In “Fear of a Female Genius,” a recent essay on Joni Mitchell, Lindsay Zoladz explains why “one of the greatest living artists in popular music still isn’t properly recognized.” If you’re thinking that has something to do with gender bias, it does. But there’s so much more to Mitchell’s complex story. Those who fully embrace her are an eclectic group with leanings, like Mitchell, toward folk, jazz, classical, and instrumental music worldwide: sometimes all at once. Despite occasional breezy plainspokenness, she never makes for easy listening.
Her albums take us on winding journeys through peculiarly evocative lyrical tableaus, rich with unexpected, even jarring, images. Even the most accessible songs—for example, Court and Spark’s Burt Bacharach-like “Help Me”—spin like vertigo-inducing roller coasters, little gyres powered by boundless creative energy. Her most popular tunes glow with a worldly-wise intensity all their own. Hear them all, from 1968’s Song to a Seagull to 2007’s Shine, in the 18-hour Spotify playlist below. Or access it directly here.
The idiosyncratic beauty of Mitchell’s music, woven from shimmering tonal patterns, shifting polyrhythms, and odd timings and tunings, defies the labels we might apply. “I think when you listen to Court and Spark,” says Barney Hoskyns, editor of a new anthology of writing about Mitchell, “you can’t really sit there and say, ‘Well this is just pop music.’ You have to think of it on a level with the greatest art that’s been done in the last hundred years.” If Bob Dylan “is sort of Shakespeare,” Hoskyns says, “then Joni Mitchell is Milton… or Dante,” two writers whose labyrinthine verse often poses significant challenges for readers.
These kinds of “crass analogies,” as Hoskyns terms it, might seem off-putting and pretentious. But if it seems like Mitchell’s name appears more in the company of famous men than women, it’s an association she made herself. “Most of my heroes are monsters, unfortunately,” she has said, “and they are men.” Pablo Picasso, Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, whose surname Mitchell took for the title of her tenth album…. “This kind of male-hero worship,” writes Zoladz, “has made Mitchell a difficult figure to some feminist critics.”
Indeed, there is something “internet-proof” about Mitchell—her “unruliness” and unwillingness to remain in one place, to play the roles assigned her, to adopt hip stances, pander, or deny herself the freedom to move in unfamiliar artistic directions, making discoveries and risking missteps more cautious artists would avoid.
Chuck Mitchell, the estranged ex-husband and musical partner who seemed to resent her incredible talent, called her odd tunings “mystical.” But she resists the characterization of her playing as strange. "How can there be weird chords?" she asks; "these chords that I heard inside that suited me—they feel like my feelings." As much as her work has emerged from her admiration of male heroes and collaborators, it has also been defined by escape from the restrictions men in her life might place on her, from Mitchell to Graham Nash, whose marriage proposal she declined. “As much as I loved and cared for Graham,” she remembered later, “I just thought, I’m gonna end up like my grandmother, kicking the door off the hinges, you know what I mean? It’s like, I better not.”
Albums like Hejira—her version of an Arabic word meaning something like “journey to a better place”—and The Hissing of Summer Lawns, with its nightmare vision of domesticity, document Mitchell’s release from the snares of marriage. But it has been difficult for the 21st century to come to terms with her for other reasons. Her casual appropriation of cultural tropes and her decision to appear in literal blackface, not only at a Halloween party but on the cover of 1977’s Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, have been called marks of poor taste, at best. Her albums became increasingly experimental in the late 70s, showcasing a pastiche of influences and guest musicians overlaying her already unusual musicality, and alienating many of her fans.
As she left behind the “confessional” voice of albums like 1971’s critically-vaunted Blue and headed into weirder territory, she lost listeners and critics, who savaged abstract projects like The Hissing of Summer Lawns, only to find, forty years later, that these were essential works of art pushed aside by the weight of expectation. Mitchell had been pushing against that weight her entire life. Like some other uniquely talented guitarists—Django Reinhardt, Tony Iommi—her style developed around a disability, in her case a left hand weakened by the polio she had as a child in Canada. “So she invented her own way of playing,” writes Zoladz, and invented her own way of being in the music business and the world at large. “For good and at times for ill, Joni Mitchell believes she is a genius.” Spend some time with her discography and you may find it hard to disagree with her.