Close Encounters of the Blue Kind
Diva worship is symptomatic of contemporary homosexuality.
I say “contemporary” homosexuality to indicate homosexuality since the twentieth century, and I say homosexuality because that is the term, first printed in 1869, to describe certain members of particular sexual subcommunities who share a general attraction to members of their own sex. Of course, the cartography of sexual identity is far more complex than this regrettably reductive single term, and in general, I prefer the umbrella term “queer” when referring to the constellation of identities that depart from the heteronormative ideal. Over time, homosexuality has accrued a specific gender referent: it suggests men. And diva worship is rampant among, at least, the gay men I know personally and those whose histories I’ve encountered in various works by D.A. Miller, Wayne Koestenbaum, Mitch Miller, George Chauncy, among others.
To underestimate the power and prevalence of divadentification is a mistake. Rumor has it that the death of Judy Garland and the emotional upset gay men in New York felt at the untimely loss of a hallowed diva contributed to the 1969 Stonewall Riots and the beginnings of a new wave of gay activism.
D. A. Miller’s experiences listening to original cast albums deep in the basement of his family home are typical of the 1950s. In this secret space, really the bowels of the home, he is free to lip synch, sing, and choreograph his emerging homosexual identity to the sound of music from Broadway’s golden era. Isolated from the rest of the family, not to mention the outside world, his diva loving ways become a source of shame. A dirty secret. Later, he finds a gay piano bar in which the rejects from the gay community (older, overweight, bald men with grotesque features, it seems) experience jouissance and transient beauty (in Miller’s eyes) as their overwrought features suddenly match the emotions expressed in the music they sing, gathered around a piano, sloshing their drinks, and losing themselves in sound.
Wayne Koestenbaum gushes over opera divas like Maria Callas, their larger than life personae, their dramatic—especially when flawed—voices. Like Miller, he consumes many of his divas via recordings, and a particularly rare or hard to find album might be better than…well, ok. Maybe not better than sex, but pretty dam close. The diva’s voice on record is better than a backstage pass for “opera records bring us closer to the singer’s mouth than we would ordinarily be allowed to stand; bring us to the microphone…feeding us information, “(81).
My own brand of diva worship started early, though I did not know it as such then. As a kid, my favorite movies were Mommie Dearest and a televised (HBO, perhaps?) production of Sweeny Todd starring Angela Lansbury. Mom and I used to sing “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” in the car en route to school each morning. The first music I bought with my own money was a 45 record of Madonna’s “Material Girl” (backed with the tragically overlooked “Pretender”), and for a short period in the early 1990s, I came home from school every afternoon and spent the hour and a half before my dad came home from work, lipsynching to Bette Midler’s Joplinesque performances in The Rose and singing Mama Cass Elliot’s parts in the songs of The Mamas and the Papas or imagining myself in the spot occupied by Mary in a folksinging trio: Peter, Paul, and Mattie. If, as Koestenbaum writes, “the singer staring into the mirror, practicing for a career, occupies a dubious, unsanctioned, pathologized position: the narcissist,” (168) what of the teenage lipsynching queer in a small rural town? Every musical utterance contains bits of narcissism; to perform is to be ok with—to desire—to-be-looked-at-ness. But to lipsynch, in the living room or the basement or the bathroom, to imagine the stage, to respond to the applause on a concert recording as if they were your own, this is not quite narcissism. Desire. Fantasy. Escapism. To riff on Ru Paul, I lipsynched for my life, to unshackle myself from an oppressive, rural, fundamentalist environment that taught me to despise myself, no matter how loving my family, no matter how supportive my friends. Growing up gay in the rural south, marked as Other in so many visible ways: weak, four-eyed, musical, queer. It’s a miracle any of us make it out alive.
It’s 1997, and I am a freshman at Berry College in rural West Georgia. I live on the third floor of Dana Hall with my boyfriend, Jonathan (there’s a story there, for later). Our mutual friend and fellow music major, La, gives me a CD that I absolutely must listen to, so I bring it down from the Music Castle (seriously, look at the Berry website) to our room. Without thinking, I open the case and put the disc into the player (I’m feeling rather nostalgic in the Mp3 age). I am completely unprepared for what I hear.
“I am on a lonely road, and I am traveling…looking for something. What can it be?”
The first sound is an unassuming strum across some sort of string instrument, a short intro, and these words, that voice. In a single phrase, this woman summarized every feeling I’ve experienced in eighteen years. She knows me. She understands how I feel; she sings my experiences. I’ve found my diva. I’m a Joni Junkie for life.
