Feeling Blue

Love, Cynicism, and Sorrow Through Musical Generations

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in Features • Illustrated by Marguerita Cruz-Urbanc

It is now commonly understood that “Little Green,” one of the most arresting tracks on Joni Mitchell’s classic 1971 album Blue is a work of autobiography. More specifically, it’s about Mitchell, alone and freezing in the middle of winter in downtown Toronto, giving her child up for adoption, a fleeting last wish for her daughter’s happiness that the two will no longer share. Rendered in slightly veiled language, the song nevertheless spins a heartbreaking portrait of intermingled loss and hope, even divorced from its specific subject matter. The crucial thing, though, is that this context was not known at the time of the album’s initial release, and many had assumed it was simply a story song in the vein of many from singers-songwriters of the time such as James Taylor and Carole King. Mitchell herself was also deeply cagey for many years about how much this and other songs were “about her,” fearing both personal and professional consequences of such facts coming to light. It was only through a tabloid journal piece that the subject of “Little Green” came to general knowledge and this came after a career of being characterized by the musical press as “rock’s old lady,” defined more by her relationships with a number of male performers than her own work. Thankfully, both the album and Mitchell’s broader impact have been reassessed to render these notions the sort of sexist nonsense they always were.  

Most especially worthy of note is just how far ahead of her time Mitchell was to write songs like this. The kind stark, highly personal songcraft that Mitchell perfected throughout the album was of a piece with earlier movements in poetry (think Plath, Sexton, Lowell), but it had no real analogy in lyrical terms with its contemporaries in the music world. Much of the movement towards stripped-down folk in the late ’60s and early ’70s had either an outward-looking, sociopolitical edge in the vein of Phil Ochs or reached for transcendent generality as in Paul Simon’s best work. Though Blue, as all great art inevitably does, touches on universal feelings, it reaches them through an individualistic filter. In other words, it’s a record about the experience of being Joni Mitchell at that particular point in her life and no one else could have written it or performed it authentically. Her earlier hits (“Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “Woodstock”) were certainly idiosyncratic in their phrasings and delivery, but they remained malleable, and indeed entered the canon through more popular covers by larger or more conventional performers. 

Even Mitchell herself rapidly retreated from the bone-deep intimacy of Blue, with her follow-up records spinning more Dylan-esque word puzzles and running her folk sensibilities through cracked jazz textures. Sonically, too, the album is distinctly chillier than its contemporaries (perhaps with the exception of the upbeat travelogue of “Carey”), with the piano and dulcimer accents glinting like frozen water against the last call barroom ambiance of Mitchell’s lonely vocals. Goodwill to all men, this was not, even twisting the “Jingle Bells” melody into a declaration of isolation on “River.” It is in this intense specificity that Blue finds its greatest echoes through musical time. It is nigh-impossible to imagine acclaimed albums from the past couple of years such as Sun Kil Moon’s Benji or Sufjan Stevens’s Carrie and Lowell existing without Mitchell making the musical world safe for intense personal disclosure.  More specifically, though, Mitchell’s album battered a door down for female perspectives outside of traditional pop love songs within a spectrum of broad popular music. This means that Mitchell’s influence goes even further afield than would be typically recognized, to Riot grrrl punk and female-fronted ’90s indie rock to name just a couple of areas. Two, arguably now three, generations of female songwriters owe something of a debt to Mitchell, but each has carried on this legacy in their own way and speaking to the context of their own age. What is anguished reflexivity on Blue becomes streetwise smirk on Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville/Whip-Smart duology. What is restrained grace with Mitchell becomes unchained howl with Julien Baker’s Sprained Ankle.  The outward ripples of Joni Mitchell’s legacy, and in particular the legacy of Blue, then, are much more evocatively explored by looking at the contextual frameworks of both herself and her successors. 

