[Question in reference to this post about “Baby Birch” and abortion.]
The point of the post on abortion stigma was to display how problematic interpretation, taste, attraction, and thought is in kyriarchy. We are taught and socialized from birth by the media, by literature, by education, by government, by the justice system, etc. to only value white, cisgender, straight, thin, able-bodied, Christian, rich men. Everything we do and say and think is a part of that system and even acknowledging that we are so limited and framed by a system of many oppressions is radical. But, of course, that does not mean we do not make choices and that we are not autonomous. For example, I know I do not want to engage in capitalism at all, but the only way to not engage in capitalism at all would be to live in the woods, off the grid and how in the world has capitalist education prepared me for that? Is there a course I missed at public school about hunting and tracking animals and deserting your entire life? So, I make choices about how to engage with capitalism and at the same time, it must be said that I have many more choices than most people. Some people do not have the privilege to decide to say “hey, I’m not going to shop at Walmart” because that is the only store in their damn town as a result of years and years of unchecked capitalist hegemony. Hence, the limited choices issue I was talking about.
More importantly, acknowledging that those who are not white, cisgender, straight, thin, able-bodied, Christian, rich men matter and have value is even more radical. Every day for me is a process of unlearning all I have been taught by kyriarchy and and every day is a process of learning about how it operates and to liberate myself and others from it. Yes, people can interpret things (especially Joanna Newsom songs) any way they want (as mentioned in my initial post), but I was just drawing attention to the fact that we are socialized and conditioned by many forces. To name a sort of trivial example in my life, I am super critical of heteronormative narratives about romance, but yet, I eat that stuff up (Downton Abbey, anyone?). I am queer and yet queer romances do not excite me in the same way heterosexual ones does. And do you know why that is? It is because I have been conditioned since the time I was born to think like that. I have been conditioned to see my worth only in relation to heterosexual relationships. I cannot help that I feel like this, but I hate it and recognizing this was such a huge, AUTONOMOUS step for me. Liberation from kyriarchy means that people will have full autonomy over themselves and we are absolutely not there yet.
Melissa pretty much summed it all up in the previous post but I think bowsandbrogues question/response is valid and it’s really tricky ground to differentiate between analyzing the abortion imagery in her songs and turning it into something different. I promise I will not use the words invasive or misogynistic in this post, although I just did.
To be one hundred percent clear, I do not think there is anything fundamentally wrong with saying “I think ‘Baby Birch’ is about abortion. I think Joanna Newsom has written songs about abortion in the past. Here are some lyrics that I think prove that. Based on this, I think it’s possible that Joanna Newsom has had an abortion and is using her music to work through those emotions.” That, like bowsandbrogues said, is analysis. If I fundamentally disagreed with the basic outline of that argument, I would not be writing for a blog like this. Because I am a giant, obsessive nerd about Joanna’s music, I also think doing those kind of things is really, really interesting.
My feminist side, though, is interested in thinking critically about the way that conversations surrounding abortion play out and I’ve been endlessly interested in seeing the kind of dialogue that “Baby Birch” has created in the fan community.
Here are some questions I think to myself when I see analysis of Baby Birch or when I see videos of her performing it with comments posted below or when some fans talk about it. These are the kind of questions I ask myself when I’m thinking about how we view abortion generally in our society and how it is playing out here, in discussion of Joanna’s music.
Why is the first reaction always “OMG this is sooooooo sad”? Why is there not more discussion of the strength in the song? The defiance? Why is it almost invariably interpreted as a sorrowful song about a “lost” child, rather than an empowering song about a woman’s choice and how that choice has affected her life, how she is coming to terms with it?
Does our reaction to the song say something about how we view women’s desire to have children? Are we pitying the narrator’s choice because we think, deep down, she really wants a baby and that she had an abortion against her will because her boyfriend didn’t want one? Is that the narrative we are constructing?
