I really like this question, too. Thanks for asking and sharing your thoughts! I am going to reblog my response on Blessing All the Birds, too, even though this is not directly related to feminism.
The line you are reference here has always been a piece of Joanna’s poetry I felt I immediately understood: it is a beautiful and touching way to express loss, personal disorder, and a seeming inability to cope with change (“…but I have never known the way to border them in…”).
If I were to take a stab at what I believe “Emily” as a song could be chronicling, I would say that at its most basic level, the narrator (Joanna) tries to find healing from catastrophe, from isolation, from dislocation, and from rumor by going back home and reaffirming her familial relationships with primarily her sister and then her father towards the end of the narrative. Home, family, and healing in this song are all intimately tied to nature and to memory. The chorus is an expression of a memory bound in nature, a moment of bonding between two sisters, one an artist and one a scientist, as they sit by a river and look up at the heavens.
The narrator’s goal in “Emily” seems to be to find rebirth. Emily, the character, helps Joanna achieve this rebirth primarily through a (re)communion with nature, a nature which is both terrestrial and celestial. The narrator colors the rebirth theme throughout the song with very Christian symbols and concerns by casting Emily as a Jesus figure (for more on the role of Christianity and its iconography in “Emily” and the whole of Ys, see this post from bonefromthevoid, who very much influenced parts of my analysis in this essay and who really just gets Ys at a deep and impressive level). The whole concept of rebirth has had deeply Christian connotations for millennia and rebirth for even longer than that has been tied to cleansing with water (and that is precisely why Christianity incorporated it into its mythology and religious practices from pagan religions). The rebirth imagery throughout the song is also emphasized by mentions of midwives and motherlessness. Emily is not only Jesus, she is a mother, both images of self-sacrifice and protection.
After the (re)communion with nature (and thus, family and memory) is complete, Joanna revels in the “sweetness of being,” but this sweetness is juxtaposed and undermined throughout that verse with imagery and reminders of hers and our own mortality. The Christian sacrament of communion which Joanna explicitly references in this verse (“take this and eat this”) commemorates that very paradox of life and death: the Eucharist promises those who eat it a blessed existence on earth and a blessed existence in heaven. But the Eucharist is the physical embodiment of Christ’s mortal corpse. As they eat the Eucharist, they are eating life and death. And we must consider that rebirth itself is a form of death. What happens to the self which came before?
The narrator seeks rebirth throughout Ys, a complicated matter that I do not at all claim to comprehend very meaningfully. I probably only understand about one percent of Joanna Newsom’s corpus at a very deep level since all of her songs are teeming with different symbolic, thematic, and narratological resonances which are still quite mysterious to me, even as a very dedicated consumer of her music and poetry. And that is why I feel most comfortable analyzing her corpus from a feminist lens, an analytical framework in which I can claim some expertise. But anyway…I can confidantly say that Joanna on Ys heavily connects rebirth to water and to death (see “Monkey & Bear”) and to nature generally (see the end of “Only Skin” where her bones are buried).
Lastly, just to address your cool connection between “Emily” and “Soft as Chalk,” Joanna describes the narrator’s “sanatorium” as a place rooted in nature and responding to nature, a description which really comes as no surprise considering the connections between healing and nature all over “Emily” and Ys. “Soft as Chalk” even has all that dove imagery, drawing it even closer to Emily symbolically. If we consider the narrator the same on Ys and Have One on Me (which I think is a fair thing to assume), finding comfort in times of hardship in the physical world is an important part of her characterization.
This was a question posed to my personal blog, which I wanted to cross post on Blessing All the Birds, even if not strictly feminist.
N.B. Since I can’t edit the ask, in the last paragraph I meant “drawing it even closer to Ys symbolically,” not Emily.
This has been sitting in my ask box for a while. I am sorry for the delay in answering this and just in general for the radio silence on this blog, but I every time I sit down to write something substantial about Joanna Newsom, I really feel that I need inspiration from new material to say something good. Hopefully that will come soon. Once the new material is here, I’m going to try to publish a literary essay about her old corpus and the new additions to it weekly.
