The Innocence and Experience of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”

I've looked at life from both sides now
From win and lose and still somehow
It's life's illusions I recall
I really don't know life at all

–Joni Mitchell

I was getting into the holiday spirit the other day and somehow got drawn into watching Love Actually on Netflix — which, despite its schmaltz, is actually a really cute movie. 

If you haven’t seen it, by chance, I’m not going to spoil anything for you plot-wise, but in a pivotal scene with one of the female characters an updated version of Joni Mitchell’s classic song, “Both Sides Now,” features prominently. I hadn’t heard the newer version before, but it struck me so, and also made me recall an interview with Joni I’d recently watched where she talks about the nuances of the song (among many other wise and glorious things), and how it’s better suited to be performed by an older person with life experience.  

And I have to say, I agree with Joni on this one. I’ve become ensorceled by the updated version and can’t stop playing it. …It’s become almost like a secret key to understanding this phase of growth in my life.   

I put it this way to a potential romantic partner I’d been texting with recently:

"Have you heard this updated version of Joni's song? It was in the movie last night. I'd also heard in an interview with Joni that she preferred this version to the old one -- that the song should be sung by or cast for an older woman with the experience of love/life to sing it. ...I kind of feel the same way about my preference for the newer version and her performance of the song."

But I also then realized the complete validity of the older song — the more “innocent,” or naïve version — and adjusted my thoughts: 

"What we have is really a songs of innocence / songs of experience thing going on here... and experience can't always look back at innocence and be so judging :) Joni herself was fairly critical of the earlier version. But I say let it live as it was in its prescient innocence."

And isn’t that exactly what the song is about? Experiencing life from both sides, innocence, experience, and valuing both for their unique wisdoms and perspective... as well as their ultimate limitations?

I myself am coming out of my own “age of innocence,” reflected some in my last album Miracles. But as I’ve grown and walked through some shadows in these recent years, my “experience” side is beginning to show… which will be seen more in my new album to come.

Joni’s two song versions remind me to look back with compassion and understanding on my own innocence, and with gratitude and strength for hard-won experience. Even if, with all our wisdom gained, we still sometimes feel that we “don’t know life.”  

That, to me, is wisest of all.