Joni Mitchell infused every song she wrote with authenticity and vulnerability. Telling stories from her own life, charting love, loss, and everything in between, she became one of the most important lyricists of all time. Her pairing of intimate lyrics with soft folk soundscapes paved the way for generations of guitar-yielding women.
Though the majority of her discography formed a sonic diary, marked by this unrelenting vulnerability, Mitchell wasn’t afraid to delve into deeper themes. As her career transitioned through genres, from folk to jazz to electronic, her lyrics also widened. By the time she released her 15th record, Turbulent Indigo, in 1994, she also used music as a platform to discuss the issues she had witnessed surrounding her.
One of the most striking examples of her changing lyrical style came in the form of ‘Sex Kills’, the second track on the album. Over soft guitars and atmospheric ambience, Mitchell observes societal issues, including school shootings, ozone depletion, and the ever-increasing price of living. Towards the end of the pessimistic but realistic song, she exclaims: “This hostile sun beating down on this massive mess we’re in”.
As she recalled it on The Late Show with Tracey Macleod at the time, ‘Sex Kills’ was written at the time of the Los Angeles riots, which inspired Mitchell to write the track’s opening lines. She explained, “I pulled up behind a car which had a license plate JUST ICE, which was very provocative to me. I asked a lot of people what justice was – nobody seemed to know. This is a song about America and, in particular, Los Angeles at this particular time.”
In the song’s opening moments, she replays the experience, singing: “I pulled up behind a Cadillac, we were waiting for the light, and I took a look at his license plate, it said ‘just ice’. Is justice just ice? Governed by greed and lust? Just the strong doing what they can and the weak suffering what they must?”
Mitchell also spoke about the wider societal meaning behind the song with Kevin Newman on CBC-TV in 1994. When asked about how ‘Sex Kills’ looks at the uglier parts of society, Mitchell shared, “I think there is more ugliness. I think it’s on the increase. Especially towards women. I’ve never been a feminist, but we haven’t had pop songs up until recently that were so aggressively dangerous to women. It’s hard for women and men to walk around at night. It’s a dangerous world that we live in.”
In ‘Sex Kills’, Mitchell encapsulated that world of injustice, danger, and ugliness in full force. Devastating lines like “Everyone hates everyone” and “Little kids packing guns to school” directly confront our dystopian modernity, one that is continually marked by violence and inequality.