The reality and dichotomy of a sorrowful Christmas
The holiday season means a lot of different things to different people. We explore the Christmas season from a pop culture point of view.
During the opening seconds of Joni Mitchell’s "River", the listener is tricked into hearing the "Jingle Bells" melody. She plays the notes softly on the middle range of the keyboard, slowing down the tempo and shifting the melody to the minor key. This appropriated melody is repeatedly refrained during "River" and perfectly captures the thematic purpose of the song.
Throughout popular music history, Christmas has seldom been portrayed as a melancholic time of year. The typical Christmas tune is all spritely bells, major chords, sing-a-long choruses, exuberance, over-indulgence and pure euphoria. Of course, there have been a few classics that have managed to capture the flipside of the Christmas spirit - The Everly Brothers' "Christmas Eve Can Kill You", Elvis Presley's "Blue Christmas", Wham's "Last Christmas"(lol) - but few have managed to express a melancholic Christmas with such raw emotion as Joni Mitchell.
Recorded during a treacherous period of Mitchell's life where she had broken from her very serious relationship with Graham Nash and was undergoing something of an existential crisis, Blue is one of the pinnacles of 20th century poetry and an immensely influential cornerstone of emotional singer-songwriting. Reflecting on the album in a 1979 interview with Rolling Stone, Mitchell revealed that Blue was inspired by a lot of self-hatred and disdain for her surroundings. "I came to turning point – the terrible opportunity that people are given in their lives", she explained, "the day that they discover to the tips of their toes that they’re assholes."
Listening to Blue, it is impossible to avoid Mitchell's self-loathing; it seeps out of the record like blood from an open wound. Throughout, the listener is invited deep into the psyche of this complex, intelligent and emotionally overwrought individual.
By the time we reach "River" – the eighth track on the album – Mitchell's emotional exhaustion has likely overrun and we become wholly hostage to her melancholic state. For me at least, "River" is the most cathartic track on the album and the only one that usually encourages a physical emotional response.
Thematically, "River" juxtaposes the celebration typically associated with Christmas, the "songs of joy and peace", with a need to simply escape it all, to be left alone and "skate" or "fly" away. Mitchell reminds us that for those who are missing somebody, or have hurt a loved one, Christmas is the most difficult time of the year. The memories associated with togetherness and being surrounded by those you love can be excruciating for anybody recently to have lost a loved one to tragedy or separation. In "River", Mitchell is likely singing about her split with Nash, although she could be referring to her daughter whom she gave up for adoption in 1965.
Personally, Christmas has never been the same since I lost my grandparents just over five years ago. A dysfunctional family at the best of times, losing all three of our most influential grandparents in succession (they all died within two years), shrouded future Christmases in a perpetual black cloud. Of course, the celebratory joy of seeing my other family members – cousins, siblings, uncles and aunts - remains a wonderful and immersive experience, but the nagging nostalgia of those lost has turned Christmas into one of the more difficult times of year not only for us, but for a majority of the population.
With "River", Mitchell perfectly portrays this dichotomy and the immense emotional struggle that comes with balancing overwhelming joy and overwhelming sorrow during the holiday season. She brings a sense of realness and humanity to the Christmas experience, reminding us that, even despite its many illusions, December 25th can be one of the hardest days of the year.