Learning to Love Joni

British novelist Zadie Smith, in the New Yorker, says her initial reaction to Joni Mitchell was one of strong dislike–she didn’t like white girl singers with piping voices.

Joni just has to hit you the right way. It can take years for that to happen!

Joni just has to hit you the right way. It can take years for that to happen!

But that changed.

I didn’t come to love Joni Mitchell by knowing anything more about her, or understanding what an open-tuned guitar is, or even by sitting down and forcing myself to listen and re-listen to her songs. I hated Joni Mitchell–and then I loved her.

Now don’t that beat all? Same artist, different reaction. I bet that’s happened to you, too. I know it’s happened to me. The first time I heard Frank Sinatra, I couldn’t imagine what anyone saw in the old crooner. It was my parents’ music. They actually saw Frank in concert at Cornell, I believe. Once this really hip-looking guy came into my record store (circa 1973) and asked for one of Sinatra’s albums with Count Basie. I was shocked he’d want such a moldy artifact.

Needless to say, I now consider Frank Sinatra a vocal god, and my appreciation has grown to include just about the entire Great American Songbook. Sinatra himself never seemed to change his tastes much. Like Mitch Miller, he hated rock and roll, calling it:

…the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear– I refer to rock ‘n’ roll. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written, for the most part, by cretinous goons, and its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd– in fact, plain dirty– lyrics make it the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth. This rancid-smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.

Cute, but a bit strong, methinks. Frankly, and I do mean frankly, I can love Sinatra’s music without necessarily loving the guy himself. But back to the original point: Our musical tastes evolve, and sometimes we don’t know exactly why.

I’m not sure why or Sinatra’s sound finally penetrated my consciousness, but there was probably an evolution. The first jazz I liked was wild stuff along the lines of Pharoah Sanders and late-period John Coltrane–maybe because it had rock and roll energy. But if you listen to enough post-bop you’ll eventually want to hear the source material, and that will send you down a winding path that leads not only to Frank Sinatra, but also to his major influence, Bing Crosby, and to Louis Armstrong, King Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton and everything else.

There was an epiphany. I heard Frank Sinatra with new ears, and I’m really glad I did. And good for you, Zadie, Joni Mitchell is worthy of your attention–not just Blue but the later, difficult stuff, too.

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