While Billboard traditionally has reported on the industry accomplishments and chart-oriented commercial strides of generations of talented individuals, the sole aim of the Century Award is to acknowledge the uncommon excellence of one artist's still-unfolding body of work. Moreover, the award focuses on those singular musicians who have not heretofore been accorded the degree of serious homage their achievements deserve. It is a gesture unprecedented in Billboard's history, and one that is informed by the heritage of the publication itself.
For her 1971 "Blue" album, 27-year-old Joni Mitchell wrote a song called "A Case Of You," in which she sang, "I am a lonely painter/I live in a box of paints/I'm frightened by the devil, and I'm drawn to those ones that ain't afraid."
In that song, as in all her music, this musician was willing to tell the plain truth about herself. And in the process, Joni Mitchell invented her own job. In fact that's the definition of a great performer: a person who invents his or her own job. Appropriately, the best adjective yet found for the body of work created over the last 30 years by our 1995 Century Award honoree remains her name: It sounds like Joni Mitchell.
Observers and critics have occasionally called some of Joni Mitchell's song-writing "confessional." But that's not really true, because to confess something, one has to hesitate over the difficulties of the expression, and Joni Mitchell has never hesitated with any aspect of her music.
She believes that truth and beauty are the prime challenge and ultimate destination of all meaningful art, and she has struggled mightily to ensure that her guiding spirit will not be diverted from those transcendent goals.
We can think of no artist more deserving than Joni Mitchell of Billboard's most respectful symbol of esteem, because in folk and blues, in jazz, in world music, and in every alternative that one must find to arrive at rock'n'roll, she has taken humanity's most noble strivings and made them intimate for each of us. In short, Joni Mitchell has educated our hearts. And that is why she is receiving the Century Award. - T.W
As designed by jeweler/sculptor Tina Marie Zippo-Evans, the Century Award is a unique
work of art as well as an emblem of artistic supereminence. Struck in bronze once a year, the handcrafted, 14-inch high statue is a composite representation of the Greco-Roman Muses of music and the arts (among them Calliope, epic poetry; Euterpe, music; Terpsichore, dance; Erato, love song; and Polyhymnia, sacred hymns). The form is female, in keeping with an ancient definition of the arts: "Sacred music is a symbol of nature in her transitory and ever-changing aspect." The lyre held by the Muse is a specially made adornment that changes annually in order to personalize the honor for each recipient. In homage to Joni Mitchell, the 1995 lyre is of solid silver adorned with topaz (Mitchell's birthstone).