Masculine Feminine: Have One On Her

Joanna Newsom has one of those timeless stories. Literally: The press about her just doesn’t change that much. Back in June 2004, Dave Eggers writes in Spin about the ‘possibly crazy’ Newsom,

I picture her looking like Emily Dickinson. Newsom lives, I imagine, like a feral woman-child. Her dwelling is somewhere rural, and by a lake. But on a hill. On a hill, by a lake. The house is old, crackety, painted red like a schoolhouse. Maybe it is a schoolhouse! A former schoolhouse. And she’s a former one-room-school teacher who’s gone a little batty. She’s painfully thin, and wears cracked glasses; she can’t get them fixed, and why? Because she spends all day singing like a crazy person, that’s why! The townspeople, after years of worrying about her, have come to terms with the loony former teacher who sings about unicorns, owls, and clipper ships, all alone in her red crackety schoolhouse. With a harp.

Newsom’s symbolic lineage springs fully-formed from the head of Eggers. She’s of nature; a woman-child; crazy; unconventionally attractive; obsessed with fairy tales; an outsider. Skip ahead to 2010, and Eggers plays the same sour chord by contributing to the small press endeavor, Visions of Joanna Newsom (Roan Press, 2010), which by title alone seeks to idealize and conceptualize the absent figure of Newsom. But Joanna Newsom is somewhere to be found. She is very real, and the force of her work should help it elude the lazy shibboleths, press releases, and music reviews—many of which spend less effort on her music than they do on painting the artist as a romantic vision.

Reviews of Newsom’s first album formed the party line walked by critics and fans alike. Neva Chonin of the San Francsico Chronicle describes Newsom at a 2005 show as “smiling and elfin in a peasant dress and fur leg warmers.” She also uses descriptors such as “beatific,” “whimsical,” and “visionary eccentric.” In Vice Magazine, Kelly Amner calls Newsom “an elfin girl in a prairie dress” who “tours with dudes like Will Oldham.” At Pitchfork, Brandon Stosuy’s excellent review of The Milk Eyed Mender mentions Will Oldham’s fondness for the artist, and—along with literally every other reviewer—links Newsom with Devendra Banhart: “Both map a pile of eccentricities that tumble together to create something useful, familiar, and nearly sacred. Here’s hoping to a duet for the new folk future. Perhaps Kenny-and-Dolly style?” Scott Reid’s unrelenting negative review on Stylus Magazine begins by saying she sounds like a ten-year-old, and continues, “what she’s singing is just as child-like as her vocal timbre, as most of the lyrics deal with an artsy, fairy-tale style storytelling that adds another layer of coyness.” He concludes by wondering if she’s “just completely batshit insane.” In a very even-handed review at Dusted Magazine, Nathan Hogan mentions that Newsom tours with Oldham. He also says she has “cultivated an aesthetic of playful innocence,” which is easily dismissible as “ fey, precious, or contrived, in fact it’s none of these things. It’s delightful and affecting in the oddest of ways.” (It somewhat eludes me, the way in which playfully innocent, fey, precocious, delightful, and oddly affecting are all supposed to be divergent rather than convergent lines of thought.)

The reviews of Newsom’s second album, Ys, are of the same character. Mike Powell’s review at Stylus Magazine makes a big show of mentioning—like literally every other review of Ys—the fact that its music was arranged by Van Dyke Parks, recorded by Steve Albini, and mixed by Jim O’Rourke. But he begins by saying that the apparently mature Newsom, “is a little bit like Kate Bush—overly romantic, willful and pretentious, kind of annoying, batshit.” The extremely positive review at allmusic on the one hand lauds the complexity of Newsom’s lyrics, and then describes them as “a library’s worth of children’s stories, myths, romances, and of course, fairy tales woven into its words.” In particular, the review says that “Sawdust & Diamonds” is “surreally sensual and coltish.” NME describes Ys as “the second album from this puff-sleeved, 24-year-old harp pixie” comprised of “a set of adult fairy tales.” Around the time of Ys’ release, Sasha Frere-Jones writes in the New Yorker that Newsom is redolent of “the singer and pianist Tori Amos, who shares her technical virtuosity, and who also seems to be immersed in a private world.” Back at Pitchfork, Chris Dahlen concludes an excellent review by saying, “The people who hear this record will split into two crowds: The ones who think it’s silly and precious, and the ones who, once they hear it, won’t be able to live without it.”

