The Unsound Validation of Joni Mitchell’s Blackface Pimp Persona

Joni Mitchell As Art Nouveau: Male Blackface Pimp

Joni Mitchell: media doll, marketable name, innovative artist. She was a huge figure in her day, lauded for being one of the first successful female folk singers and the first big-time female singer inducted into the rock and roll hall of fame. While all of these achievements are admirable, there are some overlooked instances of full-on bigotry that seriously deaden the glow of her career, and rightly so.

In an interview with Angela Lagreca in 1976, Joni Mitchell explained the inspiration for her just-publicized blackface male pimp persona, Art Nouveau.

I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, in search of a costume for a Halloween party when I saw this black guy with a beautiful spirit walking with a bob… As he went by me he turned around and said, “Ummmm, mmm… looking good sister, lookin’ good!” Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this sipirit went into me. So I started walking like him. I bought a black wig, I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pancake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin’ as him!’ [1]

Art Nouveau, a new persona entirely separate from not only her femininity, but her race as well. Unfortunately, the character survived long after that Halloween party. Named after the European art movement, Art Nouveau first appeared on the cover of Mitchell’s 1977 release Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, (DJRD), with subsequent sporadic appearances in stage performances. The cover art of DJRD features two photos of Mitchell, one of Art Nouveau striking a suggestive pose in the foreground. In the background she appears as a white woman in a top hat, wearing a dress with pictures of doves and stuffed Mickey Mouse heads surrounding the image of a headless nude woman. Sound strange? It should, because it is.

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DJRD received mixed reviews, “the press reviews either lauded Joni’s artistry on Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter or were blisteringly caustic” [2] most likely due to its strange mixture of uptempo jazz fusion and folk rock, with both Wayne Shorter and Chaka Khan contributing to the album. Thematically, Mitchell described it as having to do with “turning your back on America and heading into the Third World…at the time Muslims were messing around in Washington, there were radical tensions. I was disillusioned. The songs on the album have a lot of ethnic references.” [3] By ethnic references it would appear as though she means her mention of Native American ‘war drums,’ ‘colored feathers,’and ‘leather tassels’ in the song “Paprika Plains.” Oh no, that’s not offensive at all.

The current academic or even analytic literature on Mitchell’s persona Art Nouveau is scarce to say the least. What there is seems focused on a paper by Miles Parks Grier called The Only Black Man At The Party: Joni Mitchell Enters the Rock Canon, and a fairly unfortunate paper at that. Grier surprisingly, given his position as fellow of Duke University’s Women’s Studies department, believes that “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 naïve traditionalist or an unscrupulous panderer.” [4] Not only does Grier argue this point, he refuses to admit that someone would take issue with Mitchell’s blackface. The only published white critic of Mitchell’s persona, says Grier, ‘humorously skewer[s]” [5]  her desire to be called black. The thing is, it’s not humorous at all.

Hopefully, what follows will shed light on not only the inherent racist and sexist overtones (Mitchell is anything but subtle) of DJRD but also demonstrate that celebrating Mitchell as a post racist white woman is not acceptable. Unfortunately, once a certain level of fame is reached, the low points that litter any career are swept under the table. Successes are lauded, failures are ignored and racism – apparently – doesn’t exist.

Joni Mitchell: A Feminist’s Worst Nightmare:

It appears as though the press didn’t acknowledge her “transition from naive white female to black auteur” [6] prompting Mitchell to respond, “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 Santana and Miles [Davis]. They’re not afraid of my—They don’t have to keep genderizing me.” [7]  It’s worth noting that at the time of this interview there were all of two articles in the black press that praised her, both of which were by the same author, Greg Tate. (The Long Run and Black and Blonde). Undoubtedly, this isolated instance of black male juxtaposition contributed to Mitchell’s delusion of black grandeur.

To Mitchell, identifying herself as and with noted female musicians – of which there were few at the time – was unacceptable. Her persona Art Nouveau acted as a means through which she was able to associate herself with well known black musicians, even tangentially. She viewed herself, as is obvious from the above quote, to be the musical equal of well known male black musicians while entirely dismissing the long legacy of female black musicians in one gesture. What better way to demonstrate her authenticity to the black male community and her “deep investments in…black people as reservoirs of the physicality and spontaneity that whites lost as they traded manual labor and rural or urban community life for intellectual labor and suburban isolation” [8] than donning blackface and a pimp outfit? It is, as I’m sure you know, the highest form of flattery.

While Grier asserted that “her black persona…counteracted rock’s tendency to devaluate feminized genres and women performers” [9] I would like to suggest that it did the complete opposite.

Mitchell’s ‘best Negro’ reposts illustrates that her black pimp persona provided an authoritative position from which to criticize sexism as if it were racism against black men. By presenting herself as a black male victim of racism—a type of discrimination rock mythology deems anathema to the music’s cultural politics—Mitchell ensured that her advocacy for her art exceeded what Lauren Berlant calls a “female complaint,” a plea easily “devaluated, marginalized, and [rendered] ineffective in a patriarchal public sphere. [10]

With Art Nouveau, Mitchell did what white feminism in the 70s was doing in a widespread way – foregoing intersectionality and appropriating the struggles of marginalized groups for their own purposes. But Mitchell didn’t stop there. While it may just be hearsay, Joni Mitchell is said to have scolded an unknown man by telling him that referring to her as the best female singer-songwriter was equally as offensive as calling someone ‘the best negro.’ [11] In this instance Mitchell is appropriating the word ‘negro’ to signify some strange interpretation of the ‘feminist struggle.’ Nice one, Joni. (Let’s not even mention Reprise Record’s 1969 ad campaign for her album Clouds with the slogan “Joni Mitchell is 90% Virgin.”)

