Feeling Free and Female Sexuality: The Aesthetics of Joni Mitchell

by Marilyn Adler Papayanis
Popular Music and Society
October 13, 2010

This paper explores the role of early Joni Mitchell songs in mapping, from a woman's perspective, the sexual terrain of the mid-1960s, the period of time during which premarital sex lost its taboo status and became a normative part of female maturation and development. It argues that such songs, because of their strong storytelling component, put into popular circulation narratives of sexual freedom that engaged with emerging social practices and thereby helped to legitimize the new choices available to young women.

For once we begin to feel deeply all the aspects of our lives, we begin to demand from ourselves and from our life-pursuits that they feel in accordance with that joy which we know ourselves to be capable of. Our erotic knowledge empowers us, becomes a lens through which we scrutinize all aspects of our existence, forcing us to evaluate those aspects honestly in terms of their relative meaning within our lives. (Lorde)
In their seminal essay "Rock and Sexuality," Simon Frith and Angela McRobbie cite the narrator of George Eliot's Adam Bede: "Hetty had never read a novel: how then could she find a shape for her expectations?" Today, they point out, our expectations are shaped by a variety of media, including popular song (424). During the 1960s, in particular, popular music was the matrix through which transformative social, cultural, and political forces associated with anti-war activism, liberation movements that addressed a broad spectrum of settled injustices, and a general contempt for "the establishment" intersected with everyday life. I would like to explore the role of early Joni Mitchell songs in providing a cognitive map of a very particular historical juncture in the transformation of young women's lives: the moment (hardly a "moment," though it seems that way in retrospect) when premarital sex lost its taboo status, becoming a normative part of female maturation and development. I will forgo the biographical, which, in any event, has been admirably - and exhaustively - documented and interpreted, by, among others, Karen O'Brien in Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light, and more recently by Sheila Weller in Girls Like Us and Michelle Mercer in Will You Take Me as I Am, a combination biography and analysis of Mitchell's Blue period. Instead, I will focus upon a close textual reading of a number of Joni Mitchell songs. It is my contention that such songs, because of their strong storytelling component, put into popular circulation narratives of sexual freedom that engaged with emerging social practices in a manner consistent with countercultural values (as opposed to, say, an alternative Sex and the Single Girl model) and thereby helped to legitimize the new choices available to young women. What is more, they did so in a sophisticated and aesthetically engaging form that I call a "feminine" aesthetic because of its deep (if class-bound) attention to female experience, particularly as it relates to sexual desire, and its disruption of the "laws" or conventions associated with pop and "anti-pop" (Bob Dylan's word-driven compositions) alike.

Joni Mitchell achieved commercial success as a songwriter with Judy Collins's recording of "Both Sides Now" (1968) and Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Woodstock" (1970). However, with her second album, Clouds, she won recognition as a performer in her own right, winning the Grammy for Best Folk Performance in 1969. Ladies of the Canyon (1970) and Blue (1971) both went platinum. These early recordings mark her transformation (like that of Bob Dylan) from a purveyor of traditional folk ballads to a singer-songwriter whose "confessional" lyrics and intensely personal musical style would explore and concretize emotion and experience in original and compelling ways. Since that time, her music has continued to evolve in a myriad of directions, shattering boundaries with each new album (Garbarini 113). And she has achieved iconic status as a lyricist and musical innovator. Both as a musician and a storyteller, her centrality to the period of time under consideration here cannot be overestimated. Vic Garbarini writes of her capacity to spin out narrative truth:

She's an ace storyteller, right out of the Homeric tradition, not so much describing or analyzing a situation as conjuring up visionary landscapes of cinematic power that take the listener vicariously through the event, like stepping into one of Don Juan's shamanistic visions. You emerge from the other side with the feeling that you've lived the event yourself and learned whatever lessons it inherently had to offer. (115)
Not everyone, of course, was listening to Joni Mitchell. And, certainly, not everyone was under the sway of the counterculture - defined, nicely, as "a generic label for a somewhat loose grouping of young people, a generational unit, who challenged the traditional concepts of career, family, education and morality and whose lifestyle was loosely organized around the notion of personal freedom" (Whitely 22). Nevertheless, for many (mostly) white, middle-class young women in or bound for college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was an integral part of the musical landscape. And the musical landscape was the one that seemed to matter most in 1968.

Much has been written about the importance of rock and roll, pop, and rock in the constitution of an adolescent subculture. In girl culture, for example, the recent Girl Groups, Girl Culture by Jacqueline Warwick continues the work of Susan J. Douglas's 1994 Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media in teasing out the ways in which popular music is implicated in the socialization of young girls. Likewise, the pioneering work of Simon Frith, Angela McRobbie, and Sheila Whitely offers insightful analyses of rock music that engage specifically with questions of gender and sexuality. Weller's book, of course, most fully documents the cultural milieu in which Mitchell, along with Carole King and Carly Simon, came of age, and it illuminates, in the clearest possible terms, the extent to which their collective body of work, written in the blood of personal experience, documents and questions both the prevailing and emerging zeitgeist associated with the sexual revolution. I will attempt to distill several important points from this wealth of literature in order to contextualize the discussion that follows.

