Who better to celebrate on #womancrushwednesday than Joni Mitchell? An emblem of female empowerment, Mitchell has always retained publishing rights to her music and has produced, often solely, her own albums. Though primarily considered a pop artist, the songs she wrote carried a signature folk rock sound with a jazz influence. Mitchell’s success as a solo songwriter and singer in the 1970s music scene certainly gets us going.
Sean Nelson’s Court and Spark (2006) looks at the 1974 album, Mitchell’s sixth, as a concentrated effort for a hit record. This analysis pushes Mitchell toward the pop star image, but the album retains her signature influences from rock, including guest performers, as well as folk and jazz; the electric guitar features just as strongly as wind instruments. Court and Spark reached #2 in the United States in March of 1974, eventually receiving double-platinum certification. “Help Me,” “Free Man in Paris” and “Raised on Robbery” all became hit singles.
When I listen to this album, I can’t help but analyze it in relation to other pop and rock music that I love from that era. “Same Situation” has similar vibes to Queen’s “Somebody to Love” (1976), though instead of looking for somebody to love, Mitchell’s lyrics call for “somebody/Who’s strong and somewhat sincere,” suggesting a much more nuanced, if embittered, plea for partnership. The perennial search for love in music does not always call to mind the sacrifices we anticipate in the continual bargaining of partnership. The chorus ends with “Caught in my struggle for higher achievements/And my search for love,” echoing the dichotomy faced by countless women who have given up careers and other personal achievements in exchange for a partner and family in the decades before and since Court and Spark. In Mitchell’s lyrics, the female voice and figure receives a more nuanced, complicated, and bittersweet appraisal than one is accustomed to in comparable records of the time.
This also applies to “Raised on Robbery,” which is sonically different than most of the album. The opening bars are played on the electric guitar. Mitchell’s voice, supported by back-up vocalists, cuts in, in a style reminiscent of the vocalists of World War II-era songs like Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” or “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.” I’ll describe it as sharp, harmonized vocals with understated instrumentals in the background. In Mitchell’s case, this style shortly gives way to a more contemporary style. Meanwhile, the lyrics quickly subvert the upbeat music with the sad tale of a woman struggling to make rent after a male relation drinks away the money that was supposed to help them survive. If anything, the fast-paced music, which adopts a jazz-folk feel, is indicative of the woman’s resolve in light of her unfortunate circumstances.
Though over 40 years old, this album is surprisingly relevant today and specifically to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. For anyone sequestered in their home but still trying to navigate the online dating scene, “Help Me” resonates. The narrator frets about falling in love too quickly, while “hoping for the future/And worrying about the past.” We cannot help but think of the future and how good it will be—to wander outside, to sit in a bar, to hug someone—but we’ll never get to live in our future, post-COVID-19, the way we lived in our past. The catchy chorus finishes with “We love our lovin’/But not like we love our freedom,” which in this crisis I interpret as the collective freedom we will achieve when the spread of disease slows, which will happen faster if we refrain from breaking quarantine to date.
As a woman, as an artist, Mitchell engages with and pushes against the norms of the industry, all the while retaining a singular sound and reputation. May we all strive to achieve Joni Mitchell’s level of career power and lyrical grace.
Hooked on Joni? Check out Sean Nelson’s 33 1/3 here!