- Emotional availability. Aloofness is something I like about myself, as it providesan easily accessible space to dream. But I crave relation to others- something's I've always struggled with.
- Trust. If I practice, technical proficiency will come. Because fortunately/unfortunately, that's the easy part.
- Relieve myself of the pressure to create something groundbreaking. I’m not going to create anything non-derivative. I don't even want to. So I have relax and record my mistakes and maybe I’ll come up with something cool.
“I can’t wait for you to turn 21 and to go to cool bars and to listen to this kind of music.”
Something electric, dark, wet and pulsating plays over the speakers in some bohemian basement in Madison. A few girls are photographing each other; this is the home of an artist collective. “Get high,” one of them says. So I do and I can’t help think that every moment in my life lead up to this one. How did I get here? I am a wallflower.
An iron-clad perception of ourselves. We’ve all had that; we cling to identity with our fingernails, with our might.
That was the first time somebody tapped my perception of myself, somewhat like tapping a creme brûlée with a spoon. Easy. I was working in a chocolate shop. It was oddly formational, for a chapter in my life that ended with tears into a big bowl of ganache.
Someone saw me as someone who spent time in dark, loud, vogue places.
I’d seen myself as an outcast with a fossilized sense of right and wrong. A superiority complex of introverted feeling. A moralist. A goody-two-shoes. No wonder no one liked me in high school.
While I write this, three little ants crawl across my skin and I let them. Their presence suddenly isn’t invasive at all.
I’d slept with women at that point. Three, actually.
I suppose I’d asked myself if I were straight or gay. Sure, it’s a heavy thing.
I never have really felt comfortable with labeling myself. Truth be told, identity politics feel rigid. Perhaps that’s my socioeconomic standing speaking and I am lazy under the guise progressive. Perhaps that makes me the poster child for arts school liberalism, something I felt so at odds with in college. It all felt so dogmatic.
What if we admitted that we are not, today, what we were yesterday? That we won’t be, tomorrow, what we are today?
What if we kissed whoever we wanted to kiss?
I love to oversimplify. Love it. But it’s true: nothing inherently means anything.
I feel more liberated without a label. I don’t know if that’s good for the world. But there I go again;
Man’s World: The Life and Music of Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell is regarded with the greatest songwriters and musicians of the 20th century. Her name and career is noted in conversations alongside those of Bob Dylan and Neil Young, but also Joan Baez and Laura Marling; Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, but also Charles Mingus and Herbie Hancock. She developed a unique and innovative harmonic language at a young age, which followed her through her transitions from folk music into the hippie movement, colored the album Blue (which remains one of the most influential albums of the last century), and later led to her emergence into the worlds of jazz and rock music. She secured a place in history books and on shelves with the greats of every genre she ventured into. In most scenarios, her name is bookended by male names, and yet she remains unparalleled by any of her male peers in her diversity of musical style, language, and lyrical depth. Through her music and public persona, Joni Mitchell completely transformed not only the typecast of the singer-songwriter, but also the place of women in the music industry.
Born in 1947 in Alberta, Canada to a school teacher and a Royal Canadian Air Force lieutenant, she moved from base to base at a very young age. In her youth, Joni showed little promise in the area of academics and was a much more precocious athlete. After contracting polio at age eight, she lost athletic ability and reacted in two ways: by taking aptly to her father’s love for music, and becoming a smoker at age nine. The family moved to the Canadian plains of Saskatoon, which formed the basis for the lyrical aspect of her earliest songs. The albums Song to a Seagull and Ladies of the Canyon, released in 1968 and 1970, respectively, exemplify whimsical, natural imagery and an idealistic, doe-eyed attitude towards love and city life. “I came to the city and lived like old Crusoe on an island of noise in a cobblestone sea,” she croons in “Song to a Seagull.” This poetic approach to lyric writing set a precedent for the rest of her career. On an essential level, Mitchell’s lyric writing is free-form, revealing, grounded in profound social commentary, and relentlessly personal.
