By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘Both Sides Now’ is one of Joni Mitchell’s best-known songs. But the meaning of the song is less universally understood. Is it a coming-of-age celebration of learning wisdom, a lament for lost innocence, or a song about being unable to part with one’s illusions, even once our experience of life reveals them to be false?
Curiously, ‘Both Sides Now’ was not first recorded by Mitchell, even though Joni Mitchell wrote it. Instead, the song was given to Judy Collins, who recorded it in 1967 and had a hit with the song in 1968. (However, a recording of Mitchell singing the song live in Philadelphia in 1966 was released in 2014.) Mitchell recorded it in 1969 for her album Clouds. But for our money, neither of these is the ‘best’ version of the song.
But before we get to that, let’s look more closely at the lyrics to the song. The lyrical beauty of ‘Both Sides Now’ is perhaps unmatched in late 1960s music, at a time when many of the biggest and most talented bands were losing their way – and their minds – to LSD. So the lyrics deserve careful consideration.
‘Both Sides Now’: song meaning
The song has what might be considered a tripartite structure, which sees the singer considering three things: clouds, love, and life. Beginning with the specific (clouds), and moving to the more general (love), before concluding with the universal (life), the singer appraises her own perspective on these things.
Starting with clouds, the singer tells us that she’s looked at clouds in a romantic and even fanciful way: as the hair of angels, or castles made of ice cream floating in the air (this very phrase breathing new life into the old cliché, ‘castles in the air’, denoting an excessively idealistic notion or dream).
But the singer has now realised that clouds are just things that block the sun out, and cause rain and snow to fall on everyone, dampening (literally) the mood. They’ve prevented the speaker from doing all the many things she otherwise would have done.
She has looked at clouds from ‘both sides now’, but it’s the illusions – those romantic notions that clouds are castles in the air, and so forth – that she always remembers. Because she sticks to her illusions rather than the less romantic (and less happy) reality, she concludes she doesn’t really ‘know’ clouds.
Next, she turns to love, and does the same thing: considers the idealistic perspective on love followed by the cold, hard reality. She’s considered love as a series of romantic images: moonlit nights, summer June days spent at fairgrounds and dancing dizzily in love. The fairy-tale idea of love – where love triumphs and the happy couple live happily ever after – seems to come true.
But once again, the singer’s experience of love has brought her down to earth with a bump. The more relationships one has, the more one sees love as a ‘show’: a performance for someone, unreal, and ultimately unsatisfying. If you care about someone you can’t tell them (as you’ll only get hurt?), so you have to hide your true feelings.
Having concluded that she continues to cling to the illusion of love (as a fairground ride and a modern-day fairy tale), despite her experience to the contrary, the singer finally turns to consider life itself.
However, the lyrics to the next pair of stanzas show that the singer’s consideration of ‘life’ grows out of her previous discussion of ‘love’: the idealistic vision of life is one where we are proud and confident enough to declare our love for someone, to live out our dreams.
Note that with the reference to circus crowds, the singer is already seeing through this vision of life: it’s like the ‘show’ she had come to see love as. Life is just a circus, and ‘schemes’ are already suggesting a more sceptical, even cynical, approach to life.
The next stanza turns to the singer’s supposed change in attitude and behaviour: her friends are disappointed to find her perspective has altered. It’s true, she reflects, that we lose something with each new day of experience that living brings; but something – wisdom? – is also gained.
‘Both Sides Now’: analysis
This concludes the summary of the meaning of the song. But that doesn’t help us to determine precisely what the message of the song is. To reiterate: is ‘Both Sides Now’ a coming-of-age celebration of the acquisition of wisdom, a lament for lost innocence, or a song about being unable to part with one’s illusions, even once our experience of life reveals them to be false?
Perhaps the key to determining the song’s meaning resides in Mitchell’s use of the word ‘recall’. Note that each time she sums up her perspective (on clouds, love, life), he uses this word to describe her own view of them. She recalls the illusions, rather than the reality.
This is quite different from saying that one prefers the illusion over the reality. William Blake, in the late eighteenth century, published two volumes (in 1789 and 1794 respectively) titled Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience. However, once both volumes were completed, they were published as a single book: Songs of Innocence and Experience.
Innocence and experience are not simply opposites: they are inseparable and complimentary states. We may lose our innocence as we gain more experience, but we still find ourselves living as though our more naïve, illusory view of the world were the ‘correct’ one.
But this is not the same as suggesting that we disregard the wisdom we have acquired as a result of our experience. We have a more balanced view of the ideals we had when we were younger and greener, but we find ourselves unable to give up on them altogether.
Or to put this another way: it’s like saying that, because we know clouds rain on us and ruin our plans, we shouldn’t pretend the that the world wouldn’t be a better place if they were something less mundane and more romantic. We still know they’re just a rain-shower waiting to happen, but to live our lives with such a relentlessly down-to-earth outlook would be as wrong as viewing them solely through the prism of our illusions. Our experience tempers but does not destroy our idealism.
So when the singer declares that she really doesn’t know clouds/love/life in any meaningful sense, this needn’t be wholly a cause for regret. As the song goes on to acknowledged, there are gains as well as losses, the longer we live and the more experienced and wise we become.
And as Socrates could tell us, the first step towards wisdom is to acknowledge that one knows nothing. So perhaps, now she has seen things from both sides, the singer is closer to illumination than she was before, even if she is no closer to a more narrowly empirical ‘knowledge’ of those things.
The best recording of ‘Both Sides Now’ – we would go so far as to say the definitive recording – is the one by the Irish band Clannad, with Paul Young, recorded in 1991 for the film Switch. Criminally, the song managed a pitiful one week in the UK charts, peaking at no. 74, before sinking virtually without trace. You can listen to this version here.