As a child, I was hell-bent on becoming a professional musician. Trained classically from a very young age, I never could quite wrap my mind around plying the troubadour's trade-in black tie and orchestra houses. Rather, I, like several aspiring male musicians of recent decades, sought the singer-songwriter roads paved by legends like Bob Dylan. Though Dylan remains a paragon of male musicianship, as I began to branch out and explore his contemporaries, I became more influenced by artists like Joni Mitchell, who is as probing a writer of any gender, in any generation, in discussing the singer-songwriter experience.
It may strike a passive reader as odd to extol the lyrical profundity of artists like Joni Mitchell, who have duly received accolades by contemporary and critic alike in recognition of her unparalleled contributions to Western music. Yet, as an unrivaled talent in a male-dominated industry, many critical voices were quick to dismiss her with superficial ad hominem. Most notably, in 1971, in the wake of a decade defined by "sex, drugs, and rock n' roll, Rolling Stone magazine dubbed Mitchell as "The Queen of El Lay," a jab at her love life that centered around a coterie of very famous Hollywood men.
It was in this same year that Mitchell released the album "Blue," what many consider the crown jewel in what would be her nearly six-decade career (which came to an indefinite halt after a serious health setback in 2015). On this album, the Canadian-cum-Californian opines on love and loss with a breathtaking poignancy that defied typical gender constructs.
Before the great cultural upheaval of the 1960s, it would have perhaps been unthinkable to sing so openly of taboo topics like out-of-wedlock pregnancies. In fact, just three years after the release of Mitchell's Blue, in the shadows of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision, Paul Anka's "(You're) Having My Baby" would hit the top of the charts as a farcical paean to a woman "showing how much she loves him" by not having "swept (it) from her life," ostensibly praising the woman for not having an abortion.
As a sheer contrast in tone and emotional IQ, Joni Mitchell's "Little Green" laments giving up her daughter for adoption when, after "hearing everything's warmer there," her lover absconds to California and leaves the nearly penniless singer a (temporarily) single mother. While later Mitchell songs like "The Magdalene Laundries" pass scorn on the pan-cultural phenomenon of casting aside the fallen woman "as a Jezebel," here Mitchell herself stands resolute and defiant in her circumstances:
So you sign all the papers in the family name,
you're sad and you're sorry,
but you're not ashamed.
It is no wonder that, in the midst of the counter culture revolution, the men who still ran the fame game challenged Mitchell's repudiation of gender-normative songwriting. Upon listening to the album, Kris Kristofferson was famously known to have told Mitchell, "Oh, Joni. Save something for yourself." Yet, Mitchell would dive headfirst into changing the narrative on the limitations of gender in making hard decisions about freedom and self-. On the album's eponymous single, she muses as both oracle and chronicler of the magic and misery that would define future generations of musicians as much as it defined the 1960s:
Well there're so many sinking
Now you've got to keep thinking
You can make it thru these waves
Acid, booze, and ass
Needles, guns, and grass
Lots of laughs
Lots of laughs
Having largely escaped the perils of hard living that took down a number of her peers, never believing that "hell's the hippest way to go," Mitchell remained aware that her position at the peak of the songwriter's Mount Olympia would force her to "take a look around" the darker corners of the music industry. When one thinks of the concept of living fast and dying young, it's far easier to paint a mental portrait of a male artist, tortured by demons and succumbing to the charms of some devil that finally does him in. Yet, as chronicled in David Yaffe's biography of Mitchell, it is clear that the songstress talked the talk and walked the walk, perceiving for herself the precipice of doomed fame and stepping back to impart some firsthand truth on her listeners.
As contemporary artists in a fast-paced digital media world, it has become harder to distinguish oneself from the crowd. Consequently, many of my contemporaries see life on the road as the most consequential, if not the only way, of building a fan base. It is on the road that the dangers of being a traveling artist are magnified, whether it's in the hard living that continues to haunt young talents in the midst of their growing fame, or the loneliness that the touring musician may log up like the miles he drives from show to show.
Yet like in Mitchell's "California," the musician in me who seeks out the road and its risks always seems to simultaneously long for the idea of home and stability. Though like most musicians, Mitchell branded herself in the song "Coyote" as "a prisoner of the white lines on the freeway," "California" makes a particularly compelling case to me for a desire for home that musicians may feel throughout their lives:
Oh, it gets so lonely
When you're walking
And the streets are full of strangers
All the news of home you read
Just gives you the blues
There are lots of dreams that the musician exchanges in order to pursue his calling. For some, that exchange is the likelihood of finding and nurturing romantic love. Before albums like Blue, it would have been rare to hear a female singer-songwriter acknowledge, as Mitchell does in "The Last Time I Saw Richard," the fate of dreamers to become "cynical and drunk, and boring someone in some dark cafe." Yet, the dream of romance versus the work to sustain it presents a life challenge for any musician determined to answer the call of the muse against competing desires for domestic happiness.
Joni Mitchell understood this conundrum far too well, with later catalog songs like "Amelia," containing such naked self-reflections on trading love for career:
Maybe I've never really loved,
I guess that is the truth,
I've spent my whole life in clouds at icy altitudes ...
As a male musician, I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that my own experience is more readily linked aligned with the observations that other music men have offered as a lyrical legacy to contemporary artists. Yet once I became intimately familiar with the work of Joni Mitchell, an artist who left her native home and infant baby to pursue a career of unquestionable genius challenged by failed loves, beset by the consequences of living an artist's lifestyle, undulating between the comfort of complacent living and the freedom of the road, I realized that gender had no role in discussing the larger truths of our human nature, especially when those truths are tied to the dream of becoming a working artist. While I continue to admire visionaries like Dylan for expanding the craft of songwriting, I remain most inspired by the life lessons cataloged in Joni Mitchell's work, lessons that defy gender and, for any aspiring creative, make for a crucial case study on the consequences of embracing the artist's call. After all, whether one sticks with bumpy road or the clearer path, Mitchell sums up the impending reality as only she could:
You know it never has been easy,
whether you do or do not resign,
whether you travel the breadth of extremities
or stick to some straighter line.
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