The opposition Dahlen formulates describes fairly perfectly the two loudest sides of the discourse surrounding Newsom and her music. The latter group—which I’m a member of—wonder why Newsom isn’t held up as a paragon of the arts, John Donne come again and set to music. The former group includes people who consider Newsom’s vocals to be no more than caterwauling, her lyrics to be less impressive than any given Brothers Grimm story, and her music to be less interesting than a stop-off in hot traffic. The interesting and disturbing part of this opposition, though, is that many people in the Newsom-positive camp have remarkably similar aesthetic logic to those in the Newsom-negative camp. In both cases, she is a precocious, fairy-like, child-elder, holy fool type. Even in articles and reviews that praise her formidable skill with a forty-seven-stringed instrument, time is made to mention the fairy tale aspect of her poetry. The dominant critical attitude seems to be that Joanna Newsom has the hands of Jimi Hendrix and the mind of a precocious child from a Wes Anderson film; prodigiously talented, yet ever infantalized. A lot of the banality surrounding Newsom’s critical reception hinges on the pervasiveness masculine-feminine dichotomies.

I believe a critical understanding of Joanna Newsom starts with the concept of the English major. The combination of a more literate public and a proportional decline in classics (read: Greek and Latin) spawned the concept of English literature as an area of study. By 1882, English poet-critic Matthew Arnold writes, Women will again study Greek, as Lady Jane Grey did.” (Basically no one has gone on to study Greek.) He continues by calling women at Smith and Vassar the “fair host of the Amazons now engirdling our English universities.” You’ll notice that he mentions 2/7s of the Seven Sisters schools, which then served to educate and civilize the wives of the American upper class. (Emily Dickinson—to whom many writers compare Newsom [including Eggers, above]—attended a Seven Sisters school.) American liberal arts and the humanities—especially the English major—have been dominated by women while men generally go on to study engineering, history, the hard sciences, and economics. One of the ironies of the Newsom reviews is that they are predominantly written by men who were (overwhelmingly likely) English or some other humanities major in college. (And this academic aside isn’t to ignore the even larger, even more troubling assumption: Nearly all listeners and critics of Joanna Newsom have in fact been to college!)

The meaning of my likely imperfect sketch of the gender makeup of English majors has a major implication, which I hope is not attenuated by historical inaccuracies: There is an overwhelmingly sexist attitude in treatment of Newsom’s work. Some of the strains of sexism are more sedimented and built in (as it were) to the culture. The story surrounding each of her first two albums has been a patriarchal archetype: An already well-established man or group of men find Newsom and rescue her from a rustic, fantasy dreamworld. She’s said in many interviews, genuinely or no, that she had no intentions of becoming a recording artist until Will Oldham asked her to tour with him. After that coup, she was linked romantically to Smog’s frontman, Bill Callahan. And of course, music writers seemed contractually obliged to mention Devendra Banhart within three lines of Newsom. When she released Ys, music writers couldn’t stop going on about Van Dyke Parks, Steve Albini, and Jim O’Rourke. Some people (incorrectly) thought Newsom needed to attach ‘big names’ to her ambitious album in order to get Drag City behind it. Others attached a nearly religious importance to the three men’s involvement. (It is not far off, the suggestion of a holy trinity.) Recently, there’s been decent business in writing about Newsom’s relationship with comedian Andy Samberg.

It’s not as if music writers should not write about the ancillary and even primary circumstances around the creation of an album. I find troubling the constant implicit (and sometimes explicit) suggestion that Newsom is an unruly, primitive talent that needs to be guided and refined into a sellable product. The implication leads to imprecation. To be successful in any attempt, you need a lot of luck and help. But the generally paternalistic tone of discourse surrounding Newsom is creepy and demeaning. And it reinforces the notion that, at heart, Newsom is a generally incapable savant with little intellectual gift: Ie, she’s like most women—all heart and no head. As with higher education, Newsom has been ceded the innocent, character-building gift of verse while her similarly-talented male contemporaries explore instrumental virtuosity or intellectual aspirations. The obvious extension of this sort of thinking leads massively popular female recording artists to be considered “all heart” to an extreme—as merely sex objects, sluts, and whores.

