To be honest, I’m not quite clear what made me pick up this book from the library. I had read a lukewarm review of it when it came out earlier this year, and so it was on my radar for a while before I spotted it and figured what the heck. As you’ve probably gathered thus far from reading the blog, I’m interested in women in music (I myself do a mean karaoke of Salt N Pepa’s ‘Shoop’) but I admit I’m not particularly well versed in Carole, Carly or Joni’s music–my memories of their songs come from films, like when the Lisbon girls listen to ‘So Far Away’ by Carole King or when when Emma Thompson falls apart to Joni Mitchell’s ‘Both Sides, Now.’ But I was excited for the book nonetheless.
Despite not being overly familiar with all of the artists’ complete oeuvres, I enjoyed reading the book for the sheer interest in learning how these women broke barriers in the male-dominated musical world of the 1960s and beyond. Stories of being blackmailed by producers to mix tracks in exchange for sex or stories of the shame of an out-of-wedlock child given up for abortion litter the pages of the book detailing the struggles the women faced throughout their careers. But one overwhelming thread of the book was that female success once attained can sometimes be daunting to male partners. Because although a portion of the book follows each woman’s rise to success and discussion of their careers, a lot of the focus is upon their relationships with men.
And this is where I got a bit…unenthusiastic.
It’s usually said that women define and frame their lives (turning points, chapters, etc.) through people and relationships while men frame their story of their lives by accomplishments. I don’t 100% buy that argument, but I have often seen it ring true in many women’s lives– the “Rick” years not the “paralegal” years. And Girls Like Us, unintentionally or not, does this–frames each woman’s life often not by what album comes out but what man their dating. And this pissed me off. If this book had been written about the men who dated or married these women (James Taylor, Mick Jagger, Jackson Browne, Graham Nash, etc.) would relationships figure so prominently in their narratives? The only example I could think of in which a woman figures so prominently in a male singer’s life is John Lennon and Yoko Ono–and we all know how Ono fared against the public onslaught.
Yet, I wonder why I was so peeved that this book so heavily labored upon these women’s relationships–who am I to find fault in this? Carole King herself refers to the years she was married to Gerry Geffin as “the Geffin years” (although to be fair they were work partners, so this isn’t solely a relationship-based label). Joni Mitchell saw relationships and their subsequent highs and lows as fodder for her music–when a friend’s marriage crumbled she said “At least it will help with your art.” With each women marrying two, three, four times, not including the many lovers and partners in between, they no doubt valued relationships, but as successful women putting out albums into their 40s, 50s, 60s, they don’t appear to frame their lives around men as their only sign of worth.
I found it interesting and sad (and still unfortunately true) that the men in these women’s lives found it hard to be married to successful women. Joni’s lover Don Alias refused to live in Joni’s Bel Air home, saying “I’d always be ‘Mr. Mitchell’ if I lived there.” Apparently that would be a difficult thing to deal with, for a man to be defined by his partner. (Don should’ve commiserated with Patty Boyd aka Mrs. Harrison/Mrs. Clapton and the multiple other women married to successful men–this is an all-too-familiar plight for many Mrs. Celebrity.) Friends of Carole told stories of how she would often downplay her success or talent when around her less-successful husbands. And Carly struggled with her marriage to another successful songwriter (James Taylor) and his anger at the competition he saw between their careers (he could not be upstaged by his–gasp!–wife!)
I was looking for an entertaining read and an introduction to these women’s lives and careers, and I did enjoy this 500+ page book. But I do think it is geared towards older women who grew up with their songs on the radio and not necessarily for someone who isn’t an avid fan. Lyrics quoted didn’t ring melodies in my ears the way the author no doubt wanted. And although I appreciated the narrative that Weller carries, after reading her focus on Carole, Joni, and Carly’s love lives, I couldn’t help but wonder if this would be how these successful women would want their stories framed.