Joni Mitchell's Long Battle With "Male Egos"

Photo: Doug Griffin/Toronto Star via Getty Images.
When news broke late Tuesday that music legend Joni Mitchell had been hospitalized in Los Angeles, a shudder went through those listeners who had grown up on — and with — the self-assured blend of pop, folk, and jazz put forth by the "painter derailed by circumstance," as Mitchell described herself. Her 1971 breakup album, Blue, and her travel chronicle Hejira (1976) are just a couple of touchstones in Joni's vast catalog. She's been sampled by Janet Jackson — on the sinewy "Don't Know What You Got ('Til It's Gone)" — and has worked with Charles Mingus. Mitchell's one of pop music's most enigmatic performers, in part because her lyrics are so open; she's no rock star who wraps her foibles and indiscretions in misguided poetry.

Mitchell's hospitalization has extra resonance because of the resilience that she's exhibited throughout her career, which has seen more than its share of slings and arrows from onlookers and peers alike. Her honesty, while gaining her acolytes, didn't always make the men she dealt with (the likes of ex Graham Nash and fellow rock-era poet Bob Dylan) too pleased with her.

In 1971, Rolling Stone called Mitchell — who had been born less than three decades prior — "Old Lady Of The Year," an assertion the magazine backed up with a chart detailing which rock luminaries Mitchell had allegedly been involved with. ("If I did someone's radio show, they had me sleeping with them," she told The Los Angeles Times in 2010.) The sexism of the so-called counterculture ran deep back then, with particular ire directed toward those women who were unwilling to follow the script of docility in the face of mistreatment. Mitchell's lyrics, which detailed her experiences as a woman without deference to the men who shaped those experiences, coolly set those outdated ideas aflame. But, as rock writer Ellen Sander noted, the snide misogyny only seemed to steel Mitchell's resolve to keep telling her truths: "[It] upset her very much. But it didn't faze her, not one bit."

In a 1979 Rolling Stone interview, conducted by Cameron Crowe and titled "Joni Mitchell Defends Herself," Mitchell was sanguine about the way public opinion had turned slightly against her, which included takedowns of her mid-'70s albums, such as the vibrant The Hissing Of Summer Lawns. "You have, possibly, one favorable year of office, and then they start to tear you down," Mitchell told Crowe. "So if your goals end at a platinum album or being king or queen of your idiom, when you inevitably come down from that office, you're going to be heartbroken. Miserable. Nobody likes to have less than what he had before."

Mitchell's attitude toward fame and her focus on art are as relevant today as the lyrics to "A Case Of You." There’s not a big difference between the media backlash Joni faced decades ago and the way stars are treated by tabloids today — although today's cycles of criticism move at a much faster rate. That Mitchell has been so consistently clear-eyed about not just her own vision, but the way it fits into the often-cruel world where it resides, makes her art all the more potent. Her vision also feels like a relic of a pre-online age, when artists could lock themselves away from the churn of social media and the ever-inquisitive tabloid press.
Photo: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns.
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A few years ago, Mitchell retired from releasing music. "I can't sing anymore — don't miss it," she told Billboard last year. She'd long battled with record companies over control of her work, and she had a new trial to deal with: Morgellons disease, a condition that the Centers For Disease Control called "unexplained dermeopathy." Mitchell was more blunt in her description, calling it a "weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space" in an interview earlier this year  with New York Magazine. “Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm," she said. "They cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable, or mineral.”

Even though she's not releasing new music, and despite her illness, Mitchell remains active, augmenting the vitality of her earlier works with projects that recontextualize them. In 2014, she released the boxed set Love Has Many Faces, a career-spanning look at her songs on romance. Originally intended to be a 75-minute collection that would accompany a work by the Alberta Ballet, it grew into a four-disc, four-act retrospective, with liner notes penned by Mitchell herself. Earlier this year, Hedi Slimane made Mitchell the model for St. Laurent; “[They're] not innovative, but really good to wear, the kinds of things I’ve worn at one time or another in my life,” Joni told New York Magazine about the clothes in the associated collection.

“All my battles were with male egos,” Mitchell added. “I’m just looking for equality, not to dominate. But, I want to be able to control my vision. There are those moments when I wax feminine and I get walked on.”

The resolve in that statement echoes something Mitchell said to Crowe in 1979: "I'll tell you, any acts of frustration or concern or anxiety in my life are all peripheral to a very solid core. A very strong, continuing course I've been following. All this other stuff is just the flak that you get for engaging in the analytical process in the first place."

Mitchell's resolve to allow her vision to guide her and her unwillingness to be seen as a second-class citizen both animate her songwriting, from the lush arrangements to the plainly honest lyrics. And, those twinned desires, which Mitchell has navigated successfully for decades, provide a touchpoint for women of all ages who want the ability to simultaneously be women and be in charge of the world immediately around them.