Grammys flashback: Joni Mitchell shocked everyone by beating Mariah Carey in 1996

by Jaime Rodriguez
Gold Derby
April 13, 2023

The biggest event of the 38th Grammy Awards, which took place in February 1996, was Mariah Carey's infamous shutout across all six of her nominations. The R&B and pop singer-songwriter was expected to pick up multiple Grammys due to the success of her album "Daydream." Yet, as the ceremony progressed, Carey and the audience quickly realized that "Daydream" wasn't as strong as most thought. There's one category in particular that had to seem locked for Carey more so than anything else: Best Pop Vocal Album. Being the first award of the telecast, "Daydream's" loss to Joni Mitchell's "Turbulent Indigo" really set the stage for the rest of the Carey-snubbage that was about to take place. However, even without Carey, Mitchell's win would've been just as shocking with top-selling albums from artists like Madonna and The Eagles also nominated. In the end, it was Mitchell who took home the gramophone, and as with most things awards-related, there are a few explanations as to why.

"Turbulent Indigo" was Joni Mitchell's 15th album. While it wasn't a hit, it was massively acclaimed, and to many was Mitchell's best work since her heyday. The album tackled many important subjects as well as Mitchell's own personal stories. On top of that, the album attracted attention due to the fact that Mitchell and her co-producer and husband at the time, Larry Klein, separated while making the album, though they seemed to remain on amicable terms. So while it didn't go into the Grammys as a commercially successful smash, it was a critically beloved record by a legend at an important time in her life and artistry.

As mentioned above, the odds were not in Mitchell's favor. Madonna's "Bedtime Stories" was one of the most successful pop albums of the season, the Eagles' "Hell Freezes Over" was a live album that spent multiple weeks atop the charts, and while Annie Lennox's "Medusa" wasn't huge in the US, it was a big hit in the UK (and it earned Lennox a Grammy in another pop category). And then, of course, there was "Daydream." Unfortunately for Carey, her perceived frontrunner status might've been part of the reason Mitchell was able to leap over her. Many voters probably loved the chance to give Mitchell her flowers, especially since "Turbulent Indigo" likely appealed more to those older, snobbier voters than Carey. Mitchell also represented an underdog, as she's always kind of been in the industry. If you read predictions for those Grammys, you'll find that many were convinced Carey was taking it, but that Mitchell deserved it. As David Browne put it in Entertainment Weekly, "No one bought 'Indigo,' but it was Mitchell's best album in a decade."

This type of upset is not necessarily unusual at the Grammys. One could argue this year's Song of the Year winner, "Just Like That" by Bonnie Raitt, followed a similar trajectory: acclaimed by those who knew it, and representing an easy vote for many older voters who simply adore Raitt and what she's done for music. Beck's Album of the Year win for "Morning Phase" follows that same logic: respected veteran with a critically acclaimed album that appealed to the older crowd. Arguably, Mitchell is an even bigger legend than those two, so it's no shock that she pulled enough votes to win.

I'd argue it was close, though, as "Daydream" should still have been an appealing album for the recording academy. That said, the Grammys in the '90s were far less kind to pop stars like Carey, focusing much more on rewarding older favorites; you may find that your favorite pop song from the era lost its Grammy nominations to some song no one remembers from Van Morrison or Eric Clapton. This is why, in this very year of 1996, the Grammys felt the need to introduce nomination review committees to sort out the general field, since people were complaining about the lack of younger and fresher artists at the awards.

"Turbulent Indigo" might not be a talked-about album these days, but it's worth a listen for its intricacies. And it's one of the most unique Pop Vocal Album winners ever: it's the only one to not reach the top 10 on the Billboard 200 - in fact, it didn't even enter the top 40. Still, it's hard to deny Mitchell's success in the industry throughout her career, and it's not like Carey wouldn't win more Grammys: she claimed three for her revival era, "The Emancipation of Mimi." So "Indigo" serves as a nice reminder that, even when things seem locked up, there's always room for a shakeup at the Grammys.

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