Romance: millennials versus baby boomers, part I – Joni Mitchell

Romance: millennials versus baby boomers, part I – Joni Mitchell

Sometimes it feels like millennial romance is uniquely desolate. Tinder has reduced dating to a sort of ASOS-inspired off-branch of online shopping. Every time our phone judders with a text message, it supplants the vibrations of a real-life person’s voice. And with people pairing off prematurely to get a foot onto the property ladder, for the first time since the 1950s, money is creeping back as deciding factor when it comes to love.

Nostalgia has always been an escape for me. Most of my clothes are vintage. I devour period dramas. I’m transfixed by films with Jean Harlow and Vivien Leigh. I listen to the Shirelles and Joni Mitchell. For me such things conjure these great lost romantic eras I never lived through. But of course, this isn’t true.

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I tend to associate true romance with the past

I’ve been thinking about Joni Mitchell a lot lately. I first welcomed her into my life as a teenager. It was her folksy voice – there was a twinkling mineral clarity to it that carried me away from the Brutalist hallways of my university every time I put my earphones in, like a gentle meadow stream. Her greedy demands for a good life and good love resonated with me as an ambitious overachiever. And as a mixed-race, bookish oddball, confused and disappointed by men, I savoured her outbursts of bitterness.

At the time I idealised where she came from, this unconventionally pretty guitar-clutching hippy with clinking rings and flowing hair. I always imagined the Seventies as a very romantic time to be a young woman, liberated from the homemaking shackles of the Fifties, but also free of the formulaic tedium of online dating, and living in a time when people didn’t always have their nose in their phones.

In my head, I conjured a place where people sporting kaftans and flares read philosophy over their breakfast cereal and forged meaningful loving relationships based on meeting of minds and bodies. All the women in this fictional past were like Joni – passionate and intelligent – and the men were entranced.

Now I’m older, I’ve changed my mind. Recently I came across an old interview that Mitchell gave, which is poignant. “There was no free love,” she recalls of her music-making era. “It came with great strings attached. It was free for men, but not for women, same as it ever was.”

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Baby boomers grew up in the era of ‘female sexual liberation’, embodied most powerfully by the legalisation of the pill for non-married women in 1963. But I’ve started to feel rather suspicious about this historical adjunct. How come the point at which women made a dramatic snatch for self-autonomy is conveniently wrapped up in their increased sexual availability for men?

You only have to watch one of the Carry On films from this era – or consider the cliche of the free-loving, promiscuous hippy groupie chick – to understand that single young women were routinely portrayed as sexual objects for the entertainment of men in popular culture. I wonder whether this was the inevitable compromise: young women banged at the door of domesticity seeking to escape. Male-dominated society agreed to unlock it – but on the condition they wear a bikini by way of getaway gear.

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Young women were routinely reduced to sexual objects in films

The implications for romance are clear. My mum somewhat elusively recalls that there was a “hollowness” and “shallowness” to “those days”. “Objectification was normality. We got wolf whistled on the street all the time. We wolf-whistled back.”

Marriage of course remained the ultimate goal for baby boomers – but with the extra expectation of finding a partner based on love rather than practical or financial consideration. This was a real, exciting shift, but also problematic. True romance – with its origins in courtly love – is always mad and adulterous in nature, as Judy Kutulas eloquently put it. From the Sixties the ‘traditional guardians of morality’, who had previously lambasted romance as corrupting and subversive came to terms with the fact that romance was going nowhere. Their plan B was to amalgamate it into the institution of marriage. Thus the idea of serial monogamy and marrying your soulmate was born.

But marriage is, of course, incompatible with pure romance. Romance is, by its very nature, fleeting. Marriage is one of the surest ways to snuff it out. Joni Mitchell grapples with this problematic idea of everlasting, domesticated romance most famously in A Case Of You.

“Just before our love got lost you said
I am as constant as a northern star and I said,
Constantly in the darkness
Where’s that at?
If you want me I’ll be in the bar”

Of course, this is a conundrum facing millennials, but I think the baby boomers, as the first generation expected to find and marry their romantic soulmate, felt the challenge most keenly, especially as they existed in a culture that – rather confusingly – was relentless in its sexual objectification of women.

I now see Joni Mitchell as an outlier rather than an embodiment of her era. Her power was intellectual rather than sexual. She was a pinup for women rather than men. This achievement shouldn’t be underestimated. Even the fabulously talented Carly Simon, who wrote equally punchy songs in the same era, couldn’t fend off pressures to pose scantily on her 1975 album cover Playing Possum, something which she said she felt deeply uncomfortable about at the time.