Such signifying appropriation harkens back to John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s song Woman Is The Nigger of the World, an attempt to highlight the sexism facing women. A similar perspective is apparent even in modern feminist protests such as slutwalk, where white women are engaging in a form of ‘niggerization,’ holding up signs in which the word ‘nigger’ is used as an inclusive term signifying anyone who is oppressed. [12] Unfortunately, the way Joni Mitchell thinks about feminism and racism, and its total lack of intersectionality is still an incredibly pervasive mindset today. The fact that Mitchell’s extremely offensive opinions are completely ignored in favor of plaudits and praise from the media just goes to show how willing public media is to ‘overlook’ subversive opinions in favor of retaining some awful impression of celebrity perfection. People want celebrities to be perfect people. Beautiful, rich, talented, and without fault. Unearth a fault and it will immediately be buried – most likely along with the unearther.

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It’s apparent by using Art Nouveau as “the perfect vehicle to flee from the vulnerability and devaluation that marked the white female folksinger” [13] that Mitchell views feminism as the new civil rights movement. Yet in ‘fleeing’ from the sexist difficulties that faced a white female folksinger in the 1970s, what exactly is she fleeing to? The vulnerability and devaluation that haunts black men?

The Death of Art Nouveau

There is no racial solidarity in minstrelsy, nor is there any opportunity for cross-racial solidarity to form. Did she think she was being clever or funny by doing so? Did she care – or was she even aware of what she was doing? Was it for shock value? Did she even realize that she could take off her black skin while others could not?

According to Grier, Joni Mitchell as “a straight white woman arriving at the end of legal segregation and indulging in racial impersonation to counteract gender bias…offers the opportunity for a new synthesis in studies of blackface and trans-gender performance.” [14] Yet dressing as a black man in order to reframe the way people receive her critiques of sexism, or by casting sexism as supplanting the concerns of racism (e.g.: a white woman who thinks that it’s ok to be in blackface after the civil rights movement, because apparently it’s not a callback to white minstrelsy) Mitchell appropriates the struggles of people of color in order to present herself as someone who is equally “outside.” Joni Mitchell – a musician lauded for her success as one of the first well known female singer-songwriters – wanted to escape the confines of her gender and assume the role of a black man. In her desire to escape the reality of sexism, she moved on to the reality of racism. As is the case with all musical personas, the media lost interest once Art Nouveau was retired – leaving Joni Mitchell with a substantial skeleton in her closet.

 


[1] LaGreca, Angela, “Joni Mitchell,” Rock Photo, June 1985.
[2] Bego, Mark, Joni Mitchell, (New York: Taylor Trade Publishing, 2005).
[3] LaGreca, “Joni Mitchell.”[4] Grier, Miles Parks, “The Only Black Man At The Party: Joni Mitchell Enters the Rock Canon,” Genders 56 (2012), http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=2532, pp.1.
[5] ibid. pp.8
[6] Grier, “The Only Black Man At The Party,” pp.2.
[7] Mitchell, Joni, “All That Joni: An Interview with the National Magazine,” Radio, February 11, 2000, Canada: CBC.
[8] Grier, “The Only Black Man At The Party,” pp.24.
[9] ibid, pp.4.
[10] Tricia Rose, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1994), 62, quoted in Miles Parks Grier, “The Only Black Man At The Party: Joni Mitchell Enters the Rock Canon,” Genders 56 (2012), http://jonimitchell.com/library/view.cfm?id=2532, pp.3.
[11] Strauss, Neil, “The Hissing of a Living Legend,” The New York Times, 4 Oct. 1988.
[12] Peterson, Latoya. “Which Women are What Now? Slutwalk NYC and Failures in Solidarity. Ocbober 5, 2011, http://www.racialicious.com/2011/10/05/which-women-are-what-now-slutwalk-nyc-and-failures-in-solidarity/.
[13] Grier, “The Only Black Man At The Party,” pp.26.
[14] Grier, “The Only Black Man At The Party,” pp.11

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3 Comments

  1. As your bio reads, you’re an undergrad student, so I can take your dismissal of Ms. Mitchell’s mid-70’s character “Art Nouveau” mainly as youthful ignorance. I’ve read Grier’s essay; I don’t agree with all of it, but he does have an understanding of the times, as I do. I’m 60 years old, and have lived just a bit more than you, but what I do want to say, is that it’s somewhat fruitless to apply today’s morality and standards to the past; it does no good for the past, and precious little to the present and future. Grow up a bit, come back to your essay in about twenty years; hopefully, you’ll have matured a bit, and learned more about the music industry, gender roles, and race relations….

  2. Hmmm…. I see this rather as a white woman’s quest to reach beyond her own frame of reference, by trying to experience life as a black man. And it’s hardly a frivolous pose: Ms. Mitchell has devoted much of her career to studying jazz and performing with black male jazz artists. (Claiming she has thus disrespected black female jazz artists seems like a mighty red herring.)

    Isn’t it understandable that an intelligent artist would want to cross the borders of sex, race, class, etc., in order to gain a fuller understanding of the human experience? Yet this article finger-wags and tut-tuts by taking the most ungenerous interpretation imaginable of Ms. Mitchell’s alter ego.

    If Ms. Mitchell were French she’d be lionized to the stars, but she has to deal with North America’s hangups. She is our Leonor Fini, and we won’t know what we’ve got ’til she’s gone!

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