Recently, as I engaged in my quotidian ritual of singing one of my favorite verses of “Only Skin,” (“I have got some business…being a woman, being a woman”) my partner (who unfortunately is unable to comprehend Joanna Newsom in all her grandeur) said: “Wouldn’t it be ridiculous if someone sang ‘Being a man, being a man’ instead of ‘being a woman, being a woman’?” And then he rolled his eyes at what he perceived to be her lyrical ineptitude.
I, of course, responded: “Yes. It would be ridiculous because slut-shaming is not an oppressive system against men!!!”
He didn’t know what to say after that (or he just wanted to steer the conversation away from a topic he dislikes), but he made think about “Only Skin” more than I usually do. I realized again how closely tied “Sawdust & Diamonds” and “Only Skin” are through the theme of desire and how they are both dripping with sexuality (“Only Skin” especially; one only has to read the lyric “That’s an awfully real gun” to see that). Both songs are even more concerned with female sexuality and its ramifications.*
His comment and my retort about slut-shaming, most importantly, inspired me to at least analyze the relevant bit of “Only Skin” and its comments on female sexuality and femininity. (One day, mark my words, I will embark on the herculean effort of interpreting “Only Skin” as a whole. It will most likely turn into a book, which no one will let me publish.) So, let’s all turn to the verse beginning with “I have got some business out at the edge of town” and the verse ending with “Be a woman! Be a woman!” for my brief analysis.
The narrator in the first verse sinks as a result of the myriad (sexual) pleasures in her life and her sexuality. But she additionally sinks because of society’s disapproval of them. The “candy weighing both of [her] pockets down” represents this very pleasure. The “common folk” cannot stay quiet as they see a woman steeped in pleasurable sexuality, as they see a woman using her sexuality to keep her lover “warm.” The narrator fathoms that she receives this condemnation from the “common folk” because she is a woman (“being a woman, being a woman”). Their condemnation is gendered and her sexuality, as woman, is a burden.
In the next verse, the narrator discusses her lover’s life and how his life is obsessed with pleasure. But yet, no “common folk” impugn his behavior. Her lover “grope[s] blindly, hungry for anything.” He “pick[s] through his pocket lining” always desiring to find something more. The narrator even calls him Sisyphus. Sisyphus was a greedy king who delighted in killing people who were supposed to be his guests. As punishment, he was forced for all eternity in Hades to roll a boulder up a hill and to watch it roll back down. Here, the narrator may be implying that her lover’s insatiable avariciousness is harmful and to no avail. This reference to Sisyphus also leads us back to the first verse. The narrator sinks because of her pleasure and sexuality and the condemnations of them. So, it seems that they bring both the good and the bad. But the first verse in light of the second verse raises many questions: Is pleasure and sexuality inherently bad since they make one sink? Is pleasure and sexuality something she should avoid and regret?
The last verse shows us the narrator in a domestic sphere (“down the drain”) as she kills all the spiders who invade her home. But she seems to envy the simplicity and beauty of their deaths (“Spiders’ ghosts hang, soaked and dangling, silently from all the blooming cherry trees, in tiny nooses, safe from everyone”). They do not have weights preventing them from staying “afloat.” But she then reminds herself that the spiders were nothing but “a nuisance, gone now dead and gone…be a woman! Be a woman!” Spiders are obvious nuisances to everyone’s home. But here, the narrator sees them as nuisances to the sanity and appreciation of her life. She has to “be a woman” and not contemplate escape from the home, from her lover, from her man. These thoughts must be “dead and gone” for her to “be a woman.” Or else, she might incur further condemnation from the world around her.
* I hope to return to these parallels between the “Sawdust & Diamonds” and “Only Skin” in a later post. Yes, yes. I have made a lot of promises in this post and over the last couple of posts. But they will be fulfilled!