'Blue', 'Tapestry', and Oil: Or, Oil Capitalism in Two Key Singer-Songwriter Albums
Joni Mitchell's Blue and Carole King's Tapestry were fueled by petroculture, which powered the rise of feminism in music. How? Read on.
Introducing Music and Petroculture
This project generally argues that oil capitalism has enabled new forms of feminism in music, in addition to its more well-known environmental devastation. It examines two key 1970s singer-songwriter albums, both recorded in Los Angeles and released in 1971, through the lens of what is called "petroculture".
Oil capitalism, whether or not it is recognized as such, has influenced every cultural text since the discovery of oil in the US in the 19th century. From natural disasters to the ever-presence of automobiles in film and television, oil is everywhere. And yet, oil is undertheorized as a significant influence on culture, especially in the US. The growing body of writing on oil and culture is a testament to the growing awareness of oil's status as both known and unknown, ever-present and absent. We know oil exists, but we don't see how it gets produced.
In 1992, post-colonial novelist Amitav Ghosh theorized that the lack of "petrofiction" and "petroculture" spoke to how deeply (in particular) US cultures had been taught to ignore issues of oil capitalism in the 20th century. By this, he meant that the novel had failed to even attempt to come to terms with the "oil encounter" in the United States and abroad. Ghosh cited Upton Sinclair's 1927 novel, Oil!, as the rare example of "any author hazard[ing] writing the great American oil novel" (qtd. in Poll 3).
Sinclair's text is a significant beginning point for the study of petroculture because, even though there were popular songs about oil in the 1860s (Poll), the novel examines both the production and consumption of oil in ways that have rarely been examined since. Oil! provides a detailed look into the processes of oil's extraction and refinement and the risks involved, including fires and other disasters, in 1920s Los Angeles, but Sinclair also shows how cars had become a space for a new kind of masculinity. Cars become a focal point for Sinclair's commentary on the main character, Bunny's, encounters with gender roles and sex.
In contrast to Sinclair's foundational text and its focus on the dominant culture's idea of masculinity, I want to focus on texts that sometimes highlight resistant readings of oil and petroculture, also based in Los Angeles, one of the first places where oil capitalism emerged in this country. To take after theorist Fredric Jameson's work, all of these texts highlight both social violences and utopian impulses--for example, innovative ways of perceiving the world. Singer-songwriters Joni Mitchell's and Carole King's respective albums Blue and Tapestry highlight new forms of feminism and feminist aesthetics that reclaim the road as a space for women. These examples have problematic aspects, but they also hold out hope for a better world. Blue is an especially compelling example of the products of oil capitalism -- automobiles -- heavily influencing a recording, but Tapestry requires a different kind of reading of oil that shows how deeply this liquid commodity has influenced our culture.
While oil capitalism has had negative effects on the global environment—witness oil spills and other disasters—it has simultaneously enabled new forms of social movements to occur, including feminism. The car became a symbol of liberation for women, and this project seeks to examine how this symbol manifests itself in two crucial albums of popular music that are rarely read as about themes connected to oil, like travel and the road.
Mitchell's album embodies the open road in many ways, including with her expansive and unique guitar tunings and poetic lyrics about travel. Mitchell opened new metaphorical roads of possibility for women in popular music with her frank discussions of sexuality on the road and her role as a strong woman in a very male-dominated industry, including producing, writing, playing instruments on, and performing her own work. King's album requires a different kind of reading of how oil enables the album's approach to King's singing and writing and Lou Adler's production.
While making a larger point, this project does not seek to make a singular argument to prove over and over again; instead, it follows Fredric Jameson's approach to dialectical thinking, examining both the problems and the utopian possibilities in both recordings. Ultimately, I intend to show how oil capitalism enabled new forms of feminism in music by using the car as a literal and metaphorical vehicle for franker discussions of sexuality and of different kinds of relationships between women and men, as well as other forms of empowering women in the music industry.
Decades after Sinclair's milestone work, in the 1950s and '60s, the various US rock 'n' roll scenes were dominated by men (Lazotte), and as a result, many classic themes of early rock 'n' roll became associated with men. One of these gendered themes -- like in Oil! -- was the automobile, as seen on records ranging from Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" and Chuck Berry's "Maybelline" in the '50s to a plentitude of surf rock records by the Beach Boys and others in the '60s (Lazotte). In the early 1970s, however, songs about the automobile and travel were reclaimed by a group of predominantly female, acoustic musicians with a decidedly softer sound than that of contemporaries like Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath. The story of the singer-songwriters has often been recounted as one of reaction to the sociopolitical turmoil of the 1960s (see the PBS documentary Carole King: Natural Woman, for example), but what's rarely recounted is what larger economic forces shaped this movement and its themes. One such force was oil capitalism.
