Welcome to Blessing All the Birds, a feminist fan project focused on the work of songwriter Joanna Newsom. We see Newsom's work as feminist literature and our goal is to provide it the serious critical analysis it deserves, as well as to discuss her unique place in popular culture.
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Posts tagged "Femininity"

Joanna Newsom Triple J Interview from February 23, 2010

This is a great, more-revealing-than-usual, but-still-pretty-cryptic interview about the writing process behind Have One on Me, which 041 alerted me to in the Joanna Newsom tag. I mentioned in this post about how I wanted to know more about her songcraft and this answered some of what I had been wondering. For example, she discusses that she rarely has bouts of rushed inspiration in which she has to hurry to transcribe/dictate the song.

Moreover, as she discusses the process behind writing “Have One on Me,” three important facts stick out to me. One, the song was written during her time in the studio for Ys, which might explain the song’s multifarious connections to “Monkey & Bear” (sex work, female performance, slut-shaming, harmful dependency on abusive men and food/alcohol, female death). Two, Joanna stresses the “narrator” of “Have One on Me,” a crucial distinction between her, the author, and the narratological voice of her songs. This is another piece of evidence which confirms her resistance to biographical readings, although she concedes that many of her songs are based on her life. One of the many elements which make her songs so special is how her personal life becomes wrapped up in intentionally arcane mythology and poetry, how her personal life transforms into literature to be interpreted as such. And three, “Have One on Me” is written from the perspective of a narrator in a state of feverish hallucinations and nostalgia (!!!). I love this little tidbit about the song and it raises many questions. Should we trust the narrator? What is Joanna saying about trusting the voices of women as narrators in general (which is also a concern of Margaret Atwood and Zora Neale Hurston)? How do manifestations of the “mad woman” stereotype/trope emerge in Joanna’s corpus? How and when do we see men gaslight the emotions of women in her corpus? 

The thoughts, they are a brewing. Stay tuned! 

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.”  

byaspringforaspell:

“I’ve photographed Joanna Newsom a couple of times now and what stands out to me the most is her wicked sense of humour. The second time I met her we had to shoot in the local launderette because she had to do her laundry and had no other free time. I noticed as I was taking the photo of her sat in front of the machines that somebody had scratched ‘slut’ into the glass door above her head. “Leave it in” she insisted, “Don’t photoshop it out”. You can see it if you look close enough… As we drove her back to her hotel we passed a massive billboard of Razorlight. She gave them the two fingers and hollered “Fuck you Razorlight” as we zoomed through the heart of Shoreditch.”

- Cat Stevens

This quote is interesting to me for many reasons: people often do not discuss the (dark) humor in Joanna Newsom’s works or even the irony. That deeply saddens me, even though I have done nothing much about it myself. The Milk-Eyed Mender is full of humor and even songs like “Easy” are hilarious if we interpret them as sarcastic rather than coquettish.

But I think Cat Stevens errs when he says that she left the word “slut” on the machine because of her humor. Or maybe…he just omitted another reason why she insisted it remain there: her intellectual interests in female sexuality and how it is policed and interpreted. Songs like “Only Skin,” “Have One on Me,” and “‘81” show that Joanna is critically and deeply concerned with slut-shaming and gendered double standards. What is a “slut?” Is a slut real? How is it a figment of heteropatriarchy? 

Moreover, if we consider the belt she is wearing (her “Bill” belt), how does the slut inscription add to the visual humor and irony of the scene? The belt is a dramatic and overexaggerated symbol of monogamy to a man, which Joanna explores time and time again as a symptom and expectation of femininity. How does the slut inscription problematize that symbol of monogamy? How does it show how female sexuality is policed? How does it show that the condemnation of “slut” always looms for women as a construct, even if they are “following the rules?” How do both the “Bill” belt and the slut inscription show that women are only reduced to their gatekeeping of sex? How does it show that all women must fall within the constraints of the madonna/whore dichotomy? 

Now that I know that inscription is there, I think this is one of the more important photographs of Joanna: it shows her humor (as Cat Stevens rightly says), but it also speaks to her feminist, philosophical, and intellectual concerns in a way that I never conceived of before. 

