excerpt from 'Feel Free: Essays' pp. 101–102, 104–105 (367 words)

excerpt from 'Feel Free: Essays' pp. 101–102, 104–105 (367 words)

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Feel Free: Essays

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101–102, 104–105


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It was the kind of college gathering where I kept sneaking Blackstreet and Aaliyah albums into the CD drawer, and friends kept replacing them with other things.  And then there she was, suddenly: a piercing sound, a sort of wailing – a white woman, wailing, picking out notes in a non-sequence.  Out of tune – or out of anything I understood at the time as ‘tune’.  I picked up the CD cover and frowned at it: a skinny blonde with a heavy fringe, covered in blue.  My good friend Tamara – a real singer, serious about music – looked over at me, confused.  You don’t like Joni?  […]  Another friend, Jessica, pressed me again: You don’t like Joni?  She closed her eyes and sang a few lines of what I now know to be ‘California’.  That is, she sang pleasing, not uninteresting words, but in a strange, strangulated falsetto – a kind of Kafkaesque ‘piping’ – which I considered odd, coming out of Jess, whom I knew to have, ordinarily, a beautiful, black voice.  A soul voice. 


Aged twenty, I listened to Joni Mitchell – a singer whom millions enjoy, who does not, after all, make an especially unusual or esoteric sound – and found her incomprehensible.  Could not even really recognize her piping as ‘singing’.  It was just noise.  And, without troubling over it much, I placed her piping alongside all the interesting noises we hear in the world but choose, through habit or policy, to separate from music.


This is the effect that listening to Joni Mitchell has on me these days: uncontrollable tears.  An emotional overcoming, disconcertingly distant from happiness, more like joy – if joy is the recognition of an almost intolerable beauty.  It’s not a very civilized emotion.  I can’t listen to Joni Mitchell in a room with other people, or on an iPod, walking the streets.  Too risky.  I can never guarantee that I’m going to be able to get through the song without being made transparent - to anybody and everything, to the whole world.  A mortifying sense of porousness.

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excerpt from 'Feel Free: Essays' pp. 101–102, 104–105 (367 words)


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