I just finished reading Mark Paytress’ interview/article in the August 2010 issue of Mojo magazine, about Joanna Newsom. It is an article that begins by laying out her frustrations with the media’s insistent portrayal of her as some sort of “airy-fairy kookball”, a harp plucking fairy enchantress pulled from a hazy, vaguely renaissance world outside our own. Paytress stops just short of suggesting that Newsom threw a snit fit when he used the word “enchanting” to describe her. The sense, from reading the article, is that her main objection to the use of that word is that it undermines the music, and that it is implicitly sexist (although I suspect it is also rooted in a very human desire to not be reduced to a simplistic caricature of oneself).
I started thinking about the idea of “enchantment”, about Newsom’s discomfort with it, about its implications regarding her femininity, and her feminism. It’s something I’ve been struggling with in her music for some time, tracing the depiction of womanhood that she presents. I’m still working out all of the things that Joanna is saying about being a woman in the world, and couldn’t possibly explore them all at this point, but I do want to think out some ideas I have about this particular word and how I see it fitting into her work.
I was lucky enough to see Joanna perform on a cold, rainy night in March of this year. Have One on Me had come out a few weeks before, and the barrage of press it was receiving all focused on the noticeable shift in Newsom’s artistry: her voice was different, clearer, many of the songs traded harp for piano, and the lyrics were some of her most direct, telling stories of women who had loved, or tried to love, and found themselves trapped by it all. It was a record about roots, planted firmly in the earth, set in a smoky, dim parlour where glasses of whisky clinked against dark, heavy wooden tables.
When Newsom came onto stage that night to perform the record, she literally glowed. She is one of those rare folks who seem to send out all manner of good feeling into the world around her. She was breath-taking, warm, radiant, comforting; she filled the room with a tangible energy. I felt the air was thick with it. I was, forgive me, enchanted.
I suppose this is why I find the “enchanting” representation of Newsom problematic. On one hand, I completely understand it. She is enchanting. Her writing is so lush, so layered, so lovingly detailed. Her music fills you until you’re overflowing. It dips and dives and plummets and reaches such heights of emotion, it’s impossible not to be moved. She plays with ideas of excess, both explicitly and implicitly, through her visual imagery, much of it rooted in the natural, physical world*. She is a field of poppies grown knee deep, swarms of delicate moths, and a meteor across an impossibly dark sky. Many listeners can’t help but pull these images together into a collective portrayal of the sort of woodsy goddess character that the media seems to have fallen in love with. I believe this to be the source of her reputation as a sort of earth-sprite.
Or, I should say, I wish this was the source of that depiction. I wish that people looked at her words and recognized the power and strength that Newsom seems to derive from the earth, and her struggle to explore that connection while maintaining the possibility of some greater, much more ethereal existence. I guess what I am trying to articulate here is that if people recognized this in her music, and portrayed her as being “spiritual” or “earthy” rather than being a kooky, neo-wood nymph, we wouldn’t be talking about why she is so offended by the word “enchanting”. It’s the choice of words, the choice of narrative that matters.
The problem is that the depiction of her as a wood nymph or a fairy or a pixie enchantress is offensive in its lack of scope. Those who would paint her in this way, or fix her in some sort of static, fairy tale gaze, fail to see the power in those depictions. From my perspective, there are two possible versions of this enchantress image. Enchantment is a pretty powerful thing (also, an archetypically “female” thing). The ability to enchant is the ability to control, to exude power through the chanting of spells. I think we are talking, here, about how women use language. The idea that a woman could have this sort of power over language (and, implicitly, over men) is scary for many, the idea that she could recognize and exploit this strength in herself, terrifying.
I believe that Newsom has done just this. As I said earlier, she displays such a mastery of language and uses it in such daring, beautiful and powerful ways. Our culture is terrified of a woman who can express herself so excessively, who can take her lover to task, who can use her femininity to meet her own needs, who demands to be heard. Even worse, imagine a woman demanding to be heard, with the audacity to deliver her messages in a voice all screeches and yowls and caws**. She’s an enchantress, indeed, but one that carries magnificent power.
The “enchantress” image in the media is tied to a history of attempts to diminish and deny power that carries specific “female” connotations. It is meant to simplify her, to emphasize the image rather than the message it carries. It completely misses the intricate, complicated, messy, dirt smeared discussion that she is having, through her music, about what we are doing here, how it is possible for two people to love one another, women, men, eternity, mortality and the great unknowns that hang around us, everywhere we go. It is denying the power in her femininity and reducing her to a sort of sing-song fairy princess whose words serve well enough as passing fancies, but lack the real meat of a true artist. That is not the Joanna Newsom I know, that is not the Joanna Newsom found in her work, and that is not the Joanna Newsom that Joanna Newsom wants you to talk about.
Music journalists, critics, naysayers, and fans have done a great disservice in their abuse of the word “enchantment” here. In my mind, Joanna enchants in the sense that she has a startlingly clear realization of herself as artist, of her craft, and of her womanhood, and that she displays remarkable courage in exploring every inch of life’s great questions in ways that are, at once, achingly beautiful, impossible, complex and powerfully feminine.
* Although, I think that the new record explores very materialistic, “un” natural images of excess and that Joanna is struggling to reconcile the difference between “good” and “bad” excess. This might be something interesting to consider in talking about how she discusses what is celebrated versus what is chastised in a woman. (Just a note to self, for future thinking)
** I’m really interested in discussions surrounding the change in Newsom’s voice and how the perception of her voice is tied to her portrayal of femininity, or others’ interpretations of her femininity.
What do you think?