New York

John Kelly

A reviewer who puffs up an artwork with the claim that the piece is profound will only end up having to prove it, which is a steep hill to climb. Let the artwork be a performance in which a tall guy sings the songs of Joni Mitchell while wearing her clothes, and the hill becomes precipitous. Yet I did find John Kelly’s Paved Paradise profound, or, at the very least, profoundly moving, so that’s the slope we’re skiing.

Part of the work’s beauty is its lightheartedness: besides its basic premise, it’s full of jokes. Yet it also has an unexpected emotional power, and this uncategorizable tone, of being simultaneously so slight yet so affecting, has a mysterious tightrope-walking fabulousness that is extremely hard to convey. The basic scheme is relatively easy: Kelly just sings Mitchell’s songs, sticking as close to her originals as he can manage. His full high voice is for the most part up to her acrobatic melodies (it should be—he shared a vocal coach with Frederica von Stade), and his band deftly evokes her arrangements, even while whimsically impersonating two of her icons, Georgia O’Keeffe (pianist Zecca) and Vincent van Gogh (guitarist Mark McCarron). Kelly himself plays acoustic guitar and wears a blond wig, thereby raising for himself the long-locked female folksinger’s perennial dilemma—where to put your hair? Needless to say, his solutions to this and related problems (like how to dance in heels) are both elegant and eloquent. His in-character between-song patter is likewise a witty evocation of both a person and a period: “We were talking about how the universe is there for you, kind of.” Add a spare use of props and backdrops, and a costume change (from a layered hippie/grandma look for the evening’s first half, covering roughly 1968–72, to a glittery sheath for the more cosmopolitan Mitchell period that began with 1974’s Court and Spark), and that’s the piece.

This is essentially a nostalgic cabaret turn, “John Kelly sings Joni Mitchell,” of the kind that, if the songwriter were of the Cole Porter generation, say, and if the singer weren’t a countertenor in drag, you might find at any number of uptown boîtes. But these kinds of qualifiers—it would be this but for being that, it would be x if it weren’t also y—are embedded in the work’s grain. In fact genre as opposed to gender is as good a way as any into Paved Paradise, because the work is so hard to place. One wants to call it parody; but the goal of parody is to kill off a style or voice, not to reanimate it. Perhaps, then, pastiche—what Fredric Jameson calls “speech in a dead language”? Mitchell’s language would seem pretty dead, strong female songwriters having passed from being stardust and golden to being doll parts; yet one of the paradoxes of Paved Paradise is that it makes you want to run out and buy all Joni’s old records. What about camp, then? Several of Susan Sontag’s well-known 1964 notes on the genre seem to fit: “So many of the objects prized by Camp taste are old-fashioned, out-of-date, démodé.” “Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s . . . not a woman, but a ‘woman.’” “All Camp . . . persons contain a large element of artifice.” And so on. Yet where Sontag thinks “the whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious,” Kelly admits to finding Mitchell’s music “powerful,” “compelling,” even “noble.” And though he certainly shares ground with camp, he claims to be aiming elsewhere.

Perhaps, having gotten caught in these mutual incompatibilities, we might finally turn to gender studies, and to Marjorie Garber’s discussion, in her book Vested Interests, of a “third term,” i.e. transvestism, as putting an end to binary thinking. (It’s interesting that Sontag views camp too as a species of “third,” a “great creative sensibility” to put beside comedy and tragedy.) For Garber, cross-dressing opens a “space of possibility,” promoting “not just a category crisis of male and female, but the crisis of category itself.” This would neatly explain the unplaceability of Kelly’s piece, and the break in expectation through which its emotion surfaces. Is it through the category crisis, as Kelly/Mitchell might say, that “the universe is there to provide us with a solution”? It may be a clue that even the title Paved Paradise discovers a category crisis in one of Mitchell’s most popular songs.

What Garber’s somewhat solemn concept does not do, though, is foreshadow either the wit of Kelly’s calibrated array of head tosses, hair flips, nasal snorts, and an upper-lip maneuver that benignly evokes Mitchell’s own, or the simultaneous feeling that he has somehow restored her music’s authenticity. For the remarkable thing about Kelly’s Mitchell is that it is sometimes as moving as the original—or, rather, as the original was twenty-five years ago. A ’90s guy can barely mouth the lyric of a song like “Circle Game” (“We’re captured on a carousel of time . . .”), yet in the peculiar Paved Paradise parallax, he finds himself tearily muttering, “How true!” Through a sentimental pot-informed haze, he might have done something similar when he was fifteen, back when Mitchell was reverently referred to in record reviews as “the poetess,” and when her songs seemed the embodiment of glamour and knowledge; but this would ordinarily be a repressed memory. Looking fondly across the gulf of gender at the exemplum of femininity that is Joni, Kelly somehow creates a space in which her music’s meanings are up for grabs again, because so many of the categorical judgments that would erase them, and much else besides, are miraculously suspended.

David Frankel is a contributing editor to Artforum.