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C H A P T E R S E V E N JONI MITCHELL The Singer-Songwriter and the Confessional Persona Why has Bob [Dylan] been so thoroughly canonized and Joni so condescended to over the years? Maybe, in part, because when Joni was uppity, she was considered a bitch, and the media retaliated. From day one, however, Bob could be as uppity as he wanted, and the great mammoth rock press lauded his behavior as rebellious, clever, renegade and punkishly cool. Maybe it’s also because Bob’s songs are inherently more masculine (go figure) and have therefore been viewed as more universal, while Joni’s writing, which has a more feminine perspective, is put in a box labeled “girl stuff.” Ani DiFranco The women’s movement that represented American feminism’s second wave found relatively little expression in rock & roll, Aretha Franklin’s recording of “Respect” notwithstanding. Joni Mitchell’s emergence as “rock’s leading lady” in the early 1970s shows how the movement did impact popular music. As a singer-songwriter and as a women’s artist, Mitchell represents two new dimensions of rock stardom. Mitchell certainly had a significant male audience , but she became known as a performer who expressed a distinctly female perspective. Mitchell has long rejected the label “feminist,” but her stardom needs to be understood in the context of the women’s movement’s influence and the changes in consciousness and behavior that it helped to foster. Mitchell’s songs illustrate the notion that the personal is the political by the way in which they deal with the power dynamics of intimate relationships. Mitchell’s success also demonstrated that a singer-songwriter could become a rock star, and her confessional lyrics gave an added dimension to the tension between persona and private self. While critics such as Lester Bangs influentially attacked the singer-songwriters as the antithesis of rock & roll, it can be argued that rock & roll was the practice in which the singer as songwriter first emerged with Chuck Berry and then the Beatles.1 But as a distinct kind of performer, the singer-songwriter is a creature of the early 1970s, when performers such as James Taylor, Carole King, Carly Simon, Jackson Browne, and Mitchell herself began to perform their own songs.2 Taylor and Mitchell Joni Mitchell: The Singer-Songwriter and the Confessional Persona 149 in particular were described as “confessional” songwriters by association with the then influential school of poetry that included Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Anne Sexton. Although Mitchell has denied that she was influenced by the confessional poets, in many respects the term better describes her work than it does the poetry. Mitchell’s success at creating a sense of direct address to the listener defined her persona. This represented another modification of stardom, where the intimacy that fans had imagined they might have with the person behind the persona is now offered as integral to the persona itself. Mitchell’s confessional persona may have made it more difficult for her audience to accept her transformations as she moved away from the confessional mode beginning in the later 1970s. The pop singer Jewel suggested in 2005 that Joni Mitchell was more an icon than a star, because “she is quite unknown to a lot of people.”3 I think Mitchell remains a star, but it is true that she has not had a commercial hit album or song since 1975 (when The Hissing of Summer Lawns reached number 4 on the Billboard chart). Whatever her current status, in the 1970s she was a major star, “Rock ’n’ Roll’s Leading Lady,” as Time put it.4 And if we can agree that she is an icon, what does she represent? When David Wild interviewed Mitchell in 1991, it was all too clear to both her and her interviewer that she was, as she said, “Spokesperson for a Generation” and “That Woodstock Girl.”5 While those associations remain, they are no longer quite so obvious, and we are now able to see that Mitchell’s cultural significance is much more interesting and complex. The title of Sheila Weller’s 2008 triple biography, Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, suggests one way in which the generational association has become more nuanced . In Weller’s formulation, she represents the journey not of an entire generation but of the girls of that generation.6 This...


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