1. Andrew Rostan

    So…I had a conversation with J. and Steph on Thursday night over beers in Andersonville which made me rethink a particular opinion of mine. I now believe it’s difficult to directly compare Joni Mitchell and Taylor Swift’s music, but you can compare their PROJECTS. They’re working towards the same thing from different areas.
    Joni Mitchell may be the great heir (heiress?) to Bob Dylan, setting epic poetic lyrics seemingly updated from Chaucer, Shakespeare, and the Brownings to blues/folk music, although Mitchell is (further arguably) even more of a great musician than Dylan. (The story I think I remember right is that her tuning was so idiosyncratic that at “The Last Waltz” it took The Band forever to line up with her.) Her greatest songs – especially ANYTHING off Blue and Hejira, and further especially “Amelia” which is one of the most glorious songs ever – say things we know are true the moment we hear them but say them in language we don’t expect.
    Taylor Swift, on the other hand, is the successor in a line that stretches through Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart or Hammerstein, early Lennon/McCartney, and Carole King. She makes very sophisticate, intelligent, undeniably and incessantly memorable pop music—so memorable that it’s built to stand for eons while so many others fade away. About once per album she’ll write a song that matches a peak of Mitchell’s, but mostly she keeps her meanings on the surface. Not being couched in creativity-pushing mystical language makes them no less true, and her considerable gifts as a lyricist are bettered by the extraordinary knack for composing music. I could barely name one songwriter to emerge in my lifetime who’s written as many incredible melodies as Taylor Swift. (This is subjective.)
    What I think Mitchell and Swift have in common is a project of empowerment–writing songs about the human experience from a perspective that supports and encourages other women, women who are treated as objectified Madonnas and whores in so many male pop songs. The message they both have is that you can live, have setbacks, get your heart broken, but emerge stronger and wiser…and while love is euphoric, you don’t necessarily need it to be happy. And why I link them together is a quality they share which Carole King also possessed. They come across, even if they themselves didn’t necessarily feel that way, as normal, relatable, empathetic. Other female superstars don’t always have this…Madonna and Lady Gaga come across as too removed, while Nathan Rabin once brilliantly defined the underlying theme of Beyonce Knowles’s work as “fuck you, I’m awesome.” Mitchell and Swift, I think, both know they’re awesome but want other women to feel awesome as well, and to recognize that by writing about certain universal experiences in ways that make you think “I’ve been there, too.”
    What makes this hard to see, I think, is that Mitchell started when she was really an adult and had more experience to write about, while Swift began as a teenager and had to misfire a couple times before hitting her stride. And for that reason, it makes sense to me that Taylor idolizes Joni and Joni doesn’t give a shit about Taylor. The younger has only begun to try to catch up to the elder and the elder knows the younger never will. They’re not doing it the same way. But this doesn’t mean you can’t love them both. Which I do.

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