Frith argues that "the most important function of 1950s teenage culture wasn't to 'repress' sexuality but to articulate it in a setting of love and marriage such that male and female sexualitywereorganizedinquite different ways" (238 - 39).A look attherockand roll music of the '60s in the period that immediately predated the British Invasion, revealing such titles as, in 1962, "Johnny Angel," "Soldier Boy," "He's a Rebel," "Breaking Up is Hard To Do," "Big Girls Don't Cry," and, in 1963, "Go Away Little Girl," "Hey Paula," "Our Day Will Come," "I Will Follow Him," "It's My Party," and "My Boyfriend's Back," seems to confirm that hypothesis. While the discursively anomalous "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" (1961) put the issue of premarital sex squarely on the table - and Weller charts its genesis in relation to the real-life experiences of Carole King - most other songs of this period concerned themselves with a more romantic, and contained, version of sexuality. According to Frith and McRobbie:

Girls are encouraged from all directions to interpret their sexuality in terms of romance, to give priority to notions of love, feeling, commitment, the moment of bliss. In endorsing these values girls prepare themselves for their lives as wives and mothers, where the same notions take on different labels - sacrifice, service, and fidelity. (378 - 79)
In such early songs, female desire is front and center; however, I would note, the fantasized "moment of bliss" is to be deferred, or understood to be deferred, until the wedding night. Courtship, as rehearsed in the language of popular song, is more or less consistent with the pre-sexual revolution ethos. Girl and boy meet; they date, they kiss; they desire; they cheat or not (girls, of course, didn't "cheat"); they break up; they marry. I can well remember, back in the summer of 1965, many summer evenings spent among a group of teenagers, several years my senior, in a bungalow colony in the Catskills. Among the girls it was cautioned not "to go all the way." "Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?" A good girl should "save it for her husband." Losing one's virginity before marriage was simply out of the question, unless, of course, you were a tramp or, perhaps, engaged. And you weren't one of those girls.

For girls, sexual energy (a kind of "pre" desire, if you were really young) was typically channeled through obsessive devotion to handsome pop stars like Frankie Avalon, Ricky Nelson - or the less wholesome Dion. Elvis had, more or less, been eclipsed by more sanitized exemplars of male sexuality, prettier, more clean-cut, less threatening. What is more, the fantasy lover was always respectful, wouldn't push you to go all the way. Even if he were "a rebel" or "the leader of the pack," there was no articulated gesture toward consummation. In "He's a Rebel," being "treated tenderly" suggests, on the contrary, a sense of restraint rather than gentle lovemaking. In "The Leader of the Pack," there is no physicality at all other than the kiss goodbye. Indeed, kisses reigned supreme in pop romance as articulated in the songs girls listened to and sang.

What is more, the music was everywhere. Unlike watching movies or television, the consumption of popular music was not merely passive. Singing along, memorizing words to songs, consumers of popular music engaged in a kind of performance. It allowed them to try on different identities, to speak from different subject positions. And the ubiquity of the music and the listener's ability to control the medium through record players allowed for a kind of repetitive performativity, engaging the lives of adolescents on an intimate and ongoing basis - hence the hackneyed term "soundtrack of our lives." Pop music, Douglas observes, "burrowed into the everyday psychodramas of our adolescence, forever intertwined with our most private, exhilarating, and embarrassing memories" (87). This was precisely the case because we could identify, because "by superimposing our own dramas, from our own lives, onto each song, each of us could assume an active role in shaping the song's meaning" (87). Indeed, as Barbara Bradby has argued in her discussion of pronouns as a form of address, pop songs may be said to interpellate the listener, thereby creating - in girl group songs - a set of conflictual subject positions that complicate conventional notions of a univocal female passivity. Even more importantly, however, popular music assumed an important mediating function for young girls in the absence of alternative - and credible - articulations of how to negotiate the unruly demands of newly awakened sexual desire (Douglas 85).

At the same time, the publication in 1962 of Helen Gurley Brown's bestseller Sex and the Single Girl made it clear that an emergent social practice was afoot. (Indeed, in a recent review of a newly published biography of Helen Gurley Brown, Judith Thurman writes: "So if, in 1963, sex did cease to be quite so clandestine a pleasure - especially for unmarried females - that was, in part, [Brown's] doing.") Sex and the Single Girl was not directed at teenagers, but, rather, the unmarried woman - a working woman of, say, thirty plus years - whose ability to enjoy her life and take advantage of her single status is undermined by the specter of spinsterhood. Brown counseled her readers to

reconsider the idea that sex without marriage is dirty. This is not a plea to get you into bed - your moral code is your business - but if you are already involved, you might remember that sex was here a long time before marriage. You inherited your proclivity for it. It isn't some random piece of mischief you dreamed up because you're a bad, wicked girl. (257)
Brown's book is, ultimately, about remaking yourself in the service of a higher goal - marriage to a wealthy alpha male. Nevertheless, part of what will make you attractive is your sexual nature, which you should embrace and enjoy. Neither affairs with married men nor promiscuity were off the table. The book's success indicates that guilt-free premarital sex, if not hegemonic in practice, was, at the very least, an idea that was bound to permeate the culture at large, altering the conversation in significant ways. The birth control pill was another important weapon in the cultural assault upon the old morality.

Similarly, the British Invasion was radically altering the musical landscape, supplanting the "canned" studio-created music with bands that wrote and played/performed their own songs. The Beatles, of course, dominated the charts and, among girls, Beatlemania took hold. We entered into a new mode of adoration, a sexualization (clothed, to be sure, in deeply romantic trappings) enabled by and emblematic of the social transformations associated with the counterculture, which began to permeate and shape youth culture. I don't mean to understate the powers of Elvis Presley (or Frank Sinatra before him) to arouse the erotic energies of young women; however, the 1960s had radically altered the rules of sexual conduct. Girls could now, in addition to listening and singing along with the music, spin out and share fantasies of going to bed with the Beatle of their choice. They could, in other words, construct narratives about having sex that were not threatening or tinged with shame or guilt. In its cultural moment, Beatlemania gave us permission to embrace "going all the way."

