Ann Powers on Joni Mitchell

Ann Powers’ book on Joni Mitchell is not just the best book on Joni Mitchell that exists. It’s one of the best books about music.

Ann Powers on Joni Mitchell

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Ann Powers’ book on Joni Mitchell is not just the best book on Joni Mitchell that exists. It’s one of the best books about music that I have read in eons. Traveling: On The Path of Joni Mitchell is deep and intricate and far-reaching. It is an almost forensic examination of Mitchell’s work and life. Other people have tried to write about Joni Mitchell and the results have been historically accurate but missing context, were excessively worshipful / obviously worried about offending the subject, or spend too much time on what many people consider to be Mitchell’s halcyon days while neglecting everything that came out after Blue. Or so it has felt. 

This is a book that Powers spent almost a decade writing, and it shows. Most writers these days can’t take that much time to research and think and then write. But a decade is about what you need to critically consume and then process Joni Mitchell’s body of work. Note that I say “critically consume.” There’s a different listening you do when you’re working than when you are engaged with music as a fan. It’s a closer read, it’s more engaged, it is actual work, and it is hard to do. A thing that struck me about this book as I was nearing the end was how Powers engages with every single one of Mitchell’s albums equally, every single one. She gives as much consideration to 2007's Shine as she does to Blue or Hejira. Who does that? But that is how you do this kind of work.

This book represents a lifetime of work but not in the way that you think. It’s the lifetime of work from a cultural critic who has been doing deep thinking and writing about all kinds of popular music. She was approached about writing this book because of that, not because she was some kind of avid watcher of Joni Mitchell. Writers, women especially, are presumed to be fans of the people they are writing about if they write with any level of depth or intensity. Affinity towards an artist’s work is something that can keep a writer going when the writing is hard or difficult. What I read in Traveling about what kept Powers going is a mix of things: belief in the body of work, belief that the artist is deserving of this level of examination, belief in your own ability to examine and then translate it. That is my take on this book, based on reading it, it is what I see Powers manifest on the page. 

I want to note that I am expressing my impressions of her motivation based on what I got out of reading the book. Just like Powers didn’t speak to Mitchell for this project, I did not speak with Ann Powers before writing this, despite the fact that she personally handed me my advance copy back in January when I was in Nashville to see Elvis Costello. I consider her a mentor and a friend. If that changes anything about this review it is how overwhelmed I felt in wanting to make sure I accurately conveyed the quality of this book to you because it is that good. Powers didn't speak with Mitchell because she didn't want to walk the tightrope of worrying about what does she think? There are miles of interviews; the book does not suffer because there is no specific interview for this one project. "I remain a witness, not a friend," is a statement I resonate with, as someone who recently wrote her own book on a musician.

Joni Mitchell wasn’t allowed to do most of what she did anyway and Powers in many ways manifests the same sort of defiance with this book. She takes apart Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter not just by what was written or what was played, but how it was played, down to the impact of key changes. It is the kind of analysis that comes out of a lifetime of work. She doesn’t do this for every record, but she’s showing the reader that she could, if she wanted to. It is not, as the kids say, a “flex” but in some ways it is paralleling the story of how Joni Mitchell made her way through the music business. “She saw what happened to women who didn’t keep a tight rein on how the world regarded them,” says Powers. “In the years when she was first defining herself, people thought of ‘genius’ as synonymous with ‘man’. So it worked for her. It freed her from the femininity that threatened to hold her back.” I see that reflected here in Powers' discussions of jazz and jazz fusion, genres that Mitchell spent years working within. You can't have a serious discussion about what Joni Mitchell was trying to do and if it was successful without it. And Powers treats the reader in these cases as a friend she's bringing along for the ride, she's not talking down to you, she's treating you like a peer. You might not know what to look for or how to listen, but she can show you. And she does.

It is a book where three sentences can strike you with the kind of profundity that makes you stop reading and put the book down for a while. 25 pages in, while discussing the era of the confessional singer-songwriter and quoting Jon Landau referring to Mitchell and her female contemporaries as “the new uterus of popular music,” she loops back with this: “Women learn young to mask their own blood. We pad our panties and hope it doesn’t smell, shove bleached cotton up into ourselves and hope the dam doesn’t break.” JESUS CHRIST. I had to put the book down when I got to that paragraph. It is brutal but true. It is accurate but not anything that is normally ever said out loud. We are not allowed to say these things. It will still bother many members of the target audience for this book. Powers says it anyway.

It is why this piece was not written sooner, because I needed to chew on it. I needed a break. I needed to walk around with the thoughts in my head. It is not a quick read but things do not need to be quick. I remember when reading Rolling Stone would take me several weeks. It is that kind of feeling, that you are being shown around by the smartest person in the room and that you are being given a chance to learn something. There are people who will not like that. 

She holds her co-conspirators accountable as well. I particularly appreciated her note that Graham Nash wrote a song called “Our House” when “It wasn’t their house, after all. It was hers. She’d purchased it with that first record advance.” She notes that Mitchell got her revenge at not being “allowed” to go to Woodstock by the fact that her song was used in the Woodstock movie, thus granting her those royalties. And she also asks the (imo rhetorical) question: “Yet has anyone ever asked why, when Crosby Stills and Nash sat in her kitchen that day and first sang together, she wasn’t asked to join the band?”

There are two things in particular Powers does in this book that are Not Allowed for women in music: she lets Joni be messy and contradictory, and she grants the same grace to herself in the places where she enters the story. (Just the fact that she has a voice in a book about music is also the kind of thing that was always FORBIDDEN, especially for women, if you’re in the story then you’re too attached / too emotional / not qualified. Powers has heard all of that for longer than I have.) We allow men to be flawed and unpleasant but women are never given the same latitude. Men can make mistakes and always fail up; women can make smaller transgressions and never recover from them. Powers is not covering for Joni, nor is she making excuses for her. She digs into everything with empathy but also with diligence, particularly around Joni’s episodes where she dressed as a Black man, named Art Nouveau. “It’s possible to love Joni and still hold her accountable,” Powers writes. “Such love is meaningless without accountability.” Please shout this from the rooftops. For every artist.

Powers is not neutral nor is she gushing. It is a book with deep appreciation and tremendous consideration but it is not a devotional. Powers brings 40 years of considered thought up and down the entire pop spectrum and she draws on every bit of it. She wields explanations and analysis with a high octane intellect that breaks it all down in clear and direct language. Every sentence is whittled down to the bone. No one else has ever done this in this fashion and it has set a new bar, established a new standard. That said, despite all of the methods and tools and years of study it will not be enough for some people (men) and it will be too much for others (also men). This is work that will cause some to drop it in disgust because it doesn’t just repeat the same stories in a slightly different way. It asks questions, it deeply interrogates, it takes every element of Mitchell’s music and work and public life and examines and questions and parses them to be understood at the most fundamental level. She takes Joni Mitchell seriously. It is the job she signed up for. 

[The book is backordered on so I offer this Amazon affiliate link as well. ]

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