The first thing I hear when I think about Blue is Joni Mitchell’s voice. That isn’t to suggest that Mitchell’s seminal album, released 45 years ago tomorrow (June 22, 1971), doesn’t have more to offer beyond its artist’s famous voice. The songwriting is exquisite, especially the lyrics, which make for evocative poetry with or without the music. The instrumental accompaniments are understated but masterful throughout, whether the jangly dulcimer on the iconic “A Case of You” or the rich piano arrangements that grace the heartbreaking final tracks of the album’s two sides, “Blue” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard.”
It is Mitchell’s vocal performance, though, that grants Blue its status as an all-timer. The superlative qualities of her singing—control, clarity, directness, flexibility, range—are on full display and result in many a thrilling moment. The title track, to cite just one example, concludes with the word “me,” radiant and shimmering, swelling before dissipating, sustaining for an impossibly long time—an autobiography in a single note. And the more subtle moments are no less captivating, from the way Mitchell half-whispers the opening of the chorus on “Little Green” to how she pours it on heavy to end “Carey” with a bang.
I could go on, but it all comes down to this: on Blue, Mitchell delivers her expertly crafted songs with such convincing conviction that they feel honest and true, like documents of a real life fully lived. When I listen to Blue, I feel like I know Joni Mitchell. What more might we ask of a transcendent singer-songwriter?
I set out to write a Blue tribute piece, but the very thing that makes the album special—the personal connection suggested by the combination of Mitchell’s perfect songs and remarkable voice—has made that task difficult. Blue makes me feel like I know Mitchell, but lately I’m not so sure she is a person I want to know.
In 1977, six years and five albums after Blue, Mitchell released Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. That album’s cover consists of three photographs of Mitchell, the largest and most prominent of which features Mitchell donning blackface as part of the costume for “Art Nouveau,” a black jazz musician character of her own creation. In a 1976 interview with Angela LaGreca, Mitchell discussed the inspiration for her new alter ego:
I was walking down Hollywood Boulevard, in search of a costume for a Halloween party when I saw this black guy with a beautiful spirit walking with a bop… As he went by me he turned around and said, “Ummmm, mmm… looking good sister, lookin' good!” Well I just felt so good after he said that. It was as if this spirit went into me. So I started walking like him. I bought a black wig, I bought sideburns, a moustache. I bought some pancake makeup. It was like ‘I’m goin' as him!’
Lest anyone think that the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter was merely a one-time-only lapse in judgment or cringe-worthy relic from years past, make no mistake: Mitchell reprised the “Art Nouveau” character many times over and has defended it publicly as recently as last year, in an interview with New York Magazine. Scholars such as Miles Park Grier and Kevin Fellezs have interpreted Mitchell’s blackface performance as a multivalent act aimed, at least in part, at challenging institutionalized gender discrimination within the music industry. For me, though, Mitchell’s continued defense of that practice undermines any vindication Grier and Fellezs’ work might have afforded her.
I mention all this because I, a passionate fan of Mitchell’s music for at least a half-decade, learned about it just a few weeks ago. When a friend mentioned something in passing about Joni Mitchell and blackface, I was embarrassed that I had not already known. I was not, however, surprised.
Assessing why Mitchell’s use of blackface doesn’t figure more prominently in her public image is beyond the scope of this essay, but I would guess that a lot of it boils down to one simple fact: no one really listens to Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. The album received middling reviews and did not sell as well as Mitchell’s releases from earlier in the decade. Most of my knowledge of Mitchell’s discography came via the vinyl collection of my parents, who own every single one of Mitchell’s 1970s releases—except for Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
Unfortunately, the fact that the most troubling episode of Mitchell’s career does not coincide with what is usually considered her best, most popular, or most quintessential music does not mean that it can simply be swept under the rug. Admittedly, I sometimes wish that I could ignore the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter and everything that comes with it, for that would make celebrating Blue a lot less complicated. But paying tribute to artists without acknowledging their failings is a dangerous business, perhaps especially so for artists who, like Mitchell, are celebrated for putting so much of themselves into their work.
Of course, acknowledging the problem, though an essential and significant step, is not enough. A more complete knowledge of the problematic aspects of Mitchell’s career demands a reorientation in approaching her music. I often find myself attempting to compartmentalize the problem by leaning on what musicologists refer to as “persona theory,” which posits a variable but ever-present distinction between the person who creates art and the persona which inhabits that art—a distinction, in other words, between Joni Mitchell the person and the “I” that sings in her songs.
While persona theory helpfully offers a means of separating the sins of the artist from the greatness of their art, it is an imperfect solution. In the case of Mitchell, it requires letting go of the appealing notion that Blue’s songs are, as I described them above, “documents of a real life fully lived.” And the lines between art and life are, in any case, almost always blurred. As the New York Magazine piece details, Mitchell created the “Art Nouveau” character for a Halloween party before putting it on the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Whether any of the racism inherent in that image manifests in the jazz-infused music Mitchell made during the late 1970s is a topic for another day.
Persona theory may not solve the problem of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, but we can at least look to find solace in the fact that Blue was created years prior to that album and is thus unlikely to contain the same troubling elements. Yet this path too proves treacherous. Once I started thinking about the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, which some have interpreted as an homage to Miles Davis, it occurred to me that the cover of Blue might be thought of in the same way. Dark tones, a face filling the frame with eyes looking away, and small text in an upper corner are all characteristics that the cover of Blue shares with that of Davis’s In a Silent Way, released a little more than two years before Blue. The resemblance could easily be coincidental, though it is hard to deny that the two albums—both sparse and cool yet shot through with emotion—possess some aesthetic kinship. All I can wonder, though, is whether the cover of Blue is nothing more than an earlier, subtler instantiation of the same appropriative streak so baldly evident on the cover of Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.
So I am putting away Blue, along with the rest of Mitchell’s discography. However I try to intellectualize the problem, I am too racked with emotion—frustration, guilt, confusion, anger, embarrassment—to do otherwise. I am disappointed in an artist whose music I have cherished, but I am even more disappointed in myself. My former ignorance, like the relatively small role that Mitchell’s blackface performance plays in her public image more generally, seems emblematic of the insidious way in which we so often turn a blind eye towards the wrongs done by beloved cultural figures.
So I am putting away Blue—for now. As you may have noticed, I have taken for granted that Mitchell’s music is still worth engaging with, and I suspect that I will return to Blue eventually. The Albumism tagline is “celebrating our love affairs with albums past, present, & future.” Blue is part of my personal history and I can’t help but continue loving it. But that love is no longer unconditional, and with it now comes thinking and talking about Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, “Art Nouveau,” and all the rest.
Others will surely, and rightly, reach different conclusions. Mine is an imperfect solution, but I have endeavored to land somewhere between turning a blind eye and throwing away meaningful art wholesale because it, or its artist, is problematic. The former is immoral, to be sure, but the consequences of the latter may be no less dire; we need morals and art. I am left, then, in a gray area between renouncing and defending. It isn’t a comfortable place to be, but it is, I think (read: I hope), an honest one. There is truth in the gray, just as there is in Blue.