Countercultural values, into which burgeoning ideas about sexual freedom were subsumed, shared a particular relationship to the music of the 1960s and a purpose Whitely has characterized as "evangelical" (23). Frith writes that "rock was experienced as a new sort of sexual articulation by women as well as men" (239). At the same time, however, the marginalization of women in rock and in the counterculture itself was problematic, for

the espousal of "freedom" coincided with sexual stereotyping, often overt sexism and yet more contradictions. In particular, the more permissive, promiscuous sexuality brought its own pressures - how to be emancipated and yet deal with the romanticized construct of the young, single woman. (Whitely 29)
Even if we agree that "rock" was an essentially phallocentric genre, it was also true that female consumers or "fans" were thereby constructed as fully sexualized subjects. Frith and McRobbie note that, "if rock music tends to treat women as objects, it does, unlike teenybop romance, also acknowledge in its direct physicality that women have sexual urges of their own" (381). Think, for example, about the Rolling Stones' "Let's Spend the Night Together." It strikes me that, whatever one may say about the "gendering" of popular music, rock opened up, more fully than the popular music of the early 1960s, a new subject position for young women - whether autonomous or "subjected" is, of course, open to question. And unlike the Elvis fan of an earlier decade, girls in the mid 1960s lived in a milieu that was beginning to encourage and even valorize sexual experimentation. But this, too, is complicated. As Whitely points out, "while chastity and purity were largely interpreted as outmoded patriarchal concepts, feminists stressed the importance of being in control of one's sexuality, of being a thinking woman" (48). At the same time, the availability of appropriate "narratives" for the sexually liberated young woman was still relatively limited. If, as Douglas suggests, girls in the early 1960s needed a set of guidelines by which to re-imagine or recast their relationship to their own sexual desire, not to mention that of the opposite sex, by 1968, many of them, willy-nilly, had chosen to wing it.

Sheila Weller aptly describes the tension between the heady sexual volatility of these days and the intransigence of sexual politics, with "Carole," "Joni," and "Carly" acting as avatars for a generation of young women coming of age in the late 1950s and 1960s. It is within this context that I would like to examine a group of "thinking woman's" songs from Joni Mitchell's first four albums: Song to a Seagull (1968), Clouds (1969), Ladies of the Canyon (1970), and Blue (1971).

Given the "confessional" nature of her early work, it is commonplace to regard any given song as a something of a roman a` clef. I think the term is apt, because so many of the songs are mini-narratives; that is one way in which they differ from more conventional pop lyrics. But I doubt many fans knew, or even cared, whether it was this particular lover or that to which the text referred. A listener to a song is no more bound by authorial intent than is any reader of poetry or fiction.

Karen Petersen asserts that "women-identified music began as feminist and lesbian lyrics accompanied by the popular music styles of the early seventies" (207). But Joni Mitchell's narratives about free women, lyrics that prismatically reflect the pleasures and disappointments of a new, experimental style of being, suggest the creation of an alternative - and earlier - feminine musical aesthetic. Her legacy, according to Whitely, "is to focus attention on the personal, to express freedom of choice, to admit mistakes, unhappy love affairs, involvements with weak men, rough men and to move on" (92). Weller writes, similarly, that she "had plucked from the emerging zeitgeist ... the idea of the young, middle-class woman as soulful risktaker" (223). She is described as a "confessional" songwriter, but nothing she wrote about was unique to herself alone. If her songs resonated so powerfully, it was because she had articulated an awareness of female sexuality that rang true for a generation of women. She writes about the joys of waking up with one's lover and the fallout from an unwanted pregnancy; the choice to forego marriage in favor of living together and the choice to sleep with a man, regardless of whether or not she will see him again anytime soon; the search for a love that will liberate rather than confine; the tension between autonomy and intimacy; and the pleasures of "naughty" loving. As Mercer points out, "with the immediacy of its musical expression, and its striking lyrical observation, [Blue ] allows people - especially young girls - to insert their own cultural and romantic myths into the songs' narratives. Blue has helped many of us come of age without looking away from the confusion of our experience" (115 - 16). If these narratives could serve, on the one hand, as a mode of cognitively mapping new possibilities and expectations, their mass circulation also helped to legitimize the new choices available to young women. And women were listening. As her former husband, Chuck Mitchell, has stated, "The guys loved Joni because she looked great, but the girls were identifying with her in droves" (Weller 226).

Joni Mitchell's first album appeared in 1968 and contained songs that were both narrative (ballad) and lyric. I will focus upon three of them: "Michael from Mountains," "Marcie," and "Cactus Tree," each of which is reflective in some way of changing sexual mores. "Michael from Mountains," like all Mitchell's work, is richly poetic and suggestive. Unlike "Marcie" and "Cactus Tree," which are ballads, "Michael" is a lyric meditation on the speaker's ambiguous relationship to her childlike lover set against the backdrop of a rainy day. A meditation on the play between autonomy and intimacy, the song suggests a relationship that is sexual but not committed. The word "love" is entirely absent. It recounts a story of gentle seduction, perhaps infinitely repeated (suggested by the present tense of Michael's "action" words), but without guilt or remorse on the speaker's part other than a wistfulness that she cannot "know more." I would go further and suggest that this is a song about the speaker's willing surrender to enchantment, grounded, however, in the sure knowledge that her desires will someday be fully realized. And, it should be remarked, there is a certain liberating quality to this story in which physical intimacy, liberated from the bonds of tradition and the supposed sanctity of marriage, is a potential source of delight. Or, if delight is too strong a word here, then at least it is a personal choice that passes without comment as to moral consequences.

