For many, Joni Mitchell was the quintessential 1960s hippy, earth mother, and free loving female icon. Her folk roots, poetic style, and subject matter – environmentalism, pacifism, and love, were all consistent with this image. Mitchell’s musical virtuosity gained her respect and notoriety amongst the phallocentric genre of rock music, and she is to this day, considered to be one of the greatest living musicians.
Her music also embodies what Papayanis calls “a feminine aesthetic”. Mitchell has a way of beautifully expressing femininity, including all the contradiction and limitation that comes along with it. She has a unique way of embedding narratives of female sexuality into her music that operates as a powerful tool to legitimize women’s sexual freedom and implicitly challenges restrictions on women’s desire and ability to assert themselves as sexual beings without social recourse.
Mitchell’s way of challenging hegemonic ideals of womanhood is unapologetic but nonaggressive. Her freedom as a woman is assumed rather than asserted and she challenges the system from within, normalizing women’s choices through sharing lived experiences. Joni Mitchell’s highly personal and storytelling style allowed narratives of female sexuality to seamlessly slip into the cultural consciousness of a generation of women (and men) coming of age during the tumultuous 1960s and 70s.
Demographically speaking, Mitchell’s audience was, like the Women’s Liberation movement itself, mostly white and middle class. For “white, middle class women in or bound for college in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she was an integral part of the musical landscape” (Papayanis 642), and these were the women who would go on to ignite the second wave of feminism. The personal accounts of Mitchell’s own sexuality in her lyrics give the listener a sense of intimacy and shared experience, giving a discussion of female desire a casual feeling that has long been afford to discussion of male desire. As Papayanis puts it, Mitchell is “a promiscuous woman who is not a tramp” (648), whose music is “not about the freedom to sleep around… but rather, the freedom, always the privilege of men, to live for herself” (649).
The femininity she articulates is, while powerful and subversive, intensely raw and emotional. This sensitive realism may have provided a more palatable version of feminism to a mass female audience in contrast to a more assertive and political approach to gender equality. The person, playful, and easy discussion of sexuality and gender equality in Mitchell’s music resonated powerfully with her audience, and “articulated an awareness of female sexuality that rang true for a generation of women” (646). As Papayanis points out, “it feels fairly indisputable that pop music has been an important influence on the way young women negotiate the erotic in their lives” (655), and Joni Mitchell’s music doubtlessly provided such a function for countless women over the years.