Musically, Mitchell’s earliest songs are complex and mature. She utilizes open tunings and unique chord voicings, partially to taste but mostly as a form of therapy for her polio-stricken hands. Through a comprehensive analysis of her early work, Lloyd Whitesell found that “Mitchell’s songs fall under five categories of harmonic organization: modal, polymodal, chromatic, polytonal, pedalpoint.”  For example, the song “Urge For Going,” is in mixolydian mode. The accompaniment of the song is major in tonality and the hook of the melody features the flat seventh. This modal approach was seldom or never seen in folk music. Notably, mixolydian mode is common in jam band music such as the Grateful Dead and also modal jazz and bebop. Chromaticism is rampant in her entire catalog, notably in pieces she wrote for piano such as “Blue,” off of Blue. “Rainy Night House” exemplifies Joni Mitchell’s fission of tonal centers. Tonal centers oscillate while remaining diatonic. A pedalpoint can be found in her early work on songs such as “Chelsea Morning.” She utilized pedal points in the form of open tunings, a system which she developed to compensate for the weakness in her fingers. These sounds would create a foundation for her journey into jazz music later in her career. For the time being, it challenged the stereotype of the quintessential American folk singer.
Joni Mitchell has been widely received and acclaimed as a “classic” songwriter. This title has a very specific associated aesthetic; the acoustic guitar slinging, earth-tone wearing, flower-sniffing teller of tales. Perhaps songwriters such as Woody Guthrie or Bob Dylan come to mind. These artists, possibly the most paradigmatic American singer-songwriters, are characterized by lyrics exposing dark truths about love or social justice sung in a monotone singing voice. Joan Baez, the female face of the American singer-songwriter, has a seemingly similar musical demeanor but a wildly different business model. Baez’s wheelhouse was sitting cross-legged on a stool singing sweetly to the simple accompaniment of a capoed guitar. Her bread and butter was folk songs and soft love songs with simple song form. This is what was palatable to consumers; Baez knew it and so did her producers. Baez’s most political music is an album of Bob Dylan songs she recorded. A woman taking an overtly strong political stance in her music would have deterred the public in the early sixties. If sweet, sentimental lyrics rich with imagery were inherently feminine at the time, Joni Mitchell answers the feminine with the ultra-feminine. She is unabashedly romantic. In the song “Willy” she confesses “Willy is my joy, he is my sorrow. Now he wants to run away and hide. He says our love cannot be real. He cannot hear the chapel's pealing silver bells.” From early in her career, she does not change expectations of women in music by doing anything radically different. She changes the expectations of women in music by far exceeding every aspect of the rubric already set in place. On the same album as “Willy,” “Big Yellow Taxi” explicitly comments on the dangers of consumerism and overdevelopment in America. This subtle disregard of gender roles for the American singer-songwriter betokens the way Joni would take to the budding hippie movement.
The album Blue came out in 1971. Shortly before the album came out, Joni said “I think there’s a lack of romance in everything today. I think that women are getting a bum deal. I think we are being misguided. There’s the fear of the big hurt, we’re taught to be very cool. And to be non-committal. Anything that’s repressed and goes underground really gets distorted.” Here, Mitchell outlines side one of the double-edged sword that is the societal expectation of women. Jack Hamilton, a contributer for NPR and The Atlantic, comments that “for better or worse, we live in a culture where lifelong, monogamous commitments are widely held to be the desired ends of romantic life…in our best case scenario, every single relationship we ever have except one, will end and end badly.” The media demands women to be a sexual cocktail: just enough non-committal to be fun, just enough invested in the expectation to build a home to want to ultimately be monogamous. After all, “Hallmark doesn’t make Valentine’s Day Cards for open relationships.” 