Extrapolating from Bradby's discussion of pronoun function, it is clear that the song's mode of address is divided, alternating between the listener ("Michael wakes you up with sweets") and Michael ("Know that I will know you"). The first "you" is an apparent reference to the speaker herself, although the use of the second person singular pronoun indicates a more generalized subject position, one which the listener is implicitly invited to share. This "you" is classically passive, being the object of Michael's actions. In the refrain, however, it is Michael who is cast in the passive position. The active "I" represents the speaker as both desiring subject who is both confident ("I will know you") and uncertain ("I may know you") and whose agency contrasts starkly with that of the "you" which interpellates the female listener. The tension between the "I" and "you" mirrors the tension between submission and agency and also between the general (is Michael's action specific to the speaker or is it his modus operandi in respect to his lovers generally? Or, is he a "type?") and the specific (the "I" tending to exclude, rather than include, the listener). Here the speaker may be carving out a place for her own exceptionality. For most of the lyric, Michael is the "doer." He wakes you in the morning, suggesting that he has spent the night; he "leads you up the stairs," suggesting the intimacies that will take place there. He "wants you to care" but seems incapable of returning the emotional intimacy. Where the "you" is granted some agency, it is cast in terms of disappointment: "you want to know more," but because the mountains have called "you never do." On the other hand, the "I" of the refrain lets him go freely because this "I" is knowing and empowered - if not entirely certain: "Know that I will know you, some day I may know you very well." Does the speaker suggest that "you" (as subject) would not be capable of such independence and generosity? Perhaps; but because the verses have so strongly hailed the female listener, the exclusionary "I" does not, I believe, preclude her identification with the active "I" of the refrain.

"Marcie" is a narrative, as opposed to a lyric. It tells the story of Marcie, who has come to New York from somewhere out west only to have been abandoned by her (presumably) live-in lover. Richly poetic, it views Marcie's sad predicament through the prism of changing seasons and the colors of a traffic light (red, green, and yellow). Like many of Joni Mitchell's song poems, it appeals to our visual, as well as aural, senses. "Marcie" is a song about heartbreak, but unlike the songs of an earlier period, it includes details, almost novelistic in nature, that provide texture and density, in the ways that novels do. The fact that Marcie "dusts her tables with his shirt" not only illuminates her daily routine, but also tells us that, in all likelihood, she and her absent lover shared the apartment. The fact that Marcie's faucet "needs a plumber" suggests the reliable presence of a man to oversee routine repairs. Why does this appear, in retrospect, so startling? In the old paradigm of courtship, chaste romance leading to marriage, Marcie's abandonment would be seen as punishment for living with a man to whom she was not married. And yet, this is not the sense of the song at all, but simply a part of the picture that Mitchell is painting with words and music. In Blue, the song "My Old Man" makes this explicit: "We don't need no paper from the city hall to keep us tied and true." But that was three years later.

The shape of the song, as well, produces meaning. The song consists of four evenly structured stanzas that "tell" the story. The two bridges after stanzas two and three contain images that comment on Marcie's inner life. We are drawn to the bridges, first, because they introduce a new melody and a new meter, but also because they are the only places where Mitchell floats her high notes (on the words "brown paper" and "cellars"). The first bridge is about the seasons and the coming of winter. "Winter blows up from the river; there's no one to take her to the sea." The second is about remembering summer: "dream back to summer and hear how he tells her wait for me." The bridges are arresting because they allow us to make certain associations: Marcie with summer (that "falls to the sidewalk like string and brown paper") and the absent lover with winter ("blowing up from the river"). And when those words are followed by the musically intense "no one to take her to the sea" we can, I think, read this as a metaphor, not only for the lost lover, but a mourning for the rapture of orgasm. Just as similarly, in the second bridge, the image of "magazines fading in dusty grey attics and cellars" conjures up lonely old spinsters ... or, more to the point, a Miss Havisham, the betrayed woman par excellence. Thus Marcie's abandonment is cast in terms that appear to foreground the loss of physical intimacy.

"Cactus Tree," of course, is the most explicit rendering of the liberated woman's predicament. Having many lovers is front and center, as is the joy (and sorrow) of being autonomous. Here we have a multitude of ex-lovers lamenting the unavailability of the song's female subject. Each of the stanzas begins with the words "There's a man" and recounts the sad plight of an abandoned lover. In the first stanza, "she" is represented as the essentially passive object of each of these lover's actions - "he takes her to a schooner and he treats her like a queen." In the second stanza his agency is attenuated - "he calls out her name"; "he can think her there beside him." In the third stanza he is the possessor merely of an absence, a mere "name on all his papers." The fourth stanza returns the lover to a more active status; however, his ability to possess the woman is annulled by her "busyness." In effect, all his actions (and the song recounts them as a list) as desiring subject are futile against the simple fact of her being-for-herself. As Weller observes, the "busyness" of the song's most oft-quoted line is reflective of "that emotional effort to be revolutionary creatures" (248). In essence, the song gives us just such a creature: a promiscuous woman who is not a tramp.

