A girl I was in love with once said to me while we were laying in bed, “Everyone I love loves Joni Mitchell.” At the time this seemed like a relatively unremarkable statement, particularly because there were so many other things I wanted her to be saying. It is also not especially unusual for me to hear people express enthusiasm for Joni Mitchell with similar hyperbole. She seems to demand such exaggeration; whenever she is brought up, I find myself gushing over how much I love her as opposed to saying any real words. The experience of not being able to really say something, not being able to precisely locate an idea with words, is unfortunately a common one in life, and is certainly one that Joni herself is familiar with. Her songs, for me, have always been about feelings. All the feelings. The incredible array of feelings one is capable of experiencing all at once. The feelings that, despite all the books I’ve read and words I’ve learned, despite all of my attempts to do so in therapy, I still can’t ever say out loud. Joni understands the inability to be eloquent when faced with big feelings; the words in her songs are often jumbled, repetitive, or nonsensical. Her songs express the debilitating incompetency of being forced into the broken and inadequate system of language we were born into. Joni, then, is not only a talented musician whose appeal is widespread and inter-generational, she is also a postmodern poet.
The song, “All I Want,” is specifically about the worst kinds of feelings: the ones we have for other people. Worse than that,this song is about the feelings we have for the people we have sex with or, as some like to call them, “romantic” feelings. It’s a radical love song, however, in that it does not romanticize the experience at all, and, in doing so, subverts the entire form of a love song. “All I Want” is about the terrible unfulfilled wanting, the terrifying vulnerability, and the various other forms of painful bullshit that loving another person seems to necessitate:
“All I really really want our love to do
Is to bring out the best in me and in you
I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you
I want to renew you again and again.”
“All I Want” is about the nauseating confusion of experiencing paradoxical feelings simultaneously, and the almost inevitable antagonism that results from being intimate with someone: “Do you see, do you see, do you see / How you hurt me baby / So I hurt you too / Then we both get so blue.”She tells us of the difficulty of loving yourself while attempting to love an entire other person and the constant economy of self-respect and sacrifice that is a romantic relationship:
“Oh, I hate you some, I hate you some
I love you some
Oh, I love you when I forget about me.”
The last thing Joni says in “All I Want” is “I want to make you feel free,” but this song is actually the story of her inability to do all these things that she wants, of the tragic improbability (perhaps impossibility) of love as a vehicle of freedom. “All I Want” tells the story of love as just another source of oppression, disillusionment, and alienation. At the ripe age of 20, I already know this to be the more honest story. Which begs the question: What is romance without its myths?
Maybe we are the ones with whom Joni is trying to form a relationship. If we understand the “you” referred to in the work to be us, the readers / audience, then this song is a meta-comment on love, its form taking on that of a relationship: it is deceiving, dialectical, at times unintelligible, but ultimately worthwhile, redemptive, and beautiful. It conjures the feelings of being in love: excitement and sadness, confusion and cynicism, and in the end, glad that it happened. Because, despite her protest of the way “love” is socially constructed, this anti-love song still affirms the experience of falling in love. Joni encourages the wanting, the continuing to let yourself want, even after learning several times that it is precisely the wanting that is problematic:
“the greed is the
It’s the unraveling
And it undoes all the joy that could be.”
Despite this undoing of potential joy, I believe she still supports the masochism of persistent vulnerability. It will be the worst, she admits, but what else is there? What other choice do we have?
“Do you want to take a chance
On maybe finding some sweet romance with me baby
Well, come on.”
Joni implores us to take that chance with her—it’s what being alive means.
“All I Want” was the first Joni Mitchell song I ever heard, and it has since been among the most important songs of my life. When that girl whose bed I was in broke my heart, listening to “All I Want” on repeat for three months was second only to drinking and crying in helping me to eventually resume feeling sort of like a human being. It helped me to understand that other people have felt all the things I was feeling, and all the things I will ever feel for that matter, and that I would probably have different feelings someday. I eventually internalized the message that even though this felt like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, it was ultimately a good thing. It was an important experience to have. And maybe it won’t be quite as bad as the first time, but I will get my heart broken again. And that is good too.
So maybe that girl was really saying everything I wanted her to say. Maybe she understood the futility of earnestly trying to say what you mean, and decided to just talk to me about Joni Mitchell instead. Maybe that was her way of telling me that she loved me too, and that even though she couldn’t give me what I wanted, I was important to her and she was glad I was in her bed. Of course this is probably not the case, but I still can’t regret the experience of loving her. After all, if she loves Joni Mitchell, how bad could she really be?