In a pop world where female musicians are designed, micromanaged, and as carefully positioned in the marketplace as a new brand of air freshener, how wonderfully earthy and real is the art of Joni Mitchell. As a writer immersed in all the current female musicos, I found it a jolt to put on Mitchell's new collections Hits and Misses and be reminded that music made by females wasn't always a thing controlled and "spun" by male music business professionals. It's almost painfully funny to imagine a young Mitchell collaborating with an older man on a song about a young woman shrieking at her ex-lover about oral sex. Or singing with no irony or humor whatsoever a song about God riding on public transport.
The concept is as outlandish as the possibility of finding Mitchell's work on MTV or VH1 or any of the zillion radio stations that play her putative acolytes, the Sheryl Crows and Alanis Morrisettes, those lightweights who took her feminine adventurousness and co-opted it into prefab, potty-mouth music for angry grade-schoolers.
Mitchell is our most fearless, fully realized female pop artist, and still our only one, since Courtney Love has so far explored only the A to Z of rage. And -- absolutely vital in an artist -- Mitchell isn't afraid of looking foolish, of not being "nice," but, equally important in today's pop diaspora, neither is she afraid of appearing vulnerable, of stripping away all emotional protections and creating an album from total pain, like 1971's Blue.
But we're probably more familiar with the ironic, detached, chain-smoking, ticked-off Mitchell, the woman who, luckily enough for us, though almost better known as the girlfriend of famous musicians, doesn't hesitate to eviscerate those same lovers in song. Called on it, she'll tell you she could have, should have, been even nastier. "Carey," it seems, that mean old daddy whom she invites down to the Mermaid Tavern for a bottle of wine, was a total jerk who should have been trashed even more, but Mitchell decided that documenting him as an irascible ex-boyfriend, a funny "character," was more interesting.
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Hits touches on all the commercial high points of Mitchell's career; from "Chelsea Morning" to "Big Yellow Taxi" to "Turn Me On, I'm a Radio," it's all here. Misses draws more heavily on her later, jazzier meanderings, all critically panned by the mainstream pop press, although it also includes last year's "Sex Sells," which was as close to a hit as Mitchell's been in some time, drawing airplay on many Adult Alternative stations nationally. And Misses also includes songs like "River" and "A Case of You" from Blue, one of Mitchell's most celebrated and beloved albums, so its name is a bit misleading. After all, Blue is the album that helped several generations get over tainted love affairs.
It's hard not to be drawn more intensely to Hits, as it captures that irresistible moment when the planets converged, the sun broke through the clouds, art and commercialism somehow coalesced, and a song from a Joni Mitchell album could crack the Top 10 (1974, when "Help Me," from Court and Spark, was a hit) in this world, not an alternative one.
In the early Hits years Mitchell is the still-childish prodigy, sketching interesting characters, pulling literary allusions out of the air, and taking one's breath away with alluring melodies and chord changes. She could always call up characters we knew with just a line: "Look at those losers, glued to that hockey game," as she sings in "Raised on Robbery."
Things took a more personal turn in the middle years -- the Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark era -- when her exquisite turns of phrase could provoke tears, or sighs of recognition. She could sing about being "tethered to a telephone," "listening for your car climbing the hill," and it's a real, visceral image that anyone who's longed for a lover can understand in their bones. In still another song, she'd scornfully dig for the worm in the apple, the melancholy undercutting a joyous holiday, as in "River": "It's coming on Christmas, they're cutting down trees, they're putting up reindeer ... singing songs of joy and peace." And who could more eloquently snort at a lover's compliment, "You're as constant as the Northern Star," coming back at him with this line from "A Case of You": "Constantly in the darkness ... where's that at? If you want me, I'll be in the bar."
If there's always been a strong undercurrent of self-deprecation and toughness in Mitchell's work, it's the protective impulse of the wary Canadian. Stick your head out, Mitchell has often said in interviews, and you're likely to get it chopped off. In the North Country it's best to hunker down and hope you're not noticed too much. Thus while the ethereal, doe-eyed songbird of "Chelsea Morning" is a real part of her, she's also the slutty North Country girl of "Raised on Robbery," colorful Canadian white trash just trying to get by on little more than native wit.
Much of Mitchell's bitterness has to come from seeing her male counterparts -- and those of far less talent -- surpass her in fame and fortune. She should be on the same level professionally as Neil Young, an artist who's also been ridiculed for some musical odd turns and blind alleys, but whose reputation as a potent artistic force endures. But while a few individual Young albums have been panned, he's never been as viciously attacked as Mitchell was by Rolling Stone when she released The Hissing of Summer Lawns in 1975. "Worst Album of the Year" in a year that saw the release of two by Kansas? I think not.
Mitchell herself, "as humble as Mussolini," as her friend David Crosby likes to say, often compares herself to Bob Dylan, and, as I have seen a diminished Dylan in concert one too many times lately, she'll get no argument from this corner. But both Young and Dylan have kept the lifeblood of their careers bubbling through constant touring. Even in years when they released dreck and were critically reviled, there would still be enough juice in the old dogs as live performers that the local kids would want to go check them out; the long-time fans would want to revisit the songwriters who chronicled their golden time.
Mitchell won't do that. She rarely performs live, and this lack of generosity toward her audience rightly diminishes her reputation. And when she does tour, if all the celestial aspects and tunings and audience vibes aren't right -- as at a recent New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival appearance -- you'll see a bad Joni Mitchell show.
The artist was brought partially back into the fold this year when she won a Grammy for Turbulent Indigo, the latest in a series of albums that have pulled away from her jazzy experimentation and moved toward the pop mainstream a bit. It's as if, with the Grammy, the music business was saying "Sorry, Joni, for revering Sting for using polyphonic harmonies when you were rejected for the same thing just a few years earlier. Sorry for making fun of your varied and active love life, instead of lauding you as a love goddess, as Mick Jagger and other randy rockers are worshipped as love gods. Sorry, sorry, sorry ..."
She may have accepted the Grammy and its accompanying warm beam of inclusion with smiling grace, but if she's still the Joni Mitchell we know and love, she'll be back with a sucker punch for the music biz weasels fairly soon, cigarette dangling from her mouth, laughing in that bitchy, sardonic way. You go, girl.
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