On Joni Mitchell And Why We Need To Stop Calling White Stars Who Do Disturbing Things “Eccentric”

February 11, 2015  |  

“Joni Mitchell Is A Racist Crazy Lady,” would have been a more accurate title for that head-scratch worthy New York Magazine profile piece on the famed singer. But we don’t call white people out on their shit like we do others. Instead, we take beautiful pictures of them while we write articles, which whitewash over their obvious racial hysterics and overall mental health needs by using words like “eccentric,” “unyielding” and “implacable.”

And that’s pretty much what Carl Swanson, editor-at-large for New York Mag did in his piece about the iconic folk singer. As always, I advise those who haven’t read it to pause for a moment from reading of this critique and take a gander. He writes the truth, yet his truth is also forgiven and sympathetic in a way that almost rationalizes things that are clearly not rational.

For instance, he writes:

Now 71, Mitchell has been ill for eight years, which she describes as a “survival blur.” In fact, she’s been sick throughout her whole life — polio, scarlet fever, dengue, abscessed ovaries — and now suffers from the skin disorder Morgellons, a “weird, incurable disease that seems like it’s from outer space,” which many doctors find mysterious, and which Mitchell has described this way: “Fibers in a variety of colors protrude out of my skin like mushrooms after a rainstorm. They cannot be forensically identified as animal, vegetable, or mineral.”

Now most would argue that we don’t need much more exploration to tell us that Mitchell is not mentally well. However, it should have been explicitly noted somewhere within this piece that Morgellons are not just a skin disorder that “many doctors find mysterious.” Rather, this “disorder” mostly affects white women and is considered by many mental health professionals, including the CDC, to be a form of delusory parasitosis.

However, Swanson just leaves that information out like it is perfectly reasonable for a woman to think they have invisible alien bugs under their skin. He then spends the next several paragraphs waxing poetic about Mitchell’s thoughts on man-made ecological disasters; her role as an innovator; and her thoughts on marriage, which she most amusingly tells Swanson this about: “There’s an old saying. It says: If you make a good marriage, God bless you. If you make a bad marriage, become a philosopher. So I became a philosopher.”

Good one. And it’s witty moments of self-observation like that, which might make one believe that she is just a woman ahead of her time. But then, in the next few paragraphs, Mitchell is asked her feelings on race. That is when you realize just how regressive and unstable she kind of is.

For one, according to Swanson (and hat tip to Junkee.com for pointing it out), Mitchell believes her ancestors were probably Sami (Finland) natives. However, she also wishes she had “every blood. Then I could tell everybody off and not be a bigot.”

Oh, and then she admits that she identifies with Black men. More specifically, she shares this with Swanson:

When I see black men sitting, I have a tendency to go — like I nod like I’m a brother. I really feel an affinity because I have experienced being a black guy on several occasions.”

I ask her what she means. “Well, did you ever see the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter?” A friend who had come over to let her Jack Russell terrier out brought the album in. The 1977 album cover (with a $2 sticker on it) features an odd little dance party with her in a dress and top hat in the middle, a young kid in a tux to one side, and several birds flapping around the middle distance. Oh, and on the left is a leaning figure who looks like a comic extra from a blaxploitation film. “That’s me. The black guy in the front.”

You read right: Joni Mitchell did Blackface. And in 2015, she tells this story without a hint of regret nor irony. But it gets worse. She tells Swanson of the inspiration for the minstrel show she put on her album cover:

I was being butchered by a dentist who was capping my teeth — and he was my dentist for about 12 years and one day he said, ‘Oh, you’ve got the worst bite I’ve ever seen. You have teeth like a Negro male.’ That bit of casual racism started her thinking. The next thing that happened was that she had to go to a Halloween party, and was trying to think of what to wear, when she saw a guy on Hollywood Boulevard “diddy bopping,” as she puts it, down the street in his blue jogging clothes. She gets up and shows me — an irregular strut, one leg shorter than the other. “And he says, ‘Mmm, mmm, mm, you looking good, sister, you looking good.’ My mother always told me to stick up my nose, but I couldn’t help it, I broke out into a big grin. And he kept going and I was trying to imitate his walk. I said, ‘I’m going to go as him.’  The costume, and the disturbance it caused (Are you at the right party?), was such a success she decided to spring it on the guy shooting her album cover, whom she found bossy and annoying. I brought it in a bag, she says. “I could do the makeup in about four minutes, and then I step out of the curtain. I just stood there till they noticed me. I walked really showily, going, Heh heh heh. It was a great revenge. That was all to get his ass. To freak him out. I had to keep him on the defensive.”

You would have thought that any portion of that would have caused Swanson to turn to the bug-infested lady and ask her, “You know dressing up like a Black man you saw on the street to seek revenge on an annoying photographer is kind of racist, right?” But he doesn’t follow it up. Instead, he asks her what her future plans are and then closes the piece by mentioning how much she appreciates her fans. And that’s pretty much it.

Overall, it is a pretty complimentary piece. And as far as I am concerned, that is a problem. Truth is, nobody wants to say that Joni is ill mentally and racist, even though it more than likely needed to be said. Perhaps many years ago…

I kind of understand it since we are talking about Joni Mitchell. As New York Mag points out, she is the “original folk-goddess muse.” And to be more blunt, that is white folks’ homegirl right there. Heck, even some black folks would tell you, Joni Mitchell never lies”

And it’s not like Black folks aren’t protective over our own icons too. Michael Jackson. Whitney Houston. Bill Cosby. Beyonce. However, I also know that within our national conversations, we are less willing to cut Black icons slack when it comes to reporting their “eccentricities.”

Now I don’t say this to suggest that we cut Black icons slack. If they’re triflin’, they deserve to be called out on it. However, the rules should apply all around. One of the main reasons why white privilege persists is because no one bothers to call Mitchell what she is: a mentally ill, sometimes racist lady, who gets off on harassing Black men (and erasing Black women, who ironically she neglects to identify with in spite of being  a woman).

And before anyone tells me to think of her age, please know that Mitchell has been doing this type of stuff (harassing black people) for a while. As noted in this Rolling Stone article from 1977 about how Blues guitarist Furry Lewis felt about being the “inspiration” for her song “Furry Sings the Blues”:

The way I feel” says Furry “is that your name is proper only to you, and when you use it you should get results from it. She shouldn’t have used my name in no way, shape, form or faction without consultin’ me ’bout it first. The woman came over here and I treated her right, just like I does everybody that comes over. She wanted to hear ’bout the old days, said it was for her own personal self, and I told it to her like it was, gave her straight oil from the can.” He stares at the surrealistic photo on the Hejira cover. “But then she goes and puts it all down on a record, using my name and not giving me nothing! I can’t stop nobody from talkin’ ’bout Beale Street, ’cause the street belongs to everybody. But when she says ‘Furry,’ well that belongs to me!” (Though Joni Mitchell had no response to Furry’s comments, her manager, Elliot Roberts, responded: “All she said about him was, ‘Furry sings the blues’ the rest is about the neighborhood. She doesn’t even mention his last name. She really enjoyed meeting him, and wrote about her impressions of the meeting, He did tell her that he didn’t like her, but we can’t pay him royalties for that. I don’t pay royalties to everybody who says they don’t like me. I’d go broke.”)

She likes him so much, she didn’t even think she had to compensate him. Now, that’s no way to treat a brother. By the way, this article was posted on the official Joni Mitchell website, which is all kinds of brazen, privileged and yeah, even crazy.

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