How do we examine music as a form of petroculture? One way to do this is to look for lyrics and sounds that do and do not emphasize the road; for example, themes of travel, migration, and emplacement. Two of the albums most often cited as touchstones of the '70s singer-songwriter movement are from artists associated with the Laurel Canyon scene in southern California: Joni Mitchell's Blue and Carole King's Tapestry. I examine the lyrics and the sound of the albums for what they have to say about the road while examining both the social violences and utopian possibilities that such music reflects.
Theorist James Clifford's essay, "Notes on Travel and Theory", writes about "the term 'travel', despite its connotations of middle class 'literary' or recreational journeying, spatial practices long associated with male experiences and virtues" (qtd. in hooks Black Looks 173). Feminist theorist bell hooks takes Clifford's analysis and uses it to imagine a place of travel without domination, as she argues, "From certain standpoints, to travel is to encounter the terrorizing force of white supremacy" (hooks Black Looks 174), citing forced enslavement and migration as examples of this. How do these forms of racial privilege play out for women who are also coping with gender oppression? How do Mitchell and King create texts that are both oppressive and subversive?
I will examine Blue in terms of Mitchell's lyrics about travel in terms of both privilege and marginalization. As I speculated in a separate essay, Blue's lyrics about recreational journeying reflect both class privilege and gender marginalization (Friedberg). Blue shows how such journeying enables both forms of colonial exploitation as well as nascent feminist aesthetics, lyrical and musical.
Different authors have noted the autobiographical content in Blue and Tapestry, and Mitchell and King have bolstered this idea in interviews (for example, in Mitchell's 1979 interview in Rolling Stone and the Carole King interview collected in David Brackett's The Pop, Rock, and Soul Reader, 2014 edition). As a result, I read both of these albums as less performative and more directly autobiographical, with these songs written about the singers and their lives.
The Fuel for Joni Mitchell's Blue
The first song on Blue, "All I Want", is one of several "road" songs on the album. The opening lines set up a language of the road as a key to freedom -- not a new trope for men in music, but an innovative one for women. Mitchell sings, "I am on a lonely road and I am traveling/ Traveling, traveling, traveling/ Looking for something, what can it be?" The use of "lonely" here reinforces the utopian and the unhappy aspects of this road—she knows she is figuratively blazing a new trail for other women to follow, but she doesn't have much company on it. Mitchell then immediately reinforces the ambiguity of the last line with lines about the duality of her relationship: "Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some/ I love you some/ Oh, I love you when I forget about me." Here, she claims that she loves her partner when she puts him first, which may not sound especially liberatory, as she may be resisting urges to stand up for herself.
In some ways, this kind of ostensible submissiveness fits well at the beginning of the album, as by its end, Blue increasingly focuses on separation, loss, and independence. In line with this shift from beginning to end, the repetition of "traveling" in an irregular rhythm and the immediate shift from "I hate you some" to "I love you some", as well as Mitchell's quickly moving to different parts of her vocal range ("so-o-o-o blue"), reinforce the sense of constant movement that the song conveys overall, as does Mitchell's unique dulcimer tuning.
The song also connotes naïve innocence in its rhymes, unusually simple and playful for Mitchell. For example, "Applause, applause, life is our cause/ When I think of your kisses, my mind see-saws" connotes a freewheeling view of romance, with the metaphor of a see-saw an example of something that moves swiftly and freely. And yet, once again, the ambiguity of this freedom is showcased in that image, as Mitchell figuratively see-saws between loving and hating her partner, as shown in the lines that follow: "Do you see, do you see, do you see/ How you hurt me, baby/ So I hurt you, too/ Then we both get so blue." These lines suggest strife and potential abuse, reflecting the perils of love on the road in the context of the song, and again, the propulsive repetition conjures images of motion, like that on the road.
This track also sets up an expectation of liberating sex as tied to the road, once again reinforcing the association of the road with unprecedented freedom for women. One example of this is when she sings about her desire to "wreck my stockings in some jukebox dive": "Do you want to dance with me, baby/ Do you want to take a chance/ On maybe finding some sweet romance with me, baby?/ Well, come on". The jukebox dive serves as a symbol for a place that is rural and remote, which would be enabled by greater traveling with the automobile. The reason the road symbolizes freer sexuality here is in the image of the wrecked stockings, as Mitchell wants to trample on patriarchal expectations for women by wrecking a garment associated with femininity and societal limitations for women. When she sings, "I want to make you feel free" at the end, she is encouraging her male partner to feel free with her--on her terms. Still, "All I Want" does set up the expectation of "a lonely road" for the rest of the album.
