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How Joni Mitchell Pioneered Her Own Form of Artistic Genius Print-ready version

Ann Powers on the Long and Continuing Struggle of Women Artists For Recognition On Their Own Terms

by Ann Powers
Lithub.com
June 17, 2024

Artists whose influence vibrates beyond a particular moment have a chance to enter the most elite category available: that of the genius. Talking to people about Joni Mitchell, I heard that word so often that its meaning was dulled. It's an accolade Mitchell's friends love to attach to her, especially the men; they usually say it with an oversized air of wonderment. David Crosby and James Taylor both invoked it when I talked to them. Graham Nash, who played the role of Mitchell's provisional husband during her first burst of fame, wrote in his memoir that "there was pure genius sitting in front of me" when, on the night they met, she played him fifteen of her songs before the first kiss. Her presence bewitched him into doing something he wasn't used to doing with a woman after midnight: taking her seriously.

Meeting Nash was an important step in Mitchell's rise to the throne as the queen of Laurel Canyon, a musical community scattered over the hills of West Los Angeles where men supported and competed with one another as they restyled the idea of the rock star, and women mostly took care of the babies and cooked the picnic meals the men consumed as they worked out harmonies in the backyard. Mitchell was not the only woman who focused on her art instead of making sandwiches - there was Carole King, who only entered the scene to work and then returned home to her daughters, and Cass Elliot, who managed to do both.

But Mitchell understood that to not be banished to the kitchen, even temporarily, she needed to startle and amaze as only a uniquely gifted person can. The miracles are real - she did write "Woodstock" in an afternoon, did play her guitar in tunings no one had heard or even considered before, did devise melodies barely singable by others and execute them with ease. Yet like most miracles, Mitchell's can be explained. Her famous tunings, for example, still echoed what she'd learned from Black blues players like Elizabeth Cotten and Richie Havens. She had a lot of Joan Baez in her voice when she started out. She learned key lessons about songwriting from Leonard Cohen. She did have influences and peers.

Even in early interviews, Joni rarely acknowledged these sources, except to say that she was already moving on from them. Instead, she placed herself in the company of history's number ones: Picasso, Beethoven, Mozart. Also Bob Dylan. Let's think for just a minute about Dylan's genius, which most singer-songwriters sought to emulate in the late 1960s. He described it as a motivating impulse somewhat like the urge to vomit. It was a force that made him a channel not only for the moment he embodied but for all of American history. "It's like a ghost is writing a song," he'd say upon presenting the world with a classic like 1965's "Like a Rolling Stone." Imbued with the authority of his male voice, Dylan could invoke genius and stand for his time. Beethoven, history says, did that, too.

Could a woman do that? Dylan was able to share the spotlight and still own it. He could lock arms with the boys in his band, openly quote his sources, count himself among the greats from whom he borrowed so routinely that many (including Mitchell herself, though she later walked back her comment) have called him a plagiarist. He has long denied such charges, able to present himself as a conduit for history, because his place in it was secure. Joni stood on shakier ground.

As a woman she wasn't granted the power to define anything beyond her own experience and its resonances; listeners may have heard themselves in her disclosures, but they remained specific and private. One early interviewer talked to Mitchell about her music as "like peeping in a window on someone and then discussing with her what you have seen." That's very different from sitting down with Dylan and expounding on politics, mythology and the state of the world. A woman genius in those years was not perceived as engaging with the bigger picture. She simply made exquisite pictures of herself and her private life.

This is what often happens to women artists: for them, "genius" isolates and, at times, silences. The ones who figured out how to inhabit it had to take drastic measures. Think of Joni's role models: Georgia O'Keeffe in her desert, Emily Dickinson shut away upstairs. Only such singular figures embodied the highest apex of artistic expression. And often, they got stuck there, pitied as much as they were revered for their need to stand apart.

Joni Mitchell, I came to realize, was able to stand apart while continuing to move. She carried herself like no other. In many iconic photographs, and in her own paintings, her gaze challenges observers to approach, but with great care and no expectations. In the self-portrait adorning Clouds she holds a prairie lily like a gift, but her eyes are impassive and she does not smile; handing it over, it seems, she'll immediately walk away. For Hejira, she used collage techniques to alter Norman Seeff 's photograph so that her body, below a face holding another cool gaze, opens up to reveal her soul: an empty highway stretching to infinity.

Mitchell's self-portraits in song reinforce these images of self-containment: the lonely artist living in her paint box in "A Case of You"; the airborne observer in "Both Sides Now," high enough to see the other side of the sky; the wanderer on the road, away from the horde, in "Woodstock." At first, I was intimidated by the self-sufficiency Mitchell projected through these images, and by how she so masterfully balanced it with longing, her openness to the touch of others. But I came to see it as revolutionary. So many songs sung by women seduce, cajole, plead, invite. Only a few artists - Billie Holiday, Édith Piaf - were able to create a space where they could simply commune with themselves. Joni's music showed how that space existed within herself, and then bore it onward with her.

She might not like it if I name it such but this is a feminist act. A man can hide within a crowd and reemerge more powerful. But a woman will be distracted by her surroundings, making sure everyone has one of those sandwiches, pressured to be pretty and to please. "I always smile when I'm nervous," Joni said in early interviews. She had to separate herself - metaphorically, sometimes literally - when she didn't want to just smile.

What she did so gracefully in her music and painting sometimes turned sour when she tried to talk about it. Mitchell's desire that others recognize her as a genius was inseparable from her need to distinguish herself from the people around her, especially other women. From the first time she articulated it, this exigency was both deeply felt and strategic. And it worked.