1971 is a pivotal year in the history of singer-songwriters. A brief list of genre-defining albums from that year includes Carole King’s Tapestry, Elton John’s Madman Across the Water, Billy Joel’s Cold Spring Harbor, eponymous debuts by Judee Sill, Bonnie Raitt, John Prine, and Carly Simon, Cat Stevens’ Teaser and the Firecat, Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors, James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim and the Blue Horizon, John Lennon’s Imagine, Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On?, and Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey.
Also release in 1971, Joni Mitchell’s fourth album, Blue, holds a place of esteem among many enduring records from that year. Recorded during a time of emotional upheaval for the singer-composer, Blue is perhaps Mitchell’s best known and widely revered album. It is also one of her most emotionally charged and musically rich works. A well-worn anecdote recounted in countless sources including the documentary Woman of Heart & Mind (Susan Lacy, 2003), finds Kris Kristofferson listening to the album; as it ends, he urges Mitchell to “save something for yourself.”
The song cycle is a queer genre, difficult to describe, analyze. There are no hard and fast rules. Some, Schubert’s Winterreise and Schumann’s Dichterliebe and Frauenliebe und -Leben are subject to much scholarly discussion in terms of traditional musical analysis as well as from perspectives inspired by gender studies. These three are intimate affairs, initially intended for salon performance. By contrast, the cycles of Mahler, Des Knaben Wunderhorn and Das Lied von der Erde achieve symphonic proportions. Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire fuses German cabaret with early-twentieth-century avant-gardism. While each of these song cycles achieves its own sort of internal cohesion, whether through musical, lyrical, or other means, generalization across song cycles are difficult to make. Thus, it is almost necessary to deal with each on its own terms ad hoc.
In popular music, the term “concept album” frequently acts as stunt double for “song cycle,” and the concept album, too, is a frustratingly inconsistent term. The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is often cited as a major concept album, but in truth, the “concept” disappears after the second track, “With a Little Help From My Friends” and makes an obligatory return at the end in a reprise of the title track, but the efficacy of the reprise is undermined by the transition into “A Day in the Life.” The album is, unquestionably, a milestone in popular music, but its conceptual foundation—that is, its status as a “concept” album—is pretty shaky. The “white” album suffers from a similar lack of consistency, though some people want it to be fall into the “concept” genre as well. Other examples, Pink Floyd’s The Wall (1982) or The Who’s Tommy (1969) fit more neatly into the rock opera genre as they are dramatic works with a discernible plot, cast of characters, and dare I say, symphonic musical forces. The song cycle might be narrative/plot focused with discernible developments in character, or it may be thematic, a collection of works around a central theme or idea. The song cycle/concept album is necessarily an intimate affair, what used to be called chamber or parlor music. Like the Schubert and Schumann examples, there is typically a single protagonist/performer, and the songs reflect on his/her emotional state. There is a strong connection between the voice and accompanying instrument(s), and the effect of such cycles is often that of eavesdropping or invading one’s privacy, hearing their diary sung aloud.
Musicology and music theory—at least some corners of the disciplines—privilege cohesion and unity. At the level of lyric, Blue achieves a consistency with its pursuit of the titular color. Furthermore, its lyrics cover a narrative arch, from the giggly beginning of romance undercut with self-doubt to the closing scene of a woman sitting in the alone in the dark corner of a café. Between these two poles, Mitchell travels across the country and around the globe fleeing the blues only to find that wherever she travels, her dissatisfaction follows close behind. Thematically, then, Blue may be thought of as more than just a collection of songs.
In this, it stands out from many of its 1971 peers. For instance, Tapestry, perhaps the best selling singer-songwriter album, is a collection of amazing Carole King tunes, but it does not possess (or aspire to possess) the thematic/narrative cohesion of a song cycle or concept album. What’s Going On? emphasizes issues of social injustice, poverty, and racism in the African American community and utilizes harmonic, lyrical/thematic, and some melodic repetition to maintain cohesion. Laura Nyro’s New York Tendaberry (1969) seems an obvious predecessor for Blue, as does Mitchell’s third album, Ladies of the Canyon (1970), which focuses on experiences in Los Angeles.