Additionally, Cultural Studies scholar Chris Lezotte points to how "All I Want" subverts the rock 'n' roll car songs of previous decades. She writes, "The car song came to prominence at a time when men were in the driver's seat of both the automobile and recording industries. The car song was produced and marketed by men for the consumption of the young white male driver" (161). Lezotte contextualizes the shift to women singing car songs within the burgeoning feminist movement of the 1960s, with "the subsequent rise in women's salaries provid[ing] many women with the resources to drive automobiles of their own choosing" (166). This shift, according to Lezotte, led to later car songs by the likes of Nanci Griffith, Shania Twain, Aretha Franklin, and Tracy Chapman, though some of these songs, like Chapman's "Fast Car", sang of poverty and not affluence.
As a result, "All I Want" became a touchstone of an emerging scene of women singing and/or writing songs about the car as a symbol of freedom. Lezotte asserts, "[A]s Joni Mitchell opened the road, and the contemporary music world, to women, the keys to the car became women's keys to independence" (168), as women "altered the meaning of the automobile to reflect their own experiences" (172). In this sense, the personal, reflective lyrics of singer-songwriters like Mitchell fit well in the male-dominated discourse of songs about cars and travel, even though the singer-songwriters' sound was considerably gentler and more acoustic than their counterparts.
Related, Gender Studies scholar Marilyn Adler Papayanis writes about Blue being "about the idea of wandering", a concept connected to the road and travel. She writes that Mitchell's position of wandering differed significantly from that of '60s popular male artists:
The rambling songs ("Traveling Man," "The Wanderer," "King of the Road," "I Get Around") that celebrate freedom from confinement--often in tandem with love 'em and leave 'em womanizing--are, essentially, phallocentric, male narratives. [. . .] By the same token, girls (for the most part) didn't "wander." [. . .] Blue is an album that calls into question the gender of wandering. (650)
Among the records listed above, the Beach Boys' 1964 hit, "I Get Around", is most directly tied to cars: the metaphor of getting around becomes a double entendre for both "love 'em and leave 'em womanizing" and travel by car. Of course, the two are connected, as the car enables such womanizing.
Blue, however, does indeed have elements of "love 'em and leave 'em" premarital sex, which, according to Papayanis, lost its taboo status for women around the time of Mitchell's ascent to stardom. Whether she sings about having sex with a man from a jukebox dive or about commitment, both are tied to premarital sex. As Papayanis perceptively points out, the album's second song, "My Old Man", includes at least one explicit line referring to such a relationship: "We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall/ Keeping us tried and true" (qtd. 651). Here, marriage is not a prerequisite for commitment, which, I would argue, is utopian because it imagines a relationship -- monogamous or otherwise -- unbound by the ties of a traditionally patriarchal, heterosexist institution.
In this song, men travel alone, too, though the lyric, "But when he's gone/ Me and them lonesome blues collide", could refer to him being away from their living space. When Mitchell sings, "Then he comes home/ And he takes me in his loving arms/ And he tells me all his troubles/ And he tells me all my charms", this shows progressive energy at work because it shows a man going against a patriarchal stereotype (of that time and beyond). He's nstead being open and presumably honest about "his troubles", while also expressing feelings about her "charms" and his love for her. In a sense, oil enables his being away from home and his weariness with his life at work or on the road, but it also enables him to be more honest, perhaps with him representing an anti-patriarchal, pro-feminist man.
"Little Green" shows how oil also enables separation. The song was written about Mitchell's daughter that she gave up for adoption a few years before Blue being recorded. The father "went to California/ Hearing that everything's warmer there", referring to the climate in the state and perhaps also the possibilities of the open road in a city like Los Angeles and relationships with new partners there. The symbolism of California also reinforces Mitchell's ties to the Laurel Canyon scene of singer-songwriters, which also included Taylor, Jackson Browne, and others.