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Carly Simon was pressurised to pose provocatively for her album Playing Possum

I can now discern a echoing loneliness in Joni Mitchell’s voice that I couldn’t before; and it’s like I’m discovering the true meaning of many of her lyrics for the first time, full of wistful, romantic melancholy. My favourite song of her’s – Both Sides Now – sums it up for me. It’s a beautiful testament to the disappointments and confusion of relationships in the era of baby boomers and, at the same time, her refusal to give up her childish dreams about romance.

“I’ve looked at love from both sides now
From give and take and still somehow
It’s love’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know love at all…”

 

How Tinder killed the dating game

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Today while I was eating dinner, my phone buzzed. One of my Tinder matches, Chris, had sent me a message. I clicked into it. Then up came the words:

“Single long?”

I didn’t know what to make of this. So I didn’t reply.

A few minutes later:

“I’ve been single a few months now. Need a playmate ;)”

I rolled my eyes and blocked Chris, unimpressed by such a blatant hookup plea. But it’s got me thinking about how direct and uninterested in old-fashioned courtship so many people have become.

I am having a bad run at the moment. Just yesterday another of my Tinder matches, Joe, sent me a message on the platform saying “Hi, how are you?” I was having a busy day of work and didn’t reply, though I had been meaning to. “Whats the problem, you a lesbian?” was his irritable follow-up text while I was on the bus home. (Note the lack of apostrophe!)

I am not against mobile dating. Tinder has done wonders to remove the social stigma around moving outside of one’s immediate circle.

It’s not something to take for granted. Helen Morrison – the first female to post a newspaper ad looking for a partner in 1727 –  was committed to a lunatic asylum.

As recently as the 1960s, the British police routinely investigated lonely hearts ads, linking them with prostitution and homosexuality. At the turn of the millennium, sites like match.com were popular but taboo, reeking of desperation.

But Tinder is the baby of the digital consumerist era. And it’s making us rude and lazy. The parallels with online shopping are astonishing. Like ASOS, Tinder seduces with the promise of choice abundance, low effort and – yes – speedy delivery.

I worry that apps like Tinder are overpowering our biology. Dating has always been a game. But the thrills have, until now, largely stemmed from the hunt and the magic of finally finding that special mate.

In the digital era, pleasure is becoming so wrapped up in comfort and ease that old-fashioned courting, which after all takes effort, has lost its appeal. Today’s emphasis on low-cost disposable goods and the thrills derived from anything novelty only compounds our emotional laziness.

Not that consumerism and courting are inherently incompatible. Rewind 20 years and the joys of shopping were embodied in the glamour and sense of occasion around visiting the luxury department store. My point is since the Internet, it’s about the end result rather than the experience. It’s about making as little effort as possible please.

We need to consider how this is psychologically impacting our attitudes to relationships.

So how do we combat this?

Here’s where I get controversial.

We need to accept that part of the problem is many people don’t actually enjoy the romance part much anyway.

The tropes of Western romance have become out of date. Take flowers. The Victorians were obsessed with using them as romantic tokens. But they had meaning back then. Daisies meant innocence. Lilacs signified the first pangs of love. Floriography dictionaries, which allowed recipients to decode the message behind bouquets from their sweethearts, became all the rage in the 19th century.

Don’t get me wrong. Flowers are nice. But they no longer have the same emotional weight. They don’t have the same relevance. But flowers have done well not to become completely extinct – like other traditional Western romance rituals like reciting poetry, calling cards and ballroom dancing.

By the Sixties, traditional courting was so out of date that some were questioning whether free love would signal its end. But by the Seventies young women in particular were questioning whether such relationships were actually satisfying. Free love suffered a further blow in the Eighties; with HIV on the scene, casual sex became potentially life threatening.

By the Nineties, women were trying to revive romantic codes; dating rule books teaching females how to be unobtainable and play hard to get proliferated.

But in my opinion the dating gurus of that era didn’t go far enough. Because they didn’t ask what the content of modern romantic dating should be.

Tinder has moved into this intellectual vacuum and monopolised the market with a mind-numbing model that appeals to our growing social awkwardness.

