Sheila Weller’s cultural history of the female titans of rock in the 1970s details the artistic, sexual and symbolic twists and turns of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon in respectful, loving detail. Only on the surface is this book (published in 2009) about music and who makes it, and how, and why. The bigger subject, the better subject, is how women found their way in their professional and personal lives from 1960 until now. These stories are about “a course of self-discovery, change, and unhappy confrontation with the limits of change.” Consider this: In 1960, H.W. Janson’s History of Art—the standard textbook—cited 2,300 artists. How many were female? Not one.
That’s the culture these women were entering. Women as decorative armpieces. As silent helpers. Sexual objects. And uncomplaining victims. Each of these women fought that culture. Not because she wanted to—but simply out of biography and necessity. Joan Anderson (later known as Joni Mitchell) gets pregnant out of wedlock and runs off to Toronto not only to launch her career in the steamy music world of Yorkville coffee houses but also to hide her pregnancy from her parents. Intoxicating bohemia and well-received performances aside, she is nonetheless assailed by the judgmental and shaming strictures of the time. Carly Simon may be the daughter of one of the founders of publisher Simon & Schuster, but in her case “privileged” refers mostly to her father, who banished his kids from his sight when he came home from work, and a castigating judgment that follows her like an irksome shadow in the world of media and mythmaking. Carol King, in her late teens, writes hits with a kid in her lap while managing her temperamental and controlling husband. And that’s just the setup. Each tale is epic as these icons grapple with the gender politics that hinder their art, hearts and wombs.