"Carey" is one of the central songs about travel on the album. The song focuses on restless recreational travel, and sometimes what Papayanis labels as "slumming": the singer is wealthy, but she's acting like she's poor. Once again, oil enables the travel—and the slumming: she is buying wine for "these freaks and these soldiers/ ... these friends of mine", and she refers to her location as "this tourist town". She's clearly setting herself up as a tourist, though she seems to dislike the area -- it is ostensibly only "the bright red devil/ Who keeps" her there. She whimsically names different locales -- "Maybe I'll go to Amsterdam/ Or maybe I'll go to Rome/ And rent me a grand piano/ And put some flowers 'round my room" -- as symbols of potential journeying, where she literally makes herself at home, with the piano and flowers serving as symbols of domesticity. In a way, she is a colonizer, which has all sorts of ramifications for social violences that oil enables.
Tourism in many so-called third world countries has become a symbol of globalization and neocolonialism, which literary scholar Lois Tyson defines as having "the exploitation of the cheap labor available in developing countries, often at the expense of those countries' own struggling businesses, cultural traditions, and ecological well-being" (410). In one especially relevant example, Tyson writes of how the Niger Delta region of Nigeria has been devastated by "the unchecked dumping of petroleum waste, frequent oil spills ... and natural gas emissions" because of the region's domination by Royal Dutch Shell, a foreign oil company. The oil industry there does not benefit the residents and harms their air and water (411), and this has been a direct result of globalization. This oil, of course, fuels automobiles around the world, such as those portrayed in Blue.
Furthermore, novelist Jamaica Kincaid directly ties tourism of formerly colonized nations such as her home country, Antigua, to European colonialism. She claims in A Small Place that colonialism devastated such countries so badly that these areas must now depend on tourism from outsiders to bring in revenue to rebuild their economies.
But again, this is also a type of wandering, and Mitchell's marginalization as a woman complicates her status as a colonial oppressor: she has privilege, but she is also staking out territory that was traditionally male-dominated. Not only am I referring to physical territory, tied to colonialism, but also a space in music for greater female independence. But as hooks has argued, Second Wave Feminism of this period -- tied to Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique from 1963 -- tended to exclude women of color while being tied to class as well as race privilege (hooks Feminist Theory). So, oil enables traveling between physical locations as well as between wealthy and impoverished lifestyles.
Mitchell initially sings, "I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne" because she is traveling away from her life of luxury, but at the end of "Carey", she reinforces the temporary nature of her slumming: "Maybe it's been too long a time/ Since I was scramblin' down in the street/ Now they got me used to that clean white linen/ And that fancy French cologne" signifies that it's been too long since she's been doing such posturing, and now she's back to her luxurious life.
The album's title track serves as one of a few songs on the album that reference travel without oil, in this case by water: the lines, "You know I've been to sea before/ Crown and anchor me/ Or let me sail away" function as a symbol of freedom. Still, the metaphor is ambiguous: does she want to "sail away"? It sounds from the song that she still wants to be with the man she calls "Blue", crowned and anchored to him and his identity
"California" is stunning, especially in terms of Mitchell's singing, but like "Carey", it reflects recreational middle-class tourism. She sings of a transatlantic voyage, starting in Paris, going to "a Grecian isle" and Spain, ending with meeting the title character in his namesake state.
She sings, "Oh, it gets so lonely/ When you're walking/ And the streets are full of strangers", symbolizing that travel and oil yield yearning and loss. But despite this, she's still a tourist and recreational traveler, even with the sensitivity she brings to her concerns with it. The repeated end of, "Will you take me as I am?" on long high notes emphasizes female subjectivity, as does the high note on the word "me" at the end of the title track. In "California", she wants acceptance on her terms, no matter where she travels with oil capitalism.
The theme of slumming and living the impoverished lifestyle temporarily as a sign of hipness returns in "This Flight Tonight": "a falling star ... wasn't the one that you gave to me/ That night down south between the trailers" serves as a symbol of poverty ("trailers"), which it also sounds like is foreign to Mitchell's narrator. Oil here becomes a literal and figurative vehicle for anxiety with the airplane ("Turn this crazy bird around/ I shouldn't have got on this flight tonight"). In fact, in this song, both with cars and airplanes, oil is tied to sex: the car exists for traveling with and without lovers, while the airplane is about yearning to return to the place that she had been traveling to (the opposite of "California"). In the last verse, when Mitchell sings, "I hope they finally fixed your automobile/ I hope it's better when we meet again, baby", his car enables (better) romance, as a site of sex.
The next song, "River", is perhaps the most heartbreaking moment on the album and, like with the title track's image of the sea, there is no oil present. Mitchell imagines a frozen body of water that she wishes she "could skate away on" to escape her loneliness. Sex is present when she sings, "[H]e put me at ease/ And he loved me so naughty/ Made me weak in the knees", and once again, sex is tied to (the desire to) travel. So, despite the lack of oil present, there is still a longing to return to a lifestyle of travel that oil enables. Without oil and automobiles, it appears, her heartbreak is complete.
