More slogans than substance

by Bronwyn Eyre
Saskatoon StarPhoenix
February 11, 2009

During a heated political discussion, a friend once declared there is "a right and wrong side" to every issue. So much for debate, I thought.

Similarly, singer Joni Mitchell -- whose photographic exhibition, Green Flag Song, is currently showing at the Mendel Art Gallery -- is clearly one who believes she's on the "right" side.

According to the gallery notes, as Mitchell "watched the daily menu of distress and fear on her deteriorating television set, the colour distortions seemed to accentuate the bias of mass media." So she photographed televised scenes of "militancy" that depict her "personal response to the consequences of war and humanity's struggle with itself."

These scenes eventually served as stage visuals to Jean Grand-Maitre's ballet, The Fiddle and the Drum -- a tribute to Mitchell which the Alberta Ballet recently performed here.

They include images of Hitler and Stalin, along with a parade of current social and political bugbears, including George W. Bush, the state of the environment, conflicts in Africa and consumerism.

"With the situation for all earthlings" (earthlings?) "so dire," Mitchell writes, "it was frivolous to present a lighter fare, like 'fiddling while Rome burned'."

Of course, no "anti-war, pro-environment" manifesto would be complete without a wistful (if not very original) tribute to Woodstock.

Mitchell sings: "We are stardust / We are golden / And we've got to get ourselves / Back to the garden."

The reality, of course, is by the end of that famous weekend, revellers were practically drowning in their own, er, refuse. And in an ironic twist, the U.S. army and National Guard flew in food and medical supplies.

In The Real Thing, playwright Tom Stoppard writes: "Is that what it's all come down to? No philosophy that can't be printed on a T-shirt?" The great thing about The Fiddle and the Drum ballet is that the beauty of the dancing transcends Mitchell's lyrics -- many of which are sophomoric slogans.

Take Shine: "Let your little light . . . / Shine on rising oceans and evaporating seas / Shine on our Frankenstein technologies" -- at which point, an image flashes above the dancers: "We need experts, not bigots."

So no "Frankenstein technologies" -- but I'd venture to guess Mitchell favours stem cell research ("experts") over the position on stem cell research held by George Bush and many Christians ("bigots"). As she sings herself: "Shine on the Catholic Church / And the prisons that it owns."

For the ballet, Mitchell wrote a new song, If, based on Rudyard Kipling's poem about -- as she puts it -- "stoicism and war."

Problem is, it's not about war. It extols manly, if not aristocratic, character. And I doubt Kipling would be on what Mitchell considers the "right side." In The White Man's Burden, for example, he describes the colonizing white man's "new-caught, sullen peoples" as "half-devil and half-child." Oops.

In the ballet program, Mitchell describes how she adapted another song, Slouching Toward Bethlehem, from "Yates' [sic] poem, The Second Coming." That would be W.B. Yeats -- another controversial choice. Scornful of democracy and admiring of Mussolini's dictatorship, Yeats once wrote marching songs for the Irish Blueshirts, who adopted the Nazi straight-arm salute. Oops again.

'Dang it, why must this right and wrong business be so complex? Sure, sure, we all know Bush was evil. But how do we, for example, intervene in African regions such as Darfur when no one except the bad guys has an army?

As for Mitchell's snide projections of the White House and the Statue of Liberty, what do we make of the awful irony that in the last 20 years, two Balkan interventions, as well as the failed 1992-93 Somali intervention to feed starving African Muslims, were humanitarian exercises by the U.S.?

In 2002, Barbra Streisand -- like Mitchell, a proponent of fashionable causes -- quoted what she thought was Shakespeare: "Beware the leader who bangs the drums of war in order to whip the citizenry into a patriotic fervour." The lines were actually penned by an Internet prankster.

Both Streisand, who later insisted the words "are still powerful and true and beautifully written," and Mitchell, with her shaky reading of literary greats, would do well to heed Alexander Pope's famous caution: "A little learning is a dangerous thing." Polemics, unfortunately, don't make for high art.

Printed from the official Joni Mitchell website. Permanent link:

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