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.