On Joni Mitchell, Failure, And The Feminist Struggle



“We had no money. I made my wedding dress… I walked down the aisle brandishing my daisies,” said Joni Mitchell of her marriage to folk-singer Chuck Mitchell. 

This was the first of many of her relationships that would ‘fail.’  Perhaps my favorite of all her songs is The Gallery, which she purportedly wrote about Leonard Cohen.  Later, in an interview, Cohen reduced his relationship with Mitchell to a fling

“I remember we were spending some time together in Los Angeles years ago and someone said to me, ‘How do you like living with Beethoven?’ I didn’t like it,” he said, “because who would? She’s prodigiously gifted. Great painter too.”



The idea of ‘failure’ is a strange one.  Of course, one is always looking for a connection.  My first attempts involved attributing feelings of love for an ‘idol.’ I equated talent with lovability.

It was November.  Outside, cars whirred down Broadway, water rolling off the wheels in channels.  I was alone in a hotel room with a musician whose work I’d loved for years. I followed his gaze to the bed, which looked hard and glossy, almost lacquered.  Then I followed his gaze out the window.  He seemed lonely, and a little drugged up.  We watched the rain together.  Laughter echoed in the hallway.  The god-awful pink of the bedside lamp spread across the floor and then broke as the door swung open and two other band members stumbled in. I finished my whisky, tore the hotel menu into little pieces quietly, and left.

I don’t know what I’d been expecting.  I was glad to be free.  The hallway stretched out before me. It was welcoming.  I couldn’t wait to be outside, in the rain.

One must make a decision with art—lie, or tell the truth.  Of course, there is always a version of the truth. For instance, I have already lied. I was never alone in that hotel room with that musician—there were at least four other girls with me. Nor was it all platonic—there was a game of spin-the-bottle too. But over the years as I have tried to explain the experience to myself, tried to infuse it with excitement, with meaning, with gravity, I realize that the overall feeling I am left with is disappointment.

And so, in the way I wrote out the experience for myself, I allowed that disappointment to come through. And the best way to do that was to isolate myself in the room with the object of my admiration and to then attempt to come to terms with how little an impact he had on me.

I suppose the reason I keep returning to Joni Mitchell is because, unlike so many contemporary musicians, in her music there is always something at stake.  When I consider her love affairs, I am left wondering about the relationship between talent and autonomy.  Can one devote oneself to one’s art while simultaneously devoting oneself to someone else?  Do these dynamics have anything to do with feminism?

When you stare at yourself in the window of a train at night, you can see the whole world moving through you.  No matter how strong you are, how sealed up, your identity becomes compromised by the bits of field streaming through your hair.  For a moment you might feel like god, outside of time.  Then light breaks and you are alone again, gliding out among the canna and the aster.

This is the effect of a good song. A trip which splits your image of yourself open and then deposits you back to the outside world.  Sublimity.  But it is not an autonomous experience. It is one which requires relinquishing control.

What makes a song feminist?  Is it one that is true to the female experience? Could Lana del Rey be considered feminist? In her song ‘Gods and Monsters’ she sings, ‘I was an angel looking to get fucked hard.’  My friend Dan says that a poem is truly successful only when everyone in the audience is mortified by its honesty.  If that’s so, can mortification of the self be considered feminist? Can one be a feminist and also relinquish control?  Is it feminist to want to get fucked?



I am a lesbian.  I don’t think being a lesbian makes one inherently a feminist.

Feminism is defined as the advocacy of women’s rights on the grounds of political, social, and economic equality to men.  For me, gender has little to do with it.  I interpret feminism to be the movement of being honest with oneself and the world about one’s desires, pains, vulnerabilities, and strengths.  Honesty with oneself is the first step towards making changes on a larger scale.  It is also the main source of a woman’s power.

The feminist struggle confronts itself at the beginning of every new relationship.  Will I be myself and risk scaring them away? Or will I mask certain elements of my personality to further encourage someone who is clearly wrong for me? So one avoids hard liquor or dresses differently or shares fantasies in the hopes it will keep the beloved enticed. And I’m guilty too.  None of these things are feminist – none are honest or true. It’s why I often say I’m not a feminist. As I’ve begun dating men over the last few years, the idea of feminism seems even more unobtainable.

The best art is feminist in that it lays everything out on the table.  It does not strive to create an identity, but rather to express and relieve the one which already exists.  In my opinion, Joni Mitchell is a feminist.  When I have succeeded in being honest with myself, only then will I allow myself the label ‘feminist.’ I’ll get there one day, but it is a daily struggle.


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