Day 6

Joni, Whitney and the cost of stardom

A new biography of Joni Mitchell and two new documentaries about Whitney Houston pose questions about how talent and genius are channelled in popular culture. The Day 6 music panel digs in.
How much is too much when it comes to putting personal experiences in your art?

A few years ago, Joni Mitchell told NPR's Renee Montagne that she started singing because she needed "smoking money." From those humble beginnings came a talent that not only changed folk music but created a new, deeper and more personal style of writing.

(Harper Collins Canada)
Mitchell wrote songs about love, as songwriters do, but she found new ways to explore the rawness and confusion. Her lyrics got into people's bones.

David Yaffe reveals the back-story behind her most famous songs his new book, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell, composed of dozens of in-person interviews with the musician.

The book covers her creative output, love life and drug use as well as her dysfunctional relationship with fame.

And while this book pulls back the curtain on new details about Mitchell's life, two new documentaries address the troubled life of Whitney Houston.

Last week, Clive Davis: The Soundtrack of our Lives was released on Apple Music and Whitney: Can I Be Me is airing on Showtime now.

The films reveal the naivete of a talented young woman who was quickly swallowed by an unforgiving industry and how her career was micro-managed by her manager.

With these stories in mind, we assembled our Day 6 music panel to discuss the toll fame has taken on these talented but troubled women.


The cost of being an artist     

Musicologist Nate Sloan says the music industry didn't know what to do with Mitchell, who created her own guitar tunings and charted from folk to pop and into the world of jazz.

"Her career exposed a lot of the limitations of the music industry and the narrowness of its vision," says Sloan.

I don't think she was well-served by a critical apparatus that couldn't see beyond her sex and her very engaging personal life."

Joni Mitchell.

Maura Johnston is a music writer and journalism professor at Boston College. She says there are dangers that come from putting too much of yourself in your art.  

"Female artists especially get pegged with being confessional," she says. "You have these singers telling stories in their own voice so you assume it's about them."

If you look deep into Mitchell's discography, you'll find stories of love in the form of success and failure; but music writer Andrea Warner says it's not as confessional as the work of other, male recording artists of the time.

She always wanted to be a changeling. She never wanted to be just one thing.- Andrea Warner

"I think there's a tremendous amount of distance that she places between herself and her songs even though she's writing in 'I's' and 'our's' and uses all those personal pronouns. I would say equally confessional would be Neil Young or Leonard Cohen."


Hardly a dishonest note

Joni Mitchell's stubbornness and sense of self defied industry expectations to the point of antagonism. She changed her style from folk to experimental jazz in the 1970s with albums like The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Mingus.

"She always wanted to be a changeling. She never wanted to be just one thing," says Warner.

"Joni Mitchell was strong enough to resist the pressures of executives and managers and people in the upper echelons of the music business," Johnston adds.

But fame and expectations did take their toll and Mitchell receded further into a secluded life in California's Laurel Canyon.

That was never an option for Whitney Houston, whose career launched in 1986 at the age of 19. Stardom was in her pedigree: she was Aretha Franklin's goddaughter and Dionne Warwick's niece and she would go on to break the Beatles' record with seven consecutive U.S. No. 1 hits. 

Released in June 1979, Joni Mitchell collaborated with famed jazz musician Charles Mingus shortly before his death. (Asylum)


The forces working against Houston      

Nick Broomfield's new documentary, Whitney: Can I Be Me draws on interviews, archival footage and unreleased video from a 1999 tour to tell her story.

The title comes from a rhetorical question she asked a lot, in part because her career was guided by others.

Sloan says that was in part because of a belief at that time that an African-American artist couldn't have cross-over, global success.

"Clive Davis and Arista Records pushed her in a more anodyne direction, covering country songs and other pop hits that were more associated with a white market," he says.

She was breaking boundaries in the 1980s while sacrificing artistic control in the process, and that bargain made her vulnerable.

That led to increased drug use, which contributed to her death in 2012 at age 48.

"If you feel that everyone is depending on you for their livelihood, you do what you have to do to survive," says Warner.

Whitney Houston performs in Los Angeles in November 2009. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

From writing music to cutting demos to recording and touring, Johnston says the pressures of the music industry are rigorous.

"Whitney Houston came up at the time when MTV was in full-bloom. That brought a big increase in the amount of exposure that artists on her level had," says Johnston.

She also says tours in particular and giving so much of yourself to fans is particularly draining on stars.

"You might be out there in front of tens of thousands of people but at the end of the night you're alone. That's such a mind-bending thing."

"From adulation from an arena full of people to being along with your thoughts. I couldn't imagine doing that on a magnitude that Whitney Houston experienced."

To hear the full audio from this week's music panel, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.

Check out our Day 6 playlist below for all the songs mentioned in the panel.