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What Joni Mitchell Proved at the Grammys Print-ready version

In performing an instant-classic awards-show set, she affirmed her timelessness—and her influence on a new generation of artists.

by Spencer Kornhaber
Atlantic
February 5, 2024

Canadian-U.S. singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell (center) and U.S. singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile (third from right) perform onstage during the 66th Annual Grammy Awards at the Crypto.com Arena in Los Angeles on February 4, 2024. (Valerie Macon/ AFP / Getty)

To call a person as legendary as Joni Mitchell underrated might seem silly - but last year, the Rolling Stone co-founder Jann Wenner chose not to include her or any other women in a book about rock-and-roll history called The Masters. Defending his selection of only interviews with white male musicians, Wenner told The New York Times that Mitchell was simply not a "philosopher of rock 'n' roll." This comment was baffling - he later apologized - yet also clarifying, revealing the biases long held by some of music's most powerful gatekeepers.

This year's Grammys, however, should settle all questions of canon with regards to Mitchell and the lineage she represents. She performed what might be one of the greatest awards-show sets ever - one that suggested that she is the philosopher for an ascendant generation of musicians, both in rock and roll and outside of it.

The overriding narrative of the night was, in the bluntest terms, about gender. All of the winning artists in the "big four" general categories were women: Taylor Swift took home Album of the Year for Midnights (she's now won that prize four times, more than any other artist ever), Miley Cyrus got Record of the Year for "Flowers," Billie Eilish won Song of the Year for "What Was I Made For?" (co-written by her brother, Finneas), and the R&B musician Victoria Monét was named Best New Artist. Six years after the former president of the Recording Academy infamously said that women needed to "step up" if they wanted to win more Grammys, the sheer volume of female talent on display was significant. But a deeper aesthetic impulse - too profound to call a trend - was also celebrated: songwriting as precise, emotional storytelling.

Introducing Mitchell's performance, the folk singer Brandi Carlile argued that Mitchell was one of the most influential creators in "human history," because she had "redefined the very purpose of a song." Whereas previous songwriters had focused on observational lyrics, Mitchell popularized the idea of "turning ourselves inside out for all the world to see" (to illustrate the point, Carlile said Mitchell was like the first person at a party to take off her clothes and go skinny-dipping). When it comes to an art form as ancient as music, claims of first are always going to be arguable - but Carlile's assertion was given weight by the performance that followed.

Mitchell has never performed at the Grammys before; after she suffered an aneurysm in 2015, it seemed possible she would never sing - or even speak - again. But over the past two years, she has returned to performing in public with the help of Carlile and a host of other musicians. The first such performance is documented on the album Joni Mitchell at Newport, which won Best Folk Album this year. It renders highlights of Mitchell's catalog as collaborative vocal tapestries, in which the songwriter's voice is just one thread.

As in those performances, the 80-year-old Mitchell last night sat at the center of a jam circle (whose participants included SistaStrings, Allison Russell, Blake Mills, Jacob Collier, Lucius, and Carlile). But all attention was on her. Sitting in an ornate chair that turned slowly to face the audience at the start of the performance, wearing a black blouse embroidered with stars, holding a stafflike cane in one hand, she had a wizardly air - gently formidable and obviously wise. But her appearance carried a certain vulnerability. She does not have to put herself out there for public judgment at this point in her life, and yet she has.

She sang "Both Sides Now," the classic final track from her 1969 album, Clouds. The song considers how time and experience shift one's perspective - heavy themes to visit decades after the song was written. The genius of "Both Sides Now" lies partly in its winding cadence, its sensation of tacking to and fro, as Mitchell confronts the most vexing aspects of human existence as dialectical. Last night she delivered the song in a manner so calm that she dipped, sometimes, closer to speech than to singing. She gestured with her hands in the manner of someone explaining something - which she was, except what she was explaining was her own ignorance. When she sang "I really don't know life at all," she appeared genuinely at a loss.

The performance did what "Both Sides Now" always does to the listener, which is slow the flow of time into a drift. But part of the performance's power derived, too, from the other musicians in the room. Camera shots of the audience showed Beyoncé, Olivia Rodrigo, and other indomitable cultural figures appearing on the verge of tears. They were taking in the power of the song, and the human drama onstage, but also, possibly, their own place in a tradition.

To say that we are in an era of songwriting as storytelling may sound platitudinal, but lyrics really do matter more than ever to popular audiences right now. Rodrigo, Swift, SZA, Lana Del Rey, and Boygenius - all Album of the Year nominees - make songs bristling with scenes, confessions, words to be parsed. Generally these artists write about how inner lives crash into a social world full of characters who also have interiority. Mitchell is more complex in her musicianship than some of her poppier descendants, but her ability to control suspense through jazz-influenced melodic swoops and subtleties has been passed down as well - just watch Eilish's spellbinding performance.

Evidence of this lineage was elsewhere in the night too, most memorably when the folk singer Tracy Chapman took to the stage after rarely being seen in public in recent years. She was there to duet with Luke Combs, who recently repopularized her 1988 hit "Fast Car." Rendered in two complementary voices - Chapman's smooth and strong, Combs's rough and grand - the verses tumbled with scenes about yearning and escape, about characters pushing to make their innermost desires felt upon the world. The tale the song told was riveting - and also seemed, in its way, like its own statement of rock-and-roll philosophy.

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Added to Library on February 5, 2024. (1018)

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