Music by VICE

It's a Man's World: Why Popular Culture Left Joni Mitchell Behind

On International Women's Day, we remember one of the most influential, and widely underrated, singer-songwriters of our time.

by Issy Beech
Mar 8 2017, 4:18pm

"I never wanted to be a star," Joni Mitchell said in an interview with Joe Smith in 1986. "I didn't like entering a room with all eyes on me." She's said things like that all her life. As a teenager, learning everything there was to learn about her, I used to think that maybe Joni Mitchell wasn't beloved in the way her contemporaries like Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan were because she just didn't want to be. Had Joni Mitchell spoken so often about her distaste for adoration and accolades that the world stopped giving them to her? Four albums in?

Now, older and with even more love for her than I had then, I know that isn't true. Least of all because both Dylan and Cohen were also documented denouncers of celebrity, and most of all because I understand people better. Sexism and misogyny towards women—in and out of the spotlight—is just... never not present.

As it turns out, it was likely Joni's female-ness that kept her from skyrocketing into stardom. Which is not to say she doesn't have legions of appreciators—she does. In the industry, too. Even though it took the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame until 1997 to induct her. 

As a songwriter, Joni was unapologetically human, much like Billie Holiday had been before her. Vulnerable and still venerable; full of both joy and sorrow; emotionally intelligent and still, at odds with the world at large, and all the people in it. As a singer, Joni was sentimental, soaring off into undeniably feminine falsetto on a whim and writing labyrinthine lyrics that often seemed dewey-eyed. But there were always deep-laid criticisms of that very thing sprinkled through. On "Woman of Heart and Mind," Joni was characteristically self aware: I am a woman of heart and mind / With time on her hands / No child to raise / You come to me like a little boy / And I give you my scorn and my praise.

In 2010, Rolling Stonelisted Joni Mitchell as number 62 of the world's 100 Greatest Artists of all time. Not so great as Aerosmith, Metallica, or U2. Naturally. Flanked by men—save the indelible Tina Turner—Joni is one of only seven female artists included in the list. I'm not joking: Aretha Franklin, Madonna, Patti Smith, The Shirelles, and Diana Ross and the Supremes. Besides the fact that Joni herself has been called an influence by (at least) three of the artists that featured in the top ten, there were obvious omissions: Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, Erykah Badu, Sade, Dolly Parton, Etta James, Stevie Nicks, Dusty Springfield, Bikini Kill, Debbie Harry. I mean, where do you even stop?

When Joni Mitchell had her aneurism two years ago, I was terrified that she would die. Because that seems to be the way things go now; you read a couple of status updates, or see a tribute on Instagram, and then you accept that they're gone. For a minute, before I realised she was alright, I was heartbroken. Joni had, much like Emma Thompson says in Love Actually about this very thing, had taught me how to properly feel.

At seventeen, I sat down and listened to some of my parents' records. Blue, of course, left an imprint. Miles of Aisles showed me she knew rock and roll. Clouds, with its closing track "Both Sides Now," made capturing the human essence in under five minutes seem possible. But it was 1968's Song to the Seagull that really changed me. "Cactus Tree" was track 10, and it chronicled a woman travelling the world, men grasping at her heels to stay, and love them.

It was the first time I'd heard this story from a woman. Like any good kid hoping to write someday, I laboured over Jack Kerouac and Hunter S. Thompson at fifteen. I read story after story of men who left women and families to travel the world and see new things. Restless men with dreams of something bigger. When Joni sang it, what I feared about adventure felt validated: if a woman were to do the same, to live life adventurously and with independence, she'd be dragged back by the persistence of the men in her life.

Joni's restlessness, and her unwillingness to settle down felt real to me, unlike Hunter's mescaline-fuelled exploits had. And maybe that's why she was never praised like Dylan or Cohen. Because a woman who doesn't desire you isn't desirable. A woman who doesn't need you isn't needed.

More than that, people tend to remark that Joni isn't contrary or disruptive enough to be considered a changing force in music. Even though she's widely regarded as one of the most inventive guitar players of the late 20th century. It's still a common conversation: she's too sweet, too gentle. So much so that the words in her songs themselves hardly matter. "All my battles were with male egos," she said, a couple of years ago in an interview with New York Magazine. "There are those moments when I wax feminine and I get walked on."

Like most women, Joni was discredited—and still is—for sounding like a woman.

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Edit: This article originally credited Song to the Seagull as being released in 1972.

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