Language of diminution and deprecation pervades even positive reviews of Newsom’s work. She’s “elfin,” “fairylike,” “whimsical,” “eccentric,” “childlike,” “batshit insane.” (You would think she was like the protagonist of “The Yellow Wallpaper.”) Even positive reviews make a concession to these descriptors, which are all coded language for “feminine.” I understand that it is very difficult to write about music—or any aesthetic accomplishment. Is it possible that these words simply are the most appropriate for describing Newsom’s music? Again, I think besides displaying no small amount of lazy thinking, they remain coded language for “woman-like,” and in the context of the reviews they serve as negative-yet-charming traits. The message of these reviews is that women are deplorable but desirable. I simply cannot truck with that notion, even when it is coded into generally positive articles.

Here is an example. The Guardian actually published two reviews of Ys: One in Pop and the other in Classical-Opera. Both made special mention of Newsom’s ‘precious’ habit of using archaic language. They both mentioned she used too many ‘fains’ and ‘thees’ on the album. By my count, Newsom uses the word ‘fain’ once and ‘thee’ four times—over the course of more than 4,000 words. Each review— one was written by a man, the other by a woman—trumps up aspects I’ve mentioned above. The first suggests (says, actually) that it is offensive for a man’s music to compared to a woman’s. The second calls her whimsical, and compares her only to other women artists (and Terry Riley, who’s widely known to have lived in Newsom’s home town).

Newsom, I suspect, is really fucking smart. Music writers and and likeminded people can blame publicity photos, press releases, and tour photos, but Newsom tried to get out in front of the conceptualization of her as “pixie elfin fairy” way back in 2004. In one interview, she’s told that her lyrics are “very playful and whimsical” to which she responds, “I’ve become a bit averse to that interpretation, because it reminds me too much of children and childhood, and I feel like people are a little bit too hasty to interpret childlike or innocent meanings in a lot of the lyrics.” In 2005, The Wire asks her what she thinks of the “new folk” scene. She responds, “I don’t like that it’s happening. I think it’s dangerous. I think that some of the associations that are being made are pretty big stretches.” In a 2006 interview with Harp, Newsom says,

I know you have to remain open to people getting whatever they’ll get out of your music, but it was sort of exhausting and disheartening to know that a certain portion of my audience was attracted to the music because they thought it was a fairy tale or ‘whimsical’ or ‘childlike’. I would hear these words so often, it was like, ‘are you listening? Like, I’m really proud of this part I wrote, it’s really good, it’s fucking hard to play, and I’ve spent hours a day practicing. I’ve spent so long refining this, I think it’s really good. Will you please listen to the songs?’

“Please listen to the songs.” It’s amazing to me that a singer as apparently widely respected and liked as Joanna Newsom has to beg her audience to please listen to the songs. It’s not as if there have never been popular musical figures whose lyrics were misinterpreted. But Newsom’s language often goes uninterpreted. It is dismissed as entirely opaque and senseless—beyond interpretation. With the release of Have One On Me, I would think that Newsom could murder the notion of her as a beatific, crazy woman-child. And the critical attitude is changing, somewhat. Reviewers are generally more focused on the music and lyrical content of the album. Newsom is apparently getting a little too old to be a pixie. (Nearly every review of The Milk-Eyed Mender mentioned she was 22 and nearly every review of Ys mentioned she was 24, which is kind of creepy.) Her voice is trained enough to avoid being called child-like. These developments are all good.

The prog-rock characteristics of Ys were pretty widely mentioned. Similar-wise, the length of Have One On Me is the first, most important talking point about the album. It is a triple album in an age of mp3 singles. I’ve read a lot of critics justify the length of the album, excoriate Newsom for being too self-indulgent, and everything in between. Matthew Cole’s well-argued negative review in Slant Magazine says that Newsom seems to “subscribe to some nastily self-important notions of how grateful and attentive her audiences should be.” This is a fair criticism that’s fairly emblematic of the negative views of the album. Mark Richardson at Pitchfork represents the more positive views when he says, “The highlights are spread out evenly, and Newsom couldn’t have sequenced the record any better.” Personally, I fall somewhere in between but closer to Richardson’s point of view. The latter third of the album drags, and I think at least five songs could have been culled.