Does it say something that “Baby Birch” has received more fan analysis than possibly any other one of Joanna’s songs? Is abortion a topic that people want to talk about because they want to create conversations about women’s choice/empowerment or is it because abortion is taboo/salacious in our society and it feels thrilling to talk about the possibility that someone would so openly admit having one?
What do you all think? I’m not expecting anyone to answer those questions, but maybe they’ll spur on some thoughts about this topic. I think it is so important to talk about these things but, at the same time, to think about how we are talking about them. I don’t engage in conversations about whether or not Joanna Newsom, the person, had an abortion, because (at least to me) it’s irrelevant to the analysis of the song and doesn’t add anything to the fact that the song is an enormously powerful and beautiful exploration of heartbreak and healing.
It’s the same way that I find conversations about whether or not Sufjan Stevens is gay/Christian/a space alien totally unnecessary to my interpretations and enjoyment of his songs.
Here’s a response to my latest post from bowsandbrogues.
I think Baby Birch is about the narrator’s abortion, and I think Joanna is the narrator of that song for a myriad of different reasons (none of them because I think Joanna is baby-crazy), I’M AN INVASIVE MISOGYNISTIC CREEP!
I think it’s entirely unfair to call people who analyse her songs biographically rather than “literarily” as some kind of creepy invasive anti-feminists, what a load of garbage. This whole thing comes off as saying that abortion is a taboo topic; we can talk about abortions and analyse their meanings within a song, just as long as we don’t suggest Joanna actually had one. It was some mysterious narrator, not an actual person. I cannot recall seeing any conversation along the lines of “did she or didn’t she”, I think that’s a totally unwarranted comment. People discussing whether or not the song is about abortion/ whether Joanna is the narrator of that song is not “obsessive scrutiny of Joanna’s body”, it’s just analysis.
1.) I am sorry if I did not make this clearer, but I was not merely talking about fan reactions on tumblr. I was talking about fan reactions all over the Internet (comment sections in articles, last.fm, forums I am on, etc. come to mind). The Internet is, unfortunately, a vast wasteland of bad opinions (as you probably just said to yourself right now about my opinions).
I’ve already posted this on my personal tumblr, but Melissa suggested I post it here as well. It’s a response to her spot-on commentary below. Since I’ve been thinking about it a lot since she posted it, I’ve expanded on some of my thoughts.
Frankly, I feel incredibly gross just talking about this.
Honestly, I think there’s a real danger to the interpretations of these songs, and it’s one that borders on anti-feminism (at least from my perspective). Baby Birch is one of the songs that has gotten the most attention, in terms of literary dissection, amongst fans, and I think it is solely because of the subject matter.
I don’t even want to comment on whether or not the song is about abortion anymore because I feel like the discussion has been taken to a sort of salacious, offensive, misogynistic, “did-she-or-didn’t-she” level. The ensuing feeding frenzy over past lyrics to glean any reference to babies is, to me, almost threatening. I see it as creating a sensationalized perception of a very personal and private matter.
Women’s choices regarding their bodies are placed under such a microscope in our society, and subject to such malacious scrutiny. To me, the discussion surrounding Newsom’s hypothetical choice, reeks of this. It’s like, in proving to each other how many images of abortions we can find in her work, we are saying “We know what you did”. That is threatening to me.
On the other hand, and I think Melissa pointed this out when she talked about the “evil men” in Joanna’s life, some fans seem to want this information so that they can paint a tragic picture of her. The “poor, poor Joanna” discussion is something that we are not interested in here (for reference, please see every single post on this blog).
It’s like some fans feel a sense of entitlement to that kind of information about Newsom’s personal decisions as a woman and that is exactly the opposite kind of conversation about abortion that I, as a feminist, am interested in.
I have been trying ever since scrapeyourknee suggested to me that the “Sprout and the Bean” is about abortion to see the song in a different light. Before that time over the summer, I never gave much thought to the song. It was not one of my favorites off The Milk-Eyed Mender and as (Rachel and) I have admitted before, I did not give it enough literary scrutiny. But try though I might, I truly cannot see it any other light now. And I have accepted that, just as I have accepted that abortion is a recurring and haunting theme throughout Joanna’s corpus.