I personally feel like a lot of the ways people (and critics…usually men) talk about Newsom and discuss her music is really, really intensely sexist. Like that SO much of the language used for her (‘fey’, ‘precious’, ‘elfin’, etc) are really just code-words for ‘feminine.’ And related to this, she gets described as ‘crazy’ and as being some wild muse that needs to be hemmed in by the more ‘rational’/’intellectual’ male collaborators like Callahan, O’Rourke, Banhardt, and [Van Dyke Parks]. But the thing is, Newsom IS intelligent, and her music isn’t some ‘wild’ thing, nor is it ‘precious’ or ‘childlike’ or ‘fey’. It’s complex, intelligent, intricate, creative, technical and also very mature. It feels to me like Newsom is a very extreme example of people’s perceptions of gender conditioning and distorting their perceptions of art and artists. The Newsom I read about in reviews has NOTHING to do with the Newsom I actually encounter in her music. And the former seems like it’s just a myth mostly constructed from fear of recognition of women’s intelligence, creativity, and proficiency. They’d rather cling to a storybook wild pixie filled with some magical, incomprehensible female inspiration than actually accept that a woman can be every bit as capable a songwriter as their beloved Leonard Cohens, Tom Waitses, Bob Dylans and so on, and as capable a composer as their [Van Dyke Parkses]…Seems to me a perfect example of sexism prevalent in music journalism and ‘hipster’/indie sub-culture, amongst people who pose themselves as more ‘enlightened’/sensitive than the rest of society.

Natalie Reed, in conversation with me on twitter, on the sexist, infantilizing, and reductive media narratives about Joanna Newsom. She brilliantly synthesizes what we have been saying at Blessing All the Birds since the beginning.

I also think the “fey” words are code for “we do not want to actually engage with this music because doing so would actually mean acknowledging a woman’s words are powerful and intellectual and thus, threatening to patriarchy in music (and the world).” Those words, most importantly, bespeak of the fear of Newsom’s intense and subversive femininity. 

Asker rocilanda Asks:
Hi, I've been recently reading your entries on Joanna's and Kate Bush' and Björk's comparisons with all that's magical and witchy. I've found them really interesting, and there's a thought that passed though my mind that I wanted to discuss or clarify: Witches don't exist per se. What does exist, is the enormous number of women who died because of the unfair accusations of a sexist society. And these women, I believe, have always been women who stand up for their rights, (...)
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

(…) and did things that only men were allowed to do, and therefore disturbed people that lost their power over them. Witches, in reality, were nothing but forceful women who weren’t understood, and generated fear due to their intense pasion and love and freedom that were so restricted for the twisted society of that era. And in a way, Joanna, Kate and Björk are like that, and to look at them as witches is not that offensive. Maybe being a witch doesn’t always got a negative connotation.

Hi, thanks for the great question! I agree about the innate power of witches and I realized a little while ago how much empowerment I actually derive from reading the history and culture of witches. And I understand the impulse for people to call Kate Bush and Björk and Joanna Newsom witches. They are powerful, they are special and talented, they tap in to and use feminine energies that are important (but misunderstood), and they are extremely independent and smart. But my main criticism around that moniker for them as artists is that it is too often cast upon them by people and critics who don’t actually analyze and engage with their femininity and its power in a critical and clear way. They cast that moniker on them because they are being reductive and unwilling to explain what “witch” means in a literal and figural way and also many times, I think they are intimidated. Witches directly threaten kyriarchy and when one is called a witch, it’s a warning to those who want to uphold oppressive structures. And we also cannot divest that moniker of its sexualization. Witchcraft and (illicit) sex have been tied together for centuries and I think that is part of the impulse to give them that moniker, too: it’s just another facet of how objectified and sexualized female artists are in this society. Witches are desired and hated because of their sexual independence. Transgressions are attractive, but they also must be squelched. 

Let’s keep on talking about this. Anyone else have any witchy stuff they want to discuss here? 

So, of course, I have been thinking about the newly-surfaced Joanna Newsom song over the past couple of weeks. I haven’t contemplated it as much as I would like because of MY HUGE ZOMG PH.D QUALIFYING EXAM, but it’s quite beautiful and wonderful and I hope to hear more live versions of it soon. I am not convinced that this a song she wrote recently. Its themes are so similar to her Ys period that at first I was a little dismayed with it (but—let’s be real—that didn’t last long). 

Water for Joanna Newsom means so many things. In “Emily” and “Cosmia,” it’s a place of discovery and epiphany and family and grieving. In “Monkey & Bear,” it’s a place where Bear can finally escape Monkey, let go of her bodily shame, and take control. It’s freedom. In “Sawdust & Diamonds,” the water is where the narrator can possibly drown her desires and it again promises liberation. In “Only Skin,” water is the place where the narrator discovered loved, lust, and desire and the drowning, which we find in “Sawdust & Diamonds,” becomes more bodily for the lovers and represents the dissolution of their relationship and the impossibility of them staying afloat. Their relationship is never truly healed as they drown in waters of their sexuality. We must also consider the deep and complex interplay between fire and water in this song (both, oddly, representative of their desire and the destruction of desire). And in “Colleen” the narrator was once free in the water and is encouraged on land to forget about that freedom and to practice enforced and repressive femininity. Both Colleen and Bear, female-identified figures, find freedom in water and restrictions on land. Water offers fluidity and land offers rigidity. 