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Throughout this piece, I’ve railed against critics who speak to the extra-textual aspects of Newsom’s work while ignoring the work itself. I then noted positively that critical reception of Have One On Me has thankfully focused more on the album itself. Ironically (I suppose), I wish there were more critical ink spilled on some extra-textual aspects of Have One On Me.

In Nitsuh Abebe’s recent article “Why We Fight,” he mentions Newsom’s latest album as being ironically more mainstream and less magical. Since the lyrics are more direct than The Milk-Eyed Mender‘s and the instrumentation is less complex than Ys‘, Have One On Me is oddly normal. Abebe laments the decline to normalcy of indie music. He notes that on the one hand, we (where ‘we’ is a very broadly construed contingent of indie-minded commenters) celebrate Lady Gaga’s ostensible weirdness, whereas on the other hand, we excoriate Newsom for her oddness. Being weird and popular is good. Being weird and indie is bad. I disagree with Abebe, here. On the one hand, Lady Gaga isn’t about weirdness, and her stage show shares a lot of common grammar with other big name pop acts like U2 and Brittney Spears. And her notion is primarily about sex—resisting and giving in to male sexuality. How is that different than every other female pop singer?

On the other hand, weirdness and exoticness is, I think, encouraged and even expected of our indie acts. In his typically droll style at Hipster Runoff, Carles discussed the various bands who could be considered the best of 2009.

I feel like the people who select the Dirt Projjies as #1 probably ‘believe in their decision’ the most. They think that there is a ‘right answer’ to “Who is the Best _____ of 2k9?” and they are the only bros to truly understand the criteria and have the critical thinking skills to come to this decision. But it seems like it is ‘easier to enjoy’ AnCo than it is to enjoy the Dirt Projjies, so you don’t want people 2 h8 ur alt website/magazine if they buy the album, and it is just these people ‘wailing’ over complex guitar stuff.

My view might be skewed: I love the Dirty Projectors. I somewhat love Animal Collective. I love Neutral Milk Hotel. I love the same things pretty much every indie music fan loves. Some common strains shared by those acts are overt strangeness, a keen lack of risk aversion for their commercial viability, and the fact of their being men. I know the most recent version of Dirty Projectors features two (sometimes more) women, and that makes them even stranger. It’s one of the reasons I love Dirty Projectors so much. While Longstreth seems to be the mastermind behind the band, Amber Coffman and Angel Deradoorian keep pace from a vocal and instrumental standpoint. The band’s live show is majestic and sounds like justice. By featuring women in a typically male environment, Dirty Projectors manage to out-weird many weirdos.

Joanna Newsom’s music is not weird by indie standards. It isn’t. Joanna Newsom’s music is weird by female indie standards. Since she hasn’t affixed herself to a piano, since she isn’t screaming over distorted guitars, since she isn’t trying to knock you dead with her sexuality, she comes off as nonpareil in a vaguely negative way. Ys is the work of an ambitious, audience-be-damned artist. It deals primarily with themes of loss and heartbreak, and it does so in musically distinct ways. Its closest peer could be Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak, which put Kanye on the weirdo map. Have One On Me is stunning in scope and audacity. It’s a supreme act of the creative ego. It’s an album that—to use the common image—that takes a big, swinging set of brass balls to pull off. Yet, I rarely (ever?) see this aspect of the album discussed. A band like Dirty Projectors can sit around catch indie cred for covering a Black Flag album from memory. Neutral Milk Hotel gets mad props for writing an album about The Diary of Anne Frank. Kanye West is called a genius for using auto-tune. But when a somewhat popular female musician makes a fucking triple album with no singles, intricate lyrics, and substantial emotional themes, she gets a few cookies for maturing.

It is not my assertion that music writers are sexist. And the assertion that sexism underlies many attitudes within the music industry is not novel. I merely want to celebrate the intellectual and musical achievements of Joanna Newsom in a meaningful context. She is, I think, without peer as far as serious, popular musicians go. Her music is both unapologetically intellectual and emotionally fierce. She defies the conventional head-heart dichotomies that have framed the thinking about her, and her work deserves better. It deserves to be considered on its own merits, but in order to get there, the critical attitudes of the music community have to be desedimented of its assumptions about what sorts of music can and should be made by which sexes.