Reveling in her freedom, she "fears that one may ask her for eternity." "Cactus Tree" is a song that takes commitment seriously, for it requires not simply the formalities of a legal marriage ("I Had a King" shows how tenuous these ritualized bonds are), but rather a pledge that is eternal. One might quibble with the distinction, and argue that "asking for eternity" is a poetic rendering of a wedding vow, but we needn't settle for that reading, especially in the context of the album taken as a whole. She is not a party girl out for a good time, or a "player" out to ratchet up conquests (a female avatar of a Dion or Lou Christie lothario). Being "free" in "Cactus Tree" is not about the freedom to sleep around (though this is certainly an important aspect of being free) but, rather, the freedom, always the privilege of men, to live for herself. And she is not a careless lover, for she "thinks she loves them all." "She will love them when she sees them," though "they will lose her if they follow." They must be capable, like the "you" of "Michael from Mountains," of letting her go. Her life is not an unqualified good. Her heart is both full and hollow, thus embodying the contradictions of a love granted in the moment, in all respects genuine and wholehearted, that coexists with - and acknowledges - the hollowness of a life devoid of "settled" intimacy, the price of autonomy.

In the years following the release of Song to a Seagull, Joni Mitchell continued to offer portraits - representations - of the daily lives and preoccupations of sexually liberated women. Although by the early 1970s the countercultural ethic had firmly taken hold, Joni Mitchell continued to spin out narratives that were not generally available elsewhere, or, if they were (Fear of Flying came out in 1973), did not intersect with everyday life in as compelling or repetitive a manner as popular music. Clouds, Ladies of the Canyon, and Blue each contains songs that reflect the dissolving moral codes governing "appropriate" sexual conduct for women. "Chelsea Morning," for example, revisits a now naturalized "morning after" as in "Michael from Mountains." In this lyric, however, we learn nothing of the lover but everything about the speaker. The song alternates between a first-person "I" voice addressed to no one in particular or, perhaps, to the speaker herself: "Woke up, it was a Chelsea morning, and the first thing" and a second-person/first-person plural "you"/"we" verse addressed to the lover: "Won't you stay/We'll put on the day." What is interesting about the first-person verses is that the lover is never the "first thing" that the speaker sees; indeed, he is entirely absent, making his appearance only by implication when "milk and toast and honey and a bowl of oranges too" are suddenly being served. The final stanza combines the "I" and the "you," eliding the "we" with the promise of intimacy in the evening "when the curtain closes." The active "I" will seduce the lover with "incense owls" and "candle light." Hers is not a plea so much as a come on. In the penultimate line, "Pretty baby, won't you" the word "stay" is dropped, followed by the final line: "'Woke up, it is a Chelsea morning," suggesting that the lyric itself has been disrupted by physical passion.

"Blue Boy" is a ballad in three verses that reflects the arc of a love affair. It begins with the man turning into stone and ends with the woman turning into stone. In the first stanza, the female subject takes the lover home, whereupon he "made himself an idol, yes, so he turned to stone," forcing the female, in turn, to "pray aloud for love to awaken" in his granite face. So we see woman's sexual desire for the lover turning back on itself into the ever-familiar "desire to be desired" by the man. In the second verse, she becomes the passive object of desire only to awaken to find him gone and transformed, once again, into the statue. The stunningly explicit line "Sometimes in the evening/he would read to her/Roll her in his arms/and give his seed to her" represents a radical step beyond anything that had come before (and maybe after), but Joni Mitchell's aestheticizing palette subverts the literalness of the "act" into simple, irreducible poetic terms. It's an image into which many young women might project themselves. In the final verse, the woman will attempt to seduce her lover back in stereotypical ways: dancing for him, glancing at him shyly from behind a feather fan. He comes a few more times until he finds that she has turned into a statue - a cautionary tale about the circumvention of active desire.

With Blue, we move to another level of lyric discourse, and, although it is acknowledged to contain Mitchell's most wrenchingly confessional lyrics, the songs are also arresting and powerful narratives into which a listener might project herself. Indeed, Mercer eschews the term "confessional," arguing that Mitchell "doesn't strive to tell the truth about herself. She strives to find and express human truths, and in the process, she happens to reveal quite a bit about herself" (47). And great art often does this.

Blue is about the idea of wandering. Both Frith and Warwick remind us just how circumscribed the lives of young girls were prior to the social transformations of the 1960s. While boys were out and about cruising, girls tended to spend more time within the confines of domestic space. The rambling songs ("Traveling Man," "The Wanderer," "King of the Road," "I Get Around") that celebrate freedom from confinement - often in tandem with love 'em and leave 'em womanizing - are, essentially, phallocentric, male narratives. Indeed, rock ideology, in general, is seen to be synonymous with a (mostly) masculine flight from domesticity (Frith and McRobbie 382). Reynolds and Press invoke Robert Bly's Iron John to trace the roots of this masculine anxiety about feminization to the post-1950s, post-Vietnam period wherein "a generation of young men - 'soft males' - have grown up confused and unhappy because women have sapped their energy, and need a resurrection of male initiation rites to induct them completely into the instinctive male world" (42). Funny: isn't it women who are usually defined against men precisely because of their alignment with the instinctual? But that is, in part, what Bly is seeking to interrogate. In any case, such assertions about rock need to be seen within the context of a long-standing narrative tradition that has had a particular hold on the American cultural imagination. If, as Frith points out, "youthful bohemia begins ... as a revolt against women, who are identified with the home as mothers, sisters, potential domesticators" (241), then rockers are heirs to the sailors, cowboys, and hobos of an earlier era for whom the sea, the boxcar, and the frontier promised delivery from the values of a "feminized" culture of domesticity. By the same token, girls (for the most part) didn't "wander." In literature, "wandering" is often a synonym for sleeping around. Wandering girls were often punished for leaving the bounds of domestic space and patriarchal surveillance (imperfectly internalized). Blue is an album that calls into question the gender of wandering.