The album's final two songs continue the trend of heartbreaking songs with no oil present. "A Case of You" is another song that does not mention oil, but it has other imagery of liquids: "You're in my blood like holy wine", "I could drink a case of you", "I live in a box of paints", "Part of you pours out of me/ In these lines", and "But be prepared to bleed". Some of these images are about consumable goods, like alcohol and paints, while others are bodily, specifically the imagery of blood. After the last example, in the final chorus, it is implied that Mitchell's narrator is figuratively bleeding as he is in her blood, with the liquids representing symbols of desire. "The Last Time I Saw Richard" ends the album with another song with no imagery about oil, though it takes place in Detroit, known as the Motor City for its automobile production, and there are indirect images of liquids, as "a figure skater" skates on ice, and Richard buys her a "coffee percolator".
Where oil comes in here, although the album is dominated by images of travel, by the end, is Mitchell is able to imagine a world without oil and tourism. She sings of imagining Canada in "A Case of You" and meeting a lover in Detroit in "The Last Time I Saw Richard". But the album ends on a note of heartbreak, a concept album that starts out joyously and ends depressed, like "a chronicle of love gone wrong", as television channel VH1 once called the album (qtd. in Friedberg). Still, even if Mitchell sounds devoid of hope, the shift, especially in the last few songs, towards a world without oil, while imagined in sad songs because love is ending, is utopian. This is because not only does it imagine such a world, but the album as a whole includes a stronger feminist aesthetic because of its open, spare sound and emphasis on sex and sexuality as empowering for women.
As Papayanis argues, the women's music scene in the '70s, with musicians like Holly Near and Cris Williamson, did contribute to an emergent feminist aesthetic, but Mitchell's work did so earlier. In an age when oil is the dominant energy regime and every text can be examined as an example of petroculture, the album could be read as a meditation on the consequences of oil capitalism: travel and freedom lead to a cycle of heartbreak and longing for more travel.
The album's minimal production, spare acoustic accompaniment, and unusual guitar tunings reinforce a sense of freedom because they all symbolize space, a metaphorical open road that encourages freedom, both compositionally and sonically. As Papayanis writes, "The essence of Mitchell's approach to music is change" (654), which Papayanis indicates as of a new, feminine aesthetic, but I want to suggest that this aesthetic was not only available to women, as James Taylor, Cat Stevens, and other male singer-songwriters of the time might prove.
Papayanis is again perceptive when she writes of Mitchell, "She is described as a 'confessional' songwriter, but nothing she wrote about was unique to herself alone. If her songs resonated so powerfully, it was because she had articulated an awareness of female sexuality that rang true for a generation of women" (646). In a way, one could argue that Mitchell influenced more frank discussions of female sexuality in mainstream rock and pop scenes in future years. Before her, there were certainly blues singers like Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey who had sung explicitly about sex earlier in the 20th century, but Mitchell enabled performers in the pop mainstream, such as Madonna, to explore issues of sex and sexuality in their work.
Oil ultimately enables the freedom and the heartbreak in Blue, and though the masterpiece is often described as a concept album, music scholar Sheila Whiteley notes the open-ended feel of the album, that it "is like a cycle of songs that has no real beginning, no real end" (91). Perhaps this, too, is a function of the album's theme and feel of travel, which is enabled by oil capitalism.
The Fuel for Carole King's Tapestry
Carole King's milestone album of the same year, Tapestry, sometimes explores similar themes, though often less overtly than Blue. For a decade, King had been a prominent industry songwriter, co-writing hits for the likes of Aretha Franklin, the Byrds, Dusty Springfield, Herman's Hermits, and the Monkees. She often collaborated with Gerry Goffin, her then-husband, but after they broke up, she recorded her first recordings as a singer since some commercially unsuccessful early '60s singles. Her first album, Writer, was also unsuccessful, but Tapestry turned into a monster hit, selling millions of copies and "becoming the best-selling record of all time up to that point" (Garofalo and Waksman 222). The album's commercial success makes it worth studying as a cultural phenomenon, but the music has long outlasted its era, appealing to generations of listeners and critics, currently being ranked, along with Blue as one of the top 100 most acclaimed albums of all time, according to statistical aggregate acclaimedmusic.net.
