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.
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.”
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.
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.
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…”