Joni Mitchell’s music rose to prominence in the late 1960s; a time when social conventions were broken down, expectations previously taken for granted were questioned, and personal freedom reigned supreme. This period of immense social change was marked by political activism and scrutiny of hegemonic social systems, and music played an integral role in this social transformation. As Papaynis in her essay “Feeling Free and Female Sexuality: The Aesthetics of Joni Mitchell”, Mitchell’s music was “an integral part of the musical landscape and the musical landscape was one that seemed to matter most in 1968” (642). The emergence of anti-hegemonic counterculture in the 1960s dramatically altered what it meant to be, feel, and act female. The timeframe of Mitchell’s emergence on the folk scene and rise to prominence and stardom as a singer-songwriter parallels a shift in the nature of femininity and how it is expressed in popular culture. Despite a decade-spanning career, her work is intrinsically linked with the infamous counterculture of the 1960s and 70s. The content of Mitchell’s music was tuned into this shift and was a matrix through which these transformative political, social, and cultural forces intersected with the everyday lives of her audience (641).
Until the late 1960s, marriage was widely considered the goal and pinnacle of a woman’s adult life. The need and assumed desire of every woman to find (and keep) a husband was reflected in almost every aspect of popular culture during this period (Zeisler 25). As social attitudes in North America shifted from the conservatism of the 1950s toward a more liberal cultural consciousness the nuclear family with its strict gender roles and sexual taboos was one of the most criticized social institutions. As the Women’s Movement gained momentum prominent feminists deconstructed the representation of females in the media and in society as a whole.
The same conservatism was present in the music industry prior to the upheaval of the 1960s. In Papaynis’ words, the music of the 1950s concerned itself with a more romantic, and contained version of sexuality” (643) and femininity. The female body shifted from a site of restriction, shame, and oppression to one of exploration, celebration, and pleasure. This is not to say, however, that women in the 1960s were suddenly stripped of the burden of societally prescribed notions of womanhood. Though things had shifted dramatically in a seemingly positive direction, the limitations of womanhood were very much still alive, if not more deviously concealed.
Female musicians continued to face marginalization in the music industry. As an artist, Joni Mitchell rejected the label of “female musician” or “women’s music” on the grounds that it assumes difference, namely inferior difference, to the males in her phallocentric genre of folk rock. Indeed, Bob Dylan was never labelled a “male musician”, and using a gendered term to describe someone’s work does imply limitations. To understand Mitchell’s professional rejection of labels, the 1960s counterculture must be understood in an alternative way. Though this period is heralded as a time of women’s liberation, loosening gender roles, and sexual freedom, it was also a time of “undermining the roles of women, positioning [most of] them as romanticized fantasy figures, subservient earth mothers, or easy lays” (Berkoz 93). Female performers such as Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez, and Judy Collins, came across as strong figures thanks to their politicization. However, according to Berkoz, “[female musician’s] achievements in terms of challenging the traditional positioning of female musicians, were limited” (94).
Joni Mitchell was emerging as a musician and prominent figure in the 1960s counterculture as the second wave of feminism was beginning to pick up steam. Despite her (understandable) reluctance to be associated with this movement, Joni Mitchell’s early music will be forever tied to the 1960s counterculture defined by questioning social norms, gender norms included.