Joni Mitchell rose above this stigma by creating one of the most romantic, emotional, personal albums in music history. She once said that her emotional state whilst making the album was like “a cellophane wrapper on a pack of cigarettes.“ That sort of transparent fragility makes the lines in “All I Want” applicable despite their overt specificity. “I want to have fun, I want to shine like the sun, I want to be the one that you want to see. I want to knit you a sweater, I want to write you a love letter.” It strikes gold on an inherent human need: to love and be loved. It transcends any sort of feminine perspective or personal perspective. Instead, it exemplifies the human perspective. It’s why “Case of You,” rumored to be about songwriter Leonard Cohan, makes the most hopeless cynic remember a time when they were elated with the hope of new romance. It’s why Joni’s high notes in “River” soar to great emotional mountaintops. It’s why “California,” and “Carey,” written about an American bartender she met and camped with in a seaside Cretan cave, name names and places and still hit that fundamental emotional place. One can almost taste the Turkish liquor, feel the thick atmospheric excitement of the Mermaid Café and the soft dampness of the cave in which she slept for months, smell the salty air, taste Carey’s hearty stew. All of these images evoke universal feelings: the loneliness and electricity of being in an entirely new place, the heaviness of heartbreak, the lightness of being drunk on life and alcohol.
Aside from debatably being Mitchell’s magnum opus, Blue sheds light on aspects of the female experience that had been strategically avoided by the music industry prior. The song “Little Green” is the outlier on the album. Instead of being a love song, it is about her daughter, whom she put up for adoption in 1965. She had given birth to the child travelling from Saskatchewan to Toronto and named her Kelly Dale. The father was out of the picture and Joni’s parents did not know. Joni married folk singer Chuck Mitchell in hopes of building a family and caring for the child. But alas, they were hopelessly poor and little Kelly Dale, renamed Kilauren Gibb by her adopted parents, was put up for adoption. Kilauren and Joni would meet 32 years later. “The most striking line” of the song is “‘you sign your papers in the family name. You’re sad and you’re sorry, but you’re not ashamed.’” At the time that Blue was released in the early 1970’s, the hippie movement was just ending. The introduction of oral contraceptives in 1960 had brought the idea of sexual freedom into the national conversation, and it would stay very present for the next ten years. Having a child out of wedlock, however common, still carried (and continues to carry) a stigma. In “Little Green,” “Mitchell pries loose the narrative of unwanted pregnancy from that of the fallen woman.” Not only does the lyric expose the risk of sex, one of the biggest elephants in the room in the music industry, but it also exposes an important step forward in the state of women. “Getting pregnant is another aspect of being sexually active that carries its own responsibilities and sorrows, but guilt is not among them.” No one is being made to wear a red “A” upon their left breast. No one is being publicly ridiculed, and no guilt is felt for sex in this lyric. Chess Records was cutting singles such as “Bad Girl,” about “a girl who had gone out and gotten pregnant out of wedlock,” in 1959. Joni put an autobiographical account of pregnancy out of wedlock on the A-side of her album.
Joni Mitchell never identified as a feminist. In fact, she once said in an interview “I’m not a feminist. I don’t want to get a posse against men.” While this exemplifies a common misconception about feminism at its fundamental level, it does attack the radical form of second-wave feminism that was popular at the height of her career. Mitchell spoke out against second-wave feminism because she disagreed with radical second-wave feminist ideas such as the matriarchy and man-hate. However, she is very clear that she recognizes the place of women in society and music. She also is not shy about claiming her place in history as a pivotal cornerstone of the plight of women in music. “It’s a man’s world,” she said on a 2014 interview. “Men wrote most of the songs for women and they were mostly tales of seduction. I wrote my own songs. That ended that.” 
