occasion, sacriﬁced myself and my own emotional makeup, ... singing 'I'm selﬁsh and I'm sad' [on 'River'], for instance. We all suffer for our loneliness, but at the time of Blue, our pop stars never admitted these things."26 Indeed, Mitchell does differ from other stars, whether in music or elsewhere, in her willingness to assert that her songs are about herself. Because she asserts their honesty, however, some of her listeners may assume that the meaning of her songs is to be discovered by ﬁnding out information that they do not explicitly reveal. This may have encouraged the tendency already prevalent in the public at large to assume that works of art like ﬁlms or songs must have a one-to-one relationship with speciﬁc people. "Thirty years after it was released, her fans still have heated debates ... equally adamant that the song 'Blue,' for instance, can only have been written about one man: James Taylor / David Blue / Graham Nash / Leonard Cohen, pick a name, any name."27 But these assumptions reﬂect a misunderstanding of art in general and the confessional mode in particular. What such artists reveal is not an external cause of the work but emotional states the artist has experienced. In making these emotions available to an audience, the circumstances that gave rise to them are necessarily transformed. Blue or any other work is or is not confessional by virtue of the conventions it uses. We experience something as a confession when it takes the form of a confession. Even though the emotions are real and details are taken from life, the songs are necessarily works of art or artiﬁce, that is, ﬁctions.
To call something a ﬁction is not to say that it is a lie; rather, it is to point out that its meaning exists not in its reference to particular people or events but in its generality of reference. The details of a poem or novel allow us to experience the world of that work as if it were real, but its ﬁctional character allows us to use it as a model, a hypothetical world that we can make our own. Joni Mitchell's songs have mattered to so many people not because of the individuals they may or may not refer to but because they help them make sense of their own lives, to understand their own emotions, or to experience deeply someone else's emotional world. The conviction that songs like "Blue" or "Fire and Rain" do represent particular people and events is part of what deﬁnes their authenticity. What's important to understand is that that conviction is produced by the ﬁction, and not the other way around. We hear honesty because of the style of the language and the music.
One of the most powerful characteristics of Mitchell's persona, then, is honesty. There is, of course, a paradox produced when Mitchell - or, I would argue, any artist - successfully conveys honesty and makes her audience believe that they are being directly addressed. The implication of this belief is that that persona and self are identical, that in other words there is no persona. But even though we may accept that in "River" it is Mitchell herself who is "selﬁsh and sad," we as fans can only add that information to our understanding of the Joni Mitchell star persona, since we cannot know the private person. However, the conviction that the songs are true may encourage many to believe that they can know the real Joni, increasing the "tension between the possibility and impossibility of knowing the authentic individual" and making them look all the harder for the missing information that they hope will relieve it.28 What such listeners fail to understand is that this tension is a necessary condition of the star system and of ﬁction.
Joni Mitchell Naked
From the beginning of her career, people have believed that Joni Mitchell was speaking for them. A review of her ﬁrst album asserted, "This record is a profound expression of I, a woman - I have yet to meet a girl who doesn't feel that Joni speaks for her."29 Of course, the popularity of many rock songs can be attributed to the idea that the audience felt that those songs expressed their experience. The Stones' "Satisfaction" may be the most compelling example of this. What's remarkable about Joni Mitchell's career is that her audience continued to feel that way after she began to speak directly to them.
Blue was the ﬁrst album of Mitchell's that is deﬁnitely confessional and that leaves the more public "folk" mode behind once and for all. Her previous album, Ladies of the Canyon, was a mixture of the two modes. Some of the songs, like "The Circle Game," which had been composed earlier, remain in the folk style dominant on her ﬁrst two albums, Song to a Seagull and Clouds. What distinguishes the earlier songs as folk is a degree of impersonality that allowed them to be recorded easily by others. "Both Sides Now" was a hit for Judy Collins, but numerous others, including Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, recorded it. After Blue, Mitchell's new material was much less frequently covered until the 1990s, when younger artists whom she inﬂuenced started to record her songs. "Both Sides Now" and "The Circle Game" could be considered philosophical. They describe how life in general is, and they do not detail private experience. The song "Woodstock," also on Ladies, is public in a somewhat different way, the celebration of a public event, also something folksingers had long done.30
Not surprisingly, Mitchell's folk persona differed from her rock persona, which emerged in the early 1970s. One gets some sense of change from the title of a 1974 magazine article, "From Folk Waif to Rock and Roll Lady," though neither "waif" nor "lady" gets the personas in question quite right.31 Knowing that the article was a review of a live performance helps to explain the use of "waif," since Mitchell's discomfort in front of large crowds did sometimes make her look like a little girl stranded in a strange place. As one report described a 1970 performance in Boston, "Fragile, giggly and shy, she had the most obvious case of nerves I have ever seen in a professional singer. Her ringing soprano cracked with stage fright and her frightened eyes refused to make contact with the audience."32 Moreover, "waif" conveys the idea of vulnerability, an aspect of her persona that actually became more pronounced after her confessional turn. In her folk mode, however, Mitchell seemed a bit too knowing and a bit too competent for this label to ﬁt. Her image included contradictory elements, as Rolling Stone explained in 1969, prior to the release of Clouds: "Joni Mitchell is a fresh, incredibly beautiful innocent / experienced girl / woman."33 Her beauty and her voice made her the object of male fantasies, but these ambiguities and the complexities of her songs suggested that she might be a difﬁcult conquest. This seems to have been the premise of an ad campaign Warner Brothers Records cooked up for Clouds. The campaign consisted of a series of narratively related ads in Rolling Stone, each headlined with a double entendre such as "Joni Mitchell is 90% virgin," "Joni Mitchell takes forever," and "Joni Mitchell ﬁnally comes across."
