Last week was Joni Mitchell’s 70th birthday. Happy Birthday, Joni! A friend of mine brought this to the attention of his Facebook friends by posting a link to Joni performing “Big Yellow Taxi.” I clicked the link and listened to the song and it confirmed what I have long thought: It is just not a very good song. Don’t get me wrong. I love love love Joni, and love her all the more because sometimes she makes it difficult to love her. Albums like Blue and Court & Spark are without equal and I admire stuff like Mingus, even if I honestly don’t want to listen to it very often—as Robert Christgau wrote of it “a brave experiment, but lots of times experiments fail.” But “Big Yellow Taxi” is from that pre-Blue era that I am not so keen on.
It sounds mostly lovely. I love that one “PLEASE!” in the middle of the song, the guitar and rhythm is pleasing. I really like the playful ending of the song with the mix of high and low register—it gives the song a nice sense of spontaneity. In fact, my biggest sonic complaint about the song is the awkward phrasing in the verses (okay, and maybe the ooh, bop bop bop bop part, too). It is the song’s content that I can’t stand. The over-simplified environmental message is vapid, and the song makes no room for the complex relationships of people to the environment that many of her songs allow for in describing complex relationships between people. Even the insertion of her “old man” in the final verse can’t overcome this. In fact, all it does is reduce the song to a complaint born of love loss—another pop song about a broken heart. The references to the “tree museum” (even if she’s referring to a real thing) and farmers using “DDT” are pat and corny. There is nothing artful about it. The song may have been inspired by Mitchell’s visit to Hawaii, but the song extrapolates from Hawaii’s specificity in a way that reduces it to hippie naiveté.
It doesn’t help that I can’t listen to “Big Yellow Taxi” without thinking about a thematically similar, but ultimately superior song from 18 years later, The Talking Heads’ “Nothing (But Flowers).” They seem to be in conversation with each other. The Talking Heads’ song places the speaker in the kind of natural paradise that Mitchell seems to desire with her song, but the setting is cleverly contextualized as a kind of post-urban/post-“civilized” environment (and you’ll have to imagine those scare quotes as big and glowing for all the caveats that need to go along with ideas of “civilization”). The speaker now surrounded by trees and flowers, mountains and rivers, rather than enjoying “paradise” is experiencing nostalgia for things like “7-11” and “chocolate chip cookies.” The song isn’t really idealizing the touchstones of our consumerist culture (or at least, not completely), but is critical of nostalgia itself. It is critical of the idea of a “better time” or state that is total and perfect. Ultimately, “Nothing (But Flowers)” is also reminding us that “You don’t know what you got til it’s gone,” but also “careful what you wish for.” As David Byrne sings “The highways and cars were sacrificed for agriculture / I thought we’d start over, but I guess I was wrong” reminding the listener that there is no “starting over,” everything exists within a context of what came before it—a continuum. The song’s approach to an ecological message is more appealing because despite its descriptions of natural beauty, the desires it describes are for the conveniences and indulgences of our contemporary world. Irony is more conducive to conveying humanity’s relationship to the so-called natural world.
“Nothing (But Flowers)” is aided by its Afro-Latin rhythms and guitar-work. I can forgive its appropriations (though not all of David Byrnes’s appropriations) because I hear in its music an echo of the lyrical irony. Its sounds conjure a sort of Caribbean idyll via a colonial mindset regarding globalization and the access to whatever cultural resources such ultimately destructive forces bring together. The lyrical tensions and sonic tensions parallel and compliment each other.
If we look at the music video for “Nothing (But Flowers)” (which isn’t quite fair as there was no contemporary video for “Big Yellow Taxi”), the tensions in the song’s meaning come to the fore. Among the playful on screen lyrics there are captions that inform the viewer of things like the number of acres of tropical rain forest cleared everyday (76, 320) and the number of Finnish women who have pledged not to have children until Finland bans nuclear power (4000). These various statistics are 25 years old at this point and there are no sources cited for them, but regardless of their veracity the dire messages they seem to be conveying are at odds with the desires for consumer convenience expressed in the song lyrics. They seem to be reinforcing the idea that “as things fell apart nobody paid much attention,” creating a sense that the contemporary condition will be its own undoing, and that the price to be paid for things like “honky-tonks, Dairy Queens, and 7-11s” is their own unsustainability.
I love putting songs in conversation, but it is rare that when I do I find one song so superior to the other. Usually, I find that the songs inform each other in ways develop the issues at hand. I actually hate putting Joni down at all, but at the very least I can say that however much I may dislike “Big Yellow Taxi,” Joni makes it work better than any of the many cover versions, each of which is worse than the last. And “Nothing (But Flowers)” is on a very uneven album that is easily the worst of The Talking Heads’ records, sounding more like a dry-run for David Byrne’s solo work than a Talking Heads record.