However, what I will never accept about the abortion theme in Joanna’s music, until the words come from Joanna’s mouth, is that she had a veritable abortion. This is a dangerous and muddy view and I cannot believe so many people on tumblr fall victim to biographical interpretations of Joanna’s poetry. This is a TREMENDOUS faux-pas in literary analysis (at least as I have learned it) if one does not have outside confirmation from the author or other credible sources. Joanna has never said she has had an abortion, so stop saying she has. A person can write about or be interested in something that he or she has not actually experienced.
As I have said before, I understand how easy it is to interpret “The Sprout and the Bean,” “Sawdust & Diamonds,” “Baby Birch,” and “On A Good Day” this way considering how personal Joanna’s poetry and music feels. Nevertheless, I think it is only safe for us to make biographical interpretations about “Emily,” since Joanna has stated it is about her sister and that is the only song, to my knowledge, Joanna has spoken about at length in such a way.
So, for now, the abortions in Joanna’s songs are figurative and not literal. That is it.
Furthermore, many people who commit these false, biographical interpretations, also commit an act of serious sexism. They assume Joanna is “baby-crazy,” just like every other woman on the planet. All she wants is to be a mother and she cannot have what she wants because of all the evil men in her life who do not deserve her (this I believe is very much related to woodland nymph fantasy and how people put Joanna on a creepy, gendered, and objectifying pedestal). And yes, Joanna has said that she very much wants to be a mother. But is that all she wants? How do we know what she really wants at all? Her songs might tell us, but they might not and we should wait until Joanna says they do explicitly.
I agree with the interpretation of Baby Birch as a baby lost. Abortion was the first thing that came to my mind the first time I heard the lyrics and the more I listen to the song the more assured I grow of this assumption. Motherhood is a recurring lyrical theme for Joanna, but when it does come up it’s usually in the form of a rather general philosophical approach of what it means to be a mother. Baby Birch is different though. It seems more like a narrative that hints heavily at its content being the personal experience of a woman that lost a baby against her will. This loss could have either been due to a miscarriage or an abortion but I think that the latter fits a lot better with the imagery of the song. The skinning of the rabbit in the final verses makes for a brutal visual image that has you thinking that this woman played an active part in losing this baby. The whole song is tinted with guilt, with the contemplation of missed opportunities and dreams the realisation of which will now have to be postponed. The woman in the song was looking forward to having this baby. She had started to imagine what it would look like and make plans for it. In her mind’s eye the child was a girl and she had even picked a name for it (as noted in On A Good Day which I think can be analysed in the same context as Baby Birch). For reasons unknown, the woman decided not to have this baby. In Baby Birch the only line that could possibly explain this decision is “And on the back of what we’ve done there is the knowledge of you”. That along with the final line of On A Good Day (“Will you leave me be so that we can stay true to the path that you have chosen?”) makes me think that her relationship with the father of her child had started to fall apart around the time of the pregnancy. The uncertainty that came with its demise was what led the woman to make the decision to not have the baby as she knew that she couldn’t have the ideal family that she was dreaming about.
I cannot say how much of the lyrics of Baby Birch are autobiographical, but if by any chance Joanna did go through an experience like the one described in the song, I think she would have made the decision to not have the baby on her own. In her interviews it is evident how important her family is to her and I do believe that when she thinks of family she does so in the traditional sense of the word. Maybe the timing wasn’t right, maybe she felt that the man she was involved with was not willing to be a father to their child. I have always considered Have One On Me as a kind of theme album that chronicles the end of a relationship. If this interpretation is correct then there are some lyrics that could support the opinion that this man wasn’t willing or ready to take part in the process of raising a child. There are songs in which he comes across as emotionally immature, a man that wanted out of his relationship with the main character of the album because he wasn’t prepared to take it seriously.