This campaign was at odds with much of the star's already established persona, however. Mitchell's appearance - tall, thin, with long, straight blonde hair - made her a recognizable type in the popular music scene of the 1960s. Among the other performers it included were Judy Collins, Marianne Faithfull, Mary Travers, and Michelle Phillips. These women were attractive, but their sex appeal was subtly packaged. They weren't presented to the public like movie starlets, or even as artists such as Lesley Gore and Dusty Springﬁeld had been, with elaborate coiffure, makeup, and dress - much less like the Lolitaesque sex kittens common since Madonna pioneered the look in the early 1980s. The associations that went with Mitchell's type include bohemianism, which in the late sixties had become identiﬁed with hippiedom. In a Look article from 1970, Mitchell is pictured in her southern California home with the caption "Graham and I are talking about marriage."34 She appears highly domestic, seated at a grand piano in a room full of antiques, her hair pulled back behind her ear. Another photo shows her out in nature, playing the dulcimer "atop a Hollywood hill." The previous year, the New York Times ran a story about her relationship with Graham Nash, headlined, "In Her House, Love": "It's a lovely house, sunny and friendly and ﬁlled with the easygoing spirits of the Laurel Canyon music scene." The hippie theme is carried through in the description of Mitchell's appearance: "With her blond hair in braids, and wearing a peasant blouse and sailor pants, Joni looks younger and less mysterious than one might expect from hearing her songs. Her face, lacking the forcefulness and luminescent quality it takes on when she performs, looks like a forthright farm girl's, with freckled pale skin, watery blue eyes, and prominent teeth and cheekbones." Graham is quoted as saying, "She bakes better pies than Myrtle."35
Perhaps it was this image of Mitchell together with the more confessional character of Ladies of the Canyon that led Warner Brothers to direct its campaign for that album toward women. It is more of a woman's record, beginning with the title track, which describes three different ladies - Mitchell's neighbors, presumably - in their domestic spaces. Moreover, there is a shift in the perspective of Mitchell's songs from a more gender-neutral one, in older songs like "Both Sides Now" and "Circle Game," to one more distinctly a woman's in "Conversation," "Willy," and "Rainy Night House." When these songs were ﬁrst heard, they were unusual simply because they are narrated in a woman's voice. Most of the popular songwriters before and after rock and roll had been men, and even when they wrote songs for women, those songs tended to reﬂect men's fantasies, hopes, and fears. Mitchell, on the contrary, tells us what particular events are like for her. "Willy is my child, he is my father" is not only obviously a line only a woman could utter of a partner in a heterosexual relationship, but it also gives us a sense of the complexity of that relationship, since neither "child" nor "father" denote the role we expect a lover to play. "Willy" anticipates the songs on Blue, in that it represents an inner dialogue, revealing the psychological life of a particular individual "I." Its analytic stance will characterize much of Mitchell's work through Hejira. It distinguishes her confessional writing both from poets like Lowell and Plath and from singer-songwriter contemporaries such as Taylor, Carole King, Carly Simon, and Jackson Browne. The poets usually revisit familial relationships, and poets and songwriters alike are more prone to complaint than analysis.
