So, after writing about my nostalgia last week, I thought I’d reflect on truly borrowed nostalgia: the music of my mother’s generation. I’m specifically thinking about the emergence of the female singer-songwriter, who came into vogue in the mid-1960s New York-based folk scene and became a cultural juggernaut by the end of the decade and into the mid-1070s with women like Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, for whom Sheila Weller wrote a toothsome, comprehensive biography last year called Girls Like Us.
The women’s sound(s), look(s), and message(s) would help destigmatize (if only for a moment) the feminist movement (if still largely configured to be a straight, middle-class, white woman’s struggle). They also helped pave the way for a revival of female singer-songwriters in the 1990s, helping result in the established careers of Tori Amos, PJ Harvey, and Björk, as well as the launch of festivals like Lilith Fair (which is rumored to make a return in 2010).
And, though perhaps a stretch, I kept thinking about these three women in relation to Betty Draper, Joan Holloway, and Peggy Olsen on Mad Men, three very different women beginning to weather and confront seismic shifts in gender and sexual politics at the beginning of the 1960s that the three artists featured in this book would at times undo, surrender to, and be blocked by at the end of the decade and into the 1970s.
Having read this book, I wonder if any of the women of Mad Men became fans of these artists. Would any of these women help make Tapestry one of the best-selling albums of all time? Betty and Joan may be a little too old, but I think they’d respectively empathize with Joni’s mother’s need to have a perfect Norwegian beauty for a daughter and Carly’s conflicting feelings about her sex-bomb identity. Peggy seems just the right age to follow these women, as she does accompany a co-worker to see Bob Dylan in season two. Personally, I think she’d be a huge Carole King fan. Two tough Brooklynite professionals with a knack for commercial pop art? Yeah, I think they’d find one another.
The key thing I appreciated about Girls Like Us, which does an exhaustive job documenting these three women’s personal and professional lives, is its committment to dialoging the artists with one another. Often, when attempts of this sort are made, it results in playing women off each other or reducing them to one singular entity (in this case, chick singer-songwriter seems the most apt dismissive). Weller does an admirable job individuating them (further enforced by using a different font for each woman), while at the same time highlighting where they overlap or interact and putting them in a gendered generational context of women and girls coming into their own particular feminist awakenings.
Notably, these women were all self-made. Carole Klein and Canadian-born Roberta Joan Anderson became Carole King and Joni Mitchell, toiling for years in the Brill Building and the coffeehouse circuit before becoming legendary. And Carly Simon, born into the New York elite as the third child of the Simon family (yes, of Simon & Schuster), had to start from scratch after years of following artist boyfriends, watching her sisters get married, and working odd jobs before landing a career. They also established themselves as icons at the same time. 1971 would be the year that King released her second solo album, Tapestry, culminating in one of the few Grammy wins for Song of the Year, Record of the Year, and Album of the Year for a female artist. That same year, Mitchell would release Blue, a huge artistic breakthrough. And in 1972, alongside King’s sweep, Simon would win her Grammy for Best New Artist for her self-titled debut.
One unfortunate commonality all three women share is a need to make men happy, almost always the wrong man or the undeserving man. This is a lesson I saw many of my mother’s generation learn the hard way, and fear it will continue to play out with other women and girls, but hope we’ll learn from history. For Carole, this meant four marriages — first to her Brill Building lyricist Gerry Goffin (who would father singer Earl-Jean McCrae’s daughter Dawn while still married to King), then to bassist Charles Larkey, then to two chauvinist mountain men named Rick. For Joni, this meant marrying a man named Chuck Mitchell who (in her account) forced her to give up an infant daughter (her pregnancy, and giving up a daughter, would haunt Mitchell for years until she was reuinted with Kilauren in the late 1990s). For Carly, this meant using her sexual wiles to snare a man at all costs, a lesson she learned from her mother Andrea, before casting her lot with a man that would remain a drug addict for the majority of their marriage before unceremoniously dumping her.
Both Carole and Carly suffered considerable heartache, though Joni, perhaps a typical only child, often would cut and run, preferring solitude and creative freedom to being tied down, a lesson she learned by following Crosby, Stills, and Nash while living with Graham Nash. The woman who wrote “Woodstock” would not be cast as another man’s groupie.
As Carly’s man was James Taylor, it seems important to point out that all three of these women had some connection with Sweet Baby James. As James (along with almost all male rock stars of the era) was in awe of Carole King’s legacy as a Brill Building composer, he often covered her work extensively, most notably “You’ve Got a Friend.”
King nursed an unrequited crush, though her songwriter Toni Stern wrote “It’s Too Late” after the end of her affair with Taylor.
Joni dated James for a while. It ended, but at least she and Carly became friendly later in life.
And Carly presumably expedited the matrimonial process by writing “You’re So Vain” and getting one of her rumored paramours, Mick Jagger, to contribute back-up vocals. Taylor proposed shortly thereafter, creating the first rock star marriage. However, he would often get sidelined by his ongoing battle with heroin, as well as his wife’s meteoric rise to pop stardom. She would often worry herself sick and modify her behavior for Taylor, a symptom Weller believes is linked to wanting to please her disengaged father.
Yet, I don’t want to suggest these women are patriarchy’s tragic casualties. I certainly don’t think they would. Carole continued a long professional partnership with Goffin, and also accepted Dawn, Goffin’s daughter with McRae, as one of her own children, something her biological children did as well. In addition, she became very politically active, lobbying hard for environmental issues, particularly working to preserve Idaho’s wildlife after falling in love with its woodlands.
Joni kept pushing herself further artistically, regardless of whether or not she was met with critical acclaim. She most notably began incorporating jazz elements into her music, hiring reputable session musicians and expanding her sonic and lyrical styles (though also began playing with race and lauding “natural” blackness, which Weller takes to task, specifically when talking about Mitchell’s black alter ego Art Nouveau, which she poses as in blackface for the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter).
And Carly was most prominent in the mainstreaming of feminism (though not without its own issues — in the 1970s, feminism was often a Seven Sisters game and Simon, a Sarah Lawrence dropout born from a wealthy family, fit right in). She also promoted the celebration of female sexual agency and autonomy, complicating the widely-held belief that all second wavers were man-haters waging a war on sex. She also had a liberated attitude toward sex, which Weller supports with conjectures that “You’re So Vain” is actually about multiple men. In addition, Simon has alluded to having an open marriage and being bisexual, as well as being an advocate for LGBT rights.
In short, these women mattered. They shaped the perspectives and actions of millions of women and girls of my mother’s generation. They proved that female artists could garner a huge mainstream audience (a lesson that needed to be reminded to A&R folks, concert promoters, and radio programmers in the 1990s, resulting in countercultural movements like riot grrrl and mainstream enterprises like Lilith Fair). And they continue to influence female recording artists and their listeners. And, most importantly, they continue to work, just as their male counterparts do, regardless of whether or not they are deemed culturally relevant. Let their voices be heard.