How do you feel about the folks who resist your experimentation, who just want another ‘Court and Spark’ or ‘Blue’ from you?
This is what I think about those people: They want, they want, and they want. However, if I actually gave them what they wanted, then they’d just get sick of it.
Why do you think people wanted you to stay in your brokenhearted-waif mode?
If some people had their way, they’d just want me to weep and suffer for them for the rest of my life, because people live vicariously through their artists. And I had that grand theme for a long time: “Where is my mate? Where is my mate? Where is my mate?” I got rid of that one.
For a while it was assumed that I was writing women’s songs. Then men began to notice that they saw themselves in the songs, too. A good piece of art should be androgynous. I’m not a feminist. That’s too divisional for me. I’ll tell you one thing that’s pretty arrogant. This guy came up to me at some public event once, and he said to me, “Joni, you’re the best woman songwriter in the world.” And I went, “Ha,” and kind of snickered. And he insisted, “No, you are the greatest female singer-songwriter ever.” And I walked off. And he thought it was because I was being modest [laughs]. But this whole female singer-songwriter tag is strange. You know, my peers are not Carly Simon and these other women.
Who are your peers?
I don’t know, who are they?
Are they people like Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan?
No, those people were points of departure for me.
Dylan made a pretty interesting comment regarding you a few years ago.
Oh, I remember. He was talking about how he didn’t like seeing women onstage, how he hates to see them up there whoring themselves. So he was asked, “Well, what about Joni Mitchell?” And he says something like “She’s not really a woman. Joni’s kind of like a man.” [Laughs] 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. I remember early in my career somebody wrote that my work was “effeminate,” which I thought was pretty odd. So over the years I think I’ve gotten more androgynous — and maybe become an honorary male, according to Bobby.
So you weren’t offended?
In a way he’s right. Music has become burlesque over the last few years — video’s done that. Every generation has to be more shocking than the last. But at a certain point you’ve got to reel it in, because decadence ultimately isn’t that hip. Our country is going down the tubes from it. It’s rotten to the core. And I think women can be more than decorative. I mean, it’s the same old thing actresses have been saying all along, that there are no good roles for women. Well, there are women creating their own roles, but they’re creating such shallow roles. I wonder why.
Yet someone like Madonna can be seen as a feminist hero because she’s exploiting her own sexuality rather than being exploited by some man.
That’s an interesting idea, but what’s the difference between her and a hard hooker, you know? Who’s being exploited there? She’s reveling in herself, too. But she can take it. I guess that’s what it is. It’s just being able to take it, you know.
But would you agree that Madonna is the current archetype for the female performer?
Well, she’s a great “star.” She’s got that whore-Madonna thing built in [Laughs]. She’s like a living Barbie doll but a little but on the blue side. There’s always been that type of female. There’s always been a market for it, but the danger is that she thinks she’s a role model. And it’s a terrible role model. It’s death to all things real.
How do you feel about another new queen of rock, Sinéad O’Connor?
I like Sinéad. She’s a passionate little singer. And I understand her saying, “I hate this job.” It’s a horrible job. People don’t realize how horrible it is. Making music is great. The exploitation of it is horrible. And I think you’ve got to be hard as nails. Maybe that’s where Madonna has the edge on us. Maybe she doesn’t think it’s horrible. I think it’s degrading, humiliating — so does Sinéad. Whereas Madonna’s above being degraded or humiliated. She flirts with it. And perhaps that bravado is in some ways to be applauded, but at what cost to her soul, is my question.
Professionally speaking, who are your heroes?
Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately, and they are men. If you separate their personalities from their art, Miles Davis and Picasso have always been my major heroes, because we have this one thing in common: They were restless. I don’t know any women role models for that. But Picasso was constantly searching and searching and changing and changing. Even I have favorite periods of Miles, but I would always go to see him, in any incarnation. Because he’s managed to keep alive.
How else has the music business changed since you got started?
The thing’s just got bigger and bigger. When I started out, rock & roll was in small theaters. There was no arena rock. Woodstock had not happened. The possibility of mass exploitation had not occurred to anybody. It was a small, intimate forum, with loyalties. Think of Elvis. I sold more records than Elvis. Not after his death. But when I was the queen of rock & roll, I sold more than he did when he was the king of rock & roll. So now the thing is huge and international, and soon we’ll be hearing from the market in China, for God’s sake. The bigger the bucks, the bigger the greed, the bigger the crap around it.
Is the audience any different?
People knew what a song was back then. Which they don’t know anymore. Dylan said to me: “I don’t know. I used to know what a song is, but I don’t know anymore.” And part of that gets beaten out of you, because we make this music and we put it out and the critics have gotten into the scheme of, like, reducing Wild Things Run Fast to I Love Larry songs. You know, this flippant, stupid way that they have of tearing things down. But the business is kind of painful at this time. It’s disintegrated into a bunch of crap. And what made America great was ingenuity, new ideas. But it kills; it now eats its young alive and its old, its middle-aged. You know, it eats the good ideas alive. It’s like America is Las Vegas now.
How do you feel now about the songs — biggies like “Both Sides Now,” “Big Yellow Taxi,” “The Circle Game” — that made you a star?
Let’s not call them my biggies. Let’s call them the most gregarious of my children. “Big Yellow Taxi” — I like the life that it has. I didn’t intend it to be a children’s song, but it has become one. This third-grade teacher in New Jersey has his kids illustrate that song every year, and he sent me this year’s batch, and they were charming. “Both Sides Now” is probably the song that’s been the most gregarious. Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra sang it. It’s been recorded in many different genres and all around the world. I saw a translation of it come back through the Chinese. It had gone to China, been translated into Chinese calligraphy, then been translated back out into English. And it came out “Joni’s Theory of Relativity.” “Circle Game” closes eighth-grade graduation exercises around the country, and that’s a great function for it.
How conscious were you that you were expanding the vocabulary and range of rock music?
I knew that I wanted to write literature in the pop arena, and in a way I was really punished for it. Even by John Lennon. He told me that I was “a product of my own overeducation” — and remember, I only have a twelfth-grade education. He said: “Why do you let other people have your hits for you? You want a hit, don’t you? Put some fiddles on it” He said this about Court and Spark, mind you.
Perhaps because you wrote “Woodstock,” a lot of people associate you with the Sixties, even though you came into your own in the Seventies. To them you were sort of . . .
Spokesperson for a generation? That Woodstock girl, yes.
So what do you think when you see some female folk singer copping your look and sound?
I think, “Why don’t you get your own shit?” Remember, when I first came out, I appeared to be a spinoff of something that was going out of vogue, which was like a poor man’s Baez or Judy Collins. The old thing was folk, and the new thing was folk rock. Nobody wanted to sign me, because I appeared to be part of this old thing that was dying, but musicians could see that I was a musician.
Judy Collins obviously helped you cause by covering “Both Sides Now.” But how did Joan Baez react to you as a new kid of the folk block?
Oh, she was horrible. She was always super-competitive and threatened by me.
Your name always comes up as a big influence on younger musicians. Is it safe to say you’re a musician’s musician?
Sure, musicians understand it more. I mean, only the Salieris know who the Mozarts are [chuckles].
Of the biggest artists now, who would you consider innovators? Springsteen?
That’s folk carpentry. Bruce Springsteen is a very nice craftsperson.
No. An innovator must change what went before. Charlie Parker was an innovator. Jimi Hendrix was an innovator. Miles Davis was a sound innovator. I don’t think Prince is an innovator. He’s a great hybrid.
Was it gratifying to have Prince publicly acknowledge his love of your experimental work?
Yeah. To me that was a case of the open mind of youth.