Not long ago, I was invited to give a talk about Joni Mitchell at the University of Pennsylvania. The event was billed as the Joni Mitchell Songfest, and the format was simple: Each speaker was asked to choose a Mitchell song and prepare a short presentation — a little riff on the song’s meaning, cultural import, what-have-you. My fellow speakers, quite sensibly, picked great, iconic, canonical Mitchell songs: “Both Sides Now,” “Woodstock,” “California,” “Amelia,” “All I Want,” “Urge for Going.” I decided to go in a different direction, selecting a song widely regarded as a Mitchell lowlight: “Dancin’ Clown,” from her thirteenth studio album, Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm.
My purpose wasn’t purely contrarian. There was a theory at work: that we can learn a lot about artists by looking at their noble — and, as the case may be, ignoble — failures. Think of the late Tolstoy, in his hectoring Christian phase, or, gotta say it, Magna Carta Holy Grail. The bad stuff has a way of throwing the great stuff into relief.
What’s more, bad artworks are often revealing historical artifacts. That’s certainly the case with “Dancin’ Clown,” a garish period piece that may as well have a pink-and-blue neon sign attached to it blinking “1988, 1988,” the year Chalk Mark in a Rainstorm was released. “Dancin’ Clown” is a prime example of the way the eighties tripped up aging boomer rock stars, who came face-to-face with new musical technology — synthesizers and drum machines and samplers — and couldn’t figure out how to work the damn things. Mitchell’s misapprehension is evident not just in the sound of “Dancin’ Clown,” with its ticky-tacky rhythm track and queasy synths, but in her choice of duet partners: Billy Idol, whom Mitchell declared the brightest young rock and roller of his generation after seeing him perform at the 1987 Grammy Awards.
Mitchell did another very eighties thing with “Dancin’ Clown”: She made a video. I first dialed it up on YouTube while sitting at my dining table late one night, and was so rocked back with shock and delight that it’s a wonder I didn’t shoot out of my chair and crash through the sheetrock into the next door neighbor’s apartment.
The clip, as Mitchell herself says in a little intro, was inspired by her mother, who apparently liked to dance around the kitchen while listening to “Dancin’ Clown.” So we get a video in which Joni Mitchell … dances around her kitchen to the strains of “Dancin’ Clown.” The choreography, such as it is, involves dishwashing, sweeping up, and drumming on a wicker basket with a plastic spatula. Tea kettles whistle. China plates are scrubbed. Mitchell plays air guitar with a broom. There are lingering close-ups of the singer’s feet, in slippers, moving not quite in time to the music. It is a spectacle that may remind eighties historians of another landmark in Caucasian kitchen-boogying, the terrifying postprandial scene in The Big Chill — a.k.a., the Whitest Scene Ever Filmed.
And, well, there’s a cat. It’s a nice-looking cat, of the gray-and-black tabby variety, and while I assume it’s Joni Mitchell’s pet, I hope it was a Hollywood stunt cat, because Mitchell subjects the poor thing to a series of spine-wrenching contortions not seen since Ferdinand II of Aragon sent my converso forbears packing off to the strappado. She dances a kind of pas de deux with the cat, see, which sounds cute, but in practice involves stretching and distending the feline’s extremities, twirling it in circles, lifting it overhead, etc. I can’t decide whether to contact the ASPCA about the statute of limitations on animal torture, or to make a bunch of GIFs and ROTFLMAO. In any case, I think we all can agree that “Dancin’ Clown” is the worst song ever, and the greatest video ever made. And that Joni Mitchell has no business owning a cat.