The Best Joni Mitchell Song Ever
An ode to obsessive listening.
Of course that summary doesn't capture why "Amelia" is so compelling. Maybe it has something to do with the way JM conjures up the feeling of "driving across the burning desert," stopping off at places like "the Cactus Tree Motel." If you've done it, you know there's something dreamy and hypnotic about driving through the desert, driving alone, on autopilot. They say all politics is local, and perhaps all love songs or lost-love songs are local, too, in the sense that they need to conjure up a specific landscape to ground them. (Think of "Brown Eyed Girl": "... making love in the green grass/ Behind the stadium …")
But landscape and summary can't capture the mesmerizing beauty of "Amelia's" melody, always difficult to describe in words but always inextricable from a song's spell. The seductive melodic line send's JM's lyrical images of flight aloft.
Listen to the first verse:
I was driving across the burning desert
When I spotted six jet planes
Leaving six white vapor trails across the bleak terrain
It was the hexagram of the heavens
It was the strings of my guitar
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
I don't know about you but she had me at "hexagram of the heavens."
There are so many great lines, I'll just quote a few more from the end:
I pulled into the Cactus Tree Motel
To shower off the dust
And I slept on the strange pillows of my wanderlust
I dreamed of 747s
Over geometric farms
Dreams, Amelia, dreams and false alarms
Which brings us to the question at the very heart of the song. It occurs to me that almost all great songs, all songs that get you to play them compulsively over and over again, do so because they've got you seeking something you never find, some haunting enigma that won't quite disclose itself.
In "Amelia," it's the phrase, repeated at the end of every verse in one form or another: "Amelia; it was just a false alarm."
Just what was the false alarm? False alarm becomes a tricky concept when you get into it, because on the most mundane level, the fact that an alarm is false is good. One of the rare instances where falsity is, if not a virtue, then an unexpected blessing. Because, obviously, the danger presaged by the alarm turns out to be—after some drama—an illusion.
On the other hand, "false alarm," when used colloquially, is more often taken to be analogous to—if not synonymous with—"false hope." The alarm a mistaken awakening of hope. To some it might suggest Amelia Earhart crash-landed and stranded on some Pacific atoll, thinking she sees a sign of rescue on the horizon. Nope. Just a false alarm.
But I'm not sure the singer here wants rescue. She seems in some ruefully voluptuous way to be reveling in her hejira, getting deliriously deep into her disillusion and disenchantment, exploring the unmapped territory of her newfound solitude like the eponymous aviator in the dreamy solace of long motel-punctuated drives. It occurs to me that in some way that's what "Amelia's" enigma or paradox is about: True love is far more alarming than a false alarm. True love is truly alarming. Real danger. She's in some respects grateful. It was a false alarm. For an independent spirit like Joni Mitchell, it may be better to have loved and lost than to have loved and won, which can be truly terrifying.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Joni Mitchell by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images.