Joni Mitchell performs at “Joni Jam” honoring her on June 10, 2023, in George, Washington. (Photo by Gary Miller via Getty Images)

The Grammys Don’t Deserve Joni Mitchell

The first lady of folk has never won an important award from the Recording Academy. So why is she even turning up for the show?

On Sunday, Joni Mitchell will headline the 66th Annual Grammy Awards. It is the first time in the awards’ history that she will perform at the ceremony. And it’s a minor miracle. Nine years ago, she suffered an aneurysm that threatened to leave her mute. At the age of 80, she has recovered to make her debut for the Recording Academy. 

But before you feel too good about all this, consider that the Grammys, like the Nobel Prize for Literature, has historically been a horrendous judge of artistic merit. On occasion, the Grammy will go to someone who deserves it. After overlooking the Beatles for most of the 1960s, the Fab Four finally took home four gramophones in 1968 for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band. Two years later, their best album, Abbey Road, lost to the debut from American jazz rock group Blood, Sweat & Tears. 

Through the years, the Academy has sought to make up for its poor judgment by issuing more and more awards for subgenres, liner notes, packaging, sound engineering, and other trivialities. In this respect, Joni has received her fair share of participation trophies. In 2002, she got the Lifetime Achievement Award. She has won Best Pop Vocal Performance, Best Album Notes, Best Recording Package, and who could forget her 2022 win for Best Historical Album? 

When it comes to the major awards, though, there are only three that matter: Song of the Year; Record of the Year; and Album of the Year. Joni has won only the latter among that triumvirate. It was in 2008 for River: The Joni Letters, which is not even by Joni Mitchell. It’s a tribute album by jazz pianist Herbie Hancock that features some of Joni’s songs with her as a guest vocalist on one track. It’s a fine piece of music, but it was also a travesty that a tribute record would beat out Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black and Kanye West’s Graduation that same year. 

In her prime, the Grammys recognized Joni only twice. In 1970, she won for her seminal album, Clouds, which was recognized as 1970’s Best Folk Performance. And then in 1974, she won for the withering and moody tribute to loveless sex, “Down to You,” under the category Best Arrangement Accompanying Vocalist.

Joni Mitchell recording her first album Song to a Seagull in Los Angeles in 1967. (Photo by Sulfiati Magnuson via Getty Images)

It would be one thing if the Grammys that year awarded a song of comparable genius over “Down to You.” But no. The Record of the Year in 1975 went to Olivia Newton John’s “I Honestly Love You,” which any decent person with a modicum of taste should honestly hate. The Song of the Year went to Barbra Streisand’s rendition of “The Way We Were,” which has haunted elevators and dentists’ offices ever since. At least Joni’s brilliant Court and Spark was nominated for Best Album in 1975. 

But the most egregious Joni snub in Grammy history came in 1972. That is the year the academy should have recognized what many consider her greatest album, Blue. It is a sparse, acoustic collection of gems. Joni’s guitar experiments make her chords sound like they traveled to earth from an astral plane. She sings about betrayal, infatuation, and her own interior world, baring all to her listeners. In “Little Green,” Joni sings about her decision to give up custody of her first child to pursue her music career. 

But don’t take my word for it. Rolling Stone’s latest list of the top 500 albums of all time ranks Blue at number 3. And yet the Recording Academy did not even nominate this all-time classic for Best Folk Album.

Meanwhile, Record and Song of the Year went to Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” And Album of the Year went to The Concert for Bangladesh, the fundraising effort by George Harrison and Friends—a fine choice, but it was no Blue

Despite the failure of the academy to recognize Joni Mitchell at her peak, the enigmatic artist never seemed to care. She was always too cool for the Grammys. Now that she is finally gracing the awards show with her presence, it feels forced. Joni Mitchell doesn’t need a bunch of industry insiders to tell us she’s a genius. We already know that just by listening to her albums. 

Eli Lake is a music buff and columnist for The Free Press. Listen to his Re-education podcast episode, In for a Kanye. In for a Pound and follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @EliLake.

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