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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.

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 instead 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.

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