After Blue, Joni took a playful gander into pop-rock with songs like “Raised on Robbery,” and claimed a place in the male dominated, often male-worshipping world of rock music. After that, Mitchell took strides into jazz. Hejira served as an intermediary between a folk approach to songwriting and a strong jazz approach to folk music characteristic of her late work. Joni was able to seamlessly transition into jazz. As the Rolling Stone review of Hejira points out, “Nearly all the new songs are built from the bare bones of her early work: modal guitar patterns and near-English-ballad structure.” Joni does it again. In jazz music, women have historically been typecast and marketed as the vocalists and often exploited for their image. Very few women in early jazz wrote their own music. Joni Mitchell strolled onto the scene with her guitar and her lyrics and an artistic vision. Her earliest musical innovations made this effortless. In 1979, almost a decade after Blue, Mitchell released Mingus, an experimental jazz-folk and vocal jazz album recorded with and dedicated to jazz musician Charles Mingus. This was Charles Mingus’ last project before his death a few months later.
Joni became infamous for being very vocal about her musical superiority. She said via interview that Neil Young couldn’t swing. She also nixed the idea of pop superstar Taylor Swift being cast as a young Mitchell in an upcoming biographical film, claiming that she had never heard Swift’s music and huffing, “If she thinks she can sing and play me, good luck.”
Her legacy is undeniable. Joni Mitchell transformed the stereotype of the American singer-songwriter, then the American rock and roll artist, then the American jazz artist. She paved a permanent road for women in every nook of American music she explored. She did so by being relentlessly honest, innovative, and feminine. Joni Mitchell is, and always will be, timeless. In time, thanks to Joni, it might not be such a man’s world, after all.
Adler, Marylin. “Feeling Free and Female Sexuality: The Aesthetics of Joni Mitchell.” Popular Music and Society. 2010.
Atlas, Jacoba. “Joni: Let’s Make Life More Romantic.” Melody Maker. 20 June, 1970.
Bennighof, James. The Words and Music of Joni Mitchell. Praeger. 2010.
Dahl, Bill. Motown: The Golden Years: More than 100 Rare Photographs. Krause Publications. Volume 1 (2001).
Hinton, Brian. Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now. Sanctuary Publishing Limited. 1996.
Hamilton, Jack. “Why Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ is the Greatest Relationship Album Ever.” The Atlantic. 14 February 2013.
Ionnaci, Elio. “The Interview: Joni Mitchell.” Macleans. 22 November, 2014.
Myers, Marc. “Joni Mitchell on the Muse Behind Carey.” The Wall Street Journal. 11 November, 2014.
Van Rijn, Nicolaas. How Joni Mitchell’s Daughter Found Mom and Became Whole. Joni Mitchell Library of Articles. 08 April 1997.
Vincent, Alice. Why Every Woman Needs the Music of Joni Mitchell in Her Life. The Telegraph. 07 April, 2015.
Swartly, Ariel. “Hejira: Not Rated.” Rolling Stone Magazine. 10 February, 1977.
Whitely, Sheila. Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity. London: Routledge. 2000.
Whitesell, Lloyd. “The Harmonic Palette of Early Joni Mitchell.” Popular Music. Cambridge Press. 2002.
 Brian, Hinton. Joni Mitchell: Both Sides Now. (London: Sanctuary Publishing Limited, 1996). 115.
Lloyd, Whitesell. “The Harmonic Palette of Early Joni Mitchell. Popular Music Volume 21 (2002): 173.
 Jacoba, Atlas. “Joni: Let’s Make Life More Romantic,” Melody Maker, 20 June, 1970.
 Jack, Hamilton. “Why Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ is the Greatest Relationship Album Ever,” The Atlantic, 14 February 2013.
 Hamilton, “Why Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ is the Greatest Relationship Album Ever.”
 Hamilton, “Why Joni Mitchell’s ‘Blue’ is the Greatest Relationship Album Ever.”
 Myers, Marc. “Joni Mitchell on the Muse Behind Carey.” The Wall Street Journal, 11 November, 2014.
 Nicolaas,Van Rijn. How Joni Mitchell’s Daughter Found Mom and Became Whole, Joni Mitchell Library of Articles, 08 April 1997.
 Marylin, Adler. “Feeling Free and Female Sexuality: The Aesthetics of Joni Mitchell,” Popular Music and Society, 2010.
