Sense the Disgust

“These are my last two records. I’m quitting after this, because the business has made itself so repugnant to me.”—Joni Mitchell, W magazine

The quote from Mitchell is interesting for a number of reasons. Arguably, at this point in her long career, it could be said that she’s done simply because she’s been at it a sufficiently long time, such that she’s fundamentally had enough. It’s about time she retired (if it can ever be said that an artist actually retires: it is one thing for someone who has been working at a conventional trade to get to the point where punching the proverbial clock is no longer a desirable way of spending one’s time, but does a writer, painter, actor, musician, etc. ever really retire? It seems unlikely. But it opens up a question about the nature of work. The artists most certainly work, there can be no question of that, but presumably what they decide to do is more an intersection of vocation and avocation than is ordinarily the case. So when do they stop?) I assume that Mitchell will continue to make music, that she will continue to perform music. But chances are, she’ll be doing it on her own terms, not those of a record company or a concert promoter. (It could be argued that Mitchell may have trouble hanging on to a recording contract and that concert promoters aren’t exactly beating down her door and thus the announced exiting from the stage.)

But there is that word repugnant. This is not a term that smacks of a pulled punch. It is a frontal assault. There are plenty of other words that one might imagine that a person nearing the end of her career might use to describe an industry that has become. . .dubious. But Mitchell puts it out there: repugnant. Sense the disgust.

What is the extent to which most of us consider the Entertainment Industry repugnant? How often do any of us actually critique it in more than a superficial way? By and large, I think, we accept more than question. When it comes to the mass merchandising of performers, we turn a blind eye to what is really going on, to the multitudinous methods used to separate us from our money. “It’s only rock and roll,” we say by way of making an excuse for our contribution to a multibillion-dollar industry. We prefer not to look at the multiplicity of layers upon layers and interlocking tentacles (cultural critics Deleuze and Guattari use a great term that applies here: rhizome) that are the corporations that make the discs, stage the concerts, produce the movies, create the TV shows. They put it out there. We take it. Perhaps we don’t smile, always, but as for criticism. . . . Well, we let it go. Which is repugnant in and of itself.

10 thoughts on “Sense the Disgust”

  1. For someone with the chops of Joni Mitchell, someone who you have to respect even if you aren’t really into her music, to diss the industry in that way is a fairly powerful statement. For a music fan to diss the industry is to either be superficial or take on all of capitalism itself, neither of which will carry much weight.

    Part of the problem is that through the nature of pop culture–its revolution around youth–not too many of us are old enough to remember a time when things weren’t as they are today, to remember a time when there were reasons to live other than to consume. I’m not sure I even remember myself. The essential problem with the music industry is that it’s just an extension–a tentacle or a root, a “rhizome”–of the mall/catalog/Wal-Mart/Home Shopping Network/e-commerce site. There is little intersection between art and anything when it comes to the music industry–musicians are little more than brands, music just a commodity that gets manufactured like so much soap.

    Of course, last night I went to see a guy wearing scruffy thrift store clothing, playing old beat up guitars and singing to a room full of about 150 people who paid $12 each. His new record has no label as of yet–he’s clearly doing this because he’s an artist. Refreshing story? Yes, so much so that perhaps we ought to start referring to people operating on the fringes of the music industry as something completely different: Create an alternate universe–in both language and practice–for these people to inhabit in which the music industry monolith does not exist.

    Some would say we are trying, right here.

  2. Ms. Mitchell is full of shit. This industry that she finds so repugnant has made her rich and famous beyond her wildest dreams. Its allowed her to pusue her art, or whatever she calls it, and live her dreams without ever having to get a job. She could put out her own records without having to go through any major or minor label business repugnancy. Or she could just retire, or semi-retire, or do just about anything she wants. Her fans, the ones who have consumed the repugnant business product that has made her rich and famous, don’t have the luxury of quitting their jobs because they don’t like them anymore, and making the announcement in a big public interview. What a spoiled, whining asshole.

    Didn’t she complain about David Letterman in that interview- how he doesn’t give respect to the musical guests, etc? This, after Letterman just devoted an entire show to the dying Warren Zevon. This is the same Letterman who gave X, The Ramones, Iggy and zillions of other guests the opportunity perform and do their thing before a giant national audience, when he could have just booked more movie stars and had higher ratings.

    As for us, we take what they put out there because we love it. The big repugnant terrible corporations make the recordings of Hank Williams, Booker T. & the MGs, and the Drive By Truckers available to all us music junkies. At real prices that are way below what they ever were. So what if they put out tons of garbage? You erase the industry, the tons of garbage goes but so does everything else.

  3. It’s not really an issue of erasing the industry. The industry as dubious as it may be still provides the music that is the backdrop for our lives. The real argument here is “Can anyone who knows and cares enough about music to criticize, and/or create the stuff, justify criticizing it?”

    We all buy it. We all care about it. For some it is the only reason to exist. For Joni Mitchell it was her reason to exist for 30+ years. And only now, she’s tired of it? It resonates with same bullshit undertones of Tom Petty all of a sudden getting upset about ticket and record prices. I saw Tom & his Heartbreakers on the Wildflowers tour and remember paying over 40 bucks for shitty seats on the Lawn.

    The bottom line (although I hate to admit it) is that for us as fans to criticize the record industry is incredibly hypocritical, given that we support it. Record companies have every right to mass-produce whatever they want. At the end of the day there’s a product that you buy or you don’t. Truly, I despise a good deal about the industry. But I buy it all.

    I have a suggestion for Joni, Tom, and a bunch of other artists: Make your music or don’t, but don’t fight with the industry that provides the blanket under which you sleep. No one made you step into the music world, and for that matter, none of us are fighting to keep you in it.