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So, I re-read “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter recently and seriously, whenever I read it, I always think about how it will help to illuminate “Go Long” and many of the themes of Have One on Me. (I suppose I am ultimately more interested in Joanna Newsom and hence, the Newsom blog and not the Carter one.) The connections between these renditions of the Bluebeard myth are almost too hard-wired now. I know Blessing All the Birds is always going on about “Go Long” and Bluebeard and all that, but the questions raised by Newsom and Carter as they explore the folk tale affect me so personally as I constantly navigate and contemplate my own femininity and its existence under the imperium of the patriarchy. 

The thing that truly terrifies me about both Carter’s and Newsom’s take on Bluebeard is how enforced femininity or at least femininity expected and demanded by a powerful male figure is presented as dehumanizing. The more vain the narrator becomes in “The Bloody Chamber,” the more materialistic she becomes, the more she dependent she becomes on the riches of a powerful man—the more she is complicit in dehumanizing herself and the more she becomes like an object for Marquis to possess and violate. The more she is corrupted by greed the more corporeal she becomes and the more she is like a piece of meat for Marquis to slaughter. She swears early in the story that before she met him she was never vain or very feminine. Marquis does not believe he truly owns his wives until he dominates them with luxury, beds them in the bed of his patriarchs, and kills them for the curiosity he detects in all of them. Curiosity is only another form of greed. In the end, femininity in “The Bloody Chamber” in part becomes about the capacity to be corrupted and dehumanized and to be rendered vulnerable to violence. This becomes even more apparent to the audience because the possessions he gives the narrator directly reflect violence he will inflict upon her (his first gift to her is a ruby choker and he chooses to murder her by decapitation). But does femininity always render one a victim? Carter at the very end of the story subverts that notion and makes the maternal figure the narrator’s salvation against male predation. There is so much to unpack about this short story with all its contradictory impulses. 

In “Go Long,” in the very first stanza we learn of how much the narrator has relinquished her bodily autonomy and has become a possession. She is carried in on a palanquin, “made up of the bodies of beautiful women”—women who have faced the ultimate dehumanization and the ultimate loss of bodily freedom. And she has been “brought to this place to be examined…” perhaps to see if she has become feminine enough, if she has enough curiosity. We learn later that the narrator’s ankles are bound in gauze, which may illuminate why she was carried in a litter. Is she no longer free to escape? Can she not run away from the violence? Has her surrender to femininity incapacitated her? But if we think of the narrator being static throughout Have One on Me, it becomes very hard to decipher the narrator’s feelings about enforced femininity and the violence it manifests. The narrator throughout is also very keen to highlight the pleasures she derives from femininity and how much it defines her identity, especially in “Does Not Suffice.” The narrator in “Does Not Suffice” emphasizes her possession of the feminine garments over and over again (“I will pack up my high-heeled shoes…”). The clothes are all hers and she uses them to help her cope with her loss and to remind the person she loved “how easy [she] was not.” Instead of the clothes dehumanizing her, they “re-humanize” her. To the narrator of Have One on Me, femininity does not automatically translate into possession and loss of self and violence. Femininity is very capable of affirming her humanity. But throughout Have One On Me such destruction is always disastrously close. Can femininity ever have one meaning? One type of consequence? 

I originally began this post as something of a love letter to Joanna Newsom’s clothing. Her closet is, no doubt, the stuff of 1970s, full skirted, chiffon-swirled dreams. Over the past year or so, Joanna Newsom Fashion, byaspringforaspell and Milky Moon forum user Claire have thoroughly researched and documented Joanna’s beautiful stage costumes and provided sources for Joanna-inspired adornments, all happily consumed by admirers of her aesthetic world. Joanna herself has been spotted in the front row at fashion shows, shopping at vintage clothing stores, on the streets ofNew York wearing designer trench coats, and featured in numerous fashion-focused print magazines. I realized, as I thought more about it and as I struggled to siphon my thoughts onto paper, that this topic is more a series than a single post.

Joanna Newsom isn’t just a clothes horse or a dress-maker’s mannequin. She’s an intelligent and thinking human being whose relationship to clothing is as complex as her harp rhythms and lyrical worlds.  In this series, I hope to provide a compendium of quotes and lyrics from and by Joanna that deal with clothing and fashion, along with my own commentary and that of other fans and/or critics. It will look at the role that clothing plays in the lives and performance of female artists, the way that clothing is used to shape and shame the female body, the way that womenfolk use clothes to shape themselves and how women speak about their clothing in relation to their identities.

Here is an overview of the organization of this series (although I may not cover the topics in this particular order), as well as some of the topics I’d like to touch upon:

Clothing and Identity – This post will focus mostly on Joanna’s early days and her love of Gunne Sax dresses, specifically the way in which those particular dresses have forever shaped the popular perception of her as a “fairytale princess”, “wood nymph”, and “pixie” etc. etc.

