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Joni Mitchell vs. Elle King Print-ready version

Two singers shot to fame 50 years apart -- with very different messages

by Chelsea Samelson
January 15, 2016

Half a century ago, a 25-year-old, blonde-haired woman recorded and released her very first album, a collection of songs that quickly catapulted the young songwriter to fame.

Flash forward some 50 years to 2015 and to the exact same scene - another 25-year-old, blonde-haired woman recorded and released her very first album, from which one song in particular propelled her to almost instant fame.

On their debut albums, both women sang a song eerily similar in style - a retrospective look at failed relationships, a list of lost loves, a catalog of ex-boyfriends. Apparently, some things never change.

But in tone, meaning, and substance, these two songs are as different as could be, worlds and generations apart, just like the two women who sang them: Joni Mitchell and Elle King. The work of these two women and their divergent messages about men suggests that in fact, over time, some things actually change a great deal.

The first female, Joni Mitchell, started singing in the mid '60s at the dawn of the sexual revolution. The final song off her first album, "Cactus Tree," provides a fascinating peek not just into her own life but into the peace-and-love hippie culture from which she emerged.

Embracing the newfound freedom for women of this time, Mitchell reminisces on past romances, recounting the men who brought her beads and flowers, the men who showed her schooners and forests, the man who writes her letters, the soldier who sends her medals.

She speaks of each man with love, admiration, and a wistful appreciation for their shared laughter and experiences. But she gently warns that they will "lose her if they follow." Admitting a fear of commitment and a hesitance to promise one man "eternity," she claims "she only means to please them" but explains, almost regretfully, that "she's so busy being free."

So here is the young Mitchell, caught in a rival love affair with her own independence and with the many men who want to marry her. In a love song written both to men and to her own free spirit, Mitchell's lyrics are deeply personal, her melody slow and sad, and the entire musical experience profoundly intimate and evocative, words rarely used to describe popular music today.

Fifty years later, the new rebel queen Ell King attempted to follow suit with her own ode to ex-boyfriends, aptly entitled "Ex's and Oh's." Angry and aggressive, the hit single reeks of resentment and something resembling almost a hatred of men. She sings, for example, of the lover whom she "kept warm in the winter" but left "frozen in the spring" and then about the man who's cursing her name because she found a better lover later, until she made a getaway from him too.

King is a bona-fide man-eater, bragging about being the "best baby that they never got to keep" and flaunting how many hearts she's broken and how little love and respect she has for the men of her past. King's angry and hateful anti-man attitude is concerning, especially in its broader acceptance by her many adoring fans who helped propel "Ex's and Oh's" to the top slot of many music charts. That millions of women and young girls are happily singing along to this song, embracing it as some girl-power anthem, suggests that a cultural war between the sexes is indeed underway, with anti-male sentiment reaching new heights.

As these two similar yet contrasting songs suggest, the musical and cultural landscapes in America have shifted substantially in the last fifty years, with the realities and consequences of the sexual revolution largely responsible. When Joni Mitchell released "Cactus Tree," women were just barely beginning to adopt dramatically different mores about male-female relationships, embracing the new notion of sexual liberation and its alluring promise of peace, love, and freedom for both men and women alike.elle

But as King's music and message proves, this promise has yet to deliver. In fact, there appears far less peace, love, and freedom between men and women today and far more anger and animosity underlying modern romance. Indeed, "Ex's and Oh's" is arguably a three-minute synopsis of the grim reality of hook-up culture and the consequences of divorcing genuine love and respect from romantic relationships.

As for the sad cherry-on-top, the final proof of the trap that is King's view of men, consider her own admission: "My ex's they haunt me, like ghosts . . ." For a far healthier and happier view of love and men, consider swapping today's pop stars with some of yesterday's - for love songs that are actually about love, go ahead, give Joni Mitchell a chance.

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Added to Library on January 19, 2016. (2724)


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