Blue is by now regarded as Mitchell's breakthrough record and her enduring masterpiece. It leaves folk music behind for a style that is closer to cabaret singing (Stereo Review called the songs "torch songs") or to "art songs," as New York Times reviewer Dan Heckman would suggest.36 The change was recognized at the time by Heckman, whose review was headed, "Joni at a Crossroads." Timothy Crouse in Rolling Stone gave a quite precise account of it:
The curious mixture of realism and romance that characterized Joni Mitchell and Clouds (with their sort of "instant traditional" style, so reminiscent of Childe ballads) gradually gave way to the more contemporary pop music modern language of Ladies of the Canyon. Gone now was the occasionally excessive feyness of "rows and rows [sic] of angel hair / And ice cream castles in the air"; in their place was an album that contained six very unromanticized accounts of troubled encounters with men... . [Blue] is less picturesque and old fashioned sounding than Joni's ﬁrst two albums. It is also the most focused album.37
Like Taylor's "Fire and Rain," the songs on Blue seem simple but aren't. "River," for example, begins with an instrumental evocation of "Jingle Bells," itself surely an instance of simplicity. Transposed into a minor key, this music evokes the joy of the season the singer does not experience and hence desires a river she "could skate away on." Mitchell's performance on Blue is also complex, but its style isn't easily categorized. There is little that one would call rock and roll, and the only obvious example of that style is what I assume is a sort of pseudo-sample on "This Flight Tonight," where we hear a few lines of a girl group record the singer is listening to on her headphones. There are folk elements, including the guitar accompaniment on about half the songs. But the vocalization itself is not the straightforward, sing-along style of Peter, Paul, and Mary or Mitchell's own "The Circle Game." Rather, she bends lyrics and melody for purposes of emotional expression. So, for example, "River" ends with the line "I could skate away on" sung dissonantly, to be echoed at the end of the instrumental coda by a dissonant ﬁnal cord. The fact that this song, like four others on the album, is recorded with only piano accompaniment also moves it away from folk. The result is that these songs, though their performances are highly crafted, sound to us as if they have not been consciously crafted at all. Mitchell's performance communicates an emotional immediacy that makes us believe that we are experiencing truth rather than art.
If Blue were to appear today in the wake of Prozac and the widespread public discussion of depression, it would surely be read as a record of that malady - and Mitchell has in recent years said that she was depressed when she wrote these songs: "Depression can be the sand that makes the pearl. Most of my best work came out of it."38 When it appeared in 1971, however, the title connected with "the blues," a much less speciﬁc and frightening conception of unhappiness that, of course, has a long history of musical expression. There are no musical blues on Blue, but it is an account of different emotional blues. The mood of the record, however, does not, to my ears, sound "doleful," as Timothy White asserts.39 The songs are never depressing, and they never exhibit unrelieved sadness. Compared to the early James Taylor, the singer of these songs seems positively healthy. It's not suicide that haunts this record, but rather loneliness. The songs don't present a sense of crisis, but of a continuing internal struggle. As a whole, then, the album evokes a complex mixture of emotions.
I don't mean primarily that different songs exhibit different moods but that each of the songs is emotionally complex in itself. None of the songs escapes sorrow and loneliness entirely. In several, however, it does not seem to be the dominant mood and even when it is dominant it is opposed at least by the hope of change. "Carey" and "My Old Man" are songs where sorrow and joy are balanced. "Carey" is a call to celebrate in the face of an impending separation that the singer, for conﬂicting reasons, desires and not an explicit lament about leaving. "My Old Man" ﬁrst celebrates the man's presence before it laments his absence, which is temporary and occasional. The song concludes with "My old man / Keeping away my lonesome blues," a positive note that also admits to a condition the singer herself cannot overcome. "All I Want" is darker, but it still contrasts the pain the singer and her lover cause each other with love's ecstasy, "When I think of your kisses / my mind seesaws." Perhaps the most powerful contrast of moods occurs in "A Case of You," which begins "Just before our love got lost" but which proclaims in the chorus:
Oh, you are in my blood like holy wine
You taste so bitter and so sweet
Oh I could drink a case of you, darling
And I would still be on my feet.
One might argue, then, that Blue is more marked by ambivalence than by any particular emotion. The album's ﬁrst song, "All I Want," illustrates the point. "Oh, I hate you some. I hate you some. / I love you some. / Oh I love you when I forget about me." Ambivalence is characteristic of neurotic states, but it is also a product of the work of analysis. Mitchell's work depends heavily on the discourse of, if not psychoanalysis proper, then the therapy of the talking cure in a general sense. Her songs are less like the plaintive wail of Plath than like Lowell's shrewd and often lacerating self-analysis. The Joni Mitchell that gets produced in her recordings often seems less patient than analyst, even if her analysand is most often herself. She thus, unlike Taylor, does not present herself as a victim but as complicit in her own misery. So "River" confesses, "I made my baby cry" and:
I'm so hard to handle
I'm selﬁsh and I'm sad
Now I've gone and lost the best baby
That I ever had
These lyrics also illustrate another aspect of Blue's construction of a confessional stance in their plainness. Reading the lyrics of some cuts, we would hardly recognize them as songs. Rhyme is often missing or sporadic. Lines are sometimes strung out far beyond what the typical rhythmic pattern would permit. Some of the lyrics are conversations. "A Case of You" begins
Just before our love got lost you said,
"I am as constant as a northern star"
And I said, "Constantly in the darkness
Where's that at?
