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'Both Sides Now', Joni Mitchell (2000)


14 March 2024

'Run Away, Turn Away': Songs of Queer Escapism


“It’s coming on Christmas,

They’re cutting down trees

They’re putting up reindeer 

And singing songs of joy and peace

Oh, I wish I had a river

I could skate away on”


I remember the first time I heard Joni Mitchell’s River echoing from the kitchen, as my father was doing the washing up to the same music that had accompanied him in both more serious moments and mundane ones such as these. I was raised on the music that he grew up listening to – songs he had adored since his more angsty teenage years, and whilst I don’t know what he sees in Joni’s music, I certainly knew what I heard the moment I felt ‘River’ flowing through our corridors. I harboured not only Joni’s, but my own urge to escape from who I was and what I knew. This need to leave, to get up and start over, is a pervasive theme throughout Ms Mitchell’s discography:


“I get this urge for going”

(Joni Mitchell, ‘Urge For Going’)


“I dreamed of 747s 

Over geometric farms”

(Joni Mitchell, ‘Amelia’)


“I'm traveling in some vehicle

I'm sitting in some cafe

A defector from the petty wars

Until love sucks me back that way”

(Joni Mitchell, ‘Hejira’)

Though it was maybe not what she intended when she penned these lyrics, their queer subtext astonished me. They touched me deeply, as an adolescent trying to understand my place in the world; an adolescent who wanted more than anything to fit in. This idea of running away from the familiar sits at the base of many people’s experience of adolescence, and as a consequence, makes us hear that feeling of longing soaked into every word and melody we’re given.


It’s not always subtext or subtle inference either. While it cannot be said plainly of Joni Mitchell’s music, escape is a theme that marinates many queer artists’ tracks with a deep sorrow and yearning. Arguably, the most famous or explicit example of this, is Bronski Beat’s ‘Smalltown Boy’, recounting the process of turning away from your home to search for “answers” that can only be sought elsewhere. While it’s a semi-autobiographical tale of Jimmy Somerville’s own migration, it's also an emotional telling of an experience for many queer people; moving out of provincial or rural areas to more cosmopolitan ones, seeking people with more progressive views, and seeing others like you. It’s music in action, we’re not only dreaming and hearing about escaping, but in some ways we’re actually doing it throughout the passage of the song.


Recently, a friend of mine introduced me to the music of Arthur Russell. Born and raised in Iowa, Russell was a cellist, a producer, and lived in relative anonymity until his partner released collections of his music posthumously. His sound, though teetering on the verge of various genres, conveys in all of it, this unfathomable sense of pining. The first track my friend bestowed upon me was “What it’s Like,” a song which plays out kind of like a hymn or a biblical epic about being abandoned by your husband who has chosen to love God instead of you. Yet, what strikes in this tragicomic tale, is the narrator’s stagnancy:


“On Sunday I read somewhere

That real love is heart and soul

Yeah, but only a master could understand that

I left that old magazine and walked out into the green of summer

I felt like I could cry

But in the grass I only sat”

(Arthur Russell, ‘What It’s Like’)


One can’t help but feel this is the lyricist himself coming through in the song: yearning, heartbroken, and stuck in the grass. Yet, unlike Somerville, Russell expresses in his discography much adoration for his small-town Iowa roots. In ‘Iowa Dream,’ the album’s eponymous track, Russell describes biking around his hometown, suggesting that maybe, he’s not a fellow escapist. Though much music produced by Queer artists is often imbibed with a desire to flee, it’s not all bad. If I can go as far to suggest that music can express this queer desire to escape and start again, I can also say that it’s able to give voice to the idea of acceptance and belonging, something which feels only right to put to a tune.


“The trees so big and round

And I pass them in my white shirt

The warmth of the day leaves shadows on the ground

I'm ridin' my bike, I'm doin' what I like

The mayor's home, the city hall, the big red house

I see it see it all”

(Arthur Russell, ‘Iowa Dream’)

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