The first two lines of the first song, "All I Want," make this abundantly clear: "I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/traveling, traveling, traveling." But the speaker is not on a joyride, nor is she just ambling about. She is on a quest: "looking for something, what can it be?" The "I" pronoun and the active female subject dominate this song and are themselves synonymous with the quest, which, as we learn in the last stanza, is "the key to set me free" from jealousy and greed. The quest, it turns out, is for a kind of love that is liberating rather than enslaving. No "Chains" here. "All I Want" is a love song, but not a conventional one, in which lovers bind themselves to one another, declare their undying devotion and fidelity. Nor does it recount the subversion of active female desire by the desire to be desired. No, "All I Want" is about the owning of female desire and female agency. The reckless abandon sought by the speaker in the line "I want to wreck my stockings in some juke box dive" suggests a desire to thumb one's nose at propriety. The song tells us that possessiveness is the death of love. In the final two lines she twice declares, "I want to make you feel free/I want to make you feel free." It was an empowering idea for a young woman back then, loving (which, by this time, almost certainly included sleeping together) without possessiveness. Empowering but difficult; the quest is for the means to achieve this kind of generosity.

"My Old Man" explicitly rejects marriage as the sole model of committed love. Every stanza, other than the two short ones which describe what it's like when "he's gone," is followed by the refrain: "We don't need no piece of paper/from the city hall/keeping us tied and true." We are so accustomed, now, to couples living together that it's hard to remember a time when that was considered daring - and, moreover, that a song could allow us to assume the subject position of a woman who proudly and assertively does just that. As Weller remarks:

Being someone's old lady was a proud sign of emotional security (a young woman didn't need marriage to feel that she was not being taken advantage of by her boyfriend), and it was the expression of a new - negative - way of viewing the institution of marriage. It wasn't just the guy who liked things fine the way they were ... .Rather it was the girl who now disparaged marriage in her own right. (287)
As in "Marcie," its images of loss are sexual in nature. In a more typical lyric, the jilted or abandoned lover speaks of a broken heart or "feeling blue," but "My Old Man" gives us the image of a bed that is "too big," and this is consistent with the line "he's my fireworks at the end of the day/He's the warmest chord I ever heard/Play that warm chord and stay, baby." Sexual love, then, is one of the principal metaphors through which romance is articulated.

"Little Green" (about which Weller offers a great deal of biographical detail) is the story of Joni Mitchell's own child, born out of wedlock when Mitchell was 22 years old and subsequently given up for adoption. With its lyrics, we return to the problem of the "you" pronoun and its relation to the speaker. The speaker is telling her own story, but the "you" creates a distancing effect, a kind of resistance to owning the narrative while at the same time projecting it onto a "you" which is both the speaker herself and an "everywoman." The story seems to be suspended between speaker and addressee/listener as a shared narrative. The "you" is also, at times, the child, "little green"; as a girl, she may herself some day share the narrative as well. The song tells the story of a "mistake": the speaker's acknowledgment that both she and the father were themselves children (the baby's name is emblematic of that fact), the father's immaturity and flight to California, the decision to give the baby up for adoption. The song's most striking line is, "You're sad and you're sorry, but you're not ashamed." While having children out of wedlock is common today, getting pregnant by mistake still carries a certain stigma. The speaker is generous not only to her baby but to herself as well. Mitchell pries loose the narrative of unwanted pregnancy from that of the fallen woman. Getting pregnant is another aspect of being sexually active that carries its own responsibilities and sorrows, but guilt is not among them. In 1968, the Supremes had a hit with "Love Child," and in 1971 Cher's "Gypsies, Tramps, and Thieves" hit the top of the charts as well. In the former, the speaker, who is herself illegitimate, tells her lover "This love we're contemplatin' is worth the pain of waitin'/We'll only end up hatin' the child we may be creatin'." The slums of the inner city are the context for this lyric, which is about the shame of being illegitimate and a desire to abstain from premarital sex so as not to pass on the stigma. Cher's song is about life in a traveling road show and the illegitimate child conceived when the speaker, at age 16, was seduced and then abandoned by the boy who hitched a ride from Mobile to Memphis. Both songs focus on the woman's actual or potential sexual victimization, which puts them at odds with the sense and spirit of "Little Green."

"Carey," both exotic and playful, is my favorite Joni Mitchell song. It opens up all kinds of interesting new subject positions for the young female novice of the early 1970s. For one thing, the speaker is on her own in Crete, bumming it. How fresh and audacious! Beginning with the song's first two lines, "The wind is in from Africa/Last night I couldn't sleep," we are swept away to an unimaginably sensual locale. And the speaker has dirty fingernails and beach tar on her feet. There is this "Carey," and we needn't trouble ourselves with autobiography. He's a lover, a "bright red devil" - old - young, what's the difference? What's interesting is that she's doing the buying: "I'll buy you a bottle of wine." Even more interesting, she's a wealthy globetrotter: "Maybe I'll go to Amsterdam/Maybe I'll go to Rome/And rent me a grand piano and put some flowers 'round my room." She's used to "fancy French linen and fine cologne." She's also slumming, hanging out with some poor slob of a lover, and loving every minute of it. "Carey" represents a new narrative, a free and wealthy young woman who wanders the globe, takes lovers, and moves on. But she's not a socialite or a woman born to privilege. She's Joni. Someone we know, someone we have lived with for years, telling her stories of free women.