Baby Birch is more than a dream baby to me. She is more than an inner desire of the main character, more than the child that she dreams of one day having. She is the baby that this woman almost had. I can definitely understand the point of view that wants the skinning of the rabbit to be a manifestation of a primal need to become a mother, but it’s the guilt that stands out the most for me in this final scene. Right after the barber that is cutting and cutting away at her only joy, the woman herself projects all her regret in the act of skinning a rabbit that somehow manages to run away. Her baby ran away and despite the fact that it was her own choice to allow it to do so, she still realises that it is going to come back and haunt her. The woman calls out for her baby in the night and the baby comes and she ‘sees shapes’. Its image both comforts and tortures her but she can’t get away from it. I don’t think that a dream baby would cause all this pain. This is not just a baby she wishes to one day have. This is a baby that she could have already had and by choosing not to she ‘closed the door’ on a unique child. She may become a mother in the future but this one baby that she never got to know wont let her go so easily. So yes, Baby Birch is definitely a baby lost for me.
[EDITOR’S NOTE from Melissa in 2013: This was my first post on Blessing All the Birds and I have a different interpretation of this song now. I now believe this song could be about an abortion and I analyze my own relationship with abortion stigma and the song here.]
I, too, googled Joanna Newsom and feminism recently. I came upon a review of Have One on Me in which Jonah Weiner from Slate avers that “Baby Birch” is about an abortion (or a least a baby lost through adoption). I think this is a provocative argument and it made me re-assess my interpretation of the song. However, I am hesitant to say it is about an abortion or even an adoption. I instead want to offer another interpretation, one I believe seems more in line with Joanna’s repertoire and her recent comments to Mojo about motherhood.*
The language throughout the song is certainly one of deep loss concerning a child, a baby-girl she “will never know.” The narrator sings that she “hated to close the door” on Baby Birch (which interestingly connects the song to “Go Long” and its images of women opening doors, but that could be for another time). But I think the song’s narrator is closing the door on her dreams of a particular child, possibly with a particular person, rather than on a real pregnancy or child that was lost.
She had imagined childhood for this baby (“Do you remember staring, /Up at the stars,/ So far away in their bulletproof cars?”) and wanted her to have an ideal life (“Because I’d hate to see her/ Make the same mistakes”). The narrator was even consoled by this dream during trying times (“When it was dark,/ I called and you came”).
By the end of the song, she resolves to obliterate this dream of Baby Birch once and for all after it returned from a long absence (“Well mercy me, I’ll be goddamned./ It’s been a long, long time/Since I last saw you”). Perhaps, the dream of the child is now too painful to bear because she had envisioned the baby with a certain someone who is now gone. The narrator reveals that the child had an amorphous visage and I think that image at least eliminates the adoption possibility, while still supporting the abortion possibility (“Your eyes are green. Your hair is gold./Your hair is black. Your eyes are blue”).
I believe the dream-obliteration scene transpires during the grisly rabbit-sacrifice scene at the end of “Baby Birch.” The female rabbit represents her dream of the baby-girl and she decides to mutilate it and frighten it away from her consciousness (and subconsciousness). The narrator even warns the rabbit/dream not to come back or else (“‘Wherever you go,/ Little runaway bunny,/ I will find you’”). I have always been troubled with the “mewling” rabbit, but I really do not think this could represent an abortion. However, that is not to say Joanna is not courageous enough to do so and it is not as if her work is devoid of disturbing imagery.
* I realize much of Joanna’s corpus is probably biographical as well as fantastical, though that has only veritably been confirmed for Ys. But I am always wary of taking that route when I analyze anyone’s poetry. It is especially easy to fall prey to biographical readings when the poetry is as seemingly personal as Joanna’s. I am also avoiding a biographical reading because I have found people too focused on finding Bill Callahan lurking in Have One on Me’s lyrics. Let us all interpret this song and others from Have One on Me without such a muddy context.
Anyway, what do you guys think? Adoption, abortion, dream, or something else?