 Marylin, Adler. “Feeling Free and Female Sexuality: The Aesthetics of Joni Mitchell,”
 Dahl, Bill. Motown: The Golden Years: More than 100 Rare Photographs, Krause Publications, Volume 1 (2001): 127.
 Elio, Ionnaci. “The Interview: Joni Mitchell,” Macleans, 22 November, 2014.
 Ionnaci, “The Interview: Joni Mitchell.”
 Ariel, Swartly. “Hejira: Not Rated.” Rolling Stone Magazine. 10 February, 1977.
 Ionnaci, “The Interview: Joni Mitchell.”
“I try to explain to people that this album is like the ‘Thriller’ of 1971. Everyone owned it,” said the cashier of Waterloo Records as I bought Tapestry for my parents on Christmas Eve.
“You must be buying this for someone my age,” he said.
“I am,” I laughed. “Merry Christmas.”
His words were a strange comfort to me that day.
First of all, he used Thriller as a point of reference and Thriller is a great album. Great albums used to be important. We’ll get to that.
Second of all, I was buying that particular album for my parents because they had just explained to me that, on principle, they would not sit down and listen to music, let alone buy it themselves. Why? Because music is “just” a luxury and the average working class American adult doesn’t have time for it. They also informed me I should probably hop off my pedestal and agree with them.
This caught me off guard.
As a musician I’m pretty invested in the idea that music will earn me some semblance of livable income. My parents are literally invested in music earning me some sort of livable income as they are funding my music degree. They’ve never sat me down to sternly warn me that music is not a real job. They’ve been at almost every musical function I’ve ever been involved in, yet they don’t listen to music.
Naturally, I’ve been mulling it over. The issue requires rationing my time and energy, honestly.
I suppose my parents’ strong-held beliefs about music have something to do with societal regard for art. Is society’s view of art strictly philosophical, or is it situational? Do people truly not have the means to invest in music?
In Maslow’s Heirarchy of Needs, music would fall in the “self-actualization” category, the tip of the pyramid. Art is a “quality of life” product as opposed to a “sustenance” product. However, what I most enjoy about Maslow’s model is that every level; physiological, safety, love/belonging, esteem, self-actualization, is treated as necessity of sorts. Yes, you’ll survive on nourishment and good health but will you prosper and live a fulfilled life?
Maybe the issue is generational. When do hip teens who know all the latest songs turn into their parents, only concerned with paying bills and putting food on the table? I’d venture to guess that happens when they have their second child and lose their job and have to pick up three extra low-paying jobs to make up for it. In my adolescence I watched my parents cope with a recession. I can say that in that period of time they were not working on their self-actualization.
Back to music.
Acquiring music without actually purchasing it is easy these days. We can thank good ol’ Napster for that one, even though file sharing is no longer the most simple or convenient means of listening to music without paying a dime. Spotify, YouTube, countless other sites enable the consumer to access all the music in the world with just a few clicks. Sometimes artists even endorse it.
“A piece of art is not a loaf of bread. When someone steals a loaf of bread from the store, that’s it. The loaf of bread is gone. When someone downloads a piece of music, it’s just data until the listener puts that music back together with their own ears, their mind, their subjective experience. How they perceive your work changes your work. Treating your audience like thieves is absurd.” –Tweedy, Wilco
So is listening for free thievery after all?
1971 wasn’t very long ago. There for a moment at the checkout line on Christmas Eve I pictured record storefronts swaddled in chilly fans waiting in the January 1971 muck for a copy of the album that would become the favorite of most of them. They would play that record until it became an old friend, until they could anticipate each little crackle and scratch in the well-worn vinyl, and eventually they would show it to their kids. “This album was all I listened to when I was twenty-five,” they would say. “It was really formational for me.” “I lost my virginity to your mom to this album, you know.” If they wanted to listen for free, they’d have to find a friend who owned the album.
