Joni Mitchell`s musical virtuosity is renowned in the music industry. She is a multi-instrumentalist and has been praised for innovative use of guitar tuning and finger-picking techniques. Her lyrics function not only as melodic accompaniment to her composition, but are poetic, and perfectly structured in a way that has seldom been rivaled. Mitchell`s attitudes toward sexuality, love, and gender are often subtly revealed through her lyrics and can be analyzed through a feminist lens.
It is clear that love for Joni included sexuality but sexuality did not necessarily include love. In “River” she mourns the loss of a partner whom she says, “loved me so naughty/ Made me weak in the knees”, a celebration of pleasure as an integral component of a relationship for women. In “Chelsea Morning” she seems to be singing about the morning after, “won’t you stay/ We’ll put on the day” but does not associate it with a committed relationship. The discussion and celebration of female sexuality in Joni’s music is “acutely focused on the psychological and emotional mindscape of women coming of age in this exciting and confusing period of time” (Papaynis 653). Berkoz discuss how, in “Ladies of the Canyon”, Mitchell creates a world in which women are free to experience themselves anyway they desire without having to “deny or denounce any of the various sides that constitute their self…their multiplicity, their claim to be artists, mothers, lovers, would be embraced and seen as inherint to their womanliness” (95).
Up until the late 1960s, marriage was widely seen as the goal and pinnacle of a woman’s life. The need for a woman to find (and keep) a husband was reflected in almost every aspect of popular culture during this period (Zeisler 25). Joni’s feelings toward the institution of marriage that she was, as a woman of that generation, expected to strive for is made clear in “My Old Man”, a song about ‘shacking up’ with a live-in boyfriend. Essentially, “My Old Man” is a love song. She sings of pining for her live-in partner (allegedly, the inspiration for this song was Graham Nash) when he’s away “the bed’s too big/ The frying pan too wide”. Far from the “Going to the Chapel” tunes of the 1950s and early 1960s, the relationship in this song is equal and each party is autonomous. The song cleverly trivializes the institution of marriage with the often repeated line “We don’t need no piece of paper/ from the city hall/ keep us tied and true” and legitimizes those relationships that choose to opt out. A loving relationship, in Joni’s terms, is equalized and free of possession. In “All I Want” she sings, “All I really, really want/ our love to do/ is to bring out the best in me/ and in you too”, she seems to be seeking a love that is “liberating rather than enslaving” (Papaynis 651).
On several occasions, Joni’s lyrics seem to be subtly criticizing the gender double standard in society and questioning problematic notions of masculinity. The newfound sexual liberation of women in the late 1960s was both exciting and threatening to patriarchy. While women may have broken out of the narrowly defined role of wife and homemaker of the 1950s, the sexual revolution had not done away with constraining restrictions and daunting expectations that defined women’s identities. In “Little Green”, a 1967 ode to the daughter she gave up for adoption in her early twenties, Joni reflects on her feelings toward the decision and relationship to the father. She seems to be suggesting that, while she accepts the situation as her own journey, the father may have skirted responsibility for the child under the guise of liberalism, “He went off to California…He’s a non-conformer”.
Despite being free to live a life of their own choosing and be in control of their own bodies, women of this generation (and today) continued to carry the burden of societally prescribed notions of womanhood. Some men – even non-conformist, it seemed, were not quite ready to accept women into the realm of equals. Women still struggled to find a place within narrow ideas of acceptable female traits. While a woman could now be free to express herself as a sexually autonomous being with her own ambitions she mustn’t go so far as to threaten the dominant position of males in society. As Joni says of an unidentified man in “You Turn Me On, I’m a Radio”, “You don’t like weak women/ you get bored so quick/ And you don’t like strong women/ cause they’re hip to your tricks”.
Mitchell’s words are not simply dreamy ideals but are grounded in the material world, in the physicality, practice and minds of her own experiences and that of her audience. She creates a world for women to inhabit that is simultaneously realistic, mystical, practical, romantic, and above, all flexible. Mitchell speaks freely and while she may feel the need to repress her female identity to achieve professional notoriety, her lyrics show her keen ability to express not only female, but human sentiment that defies compartmentalization.