Academic journal article Genders

The Only Black Man at the Party: Joni Mitchell Enters the Rock Canon

Academic journal article Genders

The Only Black Man at the Party: Joni Mitchell Enters the Rock Canon

Article excerpt

[1] On Halloween of 1976, a week before her thirty-third birthday, singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell strutted into a Los Angeles party in dark pancake makeup and a pimp's suit and passed for a black man. For the next six years, Mitchell appeared intermittently in this character, whom she named Art Nouveau. On the cover of the December 1977 double-album Don Juan's Reckless Daughter (DJRD), Art strides confidently into the foreground while the blonde singer frolics behind him. Clever editing of the 1980 concert film Shadows and Light puts Art in Mitchell's place to close the last verse of "Furry Sings the Blues"--an ironic choice as the lyric portrays the singer as a contemporary white star on a pilgrimage several decades too late to witness black Memphis's giving birth to the blues. Art's final appearance in 1982 was in a short film called "The Black Cat in the Black Mouse Socks" in which Mitchell's character, Paula, attends a costume party in the guise of a black man and meets a former lover there. In "Black Cat," Art supplemented his makeup and pimp suit with a final accessory: a portable casette player pumping out selections of Miles Davis's music. "Black Cat" was Mitchell's contribution to Love, an unreleased Canadian anthology of female-authored films--and Art Nouveau's unheralded exit from public view. Although Mitchell has not appeared as Art since 1982, the Candian transplant to Los Angeles has shrewdly ventriloquized two positions marked black and male: those of the jazz musician and the street-smart pimp. In this essay, I argue that Joni Mitchell's black male persona earned her legitimacy and authority in a rock music ideology in which her previous incarnation, white female folksinger, had rendered her either a naive traditionalist or an unscrupulous panderer.

[2] A talented wordsmith, Joni Mitchell was planting a productive pun when she told an interviewer: "The thing is, I came into the business quite feminine. But nobody has had so many battles to wage as me. I had to stand up for my own artistic rights. And it's probably good for my art ultimately" (Wild 64, my emphasis). True to the possibilities implied in the pun, the more Mitchell has asserted herself as a serious artist, the louder her black male persona, Art, has spoken. Indeed, she has incorporated the figure so fully that she no longer has to don the costume to claim the standpoint. For example, Mitchell chided a Canadian interviewer for refusing to recognize her transition from naive white female to black auteur: "The white male press present me always in groups of women, you know. They always want to keep me in groups of women. Whereas the black press lumps me in with [Carlos] Santana and Miles [Davis]. They're not afraid of my--they don't have to keep genderizing me" (Porter). While effective in striking many journalists dumb, Mitchell's invocation of a groundswell of support in black publications was a bluff that succeeded only because rock critics are largely unfamiliar with that archive. For, in actuality, the two articles that put Mitchell in a pantheon with Miles and Santana are both the work of a single author, music journalist Greg Tate ("The Long Run"; "Black and Blond").

[3] With so small a chorus of black journalistic advocates, Mitchell has had to ventriloquize this purportedly black position herself to advocate for her admission as an "honorary male" in the rock canon (Wild 64). In one oft-cited tale, she reported chastising an unnamed man by informing him that deeming her the best female singer-songwriter was as offensive as calling someone "the best Negro" (Strauss). Couched in that retort, no doubt, was Mitchell's irritation with the spate of honors she received in the late 1990s. The Grammys, Sweden's Polar Prize, and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame invariably praised her as first among women in rock, rather than as a leading innovator among all rock musicians. Mitchell's "best Negro" riposte illustrates that her black pimp persona provided an authoritative position from which to criticize sexism as if it were racism against black men. …

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