Alicia Keys, Joni Mitchell, and Some Women of the Bible

TODAY -- Airdate 11/24/2009 -- Pictured: Alicia Keys performs on NBC News' 'Today' show  (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Phot
TODAY -- Airdate 11/24/2009 -- Pictured: Alicia Keys performs on NBC News' 'Today' show (Photo by Peter Kramer/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images)

This is a sweeping generalization, but when the narrators of popular songs represent the male perspective, allusions to sacred imagery are often part of an effort to seduce. To win over the object of desire, the singer often flatters the woman, describing her as an "angel" or some equivalent, looking to her for "salvation" in one form or another. By contrast, when the narrator represents a female's perspective, allusions to sacred imagery sometimes highlight marginal status, as in Alicia Keys' use of the Song of Solomon and Joni Mitchell's references to Mary Magdalene.

Alicia Key's poem "Lilly of the Valley," included in her 2004 book Tears for Water: Songbook of Poems and Lyrics (pp. 21-23), uses the Song of Solomon as a vehicle to tell a modern story, one about a vulnerable and exploited individual.

She takes the title phrase for her poem from Song of Solomon 2:1: "I am a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys. As a lily among brambles, so is my love among maidens."

The poet warns Lilly (as she spells it) not to dance for a villain, an "evil one" who is presumably a male. Whoever this person is, the term clearly introduces devilish overtones with all the destructiveness the image implies. In Scripture, the evil one is controlling (1 John 5:19), dangerous (Ephesians 6:16), and a source of violence (1 John 3:12).

Despite her use of the singular (evil one), the dangerous figure in the poem is a collective term because the poet tells Lilly not to "let them" destroy her (emphasis added).

Keys offers a short commentary on this poem and clarifies the identity of these destructive individuals. Lilly is a stripper, one forced to sell herself if she is to "make it." The evil one is her (presumably male) audience. Her performances for them have a high cost. When Lilly dances for this audience, they leave her feeling worthless.

According to Keys' notes, women like Lilly have "pain in their eyes." The Song of Solomon provides Keys with a way of presenting this woman's inner beauty. The lily of the valley in the biblical poem is truly beautiful and genuinely loved, and the male lover in that ancient poem recognizes that beauty (4:1). He loves her sincerely, unlike the voyeurs watching the Lilly in Keys' story.

Many of Alicia Keys' songs and poems explore matters of gender and include assertions about the dignity and independence of women in a hyper-sexed society that objectifies them. She resists the distorted priorities of this superficial world, for example, in "Cosmopolitan Woman," penned in response to a visit to AIDS-ridden Africa. The emphasis on surface beauty in the magazine referenced in the title is shallow and of no consequence when compared to the plight of those at the AIDS clinic she visits. In contrast, with those who fixate on women's physical appearance and sexuality, she regularly returns to glimpses of a female's inner beauty, her soul, a "glow" coming from the inside (Tears for Water, p. 54).

Joni Mitchell introduces the name Magdalene in two songs, both of them exploring the plight of helpless females.

In "The Magdalene Laundries" (Turbulent Indigo, 1994), the first-person speaker identifies herself as an unmarried girl, a Jezebel in the opinion of others who assure her she will not reach heaven. Instead, they send her in shame to work with the sisters. Mary Magdalene and Jezebel are female characters in the Bible traditionally associated with sexual immorality. It is worth noting, however, that the biblical stories about them do not offer unambiguous evidence in support of this conclusion. This fact makes the use of their names in Mitchell's "The Magdalene Laundries" particularly poignant.

The listener is sympathetic to the girl whose story is told in the song. We have no reason to suspect she is an evil person, regardless of what others say about her. As Mitchell tells the story, the girl goes to the laundries because men leer at her, but what does this mean? Since we hear nothing about her directly (was she a flirt? promiscuous?), the only thing we know with any certainty is that these men are lecherous. The girl alone, however, carries the weight of punishment for their misdeeds, a situation resembling the Gospel narrative about the woman caught in adultery, where only the female faces judgment (John 7:53-8:11).

Just as later Christian interpreters vilified characters like Jezebel and Mary Magdalene, those around the girl in the song demonize her, accusing her of sexual sin without justification. They are completely devoid of compassion.