I know that in most music criticism, lazy comparisons float languorously like flies above shit, but a lot of the work done with Newsom is entirely absent of effort. There are more than three (all female) artists to compare her to. But it is really fucking hard. She sometimes fits better into the tradition of lyric poetry. A lot of reviewers rightly note that Appalachian folk music is another apt tradition. But there’s more–or, perhaps appropriately, less–to say about her. If “everyone” publishes basically the same take on an artist, then maybe the entire process of music criticism needs to undergo a sort of therapy. When our language ceases to describe things well, it is at best useless and at worst harmful.

26 thoughts on “Masculine Feminine: Have One On Her

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  3. In theory, music criticism should be an act of speleology – a person descending into an artist’s work and describing the things they have found there. I think Newsom suffers because some music critics balk at engaging her in any real, deeply emotional way. For some of them, the idea that this woman – this caterwauling woman of the woods – can teach them anything about themselves is offensive. So they grasp at scraps, finding a pre-fabricated matrix of associations to hang their willful ignorance on.

    The writing about her work reminds me of the critical response to Antony Hegarty. Most of the people who write about Antony focus on his transgender identity, while treating his music almost as a curious footnote. Once again, you have an artist who is engaging listeners in a discussion about intensely personal experiences – pain, masochism, desperation, and transformation – and reviewers dawdle at the edges of his music, refusing to engage.

    Just as you said, there is the idea that women are “all heart” – but also the classical dread of women’s hysteria. Some men are unwilling to engage emotionally with music that isn’t made by men because they fear women will force them to confront parts of themselves they aren’t comfortable with. They like a tour guide like Thom Yorke, who’ll let them flirt with the idea of personal introspection, who won’t force them into any deeper emotional landscapes.

  4. You have articulated many interesting points, and with refreshingly accurate research. I agree that there is often a subtle sexist subtext in articles, but I think that’s the way of the world, it’s a male-oriented business, certainly in technical matters.

    The point about the three female comparisons (which you commendably omit to mention!) is well made; male performers seldom have to put up with that. Having said that, the recent prevalent comparisons with Joni Mitchell (surely the ultimate accolade! I’m a big fan of hers) shows that Newsom moving closer to standing alone, as I believe she fully deserves.

    First comment on an excellent article. Many more to come I trust.

  5. @mark Thanks. I agree that ‘it’ is male-oriented, although why that’s the case eludes me.

    @garland I like Yorke/et al. quite a bit. I actually tried to figure out how radiohead fits into things, but I couldn’t quite articulate it. They really have conquered the intellectual plus emotional attitude, seemingly critically. Re, further: Taking in art etc needs must start with an emotional connection, which is why sometimes I think Newsom just is somewhat disliked. But then I think– probably not entirely.

    Thanks for reading the post.

  6. Excellent piece. As one familiar with Newsome’s persona as characterized by popular media, yet completely unfamiliar with her music, this was a very informative and critical piece. I think I didn’t give her a fair shake b/c of reviews and reactions like Eggers’ which were hard to ingore as a reader of music news and reviews in the early 2000s. I think its time I shed some preconceived misconceptions and give Newsome a try. Recommended starting place?

  7. Great article. I wish more music critics could actually write this much on a single topic without resorting to either gushing or ranting.

    I do, however, think that Joanna’s music makes important reference to childhood, and I wouldn’t want her or her supporters to miss the importance of that reference, just because it is so easily misunderstood. I hear the opening lines of “Emily” as a poem about childhood. It’s written in the past tense, the audience is likely Emily, Joanna’s sister and childhood playmate, the images that come to my mind are some strange blend of “Mary Poppins,” “The 10 Commandments,” illustrated Bibles and yes (with that “high window”) fairy tales. But these lines are in no way an escape from adulthood or an idealization of childhood, and they certainly aren’t cute or innocent or nostalgic. I hear a terrible sadness about the passage of time and the second law of thermodynamics. We’re doomed to experience all of these strange and beautiful things in “bodies that don’t keep,” and it’s this adult knowledge of our mortality that makes the mood of the entire album possible. Childish music would distract us from this knowledge. Joanna evokes childhood, not to promote the illusion that we could or should relive it, but partly to show how impossible the dream of reliving childhood really is. You can’t go home, because you can’t unlearn what you’ve learned. I think there’s a hardwired ambivalence about childhood in our minds that Joanna’s an expert at probing. On one level, we long for the days before we really understood death, and on another level, we know that this knowledge is what makes us who we are. And we wouldn’t want to just lose ourselves in some sort of nostalgic oblivion. In other words, while I think childhood is a constant theme in Joanna’s music, I think she’s writing songs about the pain and joy of losing childhood, which is a way of writing songs about being an adult.

