Songs are like tattoos
You know I’ve been to sea before
Crown and anchor me
Or let me sail away.
I first started properly listening to Joni Mitchell at the end of the 2020 lockdown. Of course, I had heard bits and pieces of her music throughout my life – Big Yellow Taxi, Woodstock, and A Case of You frequently feature on radio stations and on playlists. But it was while I completed a creative writing class in first year university – over Zoom, of course – that I really started to listen to Joni’s music. We were studying Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, an essay anthology where Nelson explores her life through the colour blue. Throughout the work, Nelson made passing mention of Joni Mitchell’s album Blue. After completing this reading, I went straight to Spotify. There it properly began – and I listened.
When I say listened, I mean listened. Joni Mitchell was the only artist I played on Spotify between October and December of that year; for my birthday my friends bought me vinyls of Court and Spark and Blue; I installed a portrait of a young Joni on my bedroom wall. What began as a fascination about how Mitchell’s music could inspire a writer as they explored their life through colour, became an obsession. Of course, it is easy for me, as a Joni Mitchell fangirl, to tell everyone they must listen to her music. But I wanted to find out why, for me at least, Mitchell’s “songs are like tattoos,” why her songs have stayed with me and emerge as an earworm in my brain at the best, and worst, times of my life. I wanted to find out what it is, besides the rich B minor 7 piano chord at the beginning of her song Blue, that makes the hairs on my arms stand and goosebumps form when I listen to many of her songs. And in thinking about these questions, I realised this: to learn the true meaning of life, look no further than the music of Joni Mitchell.
1. Mitchell’s music expresses the complexity of love like never before.
Like most songs, much of Mitchell’s music is about love. Yet, something special about her music is that throughout her albums from the late 1960s to the 2000s, she explores love from various and complex angles; in Mitchell’s music, love is an ever-evolving and ever-uncertain thing. Indeed, each of Joni’s songs sheds a different perspective on this experience, from the looking at “love from both sides now” to choosing L.A, or “the city of fallen angels,” over love. For Joni Mitchell, love is “so many things.” Thus, from Joni Mitchell’s universal musing on love to the complex nature of finding one’s path as a single woman, the singer-songwriter has something for everyone when they need direction in matters of the heart.
2. Mitchell’s music stands for social justice.
Throughout her career as a singer-songwriter, Joni Mitchell has written many songs about social issues. While the times have changed since Mitchell first penned many of these tunes, they seem strikingly relevant today. Woodstock (1970), a song about the iconic 1969 Woodstock Festival, became an instant anthem of the 1970s counterculture movement. In the song, Mitchell documents the story of the Woodstock Festival whilst also commenting on the power of peace. Mitchell wrote a number of songs that fed into the anti-war discourse of the counterculture movement. For example, Mitchell’s The Fiddle and the Drum (1969) is a key anti-Vietnam War protest piece. The Beat of Black Wings (1988) showcased the life of Vietnam War soldier Killer Kyle, a soldier “like a night frightened child” due to the effects of war-induced PTSD. Moreover, Mitchell’s most famous song, Big Yellow Taxi (1970), comments on our destruction of the natural world, her catchy tune questioning why society “paved paradise [to] put up a parking lot.” Of course, the list could go on. Ultimately, Joni Mitchell’s songs propel listeners to think about others’ experiences, enhancing our perception of ourselves and our experience.
3. Mitchell’s music is life, embodied in song.
I know this point seems like a stretch but I have never reflected more on the transience of life than when listening to Mitchell’s music. Like the chords she uses in her songs, Mitchell highlights that life is ephemeral; we need to take it in both hands. Moreover, Mitchell’s music encompasses all aspects of life. Apart from love, Mitchell ponders the difficulties of one’s search for freedom, the liberty and anticipation that comes with a ‘night in the city,’ and even the importance of neighbours. I have listened to Mitchell’s music with my best friend while crafting Christmas cards and also while walking through the streets of Castlemaine while on a day trip from Melbourne. Mitchell’s music always grounds us whilst allowing us to reflect on our lives. In other words, Joni Mitchell’s music stays with you no matter what journey you take and provides you with a guidebook of how to tackle the complexities of emotions and experiences we face.
So, if you want to know how to navigate life: look to the music of Joni Mitchell. While her music is no longer on Spotify due to the artist’s decision to remove her songs in protest of Joe Rogan’s podcast being uploaded onto the streaming giant, Mitchell’s music is freely available on YouTube or, if you wanted to splurge, on a good ol’ record or CD. Ultimately, Joni’s Mitchell’s songs have the power to provide us with some sense of direction at the best and worst – or “bluest” – times of our lives. When we listen to lyrics and chords that resonate with us, we are provided a guidebook, a way to look at a situation anew and with curiosity. To remind me of this, perhaps one day, I will get a tattoo of some of Joni’ Mitchell’s lyrics. Although, they are already boldly tattooed onto my brain.