In praise of Joni Mitchell (and other '70s female songwriters who changed my life)
I will always be my mother’s daughter, probably in more ways than I realize. Because of this there’s a special place in my heart for the music my mother loves, which tends to fall a lot in the category of female singer/songwriters from the 1960s and 1970s. It’s music she and my father always played, but I’d like to think I discovered it on my own, in my own right.
In particular, my mother played Joni Mitchell’s album “Blue” in the car and sometimes in the house. She used to sing-a-long and my mother does not sing along to most music. I used to think Joni Mitchell (who turns 72 today) had a strange voice and couldn’t figure out why my mother loved her so much.
I don’t know what changed, but in the seventh grade, I warmed up to Joni when I took the family copy of “Blue” to listen to in my bedroom. I’d never taken the time to really listen to the album in the way it needs to be listened to (alone, in your bedroom, lying on the floor) and when I finally did, I was completely stunned. It felt like the most intense emotional experience of my life. I couldn’t get enough Joni. After that, I bought “Court and Spark” on my own. I listened to it loudly in my bedroom and my mother waltzed in singing along to all of the songs.
I turned out my mother’s musical tastes and mine greatly overlapped—and so I started raiding her CD collection. I’d find them by our family CD player and pretend that I was the first person to discover these amazing female singer/songwriters, even though that same music played in the background of my entire life.
Joni Mitchell and her contemporaries became important to me because they all had their own specific styles and unique voices. They were distinctively themselves and went beyond beautiful in a way that only truly authentic women can be.
I think you can learn a lot from music playing in the background of your life. These are just some of the things I’ve learned from some of the greatest singer/songwriters of the 1960s and 1970s.
To say that I love Joni Mitchell is an understatement. I’ve listened to her albums far too many times. There was a time in my life when I only listened to Joni Mitchell. For me, her music brings out how difficult it can be to connect with another person and the joy when that connection actually exists.
Her song “People’s Parties” on Court and Spark contains a great line that took me my entire adolescence to understand, “laughing and crying/ you know it’s the same release.” For me, that sums it up. Her music is simultaneously celebratory and sad and sometimes even celebratory because it’s sad. From her, I’ve learned that there is a joy in everything, even pain. It’s all part of life.
I started loving Carly Simon after I saw the film How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days—I know I was late to the game. The song “You’re So Vain” plays a role in the romance between Kate Hudson and Matthew McConaughey’s characters, and the song practically makes the movie. My parents played Carly Simon long before that, but after watching that movie, I listened to Carly’s iconic song obsessively. I used to sing along to it and think about all of the people I wanted to tell off. Not just romantic interests, but everyone from lazy teachers to cliquey girls to people who thought they were too cool and popular to be kind to me. I fortunately never did serenade someone I didn’t like with “You’re So Vain” because that wouldn’t have made sense. But, I still don’t think I was so far off the meaning of the song. In the opening line Carly sings, “You walked into the party like you were walking onto a yacht.” That descriptor applies to a lot of people. People at my school sometimes walked around like they were walking onto yachts. It drove me crazy. Fortunately though, I learned everyone has those yacht-walking types in their lives.
I went to an arts camp in middle school to study creative writing and one of the writing prompts they gave us was to write about someone who bugged us. I wrote my best essay of the summer based on that prompt. It was about my cousin, who I loved but didn’t understand and fought with. When I look back on that essay, I can’t help but feel that if Carly Simon used a writing prompt for “You’re So Vain,” it would have been the same one. It’s always good to channel your feelings into something creative. Nowadays, when someone bugs me, romantic or otherwise, I instinctively turn to my writing. Carly taught me that.
Laura Nyro wrote many songs, many of which were covered by other people and sometimes more heavily associated with those other artists. I’ve always loved her song “When I Die,” which Nyro wrote when she was sixteen at summer camp. It was also sung by Peter Paul and Mary, but perhaps most famously by Blood, Sweat and Tears, an all-male band. When I was a teenage girl, it was sometimes easy to dismiss my own thoughts as silly or superfluous because I was both a girl and a teenager and still coming into my own as a person. I learned, though, that there’s a universality to the human condition and it’s this universality that allows a grown man to relate to a song written by a teenage girl. There was no reason to ever doubt myself or the validity of my thoughts and feelings. Thanks, Laura.
Carole King’s “Tapestry” is one of those albums that my parents played so much while I was growing up that I truly found it weird when I realized that there were people in the world that didn’t listen to it. That’s how ingrained it is for me. Also, I love Gilmore Girls and Carole King’s song “Where You Lead” is in the opening credits.
My favorite Carole King song is “Beautiful” simply because it’s about not letting the little things bother you, but instead, getting out there, staying positive and trying your best. Which, is not only a good lesson, but also the best thing anyone can do.
The process of discovering the music of these women was a joy to me and something I definitely learned from. I suppose I can thank my mother for that, but somewhere along the way, I turned her music into my own music.
(Images via Wikipedia)