Ruin My Stockings in Some Jukebox Dive: Confessional Songwriting and Joni Mitchell’s “All I Want”

In which the pop song is elevated and Daniel is the most basic white girl you know.

Joni_Mitchell_Blue

To my dear reader,

Like any basic white girl, I love me some Taylor Swift. First thing in the morning while making breakfast? Yes. In the car on the way to work? Duh. While having a dance party by myself in public? Obviously. Like any really basic white girl, my favorite album of hers is 1989, which is unashamedly indulgent radio pop, and has no pretensions of soft pop country as her earlier albums do. After reading Michelle Mercer’s Will You Take Me As I Am: Joni Mitchell’s Blue Period, however, my understanding of Swift has been subtly, significantly altered. With her reputation as “confessional singer-songwriter pouring out her soul in the wake of the broken hearts she leaves behind,” Swift is inadvertently carrying on the legacy of the original confessional queen/female singer-songwriter/public heartbreaker, Joni Mitchell.

Mitchell would undoubtedly, and understandably, be outraged by this claim. This is rather like saying my stick figure drawings make me the next Vincent Van Gogh. Mitchell was a major musical force during the second half of the 1900s, riding the musical waves of 60s folk, Top 40 hits and rock n’ roll while retaining a distinctive – if ever evolving – musical identity. She helped to elevate the pop song to a level approaching art song, in much the same way that Romantic composer Franz Schubert elevated the song cycle to near operatic artistry. She added poetic detail to her lyrics found mostly in musical theater before, added musical complexity and flexibility found mostly in impressionist music and jazz before, and added thematic realism found mostly in Beat poetry before. Swift, as much as I love her, is just… a basic white girl (like me).

What Swift and Mitchell share is not artistry, but public conception. Much like young Mitchell in the wake of her elegant, bittersweet 1971 album Blue, Swift has long been this generation’s “heartbroken girl playing her guitar alone on stage/celebrity beauty leaving broken hearts in her wake,” with the public speculating wildly about which of her public love affairs each song concerns. Nevertheless, this “sad singer-songwriter pouring out their heart” model is one many current pop musicians have followed (i.e. Sara Bareilles, Regina Spektor, a very young Daniel Wolfert, etc.), but before reading Mercer’s book, I didn’t know where it came from, or how much influence it’s had on the commercial music I hear today.

Taking the first track from Blue as an example, Mitchell’s “All I Want” was the first of her songs that I enjoyed. I realize now that it’s because it held the DNA of current pop songs I most enjoy – empowering, upbeat songs that aren’t about romance, but personal potential and possibility. Listening to it now, I hear elements of it echoed in many similar contemporary songs. The drone that carries throughout the song, providing tonal and rhythmic regularity, is used in A Great Big Word’s “Rockstar;” the wide melodic contour soaring into the light soprano head voice is used in Regina Spektor’s “Us;” the conversational, revealing lyrical style is used in Sara Bareilles’ “Uncharted.”

There lies a certain irony in all this. Firstly, as Mercer writes in her book, her songwriting peers originally discouraged Mitchell from writing songs like “All I Want.” After playing for a group of them when she first wrote it, those peers uncomfortably told her to keep some secrets for herself. This is, in a way, the opposite of what audiences want now – they want their artists to pour their delicious lives into their art for the public. Secondly, as Mercer also describes, Mitchell would bristle at being called “confessional” or “autobiographical.” She would say that her music is meant to speak greater truths, and that any use of personal experience (or even first personal lyrics) is just a means to that end. These musical, lyrical, and thematic characteristics in contemporary “confessional” or “autobiographical” songs could be found in any kind of music, but Mitchell’s innovative use of them is still echoed specifically in today’s “confessional” and “autobiographical” songs. While others inadvertently carry on her musical legacy, Swift carries on her public legacy, but regardless, Mitchell’s legacy is unknowingly carried on by so many today – including basic white girls like Taylor Swift and myself.

With all due respect,

Daniel Wolfert

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