Blue itself is, if nothing else, a personal and social morning after the mayhem, viewing the struggles and triumphs of the late ’60s the way one might view a particularly raging night out in the hazy hangover light of the next noon. This comes through it both its somber, muted music and its battered, searching words. This is most explicit with hand-tip lines like the reference to the 1968 Detroit Riots on “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” but one could also read “Little Green” as a shattered rebuke of “free love” and “A Case of You” renders unrequited desire as wide as geography itself (best of use of an “O Canada” interpolation). A commonly-heard feminist slogan from the time of the album’s creation being “the personal is political,” the album’s intense intermingling of individual experience with wider context speaks to this. Mitchell’s lyrical poise throughout is of a person who is fundamentally vulnerable, but not naïve, wanting to be loved but cautious of its dangers, and ultimately finding a freedom in her own strength from all that has gone before, ending the album with the image of herself growing wings and flying away from “Richard” and all the bad faith he embodies. Her commitment to brazen honesty occasionally produces lyrics that can render as wince-inducing sincerity to modern ears, but they fit in with the pseudo-Bohemian, “let it all hang out” vibes floating freely in the culture of the time. Though shaded by experience and not without sorrow, the personal exegesis of the album ultimately makes it a hopeful, optimistic work. If it is sad, it is so with knowing that brighter days come, and it holds out hope for future loves and future joys in unveiled terms. In lesser hands, this might come off as pleading or ingratiating, but the surfeit of honesty that Mitchell brings to her work means that it flows more like a deep conversation with an old friend. 

Liz Phair is likely best remembered now for her bubblegum 2003 single “Why Can’t I,” but during the ’90s, her songwriting chops and daring frankness about matters personal made her a darling of the alt/indie scene, particularly around Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Though its sequencing is famously patterned after the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main StreetPhair’s 1993 debut Exile in Guyville might be better thought of like an update of the confessional songwriter in the mode of Blue for the sensibilities of the time. In musical terms, this results in a much wider range of styles and tones, from the indie riff-rock of “Help Me Mary” to the choral experimentation of “Flower”. This musical variety also allows Phair to develop a persona with more explicitly defined angles: she’s swaggering and tough-minded on opener “6’1,” tongue-in-cheek on “Girls, Girls, Girls” and vulnerable on “Canary.” Throughout, though, Phair’s untrained vocals hit with a sort of deliberate flatness, rendering even her most direct lyrics, such as on “Divorce Song,” somewhat detached and blasé. It reads like nothing so much as an emotional defense mechanism trained by Clinton-era irony to guard against underlying feelings too difficult to be grappled with directly. “Fuck and Run,” an avant-la-lettre hook-up culture thinkpiece in three minutes, can be read as the low-stakes version of “Little Green” in its half-hearted spiking of male commitment-phobia. “Johnny Sunshine” and “Soap Star Joe,” meanwhile, throw contemporary male archetypes under Phair’s dissertational gaze and betray a sort of cynical hyper-analysis which had come to replace Mitchell’s romantic optimism. Some of Phair’s concerns run more mundane and distinctly collegiate, the messy roommates on “Help Me Mary”, for example, but throughout she succeeds in rendering a multi-faceted portrait of an individual on the cusp of adulthood, taught to be vigilantly protective of her emotions, but occasionally letting the mask slip and kicking herself for it. 

Phair’s second album, Whip-Smart, repeats some of the key themes of her debut (“Chopsticks” is “Fuck and Run”’s considerably grimmer cousin), but it has much glossier production and lets in more sunlight. “Supernova” is a genuine, albeit quirky, ode to a romantic companion that echoes the deeply personal love found on Blue’s “My Old Man,” while the chiming “Go West” finds strange contentment in separation. It is still the work of young adulthood’s poses, but in Phair’s more expressive vocals and more shaded lyrics, it begins to show a bit more of the beating heart beneath the smirking exterior. Her oft-forgotten third album Whitechocolatespaceeggwritten after becoming a mother, is of a different sort, with bright melodies and lyrics speaking to the simpler joys of settling down. Its mature, largely-contented perspective even finds Phair singing in character as her wisdom-dispensing mother on standout “What Makes You Happy,” emblematic of the sort of journey to maturity rarely able to be dispensed on record. Listened to together, the three albums speak to each other in a cycle from premature embitterment to warm sophistication. 

