In 2024, the Grammys lived up to their often-dubious claim to being “music’s biggest night,” with highs like Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs’ “Fast Car” duet, lows like the shocking arrest of Killer Mike, and whoas like Album of the Year winner Taylor Swift announcing a new album titled The Tortured Poets Department. But for me, the highlight of the evening was a quieter, if no less historic moment: Joni Mitchell taking the Grammy stage for the first time, at 80, to perform her classic ballad “Both Sides, Now.” I’d like to think Swift—the woman of the hour, night, and year, as well as a Joni superfan who calls Mitchell’s Blue her favorite album—would agree.
The song began as a piano playing through darkness, out of which Mitchell emerged, spotlit and facing backstage in a regal Victorian chair. Decked out in her signature beret and braids, and surrounded by crystal chandeliers, she used a bejeweled cane to keep time. And as she sang the opening lines, voice deeper now than that of the soprano who trilled its high notes on her 1969 album Clouds, her throne revolved until she was staring straight at the audience. Seated around Mitchell, like acolytes at her feet, were younger musicians—Brandi Carlile, Jacob Collier, Allison Russell, SistaStrings, Blake Mills, and Lucius—accompanying her with guitar, strings, woodwinds, and backing vocals. She didn’t strain her voice, but she sounded strong and clear.
“Both Sides, Now” was an inspired choice from a songwriter with such a vast discography. Written by Mitchell but originally released, just after her 25th birthday in 1968, by Judy Collins, it is a song of experience penned by a young woman wise beyond her years, who’d already been married, divorced, and given up a child for adoption. Couched in imagery of clouds floating through the sky, it traces a path from the “Rows and flows of angel hair/And ice cream castles in the air” that epitomize youthful innocence to the more careful, circumspect poses of early adulthood and, finally, to a place of mature perspective from which it’s possible to look “at life from both sides, now.” Yet even then, Mitchell concludes, “I really don’t know life at all.”
In the ’60s, the line might have read as a concession to her age. Sheila Weller, in her book Girls Like Us: Carole King, Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon—and the Journey of a Generation, writes that “Judy’s version of ‘Both Sides, Now’ became to women in their 20s in 1968 what ‘My Way’ would be to males: a kind of personal anthem.” But at 80, Mitchell’s humility resonated on an even more profound level; I heard echoes of Plato’s account of an embattled Socrates claiming to know only that he knew nothing. The more life teaches us, the more we realize how much we have left to learn. Mitchell’s wistful grin was contagious as she sang, “Well, something’s lost, but something’s gained/ In livin’ every day.” But it was “I really don’t know life at all,” delivered in stunning a cappella, that left much of the live audience (and, I’m certain, millions of us at home) in tears.
It’s rare for an awards show to give us a performance as moving as this. Mitchell reaffirmed the breathtaking power of a 56-year-old song that aged beautifully alongside its prescient writer. And—in the kind of moment that remains all but unprecedented in a pop music industry that too often values female performers’ lithe, young bodies over their thoughts and words—three generations of her admirers gave Mitchell the love and respect this elder stateswoman of folk so richly deserves.Leave a comment