While Tapestry is not as overtly centered on travel and the road as Blue is, King's quiet masterpiece of expertly crafted songs include numerous songs about travel and others about staying at home. In that sense, the album showcases a dialectic between new feminist possibilities for socioeconomic as well as literal mobility, and accepting what were constructed as women's roles in the home.
Summing up what contributed to the album's critical and commercial success, music historians Reebee Garofalo and Steve Waksman write,
Artistically, all the elements of Tapestry worked in synergy--King's genius as a songwriter, the understated sensuality of her lightly r&b [sic]-inflected piano playing, the warm and friendly voice you could believe in. Another key ingredient was Lou Adler's uncluttered production. Tapestry "was a very naked sounding album," Adler said. "I wanted it to sound like she was in the room playing piano for you." (Garofalo and Waksman 220)
The result of Adler's work meant that King's piano was front and center in the recording mix. Indeed, music scholar James E. Perone argued that the heavy use of King's piano on every song "may be the most important piece in securing Tapestry's place as a work of the women's movement" more than King's work as a singer and songwriter, because female singers had rarely been identified with playing other instruments (41). Legendary rock critic Robert Christgau called King's piano work on the album "the first widely recognized instrumental signature ever developed by a woman" (qtd. in Perone 41), which showed women's growing prominence in the recording industry and success on their terms.
Tapestry begins boldly with the forceful, driving piano chords of "I Feel the Earth Move", which announced a new sound for King (Perone 33). The song clearly has sexual overtones, including with lines like "Uh, uh, uh, yeah-eah" and "I just lose control/ Down to my very soul/ I get hot and cold/ All over, all over, all over, all over". It is true that the alliterative line, "Mellow as the month of May" stresses that this is a mellower, softer sound, but the bluesy piano and electric guitar suggest a bite to this sound as well, which is reinforced by the sexual overtones, as this is a song about orgasm (Powers 234).
Further, historian Judy Kutulas historicizes King as a type of "earth mother", a newer role for women, whose "sexual empowerment" was "[a]t the center of [her] appeal," epitomized by this opening track. Kutulas expertly close reads the title of the song: "So many 1960s love songs cast females in the passive role, as indicated by the word me (object) rather than I (subject)," whereas "I Feel the Earth Move" owns female sexuality, with its subject (I) experiencing "unbridled joy and physicality" (270).
So, "I Feel the Earth Move" embodies sex and erotic motion and physicality more than the motion of the road, fitting in with Blue's emphasis on sexual empowerment. The following track, "So Far Away", establishes the corresponding significance of the road for King's album. The song is about travel and movement, with King longing for stasis and stability: "It would be so fine to see your face at my door", she sings, but she's traveling, so the line, "Doesn't anybody stay in one place anymore?" is about herself as much as about her lover.
Oil enters the scene with lines like, "One more song about movin' along the highway/ Can't say much of anything that's new/ If I could only work this life out my way/ I'd rather spend it bein' close to you". She sings about the ubiquity of songs about the road and how she "[c]an't say much of anything that's new". But while the sentiment of the following lines may have seemed self-consciously clichéd to the singer, King delivers the lyrics with a fresh intimacy that sounded innovative at the time. She also sings, "Travelin' around sure gets me down and lonely / ... / I sure hope the road don't come to own me", which reveals that she's traveling, but she wants her independence to be stable.
The road may have enabled greater independence for women, but the joys of travel come with a price for King, as she misses her lover and his company. But Perone writes, "Incidentally, in 'So Far Away' King's character is out on the road, working, and wanting to be back home so that she can welcome her lover to her home. In short, her character is the one with a job, and the one who is fully empowered" (41), suggesting progressive energy at work as more and more women were going out into the workforce. King longs for stasis and stability away from the road that Mitchell thrives on.
Continuing the theme of stasis, "It's Too Late" reimagines the stasis longed for in "So Far Away" as problematic, in a song that critic Dave Marsh noted for being a rare (up to that point) pop song about an adult relationship. The idea that stasis is a problem is immediately established: "Stayed in bed all mornin' just to pass the time/ There's somethin' wrong here, there can be no denying". With its unusual chord progressions and different keys from the verses to the chorus, "It's Too Late" sounds like it's all about movement and change, appropriate for a song about moving on from a relationship with dignity ("Still I'm glad for what we had and how I once loved you").
As Kutulas writes, "[O]ne of the most important themes running through Tapestry is the idea of being alone" (271), and "King's lyrics make clear that what separates lovers or sours relationships is personal growth, and that growth is a dynamic, positive, natural thing" (272). In this sense of growth, songs like "It's Too Late" are about supporting both parties in a relationship but recognizing the importance of women being independent and assertive.
