How Joni Mitchell Became "Mom Rock"

Why does Hollywood insist on using Mitchell's work to remind us moms are people too?

May 8, 2020 6:50 am
Joni Mitchell
Joni Mitchell

By now, “dad rock” has become a cliche, but despite the fact that rock itself would probably be very different had a generation of teen girls not embraced the Beatles the way they did 60 years ago, the “mom rock” classification hasn’t exactly taken off in a similar fashion. “Dad rock” can signify a certain level of dorkiness, but there’s still an amount of taste and cultural engagement implied; moms, on the other hand, are left out of the conversation entirely, expected to exist as some sort of weird, scolding foil to rock itself — furrowing their brows and yelling “don’t take drugs” at us from the car window when they drop us off at the show.

Rarely do we see moms in movies or on TV talking about the music they love, and yet when we do, there’s one artist who seems to be the overwhelming favorite; nothing signals that “Mom’s about to have a moment” onscreen quite like a well-placed Joni Mitchell song. As Jody Amable wrote in a piece for Vinyl Me, Please that declared “It’s Time to Establish the Mom Rock Canon,” “As the most obvious entry point to the wider mom rock canon, moms almost listen to Joni Mitchell out of obligation. Though, in sound, she barely qualifies as rock — rock has a prerequisite danger, a certain swagger that polite Canadian Mitchell exhibited little of. But most moms have a favorite Mitchell song.”

It goes beyond just a favorite song, though. Moms depicted in pop culture adore Joni Mitchell. Sometimes the singer-songwriter’s work does all the talking — soundtracking a wrenching moment like the end of The Wonder Years‘ “Mom Wars” episode, which is centered around Kevin Arnold butting heads with his mom after she tries to stop him from playing tackle football. Naturally, by the final act, Kevin has hurt himself (moms are always right about that kind of thing), and when he gets home, he wants nothing more than to be soothed and tended to by his mother, but instead she gives him the distance he demanded earlier and leaves him to lick his own wounds before we cut to old home movies of her smiling and playing with him as a toddler while Mitchell’s “The Circle Game” reminds us that “we’re captive on the carousel of time / We can’t return, we can only look behind from where we came.”

More often, however, we see moms onscreen interacting directly with Mitchell’s music. On Six Feet Under, Claire catches her mother timidly singing along to “Woodstock” and sees another side of the woman with whom she so frequently bickers, realizing they may share some common ground after all. Rebecca Pearson’s love of Joni Mitchell is well-documented on This Is Us, and a recent episode featured the aging housewife who once tried to make it as a musician herself listening to Clouds (“I would spend hours staring at this album artwork, reading all the sleeve notes,” she tells her adult son) before tracking down the Laurel Canyon home Mitchell shared with Graham Nash and geeking out over it. (Once there, interestingly, she tells the story behind “Our House” and sings a snippet of that ode to domestic bliss by Nash instead of a Mitchell track.)

After her philandering asshole of a husband smirks “I can’t believe you still listen to Joni Mitchell” at her in Love, Actually, Emma Thompson’s character responds, “I love her, and true love lasts a lifetime. Joni Mitchell is the woman who taught your cold English wife how to feel.” Later, she spots him buying a necklace while they’re shopping, and in the movie’s most memorable scene, she opens her Christmas gift only to discover he’s gifted her a copy of Both Sides Now. Under normal circumstances, it’d be a thoughtful gesture, but instead it’s a confirmation of her worst fear — the necklace went to another woman — and she ducks away to listen to the title track, wiping away tears while out of her children’s sight.

There’s a sense of yearning — for a former life, or a different one entirely — implied in all these scenes that makes sense, to a certain extent, given both Mitchell’s refusal to settle into the traditional life expected of women in that era and the frank, beautiful way she addresses that choice in her music. Unlike the TV and movie moms who worship her, Mitchell opted out of motherhood, giving up an infant daughter she knew she wouldn’t be able to adequately care for to adoption in 1965 and going on to pursue her career. Though the public wouldn’t officially find out about her child until they met for the first time in 1997, Mitchell famously wrote about giving birth at age 21 on “Little Green”: “Child with a child pretending / Weary of lies you are sending home / So you sign all the papers in the family name / You’re sad and you’re sorry but you’re not ashamed.”