I have never heard of Scaruffi’s stuff before and I just googled it and I am pretty much appalled. His review of The Milk-Eyed Mender epitomizes everything we have lambasted here on Blessing All the Birds since the beginning, even if he changes his tune a bit by the end of the piece. He says: “Newsom sings with the shrill and untrained voice of a little child on The Milk-Eyed Mender (Drag City, 2004), and plucks the harp in a rather casual and haphazard way (the harp is used like a banjo, a contrabass, a dulcimer, a xylophone, etc).” In this quote, he first infantilizes Joanna and then makes the absurd claim that her harp arrangements are careless and not structured (as Joanna has said in reaction to statements like this: “are you even listening?”).
His Ys review actually grants Joanna Newsom some autonomy and he has found a new appreciation of her voice, but then he takes it all away by again saying that Vans Dykes Park is the real star of the show and does not acknowledge that Newsom, too, produced Ys along with Van Dykes Park. What’s moreover curious about this Ys review is that he never mentions her lyrics and instead focuses almost exclusively on her vocal modulations, which feels demeaning and misogynistic, especially since he frames Ys as primarily confessional rather than as a work of art that can be both highly emotional and confessional and highly intellectual and controlled. He actually says that Ys is not intellectual, but more stream of consciousness, which relates to his belittlement on her harp arrangements on The Milk-Eyed Mender and aligns his statements with ancient notions of how women are just vessels of irrational verbiage, vessels which cannot control what they say and create (see the whole notion of the Muses and Rachel’s past posts on female voices, found here).
Scaruffi’s comments on Have One on Me are better because they acknowledge that Joanna Newsom has clear artistic intentions, has generic relationships with musical history, and is a great lyricist and poet. But then he has to ruin that by saying that “In California” is a piano-driven song (which proves that he is not really listening) and arguing that: “The album closes with a final spiritual-like piano-based incantation, ‘Does Not Suffice,’ that boasts the one moment of dissonance in over two hours: it’s the moment when everything disintegrates and she disappears like a philosophical fairy queen.” What does that even mean and how does a song very obviously located in material realism and domesticity evoke images of fairies? It’s simply just misogynistic belittlement and pigeonholing once again.
In short, I think this his reviews of Joanna are mostly terrible, but I thank you for bringing this to my attention because his reviews best represent everything I abhor about how music journalism misrepresents and misunderstands Joanna’s art and artistic process.
I have received several requests for me to comment on the generally loathsome and sexist media coverage of Joanna Newsom’s and Andy Samberg’s wedding this weekend, so I am going to honor those requests now. But I also encourage anyone to please submit their own comments!
I have read about twenty articles about the wedding over the past weekend and the ones from music publications, including Rolling Stone and Pitchfork, have been less sexist, but even they reveal and replicate troublesome sexist patterns. Not a single one of these articles quotes Newsom about the wedding and the marriage and most of them have a seriously faulty and scanty understanding of her career and her art. She is described as “singer” in most of them, when she should more accurately be described as a “musician.” Media outlets are much less willing to grant women the agency and talent which “musician” implies. In short, Newsom becomes a voiceless bride to the much more famous and important man, who has a career and value outside of his marriage.
The silencing, devaluation, and the erroneous and almost curt descriptions of what Newsom does for a living could easily be explained away by the authors and consumers of these articles: Samberg is more famous in mainstream media than Newsom and thus, he has more of a platform to discuss his personal life and in many ways, he has to discuss his personal life during interviews as a way to play the game the media demands of celebrities. Moreover, Newsom hasn’t had a publicized interview in years and there is not as much demand from the consumers of many of these articles to be accurate and specific about what she does and what she says, especially if these publications are not focused on music journalism. Those seem like perfectly acceptable explanations, but positioning women as silent, devalued, vaguely-careered brides is not a neutral action when we live under kyriarchy, despite whatever intentions the authors and media outlets had. That very positioning of Newsom in these articles reflects what marriage as a sexist (capitalist, cissupremacist, heteronormative, racist, and colonialist) institution has historically and systematically done to women since its inception. Marriage, historically and today, as an inherently exploitative and oppressive institution is a huge topic, but I am going to try to summarize it so that I can make a larger (and what I think is more significant) point about why these articles about Newsom’s and Samberg’s wedding are problematic.