If you want me I'll be in the bar"
Mitchell is able to get away from the conventions of popular song lyrics because of the versatility of her voice, which turns her free verse into songs. Yet, the lyrics wouldn't stand up well as poetry. They are too plain for that. Plath and Sexton confessed their inner demons in a kind of declamatory rhetoric that turned private complaints into public discourse. Mitchell's songs don't make that leap. Although they are not in general so private as to be obscure, the language doesn't sound inﬂated. One seldom has the sense with Mitchell, as one often does with Dylan, that she is working hard for rhetorical effect. We believe in this voice because it seems natural, seems to be speaking the language in which one might think of one's self in private.
Even Blue's packaging appears designed to convey openness, honesty, and authenticity. The cover art is presented entirely in blue tints. The front cover features a grainy photograph of the singer, more or less face forward, but with only the right side clearly visible. Her eyes are either closed or nearly so.
Though the image is indistinct, she may be singing into a microphone. While we assume that this is a performance pose, her mouth is closed into a frown. This is not a star image, but the antithesis of the usual glamour treatment given female performers. The cover promises an album that will present the truth about this striking but troubled individual.
Mitchell's future albums will never again reach the level of confessionalism embodied on Blue. But I think it can be argued that this album deﬁned her persona more than any other. Future albums will pull back from the edge and they will explore various styles, but they serve only to deepen and complicate the role Mitchell has already carved out for herself. Contemporary accounts often use the word "vulnerable" to describe Mitchell. In a review of a 1972 London concert, Melody Maker added, "She's some kind of high priestess, virginal and vulnerable, not to be viliﬁed... . It seems almost like heresy to criticize her."40 This validates Mitchell's observation that she was being worshipped. If she thought the songs on Blue would make her fans less worshipful, however, she would be disappointed. Since stardom is based on an imaginary personal relationship, the intimacy of that album could only make fans feel more devoted. In fact, Mitchell's audience continued to grow as long as she stayed with the confessional mode.
The Melody Maker review also reveals a difﬁculty posed by Mitchell's persona. There is something of a contradiction between "priestess" and "vulnerable," the former conveying power and distance, the latter weakness and accessibility. Moreover, confessing one's failures is not necessarily a sign of weakness, and another reading of Blue would be that these songs are about a woman tough enough to survive these trials. Several reviews did ﬁnd the theme of survival, and Rolling Stone would say, "Her appeal is in the subtle texture of her toughness, and her readiness to tell secrets and make obscure and difﬁcult feelings lucid and vocal."41 The description of Mitchell as "virginal" raises further problems. Blue's lyrics make clear that this is inaccurate; in fact, one attraction of the album is that it tells us about a woman who has lived and loved; she is a somewhat world-weary adult, not an ingénue. The difﬁculty here may be that the virgin-whore binary to which women have been typically subjected limited the alternatives. As Sheila Whiteley has argued, on Blue Mitchell was grappling with "the problems associated with the feminine mystique" and trying to deal with the conﬂict between the desires for freedom and commitment now that life outside of marriage was imaginable.42 The difﬁculty the culture had in imagining a new role for women might explain the degree to which domesticity seems to ﬁgure in stories about Mitchell. Time would even have a story about being invited to Joni's house for dinner.43
Blue obviously continues the distinctly female perspective we saw in some songs from her previous album. Just as clearly, this meant that Mitchell would attract a signiﬁcant female following - presumably the worshipful ones observed by Melody Maker. But these songs don't exclude male listeners, and they are less gender speciﬁc than "Willy" or "Conversation." The dilemmas of romantic love are ones that men share, and the conﬂict between freedom and commitment had, until Mitchell's own era, been one experienced mainly by men, because men were the ones whom society permitted to have options other than marriage. Certainly if one judged by male music critics of this era, one would have to say that men not only liked her music but, by and large, seemed to get it. This debate about Mitchell's audience was alive at the time. Loraine Alterman in the New York Times articulated the issue precisely in early 1974: "There's no doubt that men as well as women can relate to Mitchell's songs; but because she is a woman her work does have a special meaning to all women who are caught in the basic dilemma of knowing they must realize their own potential at the same they still want to ﬁnd that one love."44 Time described her as "the reticent feminist who by trial and error has charted the male as well as the female ego."45 As Mitchell herself put it later, "For a while it was assumed that I was writing women's songs. Then men began to notice that they saw themselves in the songs, too."46 Indeed, one of the things that Mitchell's work teaches us is that love feels pretty similar on both sides of the gender line.