"Home Again" continues the themes of travel and change, as the speaker is traveling as King sings, "Sometimes I wonder if I'm ever gonna make it home again/ It's so far and out of sight". Home is associated with comfort and joy, as, in the very next lines, King sings, "I really need someone to talk to, and nobody else/ Knows how to comfort me tonight" about the speaker's association between her lover and her home. Here, as on "So Far Away", travel is a source of anxiety, less joyous than for Mitchell on much of Blue.
The final two songs in the album's first half contrast contemporary capitalist society with a longing for a world beyond current suffering. "Beautiful" speaks directly to oil in a way that most songs on Tapestry do not, as King sings that she is "at the station with the workday wind a-blowing" waiting for a train—a kind of automobile—and watching others' discomfort with their lives: "Mirrored in their faces, I see frustration growing/ And they don't see it showing, why do I?" Oil facilitates this sense of unease and restlessness. Indeed, King sings that she has "[n]othin' to do but watch the passersby", and the arrival of the train symbolizes how oil engenders boredom and the supposed flight from boredom into the humdrum workday. The utopian dimension -- in the '60s sense of the term -- comes in the last verse, where King pontificates, "[M]aybe love can end the madness/ Maybe not, oh, but we can only try", which simultaneously sounds world-weary and hopeful.
"Way Over Yonder" contrasts the worldly suffering of "Beautiful" with a vision of the afterworld, reminiscent of a spiritual: "the land where the honey runs in rivers each day". The narrator sings about poverty and depression, longing for "the sweet-tastin' good life". This song contrasts with the travel of "So Far Away" and "Home Again", as some kind of travel enables this journey, but not by automobile, as it reads like a biblical place.A
Much of the album's second half does not acknowledge oil. "You've Got a Friend", perhaps King's best-known song, just says that the speaker will "come running to see" the person in trouble, suggesting some kind of travel. "Will You Love Me Tomorrow", a song King and Goffin had originally written as a hit for the Shirelles a decade earlier, is about asking for stability and stasis, not mobility, which is symbolized by oil, and could potentially function as a precursor to the reality setting in on "It's Too Late" in terms of King's songwriting over time. Also, "Smackwater Jack", which is thematically out-of-place on the album but still compelling, has no references to travel, besides "the guard [coming to] surround the border."
In contrast, "Where You Lead", though a lesser track in most critical readings of the album, comes to the forefront of a reading of Tapestry as petroculture. Oil enables the narrator to affirm, "I will follow/ Anywhere that you tell me to". The song echoes its preceding track, "You've Got a Friend" ("You just call out my name/ ... / And I'll be there") with the lines, "If you're out on the road/ Feeling lonely and so cold/ All you have to do is call my name/ And I'll be there, on the next train", in which oil enables separation "out on the road" and reunion via the train. This duality speaks to the utopian possibilities and the problems that the road causes: the road enables greater separation in romantic relationships while still producing the possibility of patching things up.
In the song's final verses, the speaker stresses domesticity as important to her desires, but her man's wishes supersede her own: "I always wanted a real home/ With flowers on the windowsill/ But if you wanna live in New York City/ Honey, you know I will". This message, conventional in pop music of the time and beyond, goes against the perception of the album as uniformly progressive. In this song, King's message is generally the opposite of Blue's about wandering: she sings, "I never thought I could get satisfaction/ From just one man", but she does, with him "keep[ing] her happy". Blue, in contrast, involves wandering without being tied to one man, whether in terms of the "love 'em and leave 'em" premarital sex on the road or tied to one man in "My Old Man". "Where You Lead" provides a conventional view of a monogamous relationship that creates a strong pop song, though not an especially progressive one.
On the other hand, the album's title track celebrates movement and change: King sings, "My life has been ... / An everlasting vision of the ever-changing view / ... / A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold", which signifies the impossibility of achieving stasis and stability, but "everlasting" signifies that, like the album, the speaker's "vision" will stand the test of time. Within what she sees, she recounts a journey that could be described as magical realism, mixing material conditions like a "rutted road" and "a drifter" with elements of fantasy, as the drifter "turn[s] into a toad".
However, unlike magical realism authors like Gabriel Garcia Marquez, King is not writing from a place of postcolonial oppression, but from a place of simultaneous race privilege and gender oppression. This song sounds like a warm, maternal type of storytelling that fits in with the image of women as nurturing rather than assertive. Still, the image of a woman as "impossible to hold" is feminist, and the song combines both images to create a distinctive story.
