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Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon–and the Journey of a Generation, by Sheila Weller

with 11 comments

As the full title of the book suggests, Girls Like Us covers a lot of ground. At once a group biography of singer-songwriters Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, Girls Like Us is simultaneously the story of a whole generation of women in the U.S. who came of age in a time of great political excitement and confusion. In reading about their careers, we learn about the ways in which women of the “Baby Boomer” era struggled against the glass ceiling of the music industry, and in reading about their personal lives, we see the practical difficulties that inevitably arise during the navigation of newly acceptable gender roles in family and in love.

Having known nothing about Carly Simon or Carole King, I picked this book up out of curiosity about Joni Mitchell, whom I liked but knew little about, and an interest in personal accounts of women musicians in the ’60’s and 70’s in general. Simon, King, and Mitchell floated in and out of the same music scene for years, so it makes sense for their stories to be told together. I was surprised to learn that King (and her husband) wrote so many hits, performed by bands like The Shirelles and The Everly Brothers. Though I enjoyed finding out a little bit about Simon and King, I remained preoccupied primarily with Mitchell (and admit I was least interested in Simon). Any in depth reading about Joni Mitchell, though, comes with two warnings, I’m afraid.

WARNING NUMBER ONE: Reading this book (or any other about Joni, I bet) will likely have you listening to nothing but Blue on repeat, which may or may not be detrimental to your health, depending on how sensitive you are to the emotional pull of Mitchell’s tear-jerkingly magical vocal stylings. And those oddly tuned chords…don’t get me started.

WARNING NUMBER TWO: You might, like me, come to think you love Joni, not the musician but the human being, only to be terribly disappointed when you start to learn about all the racism and cultural appropriation perpetuated by her on her later albums–and in her everyday behavior, too. I mean really, Joni, REALLY?!

Weller glosses over this latter point with a “well, it was a different time…people just did that stuff”…but, no. I can not accept that “people” just dressed up in blackface as their “inner black person, a pimp named Claude”* (while also claiming to be socially colorblind, no less! ARGH!) to go to parties and whatnot and it was totally cool. In the ’60’s–’80’s?! Maybe in the 1860’s and ’80’s. Harumph.

Anyway, this aspect of Joni’s “artistic expression” really clarified for me that differing class backgrounds does not provide enough diversity from which to claim representation of “the journey of a generation”. The book was fun for what it was, but it was representative of a pretty privileged perspective and experience.

As mentioned earlier, I liked the book for the glimpse I got of the struggle fought by women musicians in such rapidly changing times to break through sexist barriers to musical careers. I learned a lot about what the music industry was like then, and I liked the gossipy tone Weller employed to talk about how the women’s movement of the ’60’s did not always, in every way, make things easier for women.

I must say, though, that I didn’t like Weller’s writing. She tends toward really long sentences, and includes a lot of superfluous detail about people and events who only come up once and really have nothing to do with the main narratives of the book. I also wish that she had spent more time on examining her subject’s artistic processes and thoughts/feelings about their work, and less on their romantic relationships with men. Not that those didn’t play hugely important roles in each of their lives, but really, the emphasis felt unfairly weighted.

Oh, and one more thing that might seem small but REALLY bothered me. I wasn’t going to mention this at first, but if not here, where? There’s a picture of Carly Simon with pals Hillary and Bill Clinton in the book, standing in a row with a third acquaintance, all with arms around each other’s waists and smiling at the camera (you know, posing for a picture totally normally like anyone would?) with the caption “The president’s hand tight around Carly’s bathing-suited waiste and that familiar, slightly-more-raking-than-Oval-Office smile speak volumes”.

WHAT?! WHY THE TOTALLY WEIRD, RANDOM, FACTUALLY UNSUPPORTABLE INNUENDO?!?! WHY? Are there really “volumes” to be spoken of here and, if so, why aren’t they mentioned anywhere else in the book? Seems like a cheap shot at both Bill and Carly (who Weller seems to consider particularly promiscuous) with no explanation. Again, why?

I set out to write a fairly neutral review. I liked the book well enough while I was reading it. But it falls farther in my estimation as I continue to think about it. At least I’ve got Both Sides Now to cheer me up! Just listen to the pretty song…

*Cringe. It hurts just to type this.

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Written by Emily Jane

April 27, 2011 at 2:41 am

11 Responses

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  1. Hmmmm sounds like an interesting book, but quite a few cringe-worthy things in it! Too bad about the writing and the choice of what she wrote about. Isn’t it unfortunate when you get writing the review and realize all the issues? heh

    amymckie

    April 27, 2011 at 10:19 am

    • Yeah it’s funny when you’re basically on the fence about a book until you start writing it and channeling your deeper feelings about it. Oh well!

      Emily Jane

      April 27, 2011 at 2:25 pm

  2. A thoughtprovoking book, but I’m not sure whether I’d enjoy it.

    I really love most of Mitchell and King’s music, but how can they do this to us? I feel cheated as well when I find out about things like that they were racist.

    I do think you have to look at it in its historical context, not as an excuse but to judge how actively racist, sexist etc they were. Yesterday a guy in my class basically told me off for reading Wells, because of racism. Nice to know that I’m not allowed to make my own choices. And I’d just bet that I have more experience with racism than him (white straight masculinity etc).

    Bina

    April 27, 2011 at 2:07 pm

    • I agree, historical context is important. I just thought the author was too dismissive given how late in the game this was, and how straightforward (and it wasn’t an isolated incident). Especially since so much of the book is about relating their experience to this revolutionary time of feminism and civil rights. Almost like she was too enamored with her subjects to level critical suggestion. Not that we can’t still enjoy the music!

      Guy in your class sounds silly ๐Ÿ™‚

      Emily Jane

      April 27, 2011 at 2:32 pm

  3. I really enjoyed this biography. I have followed these 3 artists since 1970-71. When I read the book I read it in threads. It was just easier to follow and digest their lives that way. First of all I read the Carly thread, who I think is the most underrated of the 3. Then Carole, who, through TAPESTRY, along with JT, brought me to the singer-songwriter explosion. Finally, I read Weller’s Joni thread. Of course, each one of these amazing artists deserves their own complete biography. Autobiographies would be even better! (but would autobiographies simply give us the artists’ censored viewpoint?) I did appreciate Weller writing about those aspects of their lives we would never otherwise have heard about. For me, that aspect gave insight into some of their music. We may never see the likes of 3 singer-songwriters with similar catalogs of music again. Girls Like Us, from a music and cultural viewpoint, is an important and fascinating read. I can’t wait for the movie….though how could a 3 hour movie capture the cultural impact of these 3 women?

    William

    April 30, 2011 at 1:54 am

    • Wait…there’s going to be a movie?! I had no idea! I’m actually really excited about that. You’re right, of course, no movie will be long enough to tell the full story…but the book probably wasn’t either ๐Ÿ˜‰ In any case, I’m glad you enjoyed the book more than I did, and I think autobiographies would be great, too. Thanks for letting me know about the movie, I’m looking forward to it now!

      Emily Jane

      April 30, 2011 at 2:10 am

  4. Also… rumer has it Stephen Davis is working on a Carly biogrpahy…I Believe In Love The True Adventures of Carly Simon
    http://mvgazette.com/article.php?28197

    William

    April 30, 2011 at 2:30 am

  5. Great great great review! Thank you for posting it, I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this book.

    Willa

    May 1, 2011 at 8:12 pm


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