Still, there is another kind of appeal that Mitchell may have had for male listeners. As the repeated mention of her vulnerability suggests, Mitchell's expressions of pain and loneliness could invite a rescue response. This is most strongly evoked by the album that follows Blue, For the Roses. At ﬁrst this album seems lighter in mood, not least because of its more robust production. For the Roses yielded Mitchell her ﬁrst hit single, "You Turn Me On I'm a Radio," a bouncy country-rock record that is atypical of the album except that it describes a difﬁcult relationship. Its style and the humorous, sexy metaphor of the title make it harder to hear the serious subtext. The singer is issuing an invitation to a man who apparently can take her or leave her. She is waiting for him even if he comes with a dark cloud, and she will come when he whistles. It's not an expression of unconditional love, but it does express a kind of self-abasement not found on Blue. And there's plenty more of this, expressed in much less upbeat form. On "Woman of Heart and Mind," she criticizes a faithless lover but nevertheless says she will be there for him. "See You Sometime" is a lament written to a former lover, whom she'd still like to see sometimes. "Blonde in the Bleachers" complains, "You can't hold the hand / Of a Rock 'n' Roll man / Very long." Where the songs on Blue depict a singer responsible for her own fate even when it turned out badly, these songs present her as a more passive victim of men or circumstance.
This more familiar feminine role is supported by the album's photography. The cover of For the Roses is a color photo of Mitchell seated in front of a woodland lake dressed in what looks like a sort of pioneer garb, suggesting self-sufﬁciency but also isolation. Inside, there is a long shot of the back of her nude body facing a bay, implying vulnerability and inviting men to rescue her from her loneliness. Mitchell is said to have wondered if the many men who complimented her on the nude photo had listened to the record.47 Still, the image seems appropriate to the confessional character of Mitchell's songs.
From Triumph to the Prison of Authenticity
It is one thing for a poet to write autobiographically, and another for a rock star. Living under the glare of the media spotlight meant that Mitchell's honesty would not always be praised. In the early 1970s, Rolling Stone called her "The Old Lady of the Year" and published a diagram of Mitchell's known and supposed relationships with other musicians.48 Mitchell was a celebrity almost before she became a star, but, like Jerry Garcia, she has never been comfortable in that role. The desire to escape from the ﬁshbowl had sent her to Europe before she recorded Blue, and it would send her to the wilderness of northwest Canada prior to recording For the Roses. There she lived alone without electricity for nearly a year, trying to get her head together and get back to the garden. About this time, she claims to have read every work of psychology in the library in an attempt to ﬁgure out her own unhappiness. Although she says that she found the books unhelpful, their inﬂuence is perhaps to be found on Court and Spark.
There the more passive, more vulnerable Mitchell of For the Roses was quickly supplanted. Court and Spark would be Mitchell's biggest commercial success, and it would yield hit singles, "Help Me" and "Raised on Robbery." Its mood is much more upbeat than Blue, but the mood is conveyed far more by the music than by the lyrics, which represent Mitchell at her most analytic. These are, as Loraine Alterman said in reviewing the album, not love songs but "songs about love."49 The lyrics convey a sense of complex self-reﬂection, as in this example from "People's Parties":
I feel like I'm sleeping
Can you wake me
You seem to have a broader sensibility
I'm just living on nerves and feelings
With a weak and lazy mind
And coming to people's parties
Fumbling deaf dumb and blind
The distinctiveness of Court and Spark was widely hailed by reviewers who almost to a person understood that these songs were, as Ezra Pound said of poetry, "news that stays news." Their insight into relationships and to human emotions more generally was frequently noted. Because its canvas was bigger than Blue's, this album seemed to reﬂect not just Joni Mitchell's troubles but those of the entire culture, achieving exactly the impact Rosenthal had praised in Lowell's Life Studies.