“Fashion”, Backlash and Internalized Sexism – Looking at Joanna’s work with major fashion designers and the “Fashion” world. How does she speak about “Fashion” and how do others speak about her relationship to it (particularly other women). I will use a reading of the song Ribbon Bows to explore some of her ideas here.

Clothing and Performance/Artistic Expression – I’ll use quotes from interviews, as well as lyrical references from Have One on Me and Monkey and Bear to discuss the role that clothes play in “performing femininity”.  I will also touch on the packaging aesthetic of Have One on Me as it relates to the overall artistic vision.

Clothing and the Male Gaze – Here I’ll challenge the assumption that women’s fashion choices are made solely for the purpose of sexual appeal. I’ll discuss how body ideals have been imposed upon women and how women have challenged those impositions in order to shape their own bodies. I’ll look at lyrics from Does Not Suffice, Colleen, and Monkey and Bear to see how Joanna subverts the idea that women’s bodies are not their own to shape and clothe in whichever manner they choose.

Clothing and Materialism – This post will briefly discuss the way that indie culture has commodified the female body and the role that Joanna’s image played in the “bohemian”/ cultural appropriation trends of the past decade. Also, I’ll talk about Joanna’s vintage aesthetic and the implications behind it.

Clothing and Practicality – Looking at the way that Joanna herself discusses clothing. It’s not all dress up and fairytales.

I look forward to writing about this over the summer. I hope you’ll enjoy it and, as always, if you have any suggestions or topics you think I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them!

Rachel

[EDITOR’S NOTE from Melissa in 2013: I never picked up the second part of this intended series. Mea culpa. Maybe sometime in the future.] 

The other day on the train, I broke down and cried over “Have One on Me.” 

This is a pretty common occurrence for me, especially when I haven’t listened to Newsom in a long time (i.e. two weeks). Most of the time, I cry over Newsom’s music because it’s just too amazing to even be conceivable, but sometimes I cry because her words on the feminine condition are too powerful and too close to home. And I don’t even mind weeping in public over music. It’s part of my personal feminist agenda to reclaim crying for female-identified persons and to legitimize it as a radical action. 

Have One on Me speaks too profoundly about the dependency, self-sacrifice, self-destruction, masochism, pretense, and shame that can arise from femininity. But it also speaks of the pleasures that femininity can bestow upon people. As a female-identified person, I have (fortunately and unfortunately) experienced the full spectrum of femininity. And the narrator on Have One on Me does, as well, although it most often seems she is exorcising herself of its detriments and traps.  

Much of what I will speak of below and in the future, we have already touched upon on at Blessing All the Birds. My recent series “‘When I Broke My Bone,’ Parts I and II,” which detailed the images of physical dependency and self-victimization and its links to femininity, will most definitely have some analytical overlap. But nevertheless, I wanted to more specifically explore the themes of self-destruction, the expectation of self-sacrifice, the expected erasure of identity, the empowerment of identity, the pleasure, and even the performative tendencies which derive from traditional femininity and how those themes manifest themselves in many of the songs in Have One on Me

As a result of too much verbiage on these topics, this will become a series that we all can digest a little at a time, although, admittedly most of my efforts will be expended on my analyses of “Easy” and “Have One on Me.” I shall also be exploring “No Provenance,” “In California,” “Go Long,” “Kingfisher,” and “Does Not Suffice.” But for now, let’s look into “Easy.” 

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This blog began with a post about Joanna Newsom and “enchantment”, a sort of rant that grew out of my increasing frustration over the portrayal she received in major press, particularly the conversations surrounding her “fairy princess” image.

As time has gone on, I have come to realize and even accept that for some listeners, this image is part of the appeal. I even admitted, in my original post, that I find Joanna “enchanting”, that there is something otherworldly and fantastical about her music that speaks to me as a lover of fairy tales, folklore and all things associated with “childhood”. This blog project has allowed me the space to “unpack” some of those associations, to understand exactly what it is I find appealing about Joanna’s particular representation of that world of innocence (as it is so often erroneously perceived) and how she uses traditional folk forms, references to “children’s stories”, rhymes, and fable to convey sophisticated commentary on feminist issues.

I’d like to write a more polished piece on this subject and am opening the floor to any suggestions, discussion, or recommendations our readers might have. Here are some questions I would welcome feedback to, but feel free to just generally comment on this topic.

  • Can you think of articles or interviews in which Joanna discusses these topics?
  • Are you personally drawn to Joanna’s fairy tale image? Do you know why?
  • How do fairy tales and childhood play into Joanna’s statements about “being a woman”?
  • What are some of the references you have found to childhood, children’s stories or fairy tales in Joanna’s work?
  • How do you visualize Joanna’s world? What comes to mind when you are listening to her music?

Thanks, Joanna fