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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 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.

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