About Joni Mitchell

November 7, 2018
Posted by Jay Livingston

Joni Mitchell is 75 today.

Fifty years ago, liking her music was so cool. But by the end of the century, that had changed, as I painfully realized when I saw “About a Boy.” She had become the punch line to a joke.

It’s not that Joni herself changed, though she did, nor that her music changed, though it did. But what had changed was the liking of her music. It has followed a cycle roughly similar to what Jenn Lena in Banding Together calls “genres,” from “avant garde” to “tradionalist.”

The boy in “About a Boy” is about is Marcus, a twelve-year old who lives with his mother Fiona.

Marcus knew he was weird, and he knew that part of the reason he was weird was because his mum was weird.. . she didn't want him to watch rubbish television, or listen to rubbish music, or play rubbish computer games (she thought they were all rubbish), which meant that if he wanted to do any of the things that any of the other kids spent their time doing, he had to argue with her for hours.

She likes Joni Mitchell, and so does he. The two of them sing Joni Mitchell songs together. The scene in the movie — mother and son in the kitchen, singing not especially well — is painful to watch.

The political and cultural preferences Marcus has adopted from his mother do not do him much good outside the home, especially at his new school.

If he tried to tell Lee Hartley — the biggest and loudest and nastiest of the kids he'd met yesterday — that he didn't approve of Snoop Doggy Dogg because Snoop Doggy Dogg had a bad attitude to women, Lee Hartley would thump him, or call him something that he didn't want to be called.

Into their life comes Will (Hugh Grant in the movie), who makes it his mission to separate Marcus culturally from his mother, to transform Marcus into someone the other kids will not bully. He introduces Marcus to music that is more generationally appropriate, as in this clip.  (I’d embed it here, but the clip is Mystikal, and this post is supposed to be about Joni Mitchell.)

In the end Will is successful. The final lines of the book are reminiscent of the “K-Mart sucks” ending of “Rain Man.”

Will decided to give Marcus a little test. “Hey Fiona. Why don’t you get your music and we can all sing a Joni Mitchell song?”...

But Will was watching Marcus’s face carefully. Marcus was looking really embarrassed. “Please, Mum. Don’t.”

“But Marcus, you love singing. You love Joni Mitchell.”

“I don’t. Not now. I hate Joni Mitchell.”

Will knew then, without any doubt, that Marcus would be OK.


David J Littleboy said...

But but but. Liking Joni Mitchell didn't work in US schools in that late 60s, either. (Really. You can take my word for it.) I don't remember what the other kids were listening to, but it wasn't Joni.

Jay Livingston said...

Yes, you’re right. But it seemed in the movie that even the mother’s affection for Joni was kind of pathetic, especially compared with the cultural preferences of Will, who is about the same age, thirtysomething — speaking of which, Joni’s music popped up on that TV show from time to time, and the show’s attitude towards it was one of total respect.

Unknown said...

"Total respect"

Uh, yes. Anyone who has ears has nothing but total respect for JM. Her backing band was Jako and Pat, fer chrissake. (To say nothing of Charles Mingus.) And her vocal chops were amazing. There was nothing like it in pop/folk at the time (and that time was quite long), or ever.

The Cohen brother's flick "about" Dave van Ronk came in for a lot of criticism from people who were there, who knew van Ronk, in that it misstated the points of his story something fierce. But everyone who wasn't there thought it was a great film; a story about a backstabbing fame grubbing singer is more interesting than a story about one of the nicest, most supportive guys in the game. Which I bring up here because JM was actually interested in earning a wider appeal for her music, so it's funny that van Ronk gets accused of chasing success and JM of being a popularly irrelevant wimp. Go figure.