2016 Mixtape Series: The Singer-Songwriter: Listening Alone/Finding Yourself, by Christa Anne Bentley

by Victor Szabo on April 11, 2016

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“I listen to the wind, to the wind of my soul.”
Cat Stevens, “The Wind” (1971)

“From time to time you get the feeling that you want to disengage yourself from your life. You want to withdraw into some kind of solitary contemplation—a locked room or a quiet corner of your mind—just to think about everything for a while.”
Advertisement: Leonard Cohen ‘Songs from a Room,’ Rolling Stone, No. 33, 17 May 1969

The whimsical opening lines of Cat Stevens’s “The Wind” (1971) and the listening practices described in the advertisement for Leonard Cohen’s Songs from a Room (1969) perfectly encapsulate the introspection that motivated the singer-songwriter movement in the U.S. during the 1970s. The music prompted listeners to retreat from the world and find themselves. To most listeners, singer-songwriters are not simply artists who write and perform original music, but the artists who present their music through notions of personal story telling, displays of vulnerability, and perceptions of intimate performance, which reinforce this mode of listening and identity searching. My research locates this musical aesthetic as one that coalesced in Los Angeles, home to Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Jackson Browne, and many others, and which coincided with broader trends of “self-discovery” sweeping through 1970s culture. As singer-songwriters confessed their personal accounts, the music allowed listeners to indulge in the same act of self-reflection.

This type of introspection was not without its critics—in fact, singer-songwriters were frequently accused of narcissism, stemming from the associations with solitary listening and the elevation of the self. My favorite insult launched against the movement comes from Lynn van Matre’s Chicago Tribune review of a 1971 Joni Mitchell concert, which read: “Joni Mitchell leaves the canyons of my mind empty with her journeys into her own.” However, critiques like van Matre’s have frequently caused me to ponder how the separation between public and private spheres continues to inform many of the value systems determining what music is considered important (societally engaged) and what music is considered frivolous (self-involved)—by journalists, listeners, and scholars alike. So rather than interpreting the songs as empty journeys, I invite you to hear these tracks as sung assertions of self and a window into the private, personal language that permeated American culture in the 1970s.

This mixtape features songs that show how experiences of love, longing, and loss deepened the singer-songwriter’s sense of self: Bill Withers, Jackson Browne, and Sara Bareilles confess the pain of romantic loss; Sufjan Stevens and Neil Young sing of grief and self-destruction; Carole King and Michael Kiwanuka long for family and home; Joni Mitchell and Aoife O’Donovan emerge from relationships confident despite the loneliness. You might even find yourself mapping your own experiences onto those of the artist. I hope the pairing of 1970s singer-songwriters with artists from the 2010s shows how these discourses of listening alone and finding yourself continue to resonate in the 21st century.

Track list

“The Wind” – Cat Stevens (1971)
“Hope She’ll Be Happier” – Bill Withers (1971)
“The Last Time I Saw Richard” – Joni Mitchell (1971)
“So Far Away” – Carole King (1971)
“The Needle and the Damage Done” – Neil Young (1972)
“Late for the Sky” – Jackson Browne (1974)
“Basket Case” – Sara Bareilles (2010)
“Home Again” ­– Michael Kiwanuka (2012)
“John My Beloved” – Sufjan Stevens (2015)
“Porch Light” ­– Aoife O’Donovan (2016)

Christa Anne Bentley researches the politics of popular music in the United States. She recently completed her Ph.D. in Musicology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and her dissertation looks at the ways the singer-songwriter movement in Los Angeles intersected with social movements during the 1970s. Her fieldwork in Los Angeles has lead to collaborative work with the Grammy Museum and the Bluegrass Situation, in addition to a chapter in the upcoming Cambridge Companion to the Singer-Songwriter.

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