Mitchell's song describes the plight of pregnant, unmarried, unwanted females, referred to as prostitutes, temptresses, and fallen women. All of them are sent to work at the Magdalene laundries. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, asylums run by Roman Catholic orders often took in prostitutes, unwed mothers, and other girls/women of questionable character, keeping them in convents and assigning them to hard labor. The song gives voice to one of these unfortunate girls, a girl who cannot understand why they call a place so devoid of compassion Our Lady of Charity.

Mitchell's critique of the Christian Magdalene laundries is particularly clever and pointed because she turns Christian teaching itself back on the cruel taskmasters of the asylum. If these heartless nuns actually saw their "groom," meaning Jesus, they would not throw their accusatory stones. Here again Mitchell alludes to the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11). In that story, vigilantes bring a fallen woman to Jesus, and they are ready to impose the death penalty for her crime. Jesus' famous answer -- "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7) -- results in the male accusers leaving the scene one by one. Mitchell's allusion to this passage is appropriate because interpreters often link Mary Magdalene to this Gospel story (even though the evangelist does not give the woman's name). Mitchell thereby makes explicit the connection between this Mary Magdalene story and the experience of those in the Magdalene laundries. It follows that these girls deserve the same compassion that Mary Magdalene receives in the Gospel of John. Jesus does not condemn the woman caught in adultery: "'Woman ... Has no one condemned you? ... Neither do I condemn you'" (John 8:10-11).

John's story makes it clear that the female brought before Jesus is no worse than her male accusers who want her punished, implied because they leave after Jesus' challenge to them. Jesus treats the woman in the Gospel story with dignity and ultimately saves her life from the crowd of vigilantes. The reference to the stone-throwing asylum nuns invites comparison with the accusers in the Gospel story. The sisters, like the mob in the Gospel, are in no position to throw stones. They are no better than the inmates forced to be in the laundries.

Mary Magdalene appears in another Joni Mitchell composition as well, the song "Passion Play (The Story of Jesus and Zachius... The Little Tax Collector)" (Night Ride Home, 1991). This song brings together in compressed form elements of the gospel narratives about Mary Magdalene, Zachius (sic), and the crucifixion of Christ. Mitchell contrasts one who is kind and redeeming, who heals and searches the heart, with others who enslave and force the vulnerable to "do the dirty work," though the songwriter does not explain exactly what this means. Jesus is a liberator in the song, reaching out to the trembling Magdalene and healing the heart of the first-person narrator Zachius.

The song describes the desperate situations of the marginalized and vulnerable Magdalene, Zachius, and a group of unidentified slaves. The songwriter introduces Magdalene as the song opens, trembling like items blowing in the wind on a clothesline, an image recalling again the Magdalene laundries discussed earlier. To this vulnerable woman, a man (Jesus) is both kind and redeeming. Zachius is also in need (cf. Luke 19:1-10). He is a person of status (i.e., a tax collector), but also a sinner with a broken heart. Jesus, described as the "magical physician," comes to his aid.

It is difficult to determine who is responsible for the sadness known to Magdalene, Zachius, and the other slaves mentioned in the song, but the recurring terms "Exxon" and "radiation" hint at the impersonal, greedy and destructive corporate world. The scene of Jesus' crucifixion may support this conclusion. It is a marketplace, a wicked location devoid of the divine presence where we hear the pounding of deadly nails as the crucifixion takes place. The song leaves us wondering if the slaves will still gain their freedom after the crucifixion, or if others will continue forcing them to do the "dirty work" now that their protector is gone.

This song makes explicit use of biblical material. In addition to the characters, there is a direct quotation from the King James Version of the Lord's Prayer: "Thy kingdom come / Thy will be done."

It may be relevant that the Lord's Prayer includes supplication for the sustenance of those economically vulnerable: "Give us this day our daily bread" (Matthew 6:11; Luke 11:3).

In this intriguing song, Mitchell succinctly relates some of the variegated visions of liberation found in the New Testament Gospels. In "Passion Play (The Story of Jesus and Zachius ... The Little Tax Collector)" we hear about desperate souls who find a magic physician's healing touch. However, this message is easy to miss in those places of business that kill saviors and stifle the efforts of liberators.