    I hear similar themes on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and “Astral Weeks” (see Lester Bangs).

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  9. I wish Mr. Payne had read “Visions of Joanna Newsom” before writing this, because the book contains a good deal of feminist thinking about Newsom, and makes some of the same points about sexism in critiques of Newsom that he makes. For example, my own piece on “affectation” and Newsom’s work notes that male critics are particularly prone to calling Newsom’s work “affected” (and seeing that as a bad thing). There’s more to this book than its title, Mr. Payne; I hope you’ll take the time to find that out.

  10. An interesting and thought-provoking piece over-all, but I’ve got to say I think you’ve grossly misrepresented Alexis Petrides, the Guardian reviewer (Stephanie Merritt’s review was in The Observer, the Sunday paper that shares a website and an owner with the Guardian).

    [Petrides] suggests (says, actually) that it is offensive for a man’s music to compared to a woman’s.

    I can only assume you’re referring to the penultimate paragraph, where Petrides makes a laudatory comparison between Newsom’s “fantastic” lyrics and those of The Fall – both, he suggests, manage to draw you in while resisting straightforward interpretation. But he prefaces that with a joke:

    You hesitate to compare Newsom to the Fall, partly because she sounds nothing like them and partly because Mark E Smith might get wind that you have equated his band with a singing Californian harpist with plaits and a medieval bent and jump on the first train from Salford with the intention of belting you one.

    I had to re-read the whole thing a few times to convince myself that this really must be what you were talking about. But it’s the only point where Petrides even suggests that someone might not take kindly to a comparison with Newsom.

    In the first place, Petrides isn’t calling his own comparison “offensive”, he’s saying Mark E Smith (who has a bit of a history of violence) might want to hit him if he heard a distorted version of it.

    And Smith’s imagined offence is not about having his band’s manly music compared with the work of a woman. The Fall has had several influential women members – including a lyricist – so you can hardly call it “a man’s music” to begin with. But more to the point, Petrides doesn’t mention gender at all – he summarises what he’s already said makes Newsom a “hard sell”.

    Calling her “a singing Californian harpist with plaits and a medieval bent” makes her sound gimmicky and trivial. It’s wildly unfair to sum her up like that (as Petrides’s 5 star review seeks to show), but if that was what Smith heard… well he has been known to jump to conclusions.

    More than this, though, that little capsule description points to some areas where Newsom finds inspiration and value and The Fall found something to reject and build away from – her focus on technical musicianship, her progish aesthetic embrace of the lost world of kings and peasants, perhaps the 60s/70s folk influence (californian … plaits … pairing voice and acoustic strings?).

    Her project deliberately echoes much of what Smith was reacting against when he started out. And I think that’s what Petrides was pointing out in his little joke. Before he went on to say that her fabulous lyrics share the density and resonance that his are famous for.

    I can only imagine that you misread the review.

  11. when i 1st heard newsom’s songs the 1st thing i though was how very intelligent she is,i can not compare her writing style to any one else i have listened too and everything about her songs is so articulate and very though provoking.I find it hard to see how anyone can think much differnt even if her style isnt to everyones tastes.

    I agree that for me there are some themes of childhood but to dismiss her work are childlike and fairy like seem ignorant and i can understand her annoyance with this label, as it you really listen to her lyrics they are so sophisticated. It pisses me off for people to dismiss them are merely childlike!I aint ever heard any adult let alone child talk or play music like that!

    Really good article made me think and i agree maybe us females are written off as ‘pixies like creatures’ rather than serious artists.

    P.S i use to play newsom songs to the school art classes i taught in south london,went down a storm!