It was not the only great album of self-analysis to be released in the mid-1970s. Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks, a record of the dissolution of his marriage to Sara Lownds, also came out early the following year. Appearing after the "sexual revolution" of the 1960s, the emergence of second-wave feminism, and other upheavals that called into question traditional patterns, these records were relatively early markers of a new way of thinking about love and courtship that would ﬁnd its way into self-help books, novels, and ﬁlms. The new discourse of intimacy would compete with the older discourse of romance, even as it took romantic love as one aspect of the intimate relationships it analyzed.50 Mitchell's need, as she described it, to "confront" relationships made her someone who did this kind of analysis before it was widely urged upon us.51
Not only did Court and Spark cement Joni Mitchell's role as popular music's leading analyst of modern love, but it also demonstrated once and for all that she was no longer a folksinger. For the ﬁrst time, she was recording with a band. The bigger sound itself did not make the singer seem vulnerable, but as Malka Morom observed, "When she went with a band, there was something muscular about it. There was a certain power and conﬁdence that was conveyed through the bass and the drums. And no one had ever heard her sing like this before."52 Mitchell herself said that she didn't "want to be vulnerable anymore."53 Corresponding to the new sound and her new role as a front woman, was a new look. Her hair was not so long and not so straight, and she traded her hippie clothes for chic new styles. There were also new vocal styles, ranging from rock ("Raised on Robbery") to jazz (most obvious on her cover of "Twisted"). This new Joni, even though her band had its roots as much in jazz as rock, seemed to put the question of the genre of her music to rest. They mounted a well-received ﬁfty-city national tour, and the show was recorded for a live album, Miles of Aisles. She was now being called "Rock and Roll's Leading Lady" and a "Superstar."54
Mitchell's next studio album, The Hissing of Summer Lawns (1975) represented a new departure, both musically and lyrically. The record explored African music and moved further into jazz, while the lyrics focused on social commentary. The record reached number 4 on Billboard, but the reviews were mixed at best. Rolling Stone decided it was the worst album title of the year. The reception of Hissing suggests the degree to which Mitchell's persona had been ﬁxed by critics and fans alike, who wanted from her more of the same. Critics did recognize that her next album, Hejira (1976), was a return to the themes of her previous work. By this point, however, not all of them were happy with that move, either. With punk becoming the critical bandwagon of the moment, Mitchell's musical and lyrical complexity had gone out of favor. English professor Perry Meisel, writing in the Village Voice, complained that despite her "reputation as a lyricist, the poetic element in her work has been a growing source of embarrassment to many listeners" and lamented what he called Hejira's "dearth of melody."55 John Rockwell of the New York Times liked the record but still complained of Mitchell's "narcissism" and "self-absorbed introspection."56 The moment of the rock artist that Dylan had initiated was coming to an end, as the critical establishment embraced primitivism. Even Blood on the Tracks had been criticized by Jon Landau for not including a great pop single.57 If few shared the Lester Bangs aesthetic in 1970, by 1976 a version of it dominated rock writing.
Mitchell has said that the compliment she most appreciated was that she made raceless, genderless music. Unfortunately, American culture in the 1960s and 1970s made it impossible for a star persona to be raceless or genderless, and critics, as she has complained, often ghettoized Mitchell. She noted that she was usually compared only to other female performers, especially singer-songwriters such as Carole King and Carly Simon, who were also selling lots of records in the early 1970s. To be called rock's "Leading Lady" is a somewhat debatable honor, since in 1974 the competition was slim. Mitchell should have been recognized for what she was, the best songwriter of her generation and one of the most important rock stars. Rock and roll, however, was a male dominated practice, which meant not only that women were treated as second-class performers but also that an aesthetic that privileged supposed masculine qualities would determine the preferences of critics and fans alike. Rock and roll was rough and primitive, not polished and sophisticated, as Mitchell's work increasingly seemed. One advantage Dylan had over Mitchell was that regardless of how complex his lyrics were, his music and singing always had numerous rough edges.
In addition to such stylistic judgments, there were also judgments about the stance the singer took toward the work. Mitchell sings about complicated emotions and a self that is sensitive and ambivalent. Anger is just one emotion among others, and it is more often discussed than expressed. While Blood on the Tracks is undoubtedly a confessional album - as Ellen Willis pointed out in a contemporary review, it is the portrait of a man struggling with emotional complexity - its dominant emotion is anger.58 Moreover, as beﬁts Dylan's masked character, the songs are not direct and open expressions of the singer's feelings or experiences but complex narratives in which we have to work to uncover what they tell us about him. Blood on the Tracks is a great album, but Joni Mitchell made at least three that are its equal, and only gender bias can account for the general failure to recognize this.
The decline in Mitchell's popularity after the triumph of Court and Spark cannot entirely be ascribed to changes in critical fashion or gender bias. Hejira was Mitchell's last confessional album. It was also the ﬁrst of three records that were recorded with hard-core jazz musicians, including Jaco Pastorius (whose melodic bass on Hejira so befuddled Perry Meisel) and Charles Mingus. On the cover of Hejira, Mitchell appears in a black-and-white photo wearing a beret. It is a photo of an artist that also proclaims itself art rather than advertising. Perhaps more than any popular musician of her generation, Mitchell understood herself as an artist, but that understanding and her public persona were at odds. Artists are private and inscrutable; it is the nature of genius not to be understood or available to the public. Popular notions of the artist, which ﬁt Dylan to a tee, did not ﬁt Mitchell's openness and honesty. Her fans believed that they knew her intimately because she had shared intimate secrets with them. We expect the trickster to change shapes; we are disconcerted when our best friend does. The authenticity on which her early 1970s work traded could not support the experimentation of the later years of the decade, which was heard as artiﬁce and pretension. Had her fans who knew her not so believed, they might have been more willing to trust her aesthetic impulses.
