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.

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.