Marriage came into being as a civil and cultural institution at almost exactly the same time agriculture, personal wealth, and private property—and thus, the economic system of capitalism—came into being. Capitalism at its very core is about the control of resources (or capital) by as few people as possible and those few people strengthen their economic hegemony by exploiting people as laborers and as consumers. Capitalism used and continues to use marriage as a tool to accrue more capital and to create and maintain economic inequalities. One of the many abhorrent things about marriage is that it reinforces and generates capitalist oppression by subjugating women as property to be owned and consumed. Women become the means by which one can perpetuate personal patriarchies through their unpaid emotional and physical labor and their ability to provide male progeny. In order to ensure women’s subjugation in these roles, patriarchy developed systems of control such as rape culture and compulsory sexuality, which thrive off the subjugation of women as bodies to be consumed and owned. I would be remiss if I did not mention that marriage over the years has also became intimately and complexly connected with xenophobia and nationalism, with forced assimilation, colonization and anti-black racism, and with validating certain relationships over others through state exclusion and violence. Please see this article by Dean Spade and Craig Willse for more on marriage’s intricate web of oppressions.
The historical and contemporary commodification of women’s lives, labors, and bodies has, more generally, led to their constant objectification and some of the important methods of objectification are reduction/devaluation and silencing (I would suggest reading feminist philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s work on this for more). So, these articles which position Newsom as a voiceless bride to a powerful man are of no surprise: this is exactly what marriage as an institution encourages and condones.
Yesterday, news broke that Joanna Newsom would appear in the upcoming Paul Thomas Anderson film, Inherent Vice. Ed Droste of Grizzly Bear, in response to the news, decided to make a sexist comment about the basis of Joanna’s success: he attributed it to her relationship with Andy Samberg, thereby belittling her agency and her independent accomplishments. The joke perpetuates the sexist notion that women cannot achieve success on their own merits without men aiding them. His “joke” occurs in the context of patriarchy, a worldwide system of oppression against women created by men to perpetuate male supremacy and which as a system ensures that men are seen as more human than women. (The combination of many systems of oppression, including classism, racism, heterosexism, ableism, cissexism, etc. is called the kyriarchy and demands intersectional analysis; gender is not the only axis of power.)
Ed deleted the tweet, but still decided to defend it by arguing that he would have said the same thing about a man who married a female SNL actor. But context matters and being “an equal-opportunity hater” is obviously an aggressive expression of privilege. “Equal opportunity-haters” don’t actually exist (because there is this thing called kyriarchy and social conditioning) and even if they did, their jokes do not occur in a vacuum! We live in a culture which prioritizes the experiences and humanity of some people more than others, over and over and over again. And it’s always about gender, race, sexuality, ability, citizenship status, etc.! It’s always about that! I promise! And seriously, if he would say this about both men and women, where are his comments about male musicians (like Brendan Canning and M83) who are scoring big-deal Hollywood movies? His joke relies on the tired slut-shaming trope that women sell their bodies to men in order to succeed. Slut-shaming, as a societal force, doesn’t work against men: so once again, context is key for this joke.
I want to be clear, though, that Joanna has a lot of privileges herself: she is class-privileged, she is cis, she is white. And even though white, cis, able-bodied, class-privileged, straight men have most of the power in the world, white, cis, able-bodied, class-privileged, straight women have the second most power. People who experience multiple, intersecting oppressions have more constraints put on their paths for success and opportunities than those who have more privileges under kyriarchy and that is why Inherent Vice is a movie all about white people. That context matters, too.
* N.B. I tweeted at him and decided I need to disengage (at least for now) and not look at what he said back to me because I get into too many conversations with white, cis males who continually deny their privilege and wrongdoings and I need a break from that, especially one who initially just said “Oh, please” to me when I called out his sexism. He responded to littlerunawaybunny and said that it was about nepotism, not sexism and condescendingly gaslighted a valid concern about what he said by saying she and other fans were in a “tizzy.”