Even if Mitchell's popularity declined after the mid-1970s, she has remained an icon, representing, among other things, a woman's ability to remain true to herself and her art. As Ani DiFranco suggests, she continues to be a feminist icon, regardless of her own statements about feminism. Her later work, however, did become less distinctly feminine, as she has discussed in several interviews. She told Rolling Stone in 1992, "I came into the business quite feminine. But nobody has had so many battles to wage as me. I had to stand up for my own artistic rights. And it's probably good for my art, ultimately... . So over the years I think I've gotten more androgynous - and maybe become an honorary male."59 This suggests that, although women may not identify as easily with Mitchell as they once did, she still represents for them someone who shattered the glass (or maybe it was more like concrete) ceiling, a star on her own terms.
1. Loren Glass misunderstands this when he credits Dylan with shifting rock stardom from personality to personal expression in "Buying In, Selling Out: From Literary to Musical Celebrity in the United States," Hedgehog Review 7, no. 1 (Spring 2005), 29 - 30. As I have argued, starting with Elvis, rock and roll entailed the idea of the singer being identiﬁed with his or her songs regardless of who wrote them.
2. For evidence of this, consider that a Google n-gram search shows no usage of the construction "singer-songwriter" prior to the early 1970s.
3. Jewel, "The Immortals - The Greatest Artists of All Time: 60) Joni Mitchell," Rolling Stone, Apr. 15, 20 04, www.rollingstone.com/news/story/7235480/the_immortals_the_ greatest_artists_of_all_time_60_joni_mitchell. That Joni Mitchell was ranked only 60th is shocking and is strong conﬁrmation of DiFranco's point. There are only four women in the top 50, and only Aretha Franklin made it into the top 10. The other three are Madonna, Janis Joplin, and Patti Smith. All told, Rolling Stone could ﬁnd only ten women or female groups deserving a place among the 100 "immortals."
4. David DeVoss, "Rock 'n' Roll's Leading Lady," Time, Dec. 16, 1974, www.time.com/time /magazine/article/0,9171,911559,00.html.
5. David Wild, "A Conversation with Joni Mitchell," Rolling Stone, May 30, 1991, 66.
6. Sheila Weller, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation (New York: Atria, 2008). Notice that I am discussing the title, which I think is better evidence than the book's content of Mitchell's iconic status. The book makes little effort to explain how the three women represent a generation, and in its treatment of Mitchell could be called a prose version of the Rolling Stone chart of Mitchell's love affairs brought up to date. It should be noted that Mitchell has long objected to being grouped with King and Simon.
7. Judy Kutulas, " 'That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be': Baby Boomers, 1970s Singer-Songwriters, and Romantic Relationships," Journal of American History 97, no. 3 (2010): 690.
8. Wild, "A Conversation with Joni Mitchell," 64.
9. Ani DiFranco, "Ani DiFranco Chats with the Iconic Joni Mitchell," Los Angeles Times, Sept. 20, 1998: 20.
10. For a somewhat different take on the emergence of the singer-songwriter, see Kutulas, "'That's the Way I've Always Heard It Should Be,'" 682 - 702. 228 Notes to Pages 151 - 162
11. Lester Bangs, "James Taylor Marked for Death," in Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung, ed. Greil Marcus (New York: Vintage, 1988 ), 53 - 81.
12. Dave Marsh, Born to Run: The Bruce Springsteen Story (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1979), 85.
13. Joni Mitchell, interview in Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind, dir. Susan Lacy (1998; New York: Eagle Vision, 2003), DVD.
14. John Berryman, "Despondency and Madness," in The Contemporary Poet as Artist and Critic: Eight Symposia, ed. Anthony Ostroff (Boston: Little, Brown, 1964), 99.
15. M. L. Rosenthal, The Modern Poets: A Critical Introduction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1960), 226.
16. Irving Howe, "The Plath Celebration: A Partial Dissent," The Critical Point: On Literature and Culture (New York: Dell, 1973), 167.
17. Rosenthal, The Modern Poets, 233.
18. Ibid., 232 - 34.
19. Ibid., 233.
20. Ibid., 237.
21. In this regard, Leonard Cohen's songs remain closer to poetry than do those of Taylor or Mitchell, making him less typical of singer-songwriters in general.
22. Joni Mitchell, quoted in Stephen Holden, "The Ambivalent Hall of Famer," New York Times, Dec. 1, 1996, http://www.nytimes.com/1996/12/01/arts/the-ambivalent-hall-of -famer.html?scp=4&sq=Joni+Mitchell&st=nyt.
