The Music of Joni Mitchell
New York: Oxford University Press, 2008
288 pp., $99.00 (hb), $21.95 (pb)
Proclaimed by Rolling Stone as one of the "greatest songwriters," Canadian-born Joni
Mitchell has been a major influence on American popular music since her debut
album Song to a Seagull (1968). The Mitchell repertoire includes fifteen original
albums, numerous concert albums and compilations, and a collaborative project with
jazz musician Charles Mingus. Mitchell's most important work includes such singles
as "Big Yellow-Taxi" (1970), "Free Man in Paris" (1974), and "Help Me" (1974). In
1995, Mitchell received Billboard's Century Award, and two years later she was elected
to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In TheMusic of Joni Mitchell, LloydWhitesell, who
teaches music at McGill University, seeks to move beyond biography and popular
mythology to evaluate Mitchell's musical craftsmanship.
Employing the analytical tools of a music professor, Whitesell describes Mitchell's
songwriting as characterized by "conceptual depth, structural sophistication, stylistic
dynamism, and aesthetic ambition" (5). Whitesell acknowledges that such evaluative
standards are usually reserved for the world of high art rather than the accessibility of
popular music. But Whitesell makes a strong case for the singing and songwriting of
Mitchell as reflective of what he terms "fine art."
Whitesell argues that Mitchell's career is notable for its stylistic experimentation,
extending from folk roots through jazz, world music, and synthesized pop. Although
he notes that Mitchell typically writes her lyrics to fit her music, Whitesell finds the
songwriter's lyrics distinguished by their literary qualities as Mitchell assumes such
personas as the critical observer, free spirit, mystical bard, inge´nue, and torch carrier.
Whitesell also credits Bob Dylan with providing Mitchell the example that serious
poetic ambition may coalesce with popular music.
The Mitchell personas address numerous serious themes, but Whitesell chooses
to focus upon the songwriter's complex statements regarding human freedom.
Mitchell introduces characters, both male and female, who become trapped in their
lifestyles and find themselves unable to pursue personal quests. The singer/songwriter
also identifies with rebel characters who are often charmers and tempters,
but she falls short of embracing the outlaw persona found in the work of Dylan.
Thus, Mitchell is able to maintain some sense of detachment, allowing her to
maintain a critical perspective. Her work is characterized by a dialectical mode of
thinking, and Whitesell concludes, "Mitchell expressed the urge to be free as a
tension between love and solitude, idealism and worldliness, abstract yearnings and
concrete realities. It is this skeptical turn of mind, her attraction to polarity and
contradiction, that enables Mitchell to explore such rich sources of significance in
her chosen thematic domains" (115).
Although Mitchell lacks knowledge of music notation, Whitesell finds "genius"
and high art in her qualities of rhythm, harmony, and melodic contour. For
example, Whitesell praises Hejira (1976) as Mitchell's most unified album, reflecting
the artist's sense of rootlessness in her poetry and haunting music. In her next
album, Don Juan's Restless Daughter (1977), Whitesell argues, the versatility of
Mitchell as an artist was apparent in the disparity and duality of her music and
themes. Alternating between real and imaginative spaces, Mitchell explores themes
of recklessness, challenging her listeners to find coherence within the discordant
nature of the music.
Whitesell concludes his volume with a brief examination of the 2007 album A
Tribute to Joni Mitchell in which an array of musicians, ranging from jazz to pop to
country, acknowledge their indebtedness to the gifted singer/songwriter. The tribute
recording is hardly the final word on Mitchell, and Whitesell argues that Mitchell's
music is part of an ongoing conversation. Thus, the music professor does not perceive
his book as definitive on Mitchell's life and work. Instead, Whitesell successfully
achieves his primary goal - employing the high-art standards of ambition, depth,
complexity, and durability to establish Mitchell's standing as a classical singer/songwriter.
Although Whitesell is obviously an admirer of Mitchell, he attempts to maintain the
distance of an observant professor in most of his prose, formulating what he considers
to be more objective and standardized qualities of musical evaluation. Accordingly,
the book delves into music theory, and readers who have little formal musical training
or do not read music may struggle with sections of the book dealing with concepts
such as polytonality. Also, readers seeking a more biographical treatment of Mitchell
or an analysis of how her music serves as a reflection of American culture may be
disappointed with Whitesell's volume. In addition, Whitesell assumes a degree of
familiarity with Mitchell's body of work, and the songs are approached in a topical
rather than chronological fashion. Anyone seeking an introduction to the life and
work of Mitchell would do better to consult works such as Karen O'Brien's Joni
Mitchell: Shadows and Light (2003) and Sheila Weller's Girls Like Us (2008).
Nevertheless, Whitesell's volume offers valuable academic insights into the artistry of
Mitchell as a singer and songwriter. She is high art, indeed.