I know this will make me unhip in certain circles, but I just don’t get Joni Mitchell.
That’s a dangerous admission for those of us who want our opinions on music to be taken seriously. Most critical appraisals of Joni Mitchell begin like this: “When the dust settles, Joni Mitchell may stand as the most important and influential female recording artist of the late 20th century.” So arguing that Mitchell’s music isn’t all that great is like telling an NBA writer that Michael Jordan was overrated.
I’ll have to grant that I haven’t heard Mitchell at her most experimental, though I think I have the right to be a little skeptical of the folk-jazz fusion the critics describe. Besides, when critics talk about the influence Mitchell had on music, they list a bunch of female artists who wouldn’t have the slightest inclination to call up a Marsalis brother to play on their latest releases. That was Sting, not Madonna, playing with Branford Marsalis and Kenny Kirkland.
It’s safe to say the Mitchell music that influenced others was her early work, from which the most lasting song is Big Yellow Taxi, from which everyone remember the “paved paradise and put up a parking lot” line.
And there’s the problem. Maybe it’s not fair to blame Mitchell for all the abuse and misuse this song and this line have taken over the years — Counting Crows’ typically self-impressed version leads the list of offenders. The AllMusic.com reviewer insists that this is “atypical of her work in general.”
But atypical or not, this is what people think when they think of Joni Mitchell. Again, the people who followed in her wake didn’t do jazz odysseys. (Yes, that’s a gratuitous Spinal Tap reference to illustrate the fact that adding “jazz” doesn’t make music more sophisticated.) When everyone got up on the stage toward the end of a Lilith Fair stop to do their tribute to Joni Mitchell, which song do you suppose they picked?
Given that, you can’t argue that Mitchell is influential and yet dismiss Big Yellow Taxi as “atypical.” (To be fair, the AllMusic links above are from different reviewers, but they seem representative of rock critics’ views that I’ve distilled over the years.) That’s the song that inspired a lot of artists that followed.
And it’s not very good. The “paved paradise” line reeks of the smug self-righteousness that makes 51 percent of the country hate “liberals.” (I’m not saying that’s fair — I’m saying it’s true.) And maybe I’m being too literal, but how do you put “up” a parking lot? Wouldn’t you put “up” a parking garage and lay down a parking lot?
I have heard other Mitchell music in the early-to-mid-80s, when everyone who made a video got a spin on MTV. It was dreary stuff. Between the video, interviews I read and pictures I saw, the main thing I remember is that she seemed obsessed with smoking. The tobacco industry hadn’t had product placement that good since Hollywood’s first few decades featured suave movie stars who were always ready to help the helpless damsel light up.
None of this means I don’t respect Mitchell. She clearly influenced a lot of my favorite artists, including a lot of the people who were sharing the mike at the Lilith Fair. But is it possible to be influential without being all that good?
Find out next week when we write about the Velvet Underground.
(I’m kidding. I’m not doing all this on the Velvet Underground.)