Lest it appear that I personally value cohesion as the mark of interesting or valuable music, let me note that I am not positing cohesion as a musical virtue. It just happens to characterize Blue and some of the other concept albums. However, other non-cohesive albums (Tapestry for example) are brilliant for other reasons. Blue happens to emphasize blue in both lyrics and some musical gestures, and that is part of what makes it an interesting album. However, it is discontinuous in other ways. The progression of key areas [a term I use because much of Mitchell’s music is modal in a variety of ways. For a discussion of this, see Whitesell’s The Music of Joni Mitchell] does not follow any sort of expected tonal pattern, though this expectation may be a relic of art music rather than a characteristic of the song cycle or popular music. Nor does there seem to be any particular consistency in the ensemble makeup of each track. The album opens buoyantly with “All I Want,” with Mitchell on dulcimer and James Taylor on guitar and features the only multi-tracking on the entire album (a brief chorus of Jonis in the final verse). Three tracks later, Stephen Sills adds bass and guitar to Mitchell’s dulcimer on “Carey,” and three tracks after that, on “This Flight Tonight.” The remaining songs feature Mitchell accompanying herself with guitar, dulcimer, or piano. So, consistency of ensemble is not necessarily a contributing factor.
The title is ambiguous: blue. A color, a state of mind, a musical genre, a period in Picasso’s career, sadness. The cover art, a close up of Mitchell’s face saturated in deep indigo offers no specifics, only the visual manifestation of this small word with so many meanings. In some ways, the album is an exercise in just how blue Blue can be. Blue recurs as a sort of motif in the lyrics to many of the songs:
“All I Want,” : then we both get so blue
“My Old Man,”: keeping away my blues…but when he’s gone, me and them lonesome blues collide
“Little Green,”: So, you write him a letter and say, “Her eyes are blue”
“Blue,” : Blue, songs are like tattoos….Blue, here is a song for you…Blue, I love you
“California,” : All the news at home you read just gives you the blues
“A Case of You,”: The blue TV screen light
In other places, blue is present by its conspicuous absence. A song like “River,” about feeling blue, abounds with cool winter imagery: a frozen landscape, loneliness at the holidays, escape. “The Last Time I Saw Richard” is saturated in the same blue TV screen light that first appears in the hotel bar in “A Case of You.” The action in “This Flight Tonight” is set against the inky darkness of the midnight (blue) sky, and “Carey” dances beside the brilliant blue sea on the coast of Matalla. More obliquely, blue is evoked through juxtaposition with other colors: it is an ingredient required to make “Little Green,” a counterpart to the bright red devil of “Carey.”
I should also note that the colors blue and green make appearances on a number of tracks by singer-songwriters during this era. In “Your Song,” Elton John/Bernie Taupin ask us to “excuse me forgetting, but these things I do, you see I’ve forgotten if they’re green or they’re blue.” A little later in the decade, the speaker in Janis Ian’s “Jesse” has recently cleaned all her blues and her greens. The two colors are buried in the title song, “Blue,” and “Little Green.” There are other 1970s examples of lyrical references to blue and green, though at the moment, I have no idea what these colors might mean in that historical moment.
Mitchell’s melodies are punctuated with expressive blue notes, graceful melismatic filigree, and bluesy seventh chords. The album’s stark textures, frequently just Mitchell accompanied by her own guitar or piano, contribute to the album’s sense of blue melancholy. The icy accompaniment of “River,” skins a familiar Christmas carol to a frozen ostinato over a series of descending left-hand arpeggios that sink and settle into a decidedly blue mood, and the moody piano prelude of “The Last Time I Saw Richard,” act almost synesthesially, grumbling like the figure described in the final stanza, sitting alone with “nobody coming over to my table. I got nothing to talk to anybody about.” The punchy dulcimer playing which accompanies her loves sick letter home, “California,” throws her melancholy into further relief. The Picardy third at the end of the title is a futile smile pinned onto a Dear John letter carefully written in indigo.
Regardless of whether or not the album coheres in any sort of musicological/music-theoretical way, I have adored this album for a bit more than a decade now. I’m a lyrics person without a doubt, and the poetry on Blue is simple, direct, and frequently breathtaking. In “My Old Man,” Mitchell looks around her empty house, feeling the absence of her lover in ever crevasse, “the bed’s too big; the frying pan’s too wide.” The final word is subject to a bit of painting, as Mitchell’s vibrato gently broadens. “A Case of You” is an exercise in contrasts. In the first verse, she sings a heartbreaking story of love so intoxicating it turns toxic with a stunned and almost cold voice until the final punch line, “if you want me, I’ll be in the bar.” And “All I Want” abounds with the contradictions of love: I hate you some; I love you some when I forget about me; I wanna talk to you. I wanna shampoo you. I wanna renew you again and again.” Every song offers another example, so I’ll stop there as I think I’ve heaped enough praises on an already-canonical album.
Each time I put it on Blue, I am transported back to that third floor dorm room in Rome, Georgia, to the moment when an album, recorded almost a decade before I was born, revealed something about myself to me. As I accrue experiences, love & loss, joy & sorrow, this record continues to reveal new depths. From the moody basement of despair to a brilliant springtime sky, listening to this record makes me feel so Blue, but I don’t mind….