The album's final song, "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman", co-written by King and made famous by Aretha Franklin a few years earlier, starts with an image of lone domesticity ("Looking out on the morning rain" from inside a home) and uses female sexuality to explore an improved sense of domesticity with her man who makes her "feel like a natural woman", which Marsh interprets as an allusion to sex. Gerry Goffin's lyrics idealize the man ("When my soul was in the lost-and-found, you came along to claim it"), but King's performance, with multiple tracks of her keyboards and vocals, reinforce this song's status as a feminist anthem, about a woman's right to pleasure and nurturing from a partner.
The commercial and social aftermath of Tapestry's release stunned many, including a generation of women. Historian Judy Kutulas asserts:
As the first woman in the singer-songwriter group to make it big, King sang directly to a changed demographic of young single women about their new experiences and feelings. She provided one model that young women might embrace, a "natural woman," as the song said, modern, liberated, and attuned to her own spiritual and sexual needs. (261)
Kutulas complicates this picture by pointing out, "The primary audience for singer-songwriter music was what Rolling Stone journalists later called 'proto-yuppies,' white middle-class, college-educated young people with personal experiences rooted in the late 1960s" (267), which is striking because not only were singer-songwriters, according to Kutulas, primarily concerned with issues of lifestyle and consumption, rather than politics (268), but their audience seemed to be as well.
A problem with these demographics is that Tapestry was not only incorporated by the dominant culture as a symbol of emergent feminism, but it was also of the dominant culture in its class and race politics. While I cannot verify if, for example, Tapestry was appreciated by feminists of color -- one African American historian told me that she and other black feminists were listening to Blue in the '70s (Friedberg) -- I suspect that its predominant audience was white and middle class based on descriptions of the singer-songwriter audience by Kutulas. There was at least one nonwhite artist prominently featured on the album, backup singer Merry Clayton, but as Kutulas writes,
Tapestry was a very mainstream album that marketed women's possibilities without offending other audiences. It made no overt references to feminism, and neither did King publicly. Instead, she embodied a muted feminism that straddled the counterculture and the women's liberation movement, an apolitical, somewhat essentialist stance that validated and celebrated women's differences from men. It vested women's stereotypic qualities--nurture and community--with new value, acknowledging women's roles as household producers and mothers but also forefronting female sexuality. (269)
It's possible to close read this passage's language as coded for white and middle-class women, particularly the dominant culture's conception of women of color as not being sources of "nurture and community" and "household producers". At the same time, "forefronting female sexuality" was an important move for King in setting forth an album inadvertently supporting female empowerment.
Related to Tapestry as petroculture, Kutulas argues, "King's music taps into the counterculture's value of being on the road, of travel as a means of self-discovery and awareness. [...] King claims the right to wander and explore for women as well as men" (272). But again, much of Tapestry is centered on domesticity and the longing for it while on the road. Yet Kutulas makes an important generational distinction: "Domestic at her core, King's earth mother was not domestic in the same ways as her listeners' mothers were. She was worldly-wise and independent, casual and organic, confident to establish her space on her own terms" (273). Still, this is arguably not a wandering album in the same way that Blue is.
These two albums provide a study in contrast while being created under similar circumstances. Both were recorded in the same studio in Los Angeles, with Mitchell even singing on King's "Will You Love Me Tomorrow" and James Taylor playing guitar on both albums. They can both be read as examples of petroculture, but Blue especially revels in its travel imagery, though the pastoral imagery in "River" and the title track are part of what imagines a world without oil. For King, however, her album does not so much imagine a world without travel as much as it accepts King's life on the road while idealizing a kind of domesticity that the singer longs for.
Finally, while neither Mitchell nor King embraced feminism publicly, I maintain that these two albums opened new roads—literal and metaphorical—for women in music. Both albums continue to rank consistently high on lists of the greatest albums by women, including NPR's 2017 list of the 150 greatest albums by women, which ranked Blue at #1 and Tapestry at #10. (The responding readers' poll ranked Blue at #1 and Tapestry at #2.). But more importantly, they inspired women, as well as men and nonbinary people, across genre and generation to express themselves creatively.
Tapestry turned into one of the most commercially successful albums of all time, with its mix of King's high level of songwriting artistry and craftsmanship and a unique pop sensibility. Her piano work and songwriting about the road and love inspired many with their sense of intimacy and skillful proficiency. Mitchell's singing, songwriting, production, and guitar playing were exceptionally unique. Whatever issues might be reflected in these recordings, we should salute the artistic and social bravery of Joni Mitchell and Carole King.
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