Remember, in October 2012, when there was a rumor that Taylor Swift would be playing Joni Mitchell in a film adaptation of Girls Like Us? It caused a weeklong internetoutrage. People lost their shit. If there’s a blog equivalent of standing on a sidewalk screaming and pulling out your hair – that’s what people wrote. (The casting was quietly confirmed a month ago, by the way.)
The outrage wasn’t really focused on the argument that Taylor Swift can’t act. I haven’t seen Valentine’s Day for a lot of obvious reasons, but I’m willing to believe Taylor was pretty bad in it. Instead, the main objection was this really widespread and violently held opinion of, “Taylor Swift is not Joni Mitchell, is not even a fraction of Joni Mitchell, and shouldn’t even be allowed to pretend to be Joni Mitchell. And how dare she think otherwise.”
As a huge fan of both ladies in question, the rumor just made me realize that the two actually do have a lot in common. I all-caps tweeted: “JONI MITCHELL AND TAYLOR SWIFT ARE ESSENTIALLY THE SAME PERSON.” My friends had aneurysms. I deleted the tweet.
But I stand by it. Joni and Taylor sing similar songs and have similar public personas. And have you seen pictures of them side by side? But for some reason, the things that people find super annoying about Taylor Swift don’t bother anyone about Joni. Why? Why do people basically universally adore Joni – or at least acknowledge that Joni is a talented artist – while people either hate on Taylor or feel bad about admitting that they like her?
Probably the thing that people most give Taylor Swift shit for is dating a lot of famous men. She’s dated or “been linked to” Joe Jonas, Taylor Lautner, John Mayer, Jake Gyllenhaal, Connor Kennedy, and Harry Styles. Plus other people I don’t find convincing or interesting. What’s annoying about this? I guess that she can’t keep a boyfriend, because she must be psycho? Maybe it’s the sheer number of guys, which, I hate to jump to calling everyone sexist all the time, but, this seems a little bit that. Maybe it’s that these guys are all famous, that Taylor should date a “normal Joe” and “give back to America” instead of trying to “build her brand” or “date people with similar lives and concerns as she.”
What’s awesome is that Joni Mitchell also burned through a string of famous men: Leonard Cohen, David Crosby (of Crosby Stills and Nash), Graham Nash (also of Crosby Stills and Nash!), James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Sam Shepard. And this list is just what I remember from reading Girls Like Us a year ago. Plus, think of all the guys we don’t know about because there wasn’t an internet. But no one is/was making Swift-esque tank tops that say Cohen & Crosby & Nash & Taylor & Browne & Shepard. If they were, I would own a closet full of them. No one who hears about all these men is like, wow, Joni Mitchell must have been crazy, why couldn’t she keep a boyfriend? They’re like, holy shit, girl, way to do what you want and not be held back. (In the coolest move in history, Joni wrote in a break-up telegram to Nash: “If you hold sand too tightly in your hand it will run through your fingers.”) I hate this word, but people didn’t slut-shame Joni. Maybe that was just the late-‘60s / early-‘70s cultural landscape, but that’s pretty rad.
People are also really irked by Taylor Swift’s confessional lyrics. It seems like people are actually getting a lot of joy from sleuthing out the meaning behind these musical blind items, but being annoyed is what they’ll admit to. The argument is that it’s déclassé for Taylor to call out guys on their bad behavior or open their problems up to the world. I have to think that the majority of people making this argument aren’t themselves creative writers, because as someone who writes narratively at all, what I am interested in and can accurately write about are things that I’ve personally experienced and people I’ve personally known.
Taylor has said many times that men know what they’re getting into when they date a songwriter; I think it’s true of a relationship with any creative person. And to her credit, Taylor turns her experiences into legitimately inventive lyrics – like, “After plaid shirt days and nights when you made me your own / Now you mail back my things and I walk home alone.” This lyric might have an explicit clue that scandalously proves this song is about Jake Gyllenhaal, because they wore plaid together a lot. But it’s also just a really lovely and specific line that captures something really real.
Here is something super fun and exciting: Joni Mitchell did the exact same thing and no one is mad about it! Joni had relationships with people, and she wrote about her emotions and love in her songs. “I drew a map of Canada with your face sketched on it twice” – that’s Leonard Cohen’s face. “Remember when you used to sit / And make up your tunes for love” is from a James Taylor breakup song. “Car On A Hill” is about waiting for Jackson Browne to come home. Literally billions of her songs are about Graham Nash.
OK, so maybe what makes Taylor annoying and Joni not is that Taylor seems manufactured. Tay always has to be in such complete control of her brand – Joni also wanted control of her own career, and was the sole producer on all her albums from 1968-1984, even though she had to put a man’s name on the first two. Taylor seems overly sweet in a way that’s at odds with her dating life and strong lyrics. Maybe Joni is just a better artist and Taylor is so bad that she just “deserves 2 B hated,” as someone on Twitter might cuss. But Taylor also writes her own songs and plays multiple instruments. Her lyrics are original and accurate in a way that just jerks your soul right to the time/experience she’s talking about:
“And you call me up again just to break me like a promise / so casually cruel in the name of being honest.”
“I loved in shades of wrong / We learned to live with the pain / Mosaic broken hearts.”
“And I’ll do anything you say / If you say it with your hands.”
“And I guess we fell apart in the usual way / And the story’s got dust on every page.”
These are just examples from her latest album.
So I think that most of the hatred for Taylor is an ouroboros of too-cool disdain. Joni Mitchell is widely considered one of the best there ever was, but she didn’t have Carole King’s commercial success. I think we’re way more hesitant to unabashedly love something if millions of others feel the same way. Maybe we just feel like it happened too young for Taylor. Joni was 23 when her debut album came out; Taylor was 23 when her fourth album came out. At the age when Taylor was winning Grammys, Joni was giving her baby up for adoption and getting married and then divorced. I suppose this makes Joni more “legit,” but young Bob Dylan didn’t give a baby up for adoption, so I’d hate to think that Taylor Swift has to forfeit the gains of feminism and go through that kind of stuff in order to have #realstruggle.
There is one thing that Joni did, however, that – if Taylor emulated – might actually improve her public image: admitting that she is psycho. The image that people have of Taylor as this shrill, clingy girl is probably mostly sexist and inaccurate, but it’s equally unlikely that she has been as blameless as her songs generally make her out to be. Everyone goes a little nuts in relationships. Joni owned up to it freely: “I’m so hard to handle / I’m selfish and I’m sad,” she sings in “River.” In “People’s Parties,” she says “I told you when I met you I was crazy.” Taylor could stand to do the same. Nobody actively wants to admit to being an insane person, especially when that admission will be played constantly on Top 40 radio. And yet, as much as I love and relate to Taylor’s songs now, I would relate more if she admitted to feeling a bit out of control and over the top sometimes. That’s what it actually is to be human, and, while Taylor and Joni are very similar, that’s one thing Ms. Swift could stand to learn from Ms. Mitchell. After all, for all of their similarities, there’s still only one of them whose art has stood the test of time – at least so far.