  4. “..Don’t fight with the industry that provides the blanket under which you sleep…” What kind of attitude is that? I’d like to hear you say that to the unions who got beat to shit by pigs so that we could have a 40-hour work week and safe working conditions. If there’s ANYBODY you have the right and DUTY to fight, it’s your employer who gets rich off the work that YOU do.

    What hypocrisy? Things suck now, so why shouldn’t the people who have inside information give us their opinions about the world they live in?

  5. Well, I just read the interview, or an interview, with her on Nothing there about Letterman, so maybe it was someone else who said that. But check this out:

    Has the music business changed very much in your lifetime?

    Well, no, I’ve been screwed from the beginning. There wasn’t any bidding war for me in the beginning. It was like I was like Rachmaninoff, a late romantic or something — what I was doing was already over, you know. Nobody wanted to really take a chance on me, so the deal that I got was just atrocious. I mean, it was like slave labor, really — no points, no budget. And I’ve never really had a good deal in the business. So I would never take another deal in the record business, which means I may not record again, or I have to figure out a way to sell over the Net or do something else. But I’d be damned if I’ll line their pockets.

    So how do you feel when some people say the whole business is going down the crapper?

    I hope it all goes down the crapper. It’s top-heavy, it’s wasteful. It’s an insane business. Now, this is all calculated music. It’s calculated for sales, it’s sonically calculated, it’s rudely calculated. I’m ashamed to be a part of the music business. You know, I just think it’s a cesspool.

    SLAVE LABOR?? Yes, they beat her, threw her in the studio and forced her to record. And she never got a dime for it. And she’s so ashamed to be a part of the music business that she’s hawking her latest (and expensive- $36 for a double CD) product on


  6. people within the industry need to fight from the inside. that’s the most powerful method, the only real/realistic way changes will happen.

    as for joni, i find w. magazine (and the fact that she’d talk to them) repugnant.

    isn’t it ironic? don’t you think?

  7. I’m gonna have to agree with Joni on this one… regardless of whether or not we support it or she benefits from it, the music industry as we know it today sucks the big one. She has never had it easy, both because of her ardent desire to follow her own idiosyncratic muse regardless of the consequences and the lack of consistent sales that such an artistic decision can potentially cause. Her fanbase usually resides outside of the demographic group that buys the majority of records. Joni has also seen singer/songwriters of lesser consequence find greater fame and fortune than she did. She has seen her spiritual children, like Jewel, Ani DiFranco and Tori, score big while she remains a cult and critical favorite. Sure all of her rant can be seen as sour grapes. Yet…

    The industry DOES blow. Between the damage wrought by the days of unbridled file sharing and the generally slow economy, the industry is finding itself to be a dinosaur trying to find relevance and squeeze every penny they can from a consumer base that finds itself economically strapped. Does that excuse their recent churlish behavior? Hell no. It does explain it, however. If it were any artist other than Joni saying it, would the words have more resonance? Yep. The others just don’t wanna bite the hand that feeds them. Gone are the days that the Graham Parkers of the world come up with scathing attacks against their major labels like “Mercury Poisoning”. I’m betting that even Liam Gallagher and Chris Robinson wouldn’t have had the stones to have said it that plainly, and we all know that they have big mouths and strong opinions.

    I don’t see the hypocrisy of Joni criticizing an industry that has gone corrupt, even if she was a part of it. Gone are her glory days; good for her for taking a stand now that she doesn’t have as much on the line anymore. About time that someone from the inside said something.

  8. I believe, very simply, that the record industry is a business and that those who run that business have the right to do so they see fit. I don’t care if it’s Joni Mitchell or Papa Roach, who thinks they’re getting screwed. To blame record companies for wanting to maximize their returns is to champion against capitalism. And that doesn’t sound like a very good idea. Especially since we’re aligning ourselves behind a group of aging hipsters who are pissed they can’t sell records the way they used to.

    If we are really that tired of the record industry we shouldn’t support it. That is the point. I’m relatively confident everyone who posts on this website has at least a few major label releases. If it’s down with the record industry, than lets all just burn cd’s and send artists the 15 bucks directly.

    Unfortunately, apathy is the only way to have your cake and eat it too in the music business.

  9. oh, dave, you simpleton. you’re everything that’s wrong with america with your quasi-religious belief in the capitalist system. i’m really sorry to have to wade into this load of shit, but you made me do it. so everyone who makes a buck has the perfect right to it? so all your laws are perfect concerning economic matters? shit, man, your country is still holding onto this absurd liberal idea than we can all act in our own self interest, and this will create the greatest amount of happiness. this is an idea that the rest of the western world has almost entirely rejected.

    so monsanto has the perfect right to poison my water and soil, the big oil industries have the perfect right to control government adgenda, and nike has the right to give slave wages to kids in the phillipines?

    and the record industry. not so evil as the above, but to assume that they have the perfect right to use, abuse, and manipulate artists and to manipulate people into buying shit that they don’t need and only want because everyone else wants it because they saw the ad on tv – are you saying we can’t criticize these people, just because you believe in the capitalist system?

    you, like your president, are not a moron. you’re both just dinosaurs who don’t have the imagination to see past their fervent nationalism.

  10. The nature of Corporate Music/Film/Publishing is to pay the artist as little as possible. Always has been, always will be. Fiction writers make less today than they did in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s day per story, per book. (Save for big guns like right-wing psycho Tom Clancy.) Bands get told what to do. That’s the biz. It blows chunks. The war between the creator and the cha-ching side has always been the same. Joni’s right to blast them. Let’s blow them up along with our idiot politicans.

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