Julien Baker’s masterful 2015 debut, Sprained Ankle, cuts a distinctly modern middle point between Mitchell’s open-heartedness and the early Phair’s air-quotes chilliness. Baker’s music is similarly sparse to Mitchell’s, consisting almost entirely of her voice and guitar with minimal piano flourishes, and her lyrics are even more unsparing. “Something” uses tail lights as a deft metaphor for bereftness in much the same way Mitchell’s “This Flight Tonight” did for an earlier epoch, while the crushing roadside defeat of closer “Go Home” suggests on ongoing bleakness of spirit. The main differences are a matter of both vocal delivery and a slight self-awareness which creeps in around Baker’s edges. When she sings “I wish I could write songs about anything other than death” on the title track, she allows herself a kind of modernist escape hatch. It’s that kind of slightly performative touch that gives the album the feeling of an overly disclosing, if beautifully written, social media post at points, echoing what could be called the created persons characteristic of our time.

In her vocals as well, Baker betrays her musical roots in punk, with her howls at the end of “Everybody Does” and “Good News” having more in common with Rites of Spring than Carole King. Moreover, her heartbreak feels distinctly more immediate and crushing, rendered in pill bottles and sleepless nights, emptied whiskey and smashed keyboards. What it lacks in the near-existential reflection of Blue, it makes up for with gut-punch directness, even despite its slight feints against overt sentimentality. The relation that this aesthetic bares to social media-era self-deprecating oversharing is worth thinking about, particularly as Baker herself has been unusually open about the teenage struggles with addiction and self-harm that inspired many of her lyrics. Unlike Mitchell, who would always be demure about how much her songs should be interpreted for personal and political context (even infamously rejecting her status as a “feminist” icon in a 2013 interview), Baker draws more direct lines between herself and the figures in her songs. Perhaps the old game of separating art from the artist is now definitively impossible, given how much personal access to the process and personality of artists is now an expectation of fans. Then again, such disclosure also likely reflects a responsibility that Baker, coming from a DIY indie scene that prizes community action, feels to her listeners for her art to act as something of a communal space for both tragedy and triumph. That her lyrics are framed by chiming circular guitar figures and heavily-echoed piano chords both give a filtered clarity to the record and speaks to her emo and punk musical roots.  

The three generations of songs on these albums speak to an evolution in the cultural context in which they were crafted. Blue embodies all the broken-dreams regret of the post-’60s milieu (it finds a good companion in this sense in Neil Young’s After the Gold Rush), but it finds hope in personal affirmation and the ultimate possibility of human connection, despite the roughness in getting there. Phair’s three-album cycle could be seen as Gen X’s journey from burnout slackers to clean-scrubbed proud parents in musical miniature, with a tempered optimism eventually winning out over a too-cool-for-school poise. Sprained Ankle, meanwhile, offers the kind over-disclosure defining the current moment of being young, beautifully shot through with an unflinching directness.  Above all, though, these albums and the many more which owe Blue some form of debt, speak to the evolving nature of personal disclosure in songwriting. What is “honesty” will vary from generation to generation, but we as listeners will ever be drawn to it, as long as there are heartbreak and sorrow from which we seek commiseration.•

Carter Vance is a writer and poet originally from Cobourg, Ontario, Canada currently resident in Ottawa, Ontario. His work has appeared in such publications as The VehicleContemporary Verse 2, and A Midwestern Review, amongst others. He is a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Ideas Fellow. His debut collection of poems, Songs About Girls, was published by Urban Farmhouse Press in 2017.

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