Reading Group Guide
Carly Simon, Carole King, and Joni Mitchell remain among the most enduring and important women in popular music. Each woman is distinct, in both her individual vocal style and in her singular transformation of American music history. Carole King is the product of an ethnically diverse Brooklyn neighborhood; Joni Mitchell is a granddaughter of Canadian farmers; and Carly Simon is a child of New York intelligentsia. They collectively represent, in their lives and their songs, every girl who came of age in the late 1960s. Their stories trace the arc of the now mythic sixties generation -- female version -- but in a bracingly specific and deeply recalled way that altogether avoids cliché. The history of the women of that generation has never been written -- until now, through their resonant lives and emblematic songs.
Filled with the voices of many dozens of these women's intimates, who are speaking in these pages for the first time, this alternating biography reads like a novel -- except it's all true, and the three heroines are famous and beloved. In Girls Like Us, Sheila Weller captures the character of each woman, giving a balanced portrayal enriched by a wealth of new information.
QUESTIONS AND TOPICS FOR DISCUSSION
1. "Women's liberation had been the work of female civil rights and antiwar activists in collectives in Berkeley, Boston, New York, and elsewhere...but now [in 1971] it was fully entrenched in the mainstream intelligentsia." To what extent do the early careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon seem animated by the spirit of the women's liberation movement? In what respects does their music seem to address the theme of the role of women in a world largely dominated by men? How did the words of their songs -- and their personal and professional lives -- embody a new spirit of young women being as adventurous as young men had always been?
2. How did Carole King's marriage at seventeen and subsequent early motherhood affect her development as an artist? To what extent could her marriage with Gerry Goffin be considered a partnership of equals? Why did their phenomenally successful pop-soul-plus-Broadway compositions seem less impressive by the time the Beatles and Dylan became popular, and how did that public perception affect Carole's own transformation as a musician in midcareer?
3. What does Joni Mitchell's decision to bear a child out of wedlock (and to refuse to hide in a home for unwed mothers) at a time when pregnant, unmarried women were considered scandalous in Canada reveal about her strength of character and her personal beliefs? How did her decision to give the child up for adoption play out in her music, and -- much later -- in her own history? How might such a difficult decision have reflected a kind of centuries-later version of the theme of the Child Ballads?
4. How did Carly Simon's complicated family life -- her father's open love for a much older woman, her mother's semi-secret affair with a much younger man living in their home -- factor into her own feelings about relationships and love? To what extent did her involvement with psychotherapy enable her to come to terms with her discomfort with being in the public eye? How might her insecurity as a professional musician be connected to her own feelings of inferiority in her eminent family?
5. How did Carole King's separation from her husband and collaborator, Gerry Goffin, in 1967, alter the course of her career? How did her move with her two daughters from suburban New Jersey to Los Angeles, a freer, cutting-edge city largely unfamiliar to her, affect her music? How significant was that move to her emergence for the first time as a truly independent woman?
6. In her song "Cactus Tree," Joni Mitchell writes that women should keep their hearts "full and hollow, like a cactus tree." How does that line resonate with Mitchell's own life in terms of her romantic and professional choices? How would you characterize the influence of fellow artists Judy Collins, Leonard Cohen, and David Crosby on the musical career of Joni Mitchell?
7. "Too much freedom doesn't help you artistically." To what extent did Carly Simon's musical career bloom in the wake of her marriage to fellow musician James Taylor, and how do you reconcile this fact with her having to juggle the responsibilities of musician, wife, and mother? How did Simon's marriage to Taylor allow her to publicly air her decidedly feminist take on gender politics?
8. "Though this would be hard to imagine in 1956, when standards of feminine beauty were at their most unforgiving, in fifteen years Carole would represent an inclusive new model of female sensuality: the young 'natural' woman, the 'earth mother.'" What role did physical beauty play in the musical successes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon? To what extent did physical beauty serve as a barrier of sorts for up-and-coming musicians in the sixties, and how do you think their experiences compare to those of female musicians today?
9. How have the contours of fame changed for Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon as they enter their more mature decades? As they've transitioned from young stars to legends, how has their music changed? How would you characterize their musical preoccupations at this point in their lives?
10. Of the many details about the careers of Carole King, Joni Mitchell, and Carly Simon, which did you find most fascinating and why? How did the author's inclusion of political, social, and historical facts from the era in which these musicians were establishing themselves heighten your appreciation of their accomplishments? To what extent were you surprised by the intersection of their musical careers, given their distinct styles and their different backgrounds?