petroculture-blue-and-tapestry

Photo composite. Details at end of article.

‘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.

“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.


Works Cited

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Friedberg, Joshua Daniel. “Speculations on Joni Mitchell’s Blue and Universality“. Music Historian’s Corner: Joshua Daniel Friedberg. N.p., 13 Aug. 2013. Web. 27 Feb. 2016.

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King, Carole. Tapestry. 1971. Ode, A&M. LP.

Kutulas, Judy. “‘I Feel the Earth Move’: Carole King, Tapestry, and the Liberated Woman.” Impossible to Hold: Women and Culture in the 1960s. Ed. Avital H. Bloch and Lauri Umansky. New York: New York UP, 2005. 261-78. Print.

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Perone, James E. The Words and Music of Carole King. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006. Print.

Poll, Ryan. “Introduction: Reading Petroleum: The Challenges of Energy Literacy in the Age of Oil Capitalism.” 2016. TS. Collection of Ryan Poll, Chicago.

Powers, Ann. Good Booty: Love and Sex, Black and White, Body and Soul in American Music. 2017. New York: HarperCollins, 2017. Print.

Sinclair, Upton. Oil! 1927. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.

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Whiteley, Sheila. Women and Popular Music: Sexuality, Identity and Subjectivity. New York: Routledge, 2000. Print.

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Photo composite (splash image) attribution

Left: Album cover, Joni Mitchell’s Blue. A&M Studios, 1971. Center: Photo from drpepperscott230 (Pixabay License / Pixabay). Right: Album cover, Carole King’s Tapestry. A&M Recording, 1971.


This article originally published on 23 October 2019.

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