Joni Mitchell's performance of "Both Sides Now" at the Grammys on Sunday night was no mere comeback party for an aging icon. Mitchell, now 80, has spent nearly a decade recovering from the effects of a brain aneurysm she suffered in 2015, which left her unable to speak or walk. Over the course of her recovery, Mitchell retaught herself how to play music and sing again, as though from scratch. She is not the artist she once was. And that was the point.
Mitchell looked like a beret-clad queen or an oracle. Seated in a comfy chair and lit by fake candlelight, she sang, banging her cane (scepter) for emphasis as though issuing proclamations. Her voice was no longer that of a songbird; it is slower and a register lower. But the sense of mastery was still there, with a few jazz moments of syncopated phrasing that showed not slowness but a control of the song's meaning and cadences.
To me, it was Sinatra, Tony Bennett and Johnny Cash territory. It was not young, but it was beautiful.
Notably, the lyrics of "Both Sides Now" had taken on a deeper meaning.
I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all
Susan Sontag, in her 1978 essay "Illness as Metaphor," wrote of the two sides that must be relevant in Mitchell's life right now.
"Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick," Sontag wrote. Seen through this lens, Mitchell is reporting back from the latter kingdom majestically, with more gravitas, spirit and human dignity than ever.
Or she may just be letting us know that there really aren't two kingdoms at all. Only one.
Mitchell is beloved today for her lyrical honesty, her ingenious musical sophistication and her persistent refusal to heed the messages that would have kept her on the sidelines. Girls can't be rock stars. Don't show your feelings. When you become ill or age or lose your ability to speak and walk, you should go off somewhere and hide.
She is not having any of that, which is a lesson for those of us who must confront illness, disability and mortality. Joni Mitchell's radical vulnerability and refusal to hide has always been her greatest strength. She's still got it.
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Added to Library on February 7, 2024. (278)
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