“Big Yellow Taxi”, which appears on Joni Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, invokes a sense of urgency about preventing environmental degradation. This song was written in the 1960s, around the time that environmental and preservation movements first gained momentum. Mitchell wrote “Big Yellow Taxi” on a trip to Hawaii. In an interview, she described the parking lot below her hotel window that inspired this song as a “blight on paradise”. This song is said to be the inspiration behind many cities curbing their urban development in favor of greenspace.
In the first verse, Mitchell sings:
They paved paradise and put up a parking lot
With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin’ hot spot
Mitchell critiques society’s tendency to replace undeveloped land with the asphalt and buildings. The paving of “paradise” represents the degradation of nature for commercialization. Describing the land as paradise stresses its natural beauty, whereas the mention of the pink hotel and the “swingin’ hot spot” communicate artificiality.
Mitchell continues to express her environmental concerns when she sings:
They took all the trees, put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people a dollar and a half just to see ’em
She argues not only for the protection of the environment, but also against capitalism. Mitchell’s jab at a “tree museum” is in reference to Foster Botanical Garden in Honolulu, which is a living museum of tropical plants. She uses the irony of this situation to illustrate a very real and imminent problem.
Through both the chorus and the final verse, Mitchell strays from her environmental call to action and political stances with a personal connection, leaving the song up for more than one interpretation:
Don’t it always seem to go
That you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?
Late last night, I heard the screen door slam
And a big yellow taxi took away my old man
By describing the loss of either a lover or a father, she relates environmental issues to other genuine concerns of human beings. She illustrates that the loss of a loved one and the loss of a natural environment are actually very similar. She makes the issue more identifiable and relatable to those who do not believe they are directly impacted by loss of nature. Through her admiration of nature, criticism of capitalistic society, and personal loss, Joni Mitchell communicates to listeners that everyone should be concerned about the environment because everyone has something at stake. This song is nothing less than a poem because of because of how her convincing diction romanticizes environmentalism and her personal connections and experiences leave for open-endedness.