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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. It's jolting to put on Mitchell's new pair of collections, Hits and Misses, and be reminded that music made by women 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 any of the zillion radio stations that play her putative acolytes, the Alanis Morrisettes and Joan Osbornes and Sheryl Crows, those lightweights who took Mitchell's 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 she has the quality absolutely vital in an artist -- she isn't afraid of not being "nice." Equally important in today's pop world, she doesn't fear appearing vulnerable, isn't reluctant to strip away all emotional protections and create an album from total pain, as she did with 1971's Blue.
Listeners are probably most familiar, though, with the ironic, detached, chain-smoking, ticked-off Mitchell, the woman who, while known as the girlfriend of famous musicians, doesn't hesitate to eviscerate those same lovers in song. Called on this, she'll tell you she could have -- even should have -- been nastier. For example, it seems that "Carey," that mean old daddy she invites down to the Mermaid Tavern for a bottle of wine, was a jerk who deserved to be trashed even more. But Mitchell decided that documenting him as an irascible ex-boyfriend, a funny "character," was more interesting.
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." Misses draws more heavily on her later, jazzier meanderings, all of which were 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. And Misses also includes songs such as "River" and "A Case of You" from Blue, the album that helped several generations get over tainted love affairs. So that Misses name is a bit misleading.
Still, 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 Ten (1974, when "Help Me," from Court and Spark, was a hit).
In the earlier years chronicled on Hits, 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 made immediately recognizable with just a line: "Look at those losers, glued to that hockey game," as she sings in "Raised on Robbery." In the middle years -- the Blue, For the Roses, Court and Spark era -- things took a more personal turn. Mitchell's exquisite turns of phrase could provoke tears, or sighs of recognition, as she sang about being "tethered to a telephone" and "listening for your car climbing the hill." They're visceral images that anyone who's ever longed for a lover can understand in their bones. And who could more eloquently snort at a lover's compliment -- "You're as constant as the Northern Star" -- by 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 probably the protective impulse of the wary Canadian. Much of Mitchell's bitterness may also have come from seeing her male counterparts -- many with far less talent -- surpass her in fame and fortune. If this were a fair world, she would be on the same level professionally as Neil Young, an artist who's also been ridiculed for some musical odd turns, but whose reputation as a potent artistic force endures. While a few 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, "as humble as Mussolini," as her friend David Crosby likes to say, often compares herself to Bob Dylan, and given how diminished Dylan has been in recent concerts, she'll get no argument from this corner. But both Young and Dylan have kept the lifeblood of their careers bubbling through constant touring. Mitchell won't do that. She rarely performs live, and this lack of generosity toward her audience diminishes her reputation. Even when she does tour, if all the celestial aspects and audience vibes aren't right, you'll see a bad Joni Mitchell show.
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