Joni Mitchell and Madonna are both undeniably two iconic artists of the music industry. However, the people who idolise them are two contrasting crowds and they represent two different sides of music. While Mitchell made her career solely on the strength of her world-class songwriting, Madonna wasn’t afraid of making herself a sex symbol in order to bolster her career.
Mitchell never deliberately played on her sexuality in an attempt to sell more records, it wasn’t on-brand for the folk music pioneer and, before Madonna, it wasn’t a particularly popular route of expressions for female musicians at the time. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that Mitchell didn’t warm to The Queen of Pop when she burst onto the scene and that her marketing method was one that didn’t sit right with Joni. The folk troubadour is a firm believer that the advent of Madonna in the 1980s was a cultural turning point in America and not one for the better. What made Madonna such a global sensation was her unparalleled ability to split opinion. She didn’t care whether you loved her or hated her — as long as Madonna was the name on everybody’s lips.
Mitchell would let slip about her uncomplimentary opinion on the pop star in 1991 whilst in conversation with Rolling Stone. The topic turned to how Mitchell had never been widely perceived as being a feminist hero, despite everything she had achieved in her wildly pioneering career. The reason why the conversation turned to this topic was due to Bob Dylan who had previously made a remark about his disdain for watching women using sex to sell themselves on stage. Dylan then went on to pay a backhanded compliment to Mitchell, by noting how she was more like a man in the sense that the quality of her songs was her selling point.
“The thing is, I came into the business quite feminine,” Mitchell declared. “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.”
She then expanded on why she controversially agreed with the sentiment of Dylan’s comment: “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.”
Mitchell then brought Madonna into the conversation, damningly stating: “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 revelling 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.
“She’s got that whore-Madonna thing built-in [laughs]. She’s like a living Barbie doll but a little bit 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.”
The impact that Madonna had on the music industry is unparalleled, the popular landscape pre-Madonna and post-Madonna are two fiercely different beasts. Madonna wasn’t naive, she was ‘in on it’ like Mitchell alludes to and knew that this all a part of becoming the biggest star on the planet. For someone like Mitchell, however, its never been about selling the most records or the magazine covers. That deviation in mindset between her and Madonna is one that she struggled to wrap her head around.
Madonna has never taken the time to respond to Mitchell’s comments and, although the folk singer does namedrop the pop star, the attack is more about the cultural shift that had taken place. Madonna was the poster girl of the sexing up of music and this made her the perfect example for Mitchell to jump on. They are both feminist icons in their own right, Madonna showed that its okay to be proud of your body and liberated millions. Mitchell, meanwhile, used her art to prove that women were just as talented as men.