There is an irrepressible truth to Joni Mitchell’s music that you can hear even without listening. You need not necessarily pay attention to the lyrics to understand what she’s singing about. Regardless of the artist, a cornerstone of music is its ability to communicate emotions, which Mitchell does with ease both indirectly through her tones and tunings, but especially through the candid tales of her life, observations, and the hard-won lessons she sings of. And it’s precisely that accomplishment that makes her a rightful recipient of this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, an award bestowed on icons and changemakers of the performing arts. Attending the event became a personal pilgrimage, as Mitchell’s music has been such an ever-present guide throughout the course of my life.
I grew up with Joni Mitchell cassette tapes on frequent rotation, playing from my mother’s stereo. “Circle Game” became a favorite during childhood, before I could even fully contextualize it, and “River” was played in earnest every holiday season when it came time to break out the Christmas tapes, sandwiched alongside Simon and Garfunkel’s “Silent Night” and John Lennon’s “Imagine.” But it wasn’t until I was working as a cleaner at a camp site in my early 20s that “Circle Game” fully sunk in.
At the time, I was feeling as though I was in some kind of holding pattern, waiting for my “real” life to begin, because this one didn’t yet seem grand enough or match my soaring ambitions for adulthood. It was on an afternoon sweeping out empty cabins in anticipation of another round of young campers, singing to entertain myself, that I fully found solace in “Circle Game.” Sure, I already knew the lyrics from memory, but I’d never really reflected on them until then, each hitting like a new wave of realization. Wistful and hopeful at the same time, the lyrics struck a new chord and suddenly I was nostalgic for my present, so aware it was slipping by, but comforted by the line “there’ll be new dreams, maybe better dreams and plenty.” By the time I hit the final chorus I was crying.
Even though I’d been raised with the songs of Joni Mitchell, it feels like they come to you when you are ready to receive them. Years later I’d be wandering through a fabric store with “Carey” playing overhead, which would spur me to explore more of her catalogue. That night I sought out the song and settled in to listen to Blue in its entirety. It’d apparently taken a debilitating breakup to finally understand the immensity of the album, but there it was at the right time to see me through. Her words in “River” aligned so well with my feelings of guilt and regret as I dwelled upon my role in my relationship’s demise, and “All I Want” encapsulated my urge to pursue love with wild abandon and offer care as quickly as I offered my heart. At the time I was either an unmoving mass in bed for days at a time or dressed to the nines and out at bars trying either to escape or consume enough life to somehow reanimate myself internally and get over it. Even the most euphoric nights would end in tears of mourning. I’d be driven home and return to the company of Blue in some messy, though ultimately healing cycle. Blue just celebrated its 50th anniversary this year and remains as relevant as ever. Since my reintroduction to it, I’ve continued to proceed through her catalogue at a pace that mirrors each new stage of my life. There’s always a Joni album to meet where you are, to parallel your current predicaments, questions, or desires.
An accomplished visual artist who’s painted or illustrated the bulk of her own album covers, her songs also serve as self-portraits; unflinching portrayals she paints of herself in her own lyrics, in which she doesn’t shy away from pathetic, failures, or faults. She has a habit of dissecting her heartbreaks across her catalogue even when unflattering, always finding a new way of phrasing her experiences in a way that hits right to the core. This is an independent woman who has a strong sense of self in every way, yet can still be taken over and drawn under by an ill-fated romance. She’ll get hung up on “a sweet talking ladies man” in “Help Me,” find happiness with a total square in her cover of “(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care” or be “strung out on another man” in “California.” She’s also bougie and indulgent when the situation arises, longing for clean white linen and fancy French cologne in “Carey” even as she’s sleeping in caves atop literal human bones on the Greek Island of Crete. Elsewhere in the song, she sings of maybe going to Amsterdam or Rome on a whim and, later on “California,” of going to Spain until her skin turns brown. She’s on her own timetable, responding to life as it happens. Spontaneous to a bewildering extent, I’ve also taken her mindset to heart, those lyrics echoing in my head whenever I buy a one-way airfare with the intention of seeing where life takes me often for weeks or months at a time and returning when I feel like it. Mitchell’s lyrics act almost as some sort of permission to live an untraditional life.
Previous Kennedy Center honoree Herbie Hancock, who won Album of the Year at the 2008 Grammys for his Mitchell cover-slash-tribute album River: The Joni Letters, described her abilities as “so prescient and personal,” and said her songs “broke new ground in songwriting.” In her 20s, she had the foresight to write a song so poetically expansive as “Both Sides Now,” the song Hancock performed at the ceremony alongside singer Brittany Howard of the Alabama Shakes. “She writes songs about feelings, emotions, and areas of life that most of us don’t speak openly about.”
Sitting beside Mitchell in the Kennedy Center balcony during the ceremony was President Joe Biden, who also touched on her gift for songwriting and poetry in a prerecorded clip that played for the audience, remarking that her words and melodies “touch the deepest parts of our souls.” Echoing presenter and Schitt’s Creek creator Dan Levy, he spoke to her “impact on fans of every generation” and described her gift as one that “touches the range of human nature.”
Mitchell’s extensive influence can be further viewed through the lens of Billboard charts, concert stages, and artists of the present. On the 2019 album Norman Fucking Rockwell, singer Lana Del Rey summons the spirit of Joni in the chorus of the title track with the allusion to the color blue, and in lyrics elsewhere that call back to Mitchell’s Laurel Canyon era with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. If the reference was too subtle, she followed that album up with Chemtrails over the Country Club earlier this year and closed the record with a cover of Mitchell’s “For Free.” Del Rey is a singer that walks the border of melancholy and bliss with ease, which also harks to Mitchell.
In her instant-classic debut album Ctrl, SZA doesn’t shy away from the painful realities of her own habits and culpabilities when it comes to her relationships, like Mitchell. Over the summer she posted an Instagram-exclusive song titled “Joni,” a delicate folk track with a softness and flow that evokes the titular musician. One piercing line mentions, “I been wiped out like three times, beat dat shit call me nine lives.” The allusion to recovery is relatable to all, especially Mitchell at present. Commenting in reference to her 2015 brain aneurysm that decreased her ability to walk and left her temporarily unable to speak, Mitchell said, “I’ve had to come back several times from things,” which, thanks to her lyrics, even a casual listener might know.
Singer-songwriter James Blake’s cover of “Case of You” has been a regular staple of his live set lists for a solid decade, seamlessly woven into his catalogue since he released his version in 2011 and now plays an extension of his own artistry, tied to his identity as an artist. Even Janet Jackson showed a new level of dimension upon the release of her 1997 song “Got Till It’s Gone.” The trip-hop song features a refrain from “Big Yellow Taxi” as its chorus, with rapper Q-Tip going a step further to tell it like it is by repeating the line: “Joni Mitchell never lies.”
Indeed. Her honesty is her calling card. By laying her experiences and emotions bare, she invites a certain intimacy with listeners, not just with her but within themselves, a means to hold a mirror to their own lives. Her lyrics draw from her own life, providing clarity, which has in turn helped me find and accept aspects of myself through the years. She’s able to articulate the things you feel, but might not have yet identified. It’s that ability that’s so deeply impacted me, and so many who have had the chance to encounter her music. Her lyrics act as a compass through which I navigate life, providing pathways and validation of my own independence, spontaneity, curiosity, craving for love, and desire to live in all caps. Her songs serve as coordinates for a life with no roadmap, but for you to find your own path, not necessarily follow hers. From the topics she tackles to the way she tells her story, the essence and message of her music is liberation.
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