Library of Articles

  • Library: Articles

Joni Mitchell showed the world that women’s feelings are not weaknesses Print-ready version

The singer-songwriter performed at the Grammys last night, in a room full of women artists whose path she forged

by Alexandra Pollard
February 6, 2024

Joni Mitchell showed the world that women's feelings are not weaknesses The singer-songwriter performed at the Grammys last night, in a room full of women artists whose path she forged Alexandra Pollard February 5, 2024 5:30 pm(Updated February 6, 2024 12:37 pm)

When the men in Joni Mitchell's life first heard Blue, the 1971 album that would go down as one of the greatest of all time, they felt uncomfortable. "They were cringing," she would later recall. "They were embarrassed for me." Mitchell, whom her male peers had considered "one of the boys" up until then, was exposing her most intimate thoughts, feelings, desires, transgressions for all to hear: "I want to talk to you, I want to shampoo you," she sang on the opening track "All I Want". "I want to renew you again and again". "Oh Joni," fellow musician Kris Kristofferson told her, "save something for yourself."

Mitchell didn't heed his advice. Instead, she continued to "scrape my own soul" and lay bare the results for the rest of us to marvel and weep at.

Last night, at the age of 80, Mitchell performed at the Grammys for the first time ever, eight years after a ruptured brain aneurysm nearly killed her. Sitting on a white and gold armchair (perhaps throne is more fitting), one hand resting on a cane with a silver wolf's head, she performed "Both Sides Now", a song she wrote at the age of 23, whose lyrics have only grown more resonant in the six intervening decades.

"I've looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow," she sang, her former soprano trill now a deep, smoky drawl, "it's life's illusions I recall. I really don't know life at all."

I can't think of another living artist who could have held the room in the way she did. As Mitchell sang, the camera cut to the faces of Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Dua Lipa, looking on in quiet reverence. It felt both jarring and apt - jarring because Mitchell seems on a different plane of existence to contemporary pop stars, and apt because she forged the path for these women to follow.

Mitchell always hated the term "confessional" - it is too mired in guilt and sin - but she laid the blueprint for an intimate, introspective style of songwriting, and showed the world, and those men who felt so embarrassed for her, that women's feelings were not weaknesses.

So it felt appropriate, on a night in which the major awards were taken home by women (Swift, Billie Eilish, SZA and Miley Cyrus), that Joni Mitchell should perform. She is, in the words of Brandi Carlile, who performed alongside her, "the matriarch of imagination".

We have Carlile to thank for Mitchell's "comeback". In recent years, the Americana singer, who befriended her after performing at her 75th birthday concert, has been organising monthly "Joni Jams" at Mitchell's house in Bel-Air. She, Mitchell and various other musicians (from Elton John to Harry Styles) would sit around in a circle and play songs for hours on end. Realising that there was an itch to perform publicly again - "I think Joni has some pleasure in showing people she can still do it," she has since said - Carlile persuaded Mitchell to join her onstage at Newport Folk Festival in 2022.

It was to be her first live performance in 22 years. She was nervous. She wondered privately to Carlile whether she was physically up to it - after the aneurysm, Mitchell had to relearn how to walk, talk, and play guitar, three things I suspect were of equal importance to her. But it was a triumph - just like at those closed-door Joni Jams, she was flanked by a host of musicians, who buoyed her during her more tentative moments, and otherwise stood back and gazed in wonder. A year after that, Mitchell headlined her own show at the Gorge Amphitheatre in rural Washington. It was just as astonishing.

Carlile was a Mitchell-sceptic in her twenties. She, too, hated that "shampoo" lyric, surmising from it that Mitchell wasn't "tough enough" as a songwriter. But her wife, Catherine Shepherd, practically threatened to break up with her if she stuck to that opinion, and forced her to listen to "Little Green", another masterpiece from Blue.

The song, a tribute to the daughter Mitchell gave up for adoption when she was in her early twenties, didn't just change Carlile's mind, it changed her life. "So you sign all the papers in the family name," sings Mitchell, her gently ascending melody somehow tinged with sorrow. "You're sad and you're sorry, but you're not ashamed. Little Green, have a happy ending." It is, Carlile now believes, "the toughest song in the history of rock 'n' roll. It didn't just change the way I view music; it changed the way I view women, and what tough means."

Joni Mitchell, left, accepts the award for best folk album for "Joni Mitchell at Newport" with Brandi Carlile during the 66th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 4, 2024, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)Joni Mitchell accepts the award for best folk album with Brandi Carlile during the 2024 Grammy Awards (Photo: Chris Pizzello/AP) Most of the artists in that room, in fact, have at some point cited Mitchell as an influence: Lana Del Rey, Phoebe Bridgers, and of course Taylor Swift, who made history last night as the first person to win Album of the Year four times. You can trace a direct line from Mitchell to Swift.

On the promotional tour for her 2012 album Red, whose very title is thought to be an homage to Blue, Swift said of Mitchell: "She wrote it about her deepest pains and her most haunting demons." Swift does the same. When Mitchell sang on Blue, "I'm so hard to handle, I'm selfish and I'm sad", it was at a time when "our pop stars never admitted these things", Mitchell once observed. Cut to 2024, and Swift is declaring herself a "monster", a "problem", a woman who breaks men's hearts for being too nice.

Mitchell has always refused to identify as a "feminist", but she knows that the way she lives her life reverberates both behind and ahead of her. In the 2003 documentary Woman of Heart and Mind, Mitchell discussed her decision to end her engagement to Graham Nash in her twenties, and the future of domesticity she thought it signified.

She thought of her two grandmothers, both frustrated musicians, one of whom "kicked the kitchen door off of the hinges at the farm", the other of whom wept aged 14 when she realised she'd never have a piano: "And I thought, 'Maybe I'm the one that got the gene that has to make it happen for these two women. As much as I loved and cared for Graham, I just thought, 'I'm gonna end up like my grandmother, kicking the door off the hinges.'"

Instead, she kicked down a different kind of door, and women generations below her continue to walk through it.

Copyright protected material on this website is used in accordance with 'Fair Use', for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of the copyright owner(s). Please read Notice and Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.

Added to Library on February 9, 2024. (777)


Log in to make a comment