The stage is packed with captivated musical onlookers, their faces glowing as if they were staring into the warmest of sunsets. Tears shine in the eyes of some as their awe-struck gazes are fixed on the figure at the center: she sits on a throne in front of a golden microphone, smiling out from under her signature beret crown. This was the scene of Joni Mitchell’s surprise performance at the 2022 Newport Folk Festival, a vibrant and emotional sunset to Mitchell’s illustrious career.
Modern singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile invited Mitchell back to the Newport Folk stage this year for the first time since 1967, bringing the Canadian-American singer’s musical legacy back to the forefront of the public stage. Though Mitchell no longer regularly performs for the public, her recent recognitions at events like the Newport Folk Festival call for renewed reflections on her influence in the modern musical realm.
With vocals as beautifully crystalline as her lyrics, Joni Mitchell is a standout. Her commercial career began in 1968 with her debut album entitled “Song to a Seagull.” Since then, her outsider perspective on the music industry reflected an uncommon freedom to create and define musical expression through unconstrained sound. Her one-of-a-kind guitar tuning and unexpected melodies weave with beautifully poignant lyrics in her songs, crafting an iridescent window into the human experience.
Mitchell’s talent as a musician and poet garnered acclaim during her career, yes, but it’s her willingness to steep her music in the full range of humanity that has redefined the power of the artist and inspired countless others. Her discography explores the dissonance between themes like domestic contentment and a yearning for independence, commenting on the nuances of conversations between love, life, and social issues. In the same year as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young released “Our House,” itself inspired by Mitchell and Graham Nash’s Laurel Canyon romance, Joni released “The Arrangement” as a critique of traditional domestic arrangements. “Our house is a very, very, very fine house,” Nash sings in “Our House” of the home he shared with Mitchell. “Life used to be so hard / Now everything is easy ‘cause of you.”
And yet, even as she inspires Nash’s tribute to an idealized life of settling down, Mitchell sings of her doubts of this lifestyle: “While you still have the time / You could get away and find / A better life.” This commitment to exploring the uncomfortable flipsides to social convention has established her influence not only as an exceptional artist, but also as a piercing social commentator.
The reach of Joni Mitchell’s messages is not in spite of her status as an artist. Rather, her position extended and empowered her influence in activism. Her 1970 release “Big Yellow Taxi” quickly took root as an iconic soundtrack for environmental movements. The line “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” has proved a timeless defining phrase for climate activists from the 1970s to the 2020s.
The long-lasting influence of her social commentary isn’t just confined to environmentalism, either — her music and advocacy maintains relevance by touching on ever-present issues like the Vietnam War and anti-war statements, commercialized complacency in the music industry, and even responses to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In a 2021 statement of solidarity with the “global scientific and medical communities” and other artists like Neil Young, Mitchell removed her music from the streaming platform Spotify over accusations of its role in spreading pandemic-related misinformation through its continued platforming of public figure Joe Rogan’s controversial podcast.
Joni Mitchell’s use of her stage to call for change is echoed in the actions of the modern artists she’s inspired, further perpetuating her impact in the modern sphere. From Prince’s advocacy for diplomacy in his 1981 track “Ronnie, Talk to Russia” to Harry Styles’s onstage shows of support for the LGBTQ+ community, Mitchell’s style of creative activism is kept alive by the artists she’s influenced.
In addition to her mastery of musical mobilization, Mitchell’s versatility in style allows her music to exert its force on a wide variety of artists. Throughout, she refused to allow her career to be defined by a single genre: she strayed from her folk roots to explore jazz in collaboration with famed jazz artist Charles Mingus, and later dove into pop and rock sounds. It’s no wonder, then, that her circle of influence extends from such differing artists as Prince to Harry Styles to Brandi Carlile and beyond.
Joni Mitchell’s musical themes transcend boundaries of time. Her ever-invigorating musical style inspires generations of musicians hoping to pick up where she leaves off, and her songs will continue to function as anthems against injustice as long as injustice remains. The emotional response elicited by Joni Mitchell’s surprise appearance at the Newport Folk Festival is no shock: modern music has Mitchell to thank. Her legacy is not trapped in the side of the past, but, to quote Joni Mitchell, in the musical footprints of “Both Sides Now.”
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