Continuing the wandering theme, "California" takes the speaker - and the listener - to Paris, Greece, and Spain. In Greece, the song revisits the "bright red devil" of "Carey," only now he's the "red red rogue" with whom she has shacked up, and she "might have stayed on with him there" had her heart not cried out for California. "California" projects a sense of solitary wandering that appears effortless and unexceptional. She sits "in a park in Paris, France," takes up with a "redneck" on a Grecian isle, and attends a party in Spain. The only downside is that she's lonely; she misses her man in California. Of course, she doesn't say this; rather, the "you" of the song, the addressee, is California itself. She asks, "Will you take me as I am/Strung out on another man?" This is an interesting elision and suggests a reluctance to "name" the man, to provide him with an identity - perhaps because naming would be personal, perhaps because the feeling of being "strung out" on a man is more important than the man himself.

"This Flight Tonight" and "River" are both interesting in their explicit (rather than assumed or taken for granted) representations of sexual activity. In the former, the speaker is on a plane and she sees a falling star, but "it wasn't the one that you gave to me/That night down south between the trailers." In the refrain, she says, "starbright, starbright,/You've got the loving' that I like, alright." In "River," she declares that her lover "loved me so naughty/ Made me weak in the knees." So, again, sexuality is a deeply pleasurable and essential, if not foregrounded, part of the narrative.

There were songs sung and/or written by men that either thematized or explicitly referenced the fact that young men and women were "doing it." I'm thinking (chronologically) of the Beach Boys' "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (1966), Simon and Garfunkel's "For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her" (1966), Tommy James & the Shondells' "I Think We're Alone Now" (1967), Leonard Cohen's (1967) "Suzanne" and the poetically rich and ambiguous "Sisters of Mercy," and in (1969), Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "In the Morning When We Rise," and "Lady of the Island," which is a paean to sexual love. "Wouldn't It Be Nice" is a wistful lyric on the frustrations of waiting for the appropriate time to engage in sex ("We could be married/Then we'd be happy"). A year later, in 1967, the Stones came out with "Let's Spend the Night Together," which is more in the nature of an old-fashioned plea for sexual favors to a prospective lover who needs "encouragement." Bob Dylan's (1969) "Lay, Lady, Lay" embodies a similar plea. The lyrics of such songs range from the trite to the poetically sophisticated. Some of them open up a pleasurable, if passive, subject position for the female listener. They reinforce the notion that sex outside marriage is a preoccupation - if not yet the norm - in the courtship of adolescents. Joni Mitchell's oeuvre, however, is acutely focused on the psychological and emotional mindscape of women coming of age in this exciting and confusing period of time. She wrote songs that a young woman could fully inhabit and be inhabited by.

There is yet another reason why Joni Mitchell's work resonates so powerfully. This has to do with the relationship between music and lyrics, which forms another part of her feminine aesthetic. I am neither a musician nor a musicologist, so it is to the artist herself that I turn in order to articulate my sense of her "difference." In the PBS special AWoman of Heart and Mind, Mitchell distinguishes the songs of the crooner era from those of her own by their tuneful qualities, which, while lovely, limit self-expression. The lyrics to those songs are simple and direct, and they fit the musical line perfectly. She credits Bob Dylan with moving beyond this musical form by using the music as a "platform" for his storytelling; however, she was not interested in subordinating the music - the melody and harmony - to the text. Former Blues Project drummer Roy Blumenthal states, "Joni's music was light and melodic and different, but it straddled so many forms. Musically I was enamored - her music was more original than Dylan's" (qtd in Weller 236).

She calls her form a "hybrid" in which the aesthetic qualities of music and verse are present in equal measure. This necessitated creating a kind of song style that was flexible enough to accommodate her highly poetic and idiosyncratic narratives, the textual contours of which could not readily be contained in the simpler musical forms of the past. Perry Meisel writes:

because the phonic density of Mitchell's lyrics is so high (I'd wager she uses more syllables per song than any songwriter living, Dylan included), her songs are, formally speaking, almost like copied-down scat extensions of a simpler melody line embedded somewhere inside the tune as a whole. (83)
There is a certain kind of excess in Joni Mitchell lyrics that wants to disrupt - to overflow - settled "masculinist" form. At the same time, there is an unwillingness to assume a wholly "logocentric" stance toward the music, after the fashion of Dylan. Similarly, where a masculinist approach to music might strive for a finality, a mastery of form, the essence of Mitchell's approach to music is change: "seeing it as an ongoing process of invention, rather than a series of discrete and final statements" (Rodgers 220). Rather than assert control, she seeks to undermine it, asserting, "You're constantly pulling the rug out from under yourself, so you don't get a chance to settle into any kind of formula" (qtd in Rodgers 222).

In this way, she has produced a new vocabulary of sound that would work hand-inhand with the poetry of her lyrics. Mercer writes that Mitchell's

musical vocabulary is purely expressionistic, with emotions or ideas taking the form of "weird chords" or "chords of inquiry," as she calls them. These weird or unorthodox chords are a necessary foil for her lyrics .... Open or alternative tunings are the method through which Mitchell affects [sic] such a prismatic rendering of musical emotions; these tunings are what make her music resonate with feeling. (107)
What results is the hybrid form that she speaks of which I choose to call a "feminine" aesthetic. Gillian Gaar cites a 1967 review, which asserts "She plays Yang to Bob Dylan's Ying, equaling him in richness and surpassing him in conciseness and direction" (189). In some sense, I like to think of Dylan and Mitchell as popular music analogues to modernist icons James Joyce and Virginia Woolf.

