Image Source: Netflix
The holidays are usually about jolly tunes and optimism, but there’s a specific (necessary) corner for sad Christmas songs — especially this year. I’m talking about Elvis Presley’s “Blue Christmas,” The Carpenters’ “Merry Christmas Darling,” and, of course, Joni Mitchell’s “River.” The opposite of all those “songs of joy and peace,” Mitchell’s nearly 50-year-old track continues to make its mark on mainstream media and is, perhaps, the most relevant holiday tune we have in 2020.
If you feel like you’ve heard “River” more than ever in the last year or so, there’s a reason. Netflix brought the song into a new spotlight with Ben Platt’s haunting Politician rendition and then again with a more hopeful reading by Austin Abrams on Dash & Lily. Even more recently, Olivia Rodrigo covered the track for High School Musical: The Musical: The Series‘s holiday special. They certainly weren’t the first to put their spin on the song (see: Sam Smith, Ellie Goulding, James Taylor, etc.), but they centered it for a generation that wasn’t even alive for its original release.
The melancholy song is full of longing, as Mitchell told NPR in 2014 the narrator is “taking personal responsibility for the failure of a relationship.” But through a 2020 lens, it can be perceived as mourning the distance between what you want and what you can’t have. Perhaps those are small prepandemic joys, or a visit with family and friends you’ve missed for months, or just a brief relief from the heavy stresses this year consistently brought down. Either way, wouldn’t it be nice to “have a river to skate away on” for a little while?
Whether you’ve loved the song for decades or days, there’s never been a better time to embrace the “River” sadness for all it’s worth. Give yourself permission to trade the “ho ho hos” for “bah humbugs” this year, even if it’s just through your holiday playlist. We’ll embrace all things merry and bright again soon, I promise.