So what’s the solution? We need to abandon the old tropes of romance and invent new ones, relevant to the modern world. I’d like to a see a rise in experiential dates linked to people’s hobbies. I’m still waiting for a man to shout me tickets to the ballet (I do ballet classes four times a week).

We live in the age of individualism where people prize things that are bespoke. So if people are going to exchange presents in the early days of courtship, flowers and chocolates are out; a city guide to Lisbon when you’ve said you’re going with a friend next weekend, or a playlist of songs he or she thinks you’ll love is in.

Finally, both men and women need to accept that dating is a slog. It’s effort. Getting to know someone takes commitment. And dealing with doubts. Apps may have widened the net but it hasn’t made hauling something in any less arduous.

 

Why I’m ditching millennial pink

Why I’m ditching millennial pink

Kitchenware company Le Creuset has announced its new range of kitchenwear in millennial pink to much fanfare. As a 29-year-old professional with a love for throwing dinner parties that I can’t afford in my five-bedroom London house share, I assume I am the target market.

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Thing is the notion of millennial pink baking pots just irritates me. The colour seems so – well – babyish. Its shade is a cross between one of those plastic My Little Pony’s and strawberry bubblegum. And it’s just one of many infantilising female fads gripping our popular culture, from unicorn notebooks to the Snapchat flower crown filter.

“Millennial pink is marketable because it taps into this subconscious teenagerish attitude among young women that their lives are yet to properly start,” I ranted to my friend Sarah over coffee this week.

“Uuuh. Shelley,” she replied tentatively. “It’s not like you never wear pink.”

I didn’t have an answer. I decided to delve into my own wardrobe as soon as I got home. Turns out she’s right. I own a lot of pink.

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In fact one of my most prized possessions – my pair of ballet pointe shoes – is of the colour pink, though I’ve never given it any thought. And from dusky-hued blouses to floaty chiffon vintage numbers, my wardrobe is stuffed with soft, pastel shades of rose.

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I looked through my photos too. It seems I wear pink dresses quite often for special occasions, though I’d never really clocked.

A post shared by Shelly Jacobs (@shellyepj) on

A creeping dread came over me. Despite all of my ‘powerful woman’ bravado, have I for years been the unwitting member of the millennial pink brigade?

And, if so, why?

After some soul searching, I’ve come up to the conclusion that I equate pinkness with prettyness. I reckon it goes back to when I was obsessed with Barbie at the age of six – and it’s stuck. I also think that pink gives me a sense of pleasure that’s unique. Because it’s so overtly girlish, a sort of calming feminine certainty washes over me when I pick out a pink item to wear. For such a prissy colour, pale pink is surprisingly self-assured in its identity.

So what’s the big deal then if it makes you feel good, you may ask. Here’s the thing. Millennial pink is nice. I like it. I’d even say it suits my dark skin colour. But it’s not the kind of shade I want to define me or my generation. There’s a real vacuous nothingness to millennial pink. For me, the candyfloss colour – conveniently compatible with cloudy Instagram filters – embodies the floating lack of direction that characterises the modern woman’s life.

There is also something retrograde and futureless about millennial pink. It smacks of childhood; of seeing life through the prism of the past. I think the colour is a cultural reflection of the fact that in an era of unaffordable housing, unstable jobs, dog-eat-dog dating apps, fake news and politicians without a vision of what the world should be, young women like me do not know how to look forward. So we look back.

Not that pale pink was always so ditsy and immature. As recently as the Twenties, it was a masculine colour – the diluted cousin of strong, manly red. In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 novel The Great Gatsby, the protagonist Jay shows up to a restaurant with his mistress and her husband dressed in a pink suit.

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The Great Gatsby’s Jay in his ‘manly’ pink suit

But the colour became a symbol of female childhood and girlish feminism when American retailers started marketing pink for baby girls in the Fifties. As our grandmothers and mothers grew into women, they spurned it in favour of hot and shocking pink. Millennials have re-embraced their pastel predecessor, but in my view are failing to redefine it as a power colour.

It’s even more depressing when you consider the colours that have defined women in previous generations according to Pantone , from sultry ribbon red in the Eighties to earthy, eco avocado in the Seventies.

I have decided to ditch millennial pink in protest. Instead I’m going to seek out the pleasures of bolder, more ambitious colours. I’m going through a phase of bright, mismatched colours at the moment.

A post shared by Shelly Jacobs (@shellyepj) on

 

I’ll let you know how I get on. In the mean time, Le Creuset will have to flog their millennial pink pot elsewhere.