  12. @uwe,

    You’re absolutely right that I took the Mark E Smith reference somewhat out of context, but my point was to show that, even in an appropriate joke, Newsom’s music is considered to be incongruous to masculine music. The joke, I think, reveals that better than a lot of more overt comments. And the fact that Newsom doesn’t fall too far outside the Fall’s tradition, as you point out, only underscores why the line was telling, to me. Great comment!

    @ellie,

    That’s awesome for your kids. I agree that Newsom’s use of childhood imagery is important, and I imagine that children find her music to be aesthetically pleasing before they could understand its thematic content.

  13. I fucking love this article. Thank you so much for writing it. Nothing irritates me more than the ‘boys club’ that permeates throughout the indie-critic world. Any girl that ‘intrudes’ is automatically thrust into the context of a categorical woman — a typecast. Tired of Joanna Newsom being classified as the ‘weird girl’, it’s so high school. It’s ‘quirky’ that she released a triple album in 2010, not fucking marvelous and ballsy.

    My question is, what is your thoughts on her sexualized image? The past two years or so she has stopped taking pictures in the woods and taking a lot more fashion-y shots that reveal some of her cleavage and ass. I mean, if you look through the first few pages of here – http://www.last.fm/music/Joanna+Newsom/+images – it’s easy to soon guess which was uploaded post 2008 and which wasn’t. Obviously this could be her more confident with herself. But I just get so uncomfortable seeing the writing of how beautiful, or even ‘hot’ and ‘sexy’, she is or whatever and not because I see her as some child, but rather, it’s just more shit that comes before the music.

  14. Fantastic article.

    I’m working on creating a blog where fans of Joanna’s music engage with her work on a more critical level. Specifically, we’re interested in the ways that her feminism informs and is expressed through her music.

    I’m building a reading list as a resource, and I would like to include a link to this article. I think it is one of the only that I have read (I haven’t had access to Visions of Joanna Newsom yet) that explores this in a really critical, well-supported way.

    Rachel
    allthebirds.tumblr.com

  15. Hey thanks for the link. When I wrote the piece, I could find nearly no information about the book. I did have an entire piece by Eggers on Newsom, which I quoted at the top of the piece. I didn’t mean to imprecate Roan Press or the book. The line in this piece mentioning the book has to do with how Bob Dylan idealizes the absent the titular Johanna, and since the title of the book alludes the song, well.

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  17. A quick note:

    The treatment and characterization of Joanna Newsom reminds me strongly of the women used in mid 1800s spiritualist stage acts. Those girls/young women would go up on stages and speak to audiences in an age where women were discouraged and criticized for public speaking, religious leadership, or political involvement. These oddly prominent roles, however, were deemed appropriate for women.

    To start, they were merely mediums, who spoke with the supposed voices of the dead, while they were controlled and interpreted by male companions. They were often characterized in media as childlike, fragile, and not entirely “present”, or sane. Women, rather than men, were chosen for these roles thanks to the popular stereotype of emotionalism and receptiveness.

    Does that association make sense? I just think that this sort of theme-childish, fragile, incompetent women being granted/gaining publicity with the aid of their male controllers-has a very engrained history.

  18. Wow! Nice breath of fresh air about the work of stunning artist Joanna Newsom. Hard for males to get around to addressing women artists as (gasp) co-equals isn’t it? No wonder she is loathe to do interviews anymore, take heart Joanna we are catching up with your work, slowly :) .

    dwain (not my website, but a fine one)

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  20. I agree with all of this and my comment might seem pretty stupid, to latch onto the couple of sentences you threw in about Lady Gaga but I have to stick up for her. ‘Resisting and giving in to male sexuality’? Poker Face is about being attracted to girls but hiding it. Alejandro is about feeling safer around gay men because they don’t want something from her. Marry The Night is about losing everything and coming back stronger than you ever thought you could be. You And I is about being in love. Born This Way’s lyrics are GOLDEN. Actual GOLD. It doesn’t matter if they’re not the deepest, smartest things you’ve ever heard because their meaning is beautiful – and they’re coming out of the mouth of someone so astoundingly successful in the mainstream, which feels to me, like a break through. And even when she sings about male sexuality, she’s sexually aggressive. She is the last thing from the nice passive lady that misogyny would force her to be. Lady Gaga’s biggest message is to just be yourself, whatever the hell that is. That’s how she’s different from other female artists.

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