After a two-decade hiatus, Joni Mitchell emerged as the queen of songstresses in the best year yet for women artists

by Sunny Nagpaul
February 10, 2024

Joni Mitchell has learned to walk three times. The first as a toddler; the next as a wheelchair-ridden 9-year-old recovering from post-polio syndrome; and once more after she survived a nearly fatal brain aneurysm in her early seventies in 2015.

The polio, as it turns out, weakened her left hand and forced her to develop alternative tunings on guitar which might explain the haunting, melodic sound that's won 10 Grammys. Then came a 20-year musical hiatus.

Perhaps these are the clouds, or life's illusions, that 80-year-old Mitchell mused on in her Grammy performance of "Both Sides Now" this year, which also won a Grammy for best folk song in 1970.

The aneurysm reduced Mitchell's life's work of singing and playing to memories that she spent years relearning, often by watching her hands play guitar in videos of previous performances. In the most female-dominated Grammy ceremony in history, Joni Mitchell's comeback demonstrates the impact her introspective songwriting has had on generations of today's pop stars. From Lana Del Rey's melancholic dark pop to indie pop stars Lucy Dacus and Phoebe Bridgers, emotionally intelligent songs, which Mitchell paved the way to, are gaining popularity.

"In today's music landscape, there's a growing appreciation for songs that offer emotional depth and complexity," said José Ruiz-Resto, the program director of music business at the University of Florida and a four-time Latin Grammy winner. "Mitchell has given way to many other artists as a master of lyricism, and set a high standard of songwriting in the industry early on."

Mitchell is "regarded as one of the greatest songwriters of all time," said Ruiz-Resto, adding that the "poetic lyrics, intricate melodies and emotional depth," has influenced "countless artists and genres from folk, rock, pop and jazz."

Shifts in musical chart-toppers reveal changes in listeners preferences, and a big shift lately includes more love for personal, introspective storytelling. Lana Del Rey's stardom began after her song "Video Games," praised for its authentic feel, went viral and was named song of the decade at the Q Awards in London. Good lyricism also helps explain Taylor Swift's massive fan base. As just one example, look at Reddit, where scores of fans describe how coming across lines they could relate to feels like discovering gems and "makes you want to keep going back."

At the Grammy ceremony, Mitchell performed one of her best-known songs - a meditation of perspectives on life, love and loss accompanied by a drifting melody - and sang lyrics that are now decades old: "I've looked at life from both sides now, from win and lose, and still somehow it's life's illusions I recall." Side by side with the tumult of her life in the 70s - including road trips she took without a driver's license, love affairs with greats like Leonard Cohen and Graham Nash, and nights out dancing to jazz - they're heartbreaking lines.

Sung in her voice, a tumbling, fluttering instrument toned throughout her life, her introspective lyricism and blues guitar riffs account for why she took home her 10th Grammy for best folk album this year. The album, called At Newport, is a live recording of her first concert in over two decades - and the first since her aneurysm. It's named for her unannounced surprise performance with fellow folk singer Brandi Carlile at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival. If Mitchell's voice was a rarity to hear in the sunshine of her fame in the 70s, it's even more singular today.

Her lyrics are more than 50 years old but her eccentric style continues to captivate. At the ceremony, the singer took the stage seated on a golden throne, surrounded by musicians and her good friend, Carlile. It's a style she calls a 'Joni Jam,' reflecting the intimate gatherings she hosted with Carlile while recoveringfrom brain surgery. The low-key gatherings while she recovered included Elton John, Paul McCartney, and Harry Styles. The Grammy audience's standing ovation for her proves that her songwriting magic continues to influence some of today's most successful artists.

An industry-wide impact

Many musicians credit Mitchell's influence on their sound, including album of the year winner Taylor Swift, who also made history as the only artist who's won the top prize four times.

Lana Del Rey, who was also nominated for the award and 11 other nominations in categories like song of the year and best alternative music album, recorded a cover of Mitchell's song, 'For Free,' which contrasts the velvet-curtained venues Mitchell would perform at with a street busker's hustle, in her 2021 album Chemtrails over the Country Club. Del Rey said in an interview with Mojo Magazine that she could relate to the song when she was earlier in her career and also playing music for free.

"I didn't even get famous 'til I was, like, 27 and until then, I sang for less than free," she told the magazine, adding that Mitchell's song means "everything" to her. She also paid homage to the singer's hit album Ladies of the Canyon in another of her songs, "Bartender."

Mitchell's ability to write introspective songs with lyricism that pulls listeners into the depths of her emotions is one of her most admired qualities. She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1997; Neil Young called her one of the best artists of this generation; Leonard Cohen said she's "some kind of musical monster," and that "her gift somehow put her in another category from the other folk singers."

An activist and feminist history

The Grammys, Ruiz-Resto noted, measure an artist's success through their social, political and industry impact as opposed to the Billboard, which ranks success based on revenue and sales of songs. The award measures how much a song or album has influenced the industry, as well as "quality of the production, innovation, and its impact on society at local and global levels."

A lot of songs have been tools for artists to demonstrate social positions, Ruiz-Resto said, and much of the world's most reverberant sounds have been those that "reach people face to face, eye to eye, and heart to heart."

The same goes for Mitchell's discography, replete with anthems of activism. "The Fiddle and the Drum," is an anti-Vietnam war protest; "Woodstock," is about the counterculture movement for peace; "Don't Interrupt the Sorrow" is about women's empowerment; and of course, "Big Yellow Taxi," demands that farmers put away the DDT now.

In 2022, after Neil Young pulled his music from Spotify in protest of the streaming service's distribution of Joe Rogan's podcast, which was criticized by doctors and medical experts for spreading misinformation about the pandemic, Mitchell removed her songs too.

"Irresponsible people are spreading lies that are costing people their lives," she wrote in a statement. "I stand in solidarity with Neil Young and the global scientific and medical communities on this issue."

Mitchell's success is undeniable, but her journey was sometimes choppy. She tried to quit music several times, the most recent attempt in 2002, which marked the start of a two-decade hiatus in recording and performing. Now, she has a nearly 60-year history of winning Grammys and even announced two shows, her first headliner in over 24 years, in Los Angeles later this October. It's enough to prove that there's still many ears hungry to hear her voice sing her poetic lines to the jazz and blues beats that are characteristically Joni Mitchell.

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