Update: I checked back and saw some of the things Ed is saying on twitter and it is the same, boring hackneyed stuff people say when they are called out and uncomfortable. First, the “you’re all taking the Internet so seriously thing.” Second, the “you’re all so sensitive and easily offended—it was a joke” thing. Third, the “all feminists have no sense of humor” thing. And lastly, the depressing and unfortunate “I refuse to see beyond my own experiences, so I’m going to keep denying my privilege and sexism in general.” Talk about tired tropes.
I saw Joanna Newsom at Pitchfork Music Festival yesterday. You can read my personal review here. As we probably all know, Joanna shared two new songs yesterday, one harp one and one piano one. She also played “Look and Despair” and “The Diver’s Wife” again.
This is a really interesting group of very different songs and I am really curious as to how they are going to be grouped coherently on the new record. There is also the possibility that the album won’t have an overarching theme, which would be strange indeed and I’m probably just wildly theorizing. But maybe she will do something like Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and have distinct suites.
As for what Blessing All the Birds does with these new songs, I have decided that I don’t want to listen to all these new songs beyond a few times before the album comes out. I want to savor them in the context of the full album. I have also decided not to try to make a statement on them analytically until the full album comes out with an official lyric sheet (I did the opposite with “The Diver’s Wife” and I am now eating my words as a result of some lyrical clarifications from yesterday’s performance).
I have already noticed some connections to her older songs and interesting avenues of analysis I can go down. I still want to analyze The Pearl by John Steinback in relation to “The Diver’s Wife.” With just first impressions while listening during the set at the festival, I think one could definitely thematically compare the new piano song to “Have One on Me” and the new harp song to “No Provenance.” And I want to write about the cultural erasure of women in art and history by men in “Look and Despair.”
I’m looking forward to delving into these songs.
In this interview by Teen Talking Circles, Joanna touches upon many topics we have expressed interest in Blessing All the Birds over the years: the female voice, her songcraft, and her insistence that her songs are fictions (although with autobiographical foundations). This is already one of my favorite interviews from her, even though it is pretty brief.
On the female voice:
I feel like I had a lot of luck and blessing to come of age creatively in an environment that really welcomed my voice — a family and music teacher that welcomed it. I had a music teacher that encouraged improvisation and composition from the very first lesson, from when I was a little child. She always valued the writing voice of her students.
I did have a very similar experience, not only in terms of hearing someone’s singing voice, but in hearing someone’s writing voice. It was very rare, I felt, for girls to be heard. Growing up in my small town, I knew a lot of young women who were musicians, but almost all of them were classical or folk musicians and none of them wrote. It was one of those towns where all the people who were a few years older than me were in a band; amazing local bands that we were fans of. There was a certain point that I realized they were all guys, all of them, including my big brother, whom I idolized. He was in all of these rock bands and I was kind of the weirdo harpist, you know, writing music.
For years between about age ten and age nineteen, I didn’t sing at all. I wrote music. I decided in my teens I wanted to pursue composition as a career, but I stopped singing, because I didn’t think I had a pretty voice. Prettiness or a lack of prettiness is often something that’s discussed vis a vis the female voice much more than with the male voice. Even in popular music my examples and the idiosyncratic voices that I admired were men, like Bob Dylan. And then when I was in college I started taking classes that were surveys of American music and starting hearing women’s voices that were very different than those in pop music.
On her songcraft:
I work in phases. When I’m sketching out a song, I don’t let myself be too critical of it. I actually love editing my work. I love interacting with the text, transforming it by rearranging it, the syntax, nuance, and all that. There’s a way to approach it where it’s not scary and judgmental towards yourself. There are different phases where different kinds of editing come in, and the phase where I’m allowed to wonder if a song or a record is going to be terrible is when it’s finished. And then sometimes I will throw out a song, or be like “No, this one doesn’t represent what I want this record to sound like.” I make little deals with myself: hold it at bay until the work is done, and then you can tear it apart as much as you want to.