My parents were ten and seven in 1971, so clearly they just missed the Tapestry train.
But did they?
So maybe they didn’t wait for hours in the snow to buy their copy, maybe they have never sat down to listen to the album in its entirety, but they’ve seen Gilmore Girls and everyone and their dog knows “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman).” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow” was on the Dirty Dancing soundtrack only after it enjoyed twenty-seven years of commercial success, first with the Shirelles then with King. The songs of Tapestry are deeply and richly engrained in American culture. There’s no escaping or denying it.
It’s my favorite album, tied with Blue. I own it on vinyl, on CD, on iTunes, and I listen to it on Spotify when I’m really in a bind. I’ve paid for that album three and-a-half times. I’d pay for it again.
This mentality; the slower-gratification mentality that for our purposes I will call the Album Mentality, seems to be prevalent amongst a niche group of millinials and adults. I know plenty of people who follow specific bands and musicians closely, i.e. buy tickets to their shows, buy and wear their merch, and pre-order their albums.
I currently attend one of the largest music and music business schools in the nation. I’m swimming in music connoisseurs at most times. Sometimes I’m surprised, but not often. It seems that assessing music consumption as a whole by means of my experience with one very cherry-picked group of people would make for faulty conclusions.
So, who the hell buys albums? How many of us are there out there, really?
In 2014, 46% of the music industry’s revenue came from sale of physical copies such as CD’s, records, merchandise, etc. 46% came from digital revenues such as iTunes, Bandcamp, streaming, etc. 6% came from performance rights and 2% came from synchronization revenues, i.e. music placement in film, commercials, etc. (ifpi)
Though download continues to be a substantial revenue stream, subscription-based streaming sites are on the rise. Deezer and Spotify continue to grow by means of global expansion. YouTube launched their streaming subscription Music Key in 2014, and Apple now has their own streaming mechanism, Apple Music.
Music sales, marketing, and distribution are moving online.
This raises another important issue: social media. Music is marketed through social media. Social media is the new name of the game.
Phrases have been tossed around in regards to this global phenomena that has completely and permanently changed human interaction. Among these, “instant gratification,” might be most popular.
Instant gratification is an innate human desire. Social media simultaneously satiates and starves this desire. The more likes you generate, the more self-esteem you generate. The more self-esteem you generate, the more likes you want. Yes, empowerment flows from freedom and gratification of expression, but at what cost?
The cost in question is quality. If you want an understanding of young people’s regard for quality, watch Generation ‘Like.’ They don’t give a fuck. Social media is one big numbers game to young people. Scroll through feeds, tap twice on some photos, gain some followers, get more likes, repeat. We are in the midst of generation “Give it to me. Right now. So I can Instagram it. And maybe enjoy it as an afterthought.”
What does this mean for people who’s very livelihood is in the creation of a product that does nothing more than bring quality to people’s lives?
How can an understanding of social media culture lend to an understanding of art?
What does this mean for the traditional recording contract, a la Taylor Swift and Big Machine Records? What does this mean for the vast majority of artists not afforded the immense privilege necessary for that brand of success? Will more independent artists tote a Hozier-esque success story that includes international airplay?
What do innovations in the world of electronic instruments mean for working musicians? For studio musicians?
In spite of, or maybe because of all these questions, I’m going to make an album. All I’ve ever wanted to do with my life is make an album as great as Tapestry. So I’m going to start now. This may not be it. The next one may not be it. One of them will be it, unless I just sit here. Also, I’m sort of banking on making a living off of it.
I’m writing this blog in matrimony with writing and producing my album. I want my readers to clearly see how labor-intensive the creative process, the recording process, the post-production process, and the distribution process’ truly are.
But mostly, I want to start a conversation. I want to hear from artists and non-artists alike about the state of art in society, their connections with art as individuals, and their thoughts on such ideas as streaming and social media. At the end of the project, I will put my album on BandCamp for donation. Hopefully, through this endeavor, I can convince my parents to buy it.