A SONG OF THEIR OWN: FEMALE SINGER-SONGWRITERS OF THE EARLY 1970S
What did the success of the female Singer-Songwriters of the early 1970s reveal about the changing roles of women in the United States?
By the early 1970s, many young, middle-class women who were born during the Baby Boom, nurtured in the economic growth of the post-World War II era, and came of age during the tumultuous decade of the 1960s increasingly sought liberation from the traditional roles women were expected to play in American society. These women increasingly wanted a greater voice both within and outside the home. They sought entrée into decidedly male-dominated professions and advocated for greater control of their own bodies.
The emergence of a successful group of female Singer-Songwriters in the early 1970s – Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Carly Simon, Janis Ian – both reflected and advanced this growing spirit of female empowerment. Yes, women had always played a role in American popular music, from Folk artists Joan Baez and Mary Travers (of Peter, Paul and Mary) to Jazz vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald to the “Girl Groups” of the early 1960s. Composers and lyricists such as Ellie Greenwich and Cynthia Weil had worked behind the scenes writing songs that propelled other artists to stardom. But the new female Singer-Songwriters were different: they typically sang songs that they themselves had written, often autobiographical in character. They frequently performed them with their own piano or guitar accompaniment. And because of these factors, there was an increased sense of intimacy to the performances. Different from many earlier female vocalists, the Singer-Songwrters typically pushed for a heightened feeling of honesty and authenticity that meshed perfectly with the kinds of songs they were writing and singing.
Many of the Singer-Songwriters' songs focused, as earlier Rock and Roll songs had, on themes of romance and heartbreak. But the perspective now was that of a different femininity. In some cases, this new breed of Singer-Songwriter told of experiences only a woman could have. In Joni Mitchell's cryptic “Little Green,” from the critically acclaimed album Blue, she captured the sorrow of a young, unwed mother who feels compelled to give her child up for adoption. In “At Seventeen,” Janis Ian conveys a young girl's pain at being deemed an "ugly duckling,” challenging prevailing societal conventions of feminine beauty.
As feminist activists such as Gloria Steinem called for equal pay for women in the workplace and advocated for reproductive rights, the new female Singer-Songwriters demonstrated that they were the artistic equal to their male counterparts and could even surpass them in popularity. Joni Mitchell's album Blue achieved a level of critical and artistic success that few albums in history could claim. Carole King's 1971 album Tapestry became the most commercially successful album of her era, with its broad, personal appeal. Perhaps no one personified the change in women’s roles in popular music more than King. Co-writing with her then-husband Gerry Goffin in the early 1960s, King was one of the most successful songwriters of her era. But it was not until 1971 that she began to take center stage as a performer. The vast commercial success of Tapestry and other subsequent albums proved that the American public was more than ready for the transition.
Video pages: Carole King - (You Make Me Feel Like a) Natural Woman (1982) | Janis Ian - At Seventeen (1981) | Carole King - Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (1973) | The Shirelles - Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow (1964) | Joni Mitchell - Woodstock (1970) | ABC News - Now: Women's Liberation (1970) | Mary Wells - My Guy (1964)
Upon completion of this lesson, students will:
2. Discuss as a class:
3. Explain to students that “My Guy” was a No. 1 hit during the “Girl Group era” of the early to mid-1960s, when female vocal groups sang songs that were more frequently written by men than by women.
4. Play the video clip of another hit from that era, the Shirelles performing "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?" in 1964. Note that the song was co-written by Carole King and her then-husband Gerry Goffin. Discuss:
5. Play the video clip of King performing the song, which was included on her 1971 album Tapestry. Ask students to compare the two versions of the song, specifically:
6. Briefly discuss:
7. Divide students into groups of no more than 3-4. Explain that each group will analyze one song written by a female Singer-Songwriter in the early 1970s and compare it to “My Guy.” The songs are:
8. Distribute the handouts for each group: Joni Mitchell, Janis Ian, and Carole King. If possible, set up a viewing station for each group where they will watch the video of their assigned artist performing her song. If this is not possible, play each video for the class as a whole.
9. Allow groups sufficient time to discuss the questions on the handout.
10. Have each group select a spokesperson who will report the group’s general findings to the class as a whole. Presentations should include:
11. Discuss as a class:
1. Play the clip of Carole King appearing with Jane Fonda and feminist Gloria Steinem on The Merv Griffin Show in 1982 (the interview begins at approximately 5:10 on the video). Explain that Steinem is a well-known feminist writer and activist and the co-founder of Ms. Magazine.
2. Discuss as a class:
How did the female Singer-Songwriters of the 1970s reflect changing attitudes toward women? Should their work be thought of as political, or were they just musicians making good music?
1. Ask students to watch the ABC News special Now: Women's Liberation from 1970. Have them write a two-page response to the special, describing the ambitions of the women's movement in that time and place and how they connected to what was happening with female Singer-Songwriters.
2. Ask students to compare the female Singer-Songwriters of the early 1970s to those popular today, such as Adele or Taylor Swift. In what ways is their work similar? In what ways is it different? Think about the musical styles as well as the themes they address in their work. Have these newer artists achieved popularity primarily with girls and women, or do they speak to a wider audience?
College and Career Readiness Reading Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 for Literature and Informational Text
College and Career Readiness Writing Anchor Standards for Grades 6-12 in English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science and Technical Subjects
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Speaking and Listening for Grades 6-12
College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Language for Grades 6-12
Core Music Standard: Responding
Select: Choose music appropriate for a specific purpose or context.
Analyze: Analyze how the structure and context of varied musical works inform the response.
Interpret: Support interpretations of musical works that reflect creators' and/or performers' expressive intent.
Evaluate: Support evaluations of musical works and performances based on analysis, interpretation, and established criteria.
Core Music Standard: Connecting
Connecting 11: Relate musical ideas and works to varied contexts and daily life to deepen understanding.