"She is fulfilling something of a 'goddess' need in American rock, a woman who is more than a woman; a poet who expresses a full range of emotions without embarrassment," the critic Jacoba Atlas wrote of her in 1970. "Her legend is beginning to obscure her work; because she is virtually without competition (Joan Baez and Judy Collins don't have the output; Buffy Sainte-Marie doesn't have the immediate newness), she is without comparison." Mitchell accepted such problematic compliments.

Becoming exceptional was, for her, a form of self-protection, as the critic Lindsay Zoladz wrote in a 2017 essay on Mitchell and genius, claiming the term helped her resist dismissal and hone "a stainless steel bullshit detector." She saw what happened to women who didn't keep a tight rein on how the world regarded them. One of the few women singer-songwriters she named as an influence flopped, in fact, because she couldn't smell a threat. Laura Nyro had been David Geffen's primary passion project before he met Joni and became her guide through the music business. But he could never break Nyro to a larger audience. In Joni, he saw what Nyro could never be: a woman who could project power without terrifying people who weren't used to that.

Not long before Mitchell's breakthrough, Nyro held the spot she would soon occupy. She was an artist's artist, her songs covered by many of her peers, her potential dazzling. But Nyro, whose own recordings blended soul, pop and jazz with lush and nearly uncontained abandon, took up space in ways that many listeners found intimidating. She didn't cultivate the aura of aloofness that genius demands. It's intriguing to read accounts of Nyro's live performances around the time that Mitchell also gained public attention. Audiences were awed by her talent, but they also felt uncomfortable.

"Laura Nyro Overwhelms," the headlines read. Nyro, who once said, "When I record, I'm not a human being, I'm not a woman," nonetheless displayed the excesses always associated with women. She was too public with her emotions, too wide with her swings. Her theatrics failed to impress the throng at the Monterey International Pop Festival; one year later, Mitchell released her first album and women's genius had a new sound, one to which more people could relate.

Seeing how Nyro became incomprehensible to so many, Mitchell worked harder to make her own status clear. She would stand alone because that was the safest place to be. When other women said she spoke for them, she acknowledged their love, but made sure to say that her songs really represented only her own emotions and experiences. This polite demurral was as strategic as it was sincere. Women artists have so often been reduced to ciphers for all of womankind, as if that category even really existed. As a painter, and one who loved figures more than abstraction, Mitchell would have encountered this prejudice early in her creative life. Male painters could draw the curve of a breast, just as novelists like Gustave Flaubert or John Cheever could write the inner life of a housewife, from a distance that allowed risk and even cruelty. They were never expected to represent a whole gender, even when depicting other men. But women got pushed into that "we."

I picked up the Margaret Atwood novel Cat's Eye from my shelf as I was thinking about Joni's genius and found a passage I remembered: the novel's difficult heroine, the painter Elaine, is asked by a journalist at her first retrospective why the female body so often looms large in her work. The interviewer was fishing for that universal, for the way Elaine's work stood for all of womankind.

"I'm a painter. Painters paint women," she replies, exasperated. Critics have written about Mitchell and Atwood as prickly soul sisters; it was the stated assumption in this line of dialogue that got me. Painters paint women. Songwriters like James Taylor, who wrote "You Can Close Your Eyes" for Joni, or Graham Nash, who wrote "Our House" about her, feel confident describing women's private moments, their longings, their oppression, their deaths. Taylor even closed in on the secret realm of another woman's suicide in his most famous song, "Fire and Rain": Suzanne, the plans they made put an end to you.

Men could be discreet by staying discrete, capturing one woman at a time with their brushstrokes, their words. But in the world where Joni emerged, women kept getting pushed into universals against their will. I think Joni perceived the separate sphere of the genius as a sanctuary from generic womanhood. From the beginning of her success, Joni always strove to describe less-than-ideal women, particularly herself, but others, too. Vain beauties and lost girls who might be small-minded or threatening or, though captivating, a little vapid. To be able to express such mixed feelings about other women in a song, Joni would have to be viewed as something other than a woman. In the years when she was first defining herself, people thought of "genius" as synonymous with "man." So it worked for her. It freed her from the femininity that threatened to hold her back.

Can you tell that I'm a little bit angry at Joni for trying to genius her way beyond gender? I have to acknowledge that her craving to be just herself (and, in that way, not just a woman) is the norm among artists, today as it was in her prime. Though this is changing in the new century, I can't count the times the musicians I've interviewed have cringed at any mention of feminism, much less female solidarity or even identification.

Moving beyond such categories can, in fact, be a generative act. It's one that Mitchell has explored in her songs, even as she's spoken so profoundly about the particulars of her own experience in a female body. It's another aspect of her mobility, the way she always shifts perspectives, recognizing that many selves exist inside each of us. And it aligns her with her times: the moment she emerged, the time of songs like her "Cactus Tree" - with its hook, she's so busy being free - was one in which women across many fields were opening up new spaces, abandoning the stereotypes that had confined them and demanding wider definitions for themselves.

Here's how I think Joni Mitchell is indeed a genius. There's a way to think about the word that changes it from an exclusionary term to a gateway. It's the oldest definition, from the Latin: a guardian spirit associated with a time, place or community. This kind of genius doesn't float above things. She recognizes the circumstances that call for her to speak and makes them newly audible. In her music and through her presence, Mitchell tapped into the vitality of a space opening up, one that she in part created: a clearing in which women could fully be themselves and claim the power of that wholeness, while also acknowledging the risks and the pain of shaking off old ways. Not only women - people in general, because when one half of a binary changes shape, the whole structure softens, or shatters. In the time and place her music helped define, all kinds of people rethought themselves.

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Added to Library on June 19, 2024. (486)

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