By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Big Yellow Taxi’ is probably Joni Mitchell’s best-known song. In many ways a song about not taking things for granted until it’s too late and we’ve lost them, it’s also an example of an environmental protest song. Mitchell wrote the song in 1970.
‘Big Yellow Taxi’: meaning
The song begins with a verse detailing how the authorities paved over a natural paradise with concrete, erected a parking lot or car park, and a hotel and a fancy shop as well as a club for the trendy people to dance and hang out.
The chorus of the song asks us to reflect on the fact that we only seem to realise how precious something is when we’ve allowed it to slip away from us.
In the second verse, we’re told of further devastation of the natural world: all of the trees were dug up and put into a special museum, where they charged people money to come and see them. Nature has become a commodity, commercialised and ‘for sale’.
Although this verse sounds almost comically far-fetched (for satirical purposes), it’s true that such things as arboretums exist: places where people are often charged an admittance fee to come and see certain trees. Indeed, this verse specifically refers to a real place containing rare tropical plants, Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu, Hawaii (the relevance of which will be discussed more in a moment).
In the song’s third stanza, the speaker of the song addresses those farmers who use pesticides such as DDT to kill those insects which would attack their crops. The reference to ‘spots’ on apples reminds us that this patterning on apples is due to something called ‘flyspeck’, and is perfectly natural.
The speaker of the song is saying she would prefer to keep such things (even though they’re evidence that flies have ‘attacked’ the apple crop), rather than see insects and birds killed off by such agricultural pesticides.
The fourth and final verse of the song describes how the speaker’s partner (husband or boyfriend) left her last night, slamming the front door behind him as he got into a taxi – the ‘big yellow taxi’ which provides the song with its memorable title – and split up with her.
‘Big Yellow Taxi’: analysis
Joni Mitchell’s song is often seen as a warning about the dangers of destroying nature to make life more convenient for ourselves. But in this connection, it is worth remembering that Mitchell chose to call her song ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ rather than, say, ‘Got ’Til It’s Gone’ (the title Janet Jackson used when she borrowed Mitchell’s song for one of her own).
This means that ‘big yellow taxi’ which takes her lover away from her is afforded a central place in the song, despite being present in only one of the song’s four verses, and in many ways somewhat different in its focus from the preceding verses.
It broadens the song from a protest song about commercial interests and industrial convenience impinging on nature, into a more universal lament about the human tendency to overlook the value of something until it’s too late to save it.
The political always becomes the political. What is true of the world as a whole is also true on a personal level: if we take this view towards those trees and the ‘paradise’ of nature, we are likely to undervalue the importance of the loved ones in our lives, too.
This is a clever move, because it shrinks down environmental concerns – which many people find too large or all-encompassing to visualise or connect with on a personal level – to the level of our everyday human relationships. If we take the world around us for granted, and we also take our relationships for granted too, we may risk losing both.
Mitchell subtly but ingeniously links that ‘big yellow taxi’ back to the beginning of the song by way of the parking lot, of course, making these two vehicles act as the symbolic vehicle for the message of the song.
In 1996, Mitchell told the journalist Robert Hilburn that she wrote ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ during her first trip to Hawaii. When she looked out of her hotel room, she saw beautiful green mountains in the distance, but directly outside her window there was a large parking lot.
The one version of ‘Big Yellow Taxi’ that possibly improves on Joni Mitchell’s own is Amy Grant’s 1994 cover version. Like Annie Lennox’s ‘No More “I Love You”s’, the Pet Shop Boys’ ‘Always on My Mind’, and Johnny Cash’s ‘Hurt’, Grant’s rendition is a cover version which refines and amplifies the beauty of the original.