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‘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.