That shamelessness juxtaposes nicely onscreen with the melancholy regrets of the women who settled for a life they maybe didn’t want because society pressured them to do so. Hollywood would have us believe that moms love Joni Mitchell because she had the guts to do what they couldn’t. She represents fulfillment and freedom, a life they could have had — or perhaps used to. The debate over whether women can ever truly “have it all” and balance a flourishing career with a healthy, happy family life remains an issue to this day; back in Joni’s era, it was understood to be strictly more of an either/or situation.

“I had sworn my heart to Graham in a way that I didn’t think was possible for myself, and he wanted me to marry him. I’d agreed to it,” Mitchell recalls in the 2003 documentary Woman of Heart and Mind. “And then I just started thinking, my grandmother was a frustrated poet and musician. She kicked the kitchen door off of the hinges on the farm. I thought about my paternal grandmother who wept for the last time in her life at 14 behind some barn because she wanted a piano and said, ‘Dry your eyes, you silly girl, you’ll never have a piano.’ And I thought, maybe I’m the one that got the gene that has to make it happen for these two women. As much as I loved and cared for Graham, I just thought, I’m gonna end up like my grandmother, kicking the door off the hinges, you know what I mean? It’s like, I better not.”

But while Mitchell was determined to chase her dreams and live life on her own terms, she never thumbed her nose at the women who followed a different, more conventional path. (“Sharon, you’ve got a husband / And a family and a farm,” she admits to an old friend on “Song for Sharon.” “I’ve got the apple of temptation / And a diamond snake around my arm.”) She’d perhaps be dismissed as problematic for it nowadays, but Mitchell shied away from identifying as a feminist, and despite penning “Woodstock,” she distanced herself from the counterculture of the day. Combine all that with her smooth, gentle vocals, and you’ve got an artist whose work makes sense for a stereotypical mom character on TV — from a music supervisor’s perspective, at least — in a way that more overtly radical female artists like Patti Smith maybe don’t.

Why, though, is she the only one?

It could be because we’re largely relying on men to tell these women’s stories — in 2015, women made up just 29 percent of TV writers’ rooms — and Mitchell is arguably the only female songwriter they’ve deemed worthy of such a task. She’s an innovative guitar player as well as a master lyricist on par with Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, but as Lindsay Zoladz points out in her piece “Joni Mitchell: Fear of a Female Genius” for The Ringer, it raises questions about the way we talk about talent when it comes to female artists.

“Why is Joni Mitchell the token female musician that even the most macho rock guys are comfortable calling ‘great’? (Jimmy Page has gone on record saying that her music makes him weep; Jimi Hendrix, in his journals, called Mitchell ‘a fantastic girl with heaven words.’)” Zoladz writes. “Is the very idea of a canon — or ‘greatness,’ or even ‘genius’ — inherently male, and if so, should women chuck all those words and ideas out the window and look for new ways to talk about and value the art they make?”

Oftentimes, the way Mitchell’s music is used to signify motherhood onscreen feels reductive — it turns the brilliant catalogue of a freewheeling trailblazer into a lazy shorthand for a very particular type of broken-down, unfulfilled woman.

“One of my favorite feminist essays by the great Ellen Willis asks a seemingly simple question: ‘Is a woman a person?’” NPR’s Ann Powers wrote in 2018. “The more I listened to Joni’s music, the more I realized that question is at the center of all she’s done. How is a woman a person when the world keeps asking her to be a dream, a doll, a mother, a wife, a feminist?”

That, of course, is just one of the reasons why we can’t blame anyone — male or female, fictional character or real person — for loving her work. No one’s going to call you a sexist for going ahead and buying that Joni Mitchell album for your mom for Mother’s Day. Just remember to look at it from both sides now, and that her legacy is so much more than “mom rock.”

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