23. Howe, "The Plath Celebration," 163 - 64.
24. Mitchell, quoted in Holden, "The Ambivalent Hall of Famer."
25. Joni Mitchell, "The Rolling Stone Interview," by Cameron Crowe, Rolling Stone, July 26, 1979, 49.
26. Joni Mitchell quoted in Timothy White, "A Portrait of the Artist," Billboard, Dec. 9, 1995, 15.
27. Karen O'Brien, Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light (London: Virgin, 2002), 137 - 38.
28. P. David Marshall, Celebrity and Power: Fame in Contemporary Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997), 234.
29. Paul Williams, "The Way We Are Today," in The Age of Rock, ed. Jonathan Eisen (New York: Random House, 1969), www.rocksbackpages.com/article_with_login.html?ArticleID=2272.
30. There is a musical shift as well, as Lloyd Whitesell observes, "By the time of 'The Arrangement' (1969, Ladies of the Canyon), reference to folk models is no longer pertinent." He quotes Mitchell herself describing the song as a "forerunner" with "more musical sophistication" than other songs prior to Blue. The Music of Joni Mitchell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 19. Cf. Daniel Sonnenberg, who argues that as early as "I Had a King" (1968, Song to a Seagull) Mitchell's guitar technique and vocal performance style distinguish "her music from the folk tradition." " 'Who in the World She Might Be': A Contextual and Stylistic Approach to the Early Music of Joni Mitchell." DMA diss., City University of New York, 2003, 24.
31. Rob Mackie, "From Folk Waif to Rock and Roll Lady," Sounds, Apr. 27, 1974, rpt. in The Joni Mitchell Companion: Four Decades of Commentary, ed. Stacy Luftig (New York: Schirmer, 2000), 63 - 66.
32. Timothy Crouse, review of Blue, by Joni Mitchell, Rolling Stone, Aug. 5, 1971, 42.
33. "Joni Mitchell," Rolling Stone, May 17, 1969, 10H.
34. Gerald Astor, "Songs for Aging Children," Look, Jan. 27, 1970.
35. Sue Gordon Lydon, "In Her House, Love," New York Times, Apr. 20, 1969, D19+.
36. Peter Reilly, review of Blue, by Joni Mitchell, Stereo Review, Oct. 1971, rpt. in The Joni Mitchell Companion, 41; Dan Heckman, "Pop: Jim Morrison at the End, Joni at a Crossroads," review of Blue, by Joni Mitchell, New York Times, Aug. 8, 1971: D15.
37. Crouse, review of Blue, 42.
38. Joni Mitchell, interview in Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind.
39. White, "A Portrait of the Artist," 15.
40. Michael Watts, "Priestess Joni," Melody Maker, May 13, 1972, http://jonimitchell.com /library/view.cfm?id=181.
41. Stephen Davis, "Joni Mitchell's For the Roses: It's Good for a Hole in the Heart," Rolling Stone, Jan. 4, 1973, 60.
42. Sheila Whiteley, "The Lonely Road: Joni Mitchell," in Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity, and Subjectivity (London: Routledge, 2000), 78.
43. David DeVoss, "An Evening Spent at Joni's," Time, Dec. 16, 1974, www.time.com/time /magazine/article/0,9171,911560,00.html.
44. Loraine Alterman, "Joni's Songs Are for Everyone," New York Times, Jan. 6, 1974, 127.
45. DeVoss, "An Evening Spent at Joni's."
46. Wild, "A Conversation with Joni Mitchell," 64.
47. O'Brien, Joni Mitchell, 153.
48. "It Happened in 1970," Rolling Stone, Feb. 4, 1971, 44; "Hollywood's Hot 100," Rolling Stone, Feb. 3, 1972, 27.
49. Alterman, "Joni's Songs Are for Everyone," 127.
50. David Shumway, Modern Love: Romance, Intimacy, and the Marriage Crisis (New York: NYU Press, 2003).
51. Mitchell, "The Rolling Stone Interview," 50.
52. Malka Morom, interview in Joni Mitchell: Woman of Heart and Mind.
53. Joni Mitchell, interview in ibid.
54. DeVoss, "Rock 'n' Roll's Leading Lady"; "Joni Mitchell: Self-Portrait of a Superstar," McClean's June 1974, rpt. in The Joni Mitchell Companion, 66 - 74.
55. Perry Meisel, "An End to Innocence: How Joni Mitchell Fails," Village Voice, Jan. 1977, http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=412
56. John Rockwell, "Joni Mitchell Recaptures Her Gift," New York Times, Dec. 12, 1976, D17.
57. Bob Spitz, Dylan: A Biography (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1989), 446 - 47.
58. Ellen Willis, review of Blood on the Tracks, by Bob Dylan, New Yorker, Apr. 7, 1975, 130 - 34.
59. Joni Mitchell, interview in "Joni Mitchell," by David Wild, Rolling Stone, Oct. 15, 1992, 168.
Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.
Comment using your Facebook profile, or by registering at this site.
You must be registered and log in to add a permanently indexed comment.