On her songs as fictions:
This is a very controversial position of mine, but I personally believe that every fiction that we gravitate towards, reading or writing, is some reflection or projection of our own lives and is our way of working through it. One of the reasons that, say, a novel is successful–in terms of the story that’s being told–is often because it resonates with something that has happened to many of us, an emotional truth.
Hope you enjoy it!
Thank you so much! And if you have any thoughts about Joanna Newsom and feminism, do not hesitate to ask more questions or submit, submit, submit!
Recently, I finally got around to watching the video analysis bonefromthevoid did of “Emily.” Her excellent and careful analysis made me think of all the important binaries Joanna explores in her music (art vs. science, religion vs. science, life vs. death, love/desire/sex vs. hate, home vs. wandering, reality vs. fiction—the list could go on). Of course, those very dichotomies dictate our entire lives and most of the art we have the pleasure of enjoying. But the reason why Joanna is so special as a musician and a lyricist is because of what she does to analyze and further problematize the ambiguities and the complexities those binaries offer.
The one dichotomy in much of Joanna’s corpus that I have been the most interested in exploring is the binary between man and woman. (And admittedly, I focus on that binary in her corpus so I am not overwhelmed with how replete her art is with different avenues of analysis.) This is, of course, one of the many binaries (white vs. non-white, straight vs. queer, rich vs. poor, cis vs. trans, able-bodied vs. disabled, etc.) which leads to systematic oppressions in our world. And Joanna does not shy away from examining how this gendered dichotomy leads to real pain and punishment for her female narrators, pain and punishment for both those who adhere to the standards the binary establishes for femininity and for those who deviate.
On Ys, the female narrator in “Only Skin” is slut-shamed for her pursuit of pleasures by those in her community (“…what I do to keep you warm, being a woman, being a woman”). Bear, a surrogate for the dominant female character on Ys, is emotionally manipulated and coerced into sex work by Monkey (Bear’s performances can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for erotic dancing) and then Monkey proceeds to ridicule and condemn her body before and after she performs (…”washing that matted and flea-bit pelt/In some sea-spit-shine, old kelp dripping with brine”). Joanna equates Bear’s demise with an escape from gendered and stigmatized work which she despises, but also with the extreme femininity of uncontrollably and emotionally satiating one’s desire (whether that be luxury, sex, or even food in Bear’s case). Bear’s escape still displays some facets of the sex work performed as she dances her way towards the fish in the water (“balletic and glacial of Bear’s insatiable shadow”). Lola Montez in “Have One on Me” suffers similar alienation and stigma for her sex work (“And the old king fell from grace, while Lola fled,/ to save face and her career”) and she, too, like Bear is emotionally manipulated by the man on whom she depends, Lola being particularly manipulated by alcohol (“Will you have one on me?”)
Throughout much of Have One on Me, women are ridiculed for their emotional dependencies on men, especially in “No Provenance” when the dominant male character likens the narrator to a “poor old dirty little dog-size horse, swaying and wheezing” and almost revels in what he thinks is a loss of identity and strength (i.e., a horse with “no provenance”). ”Go Long,” as one of the more sinister songs on the album, shows us that the narrator feels harmed by the trappings of femininity (“Do you know why my ankles are bound in gauze?”) and that when she decides to transgress the boundaries of femininity and to enter the realm of masculinity, real physical violence awaits her (“Well, I have never seen such a terrible room/ gilded with the gold teeth of the women who loved you…”) Overall, the real triumph of Have One on Me, is that “Does Not Suffice” at the very end of the album affirms that the narrator finds power, strength, and healing in femininity despite what patriarchy says and that she is not as “easy” as other expect her and want her to be. She has her own sense of self and independence.
* I do not think sex work is intrinsically exploitative or harmful. As an occupation, it often becomes exploitative and harmful because we live under kyriarchy, a system in which basic human decency is not afforded to the marginalized and to those who are not given the same opportunities to survive and prosper. I think the same about all occupations under kyriarchy. I respect the self-determination of sex workers, I respect that they deserve safety on the job, and I appreciate the difference between sex workers and those who are coerced. We can talk more about this in messages if you want. This is a larger political issue that I might explore in more in the future through “Monkey & Bear” and “Have One on Me.”