I first encountered Joni Mitchell when I was 16 years old. I was driving home from volleyball practice with my dad and her song “You Turn Me on I’m a Radio” came on in the car. When I asked my Dad who was singing he replied, “You don’t know Joni Mitchell? You better start listening.” I was in love. I downloaded her discography, read biographies, and learned to play the guitar (poorly). Joni’s sweet and haunting voice became the narrator for my late teens and early twenties. She was so incredibly honest, fearless, and so vulnerable. I wanted to be her friend, I felt like I was her friend. Whenever a song of hers played in public I felt a little exposed, as if my private thoughts were being played over the loud speakers in Starbucks. This intimacy Joni creates with her listeners (see, we’re on first name basis) is very intense and, along with her musical and lyrical brilliance, is what makes her such a powerful female figure.
In a recent interview with CBC’s Jian Ghomeshi, Joni Mitchell announced to the Canadian viewership that she is not, in fact, a feminist. (See the interview here) Once I’d fought through my initial emotional cocktail of shock, dismay, confusion, betrayal, and heartbreak, I was able to come to terms with this revelation. I realized that it’s okay if Joni Mitchell does not identify as a feminist and that it doesn’t have to change the way I interpret and enjoy her music. Despite the frustration it causes me, I have to be willing to accept that every woman I admire and respect with not necessarily be a feminist by default. I understand Joni’s reluctance to label herself and realize that “feminist” has some problematic connotations. The great thing about art is that you can read it however you like. I will continue to revel in the positive discussion of femininity in Joni’s music and look to her as a spectacular role model for women and girls of all ages, whatever she wants to call herself.
While Joni Mitchell herself does not identify as a feminist, her music has what Papaynis calls a “feminine aesthetic” (642) and can be interpreted as feminist on the grounds that it explores, questions, and above all resists gender norms, roles, and inequalities. There is no doubt that many women listening to her music in the 60s and 70s felt, as I feel nearly 50 years later, a connection, mutual understanding, and female camaraderie in Joni’s words. Regardless of Joni’s intentions, her words have become a part of a continuum; a cultural narrative that flows through time, tracing the ever-changing nature of what it means to be, feel, and act female.
Above all, Joni’s music comes across as intensely genuine and confessional (although she dislikes that term). Unlike many of the popular female artists of today she does not hide behind a shiny façade, in fact she is one of the few female performers I have seen go completely without makeup on stage. While this is potentially a stylistic choice rather than a social statement it highlights her tendency to ‘bear her soul’ and reveal her raw humanity with abandon. Her music is simultaneously vulnerable, real, strong, and empowered. Joni’s lyrics include an embrace of female sexual freedom, skepticism of traditional institutions, and a subtle questioning of socially accepted notions of masculinity and manhood.
Despite her triumphs over sexual oppression and gender constraints, Joni was still acutely aware of the gender inequality and misogyny that permeates society. As one of a few women submerged in the phallocentric Rock n’ Roll scene it must have been difficult to ignore. “By the late 1960s, American audiences had become used to male rebellion as a recurring theme” (Zeisler 39) and the bad boy Rock n Roll stars like Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton were idolized and their ‘misbehaviors’ were accepted, even celebrated. This was not the case for female artists, “[r]ebellion for girls and women was a little different – and from a societal perspective, wholly frightening” (Ziesler 41). Joni does seem to transcend gender in some ways and has cemented her place among the male-dominated Rock n’ Roll icons of the 1960s and 70s. This is something made obvious when watching her as the only female on stage during The Band’s final show in The Last Waltz and her position as one of three women in Rolling Stone’s “100 Greatest Guitarists”. However, her position as a ‘free’ woman accepted into the often closed off world of men seems to be one that she took with a grain of salt.
The musical aesthetics of Joni Mitchell’s 1960s and 70s work continue to provide a complex narrative framework for the complicated journey of being female, songs that young women of every generation can “fully inhabit and be inhabited by” (Papaynis 653). As a musician, painter, and all around Renaissance woman, Joni Mitchell remains an icon of female strength and a poet who eloquently articulated the zeitgeist of a generation in the 1960s and continued/continues to be a pioneer in the music industry throughout her generation-spanning career. Her art is timeless and will continue to inspire and not only women, but listeners of any gender-denomination in years to come.