A final part of Joni Mitchell's feminine aesthetic is an apprehension of the power of the erotic. The National Organization for Women was founded in 1966, in that liminal period of time when women were beginning to take control of their sexuality. I'd like to think that female empowerment is linked, in part, to an embrace of female sexuality. In her essay "The Erotic as Power," Audre Lorde argues that:

The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for power and information within our lives. (277)
She writes, further, that:

On the one hand, the superficially erotic has been encouraged as a sign of female inferiority; on the other, women have been made to suffer and to feel both contemptible and suspect by virtue of its existence. It is a short step from there to the false belief that only by the suppression of the erotic within our lives and consciousness can women be truly strong. (278)
It seems fairly indisputable that pop music has been an important influence in the way young men and women negotiate the erotic in their lives, at least during the 1960s and 1970s when albums were made of vinyl and we played them on our stereos. If the rock and roll of the 1950s and early 1960s was complicit with the culture at large in either suppressing or "domesticating" the erotic in young woman, containing it within the narrative of love and marriage, Joni Mitchell captures the impulse, not only to set it free, but to embrace and legitimize it.


[1] Discographic information for the songs analyzed is given below. All lyrics cited from Mitchell.

Works Cited

Bly, Robert. Iron John: A Book about Men. Reading, MA: Addison Wesley, 1990. Print.

Bradby, Barbara. "Do-Talk and Don't Talk: The Division of the Subject in Girl-Group Music." On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. Ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodman. New York: Pantheon, 1990. 341 - 68. Print.

Brown, Helen Gurley. Sex and the Single Girl. 1962. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2003. Print.

Douglas, Susan J. Where the Girls Are: Growing up Female with the Mass Media. New York: Times Books, 1994. Print.

Frith, Simon. Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure, and the Politics of Rock' n' Roll. New York: Pantheon, 1981. Print.

Frith, Simon and Angela McRobbie. "Rock and Sexuality." On Record: Rock, Pop, and the Written Word. Ed. Simon Frith and Andrew Goodman. New York: Pantheon, 1990. 371 - 89. Print.

Gaar, Gillian G. She's a Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll. Seattle, WA: Seal, 1992. Print.

Garbarini, Vic. "Joni Mitchell is a Nervy Broad." The Joni Mitchell Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Ed. Stacey Luftig. New York: Schirmer, 2000. 113 - 33. Print.

Joni Mitchell: A Woman of Heart and Mind. American Masters. PBS. WNET, New York. 2 Apr. 2003.

Lorde, Audre. "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power." Writing on the Body: Female Embodiment and Feminist Theory. Ed. Katie Conboy, Nadia Medina, and Sarah Stanbury. New York: Columbia UP, 1997. 277 - 82. Print.

Meisel, Perry. "An End to Innocence: How Joni Mitchell Fails." The Joni Mitchell Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Ed. Stacey Luftig. New York: Schirmer, 2000. 79 - 85. Print.

Mercer, Michelle. Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell's Blue Period. New York: The Free Press, 2009. Print.

Mitchell, Joni. Joni Mitchell: The Complete Poems and Lyrics. New York: Crown, 1997. Print.

O'Brien, Karen. Joni Mitchell: Shadows and Light. London: Virgin, 2002. Print.

Petersen, Karen E. "Women-Identified Music in the United States." Women and Music in Cross-Cultural Perspective. Ed. Ellen Koskoff. New York: Greenwood, 1987. 203 - 12. Print.

Reynolds, Simon and Joy Press. The Sex Revolts: Gender, Rebellion, and Rock' n' Roll. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1995. Print.

Rodgers, Jeffery Pepper. "My Secret Place: The Guitar Odyssey of Joni Mitchell." The Joni Mitchell Companion: Four Decades of Commentary. Ed. Stacey Luftig. New York: Schirmer, 2000. 219 - 30. Print.

Thurman, Judith. "HELENISM: The Birth of the Cosmo Girl." The New Yorker. NewYorker.com. 11 May 2009. Web.

Warwick, Jacqueline. Girl Groups, Girl Culture: Popular Music and Identity in the 1960s. New York: Routledge, 1997. Print.

Weller, Sheila. Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon - and the Journey of a Generation. New York: Atria, 2008. Print.

Whitely, Sheila. Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity. London: Routledge, 2000. Print.


Mitchell, Joni. "All I Want." Blue. Reprise Records, 1971.
- - - . "California." Blue. Reprise Records, 1971.
- - - . "Carey." Blue. Reprise Records, 1971.
- - - . "Little Green." Blue. Reprise Records, 1971.
- - - . "My Old Man." Blue. Reprise Records, 1971.
- - - . "River." Blue. Reprise Records, 1971.
- - - . "This Flight Tonight." Blue. Reprise Records, 1971.
- - - . "Chelsea Morning." Clouds. Reprise Records, 1969.
- - - . "Blue Boy." Ladies of the Canyon. Reprise, 1970.
- - - . "Cactus Tree." Song to a Seagull. Reprise Records, 1968.
- - - . "Marcie." Song to a Seagull. Reprise Records, 1968.
- - - . "Michael from Mountains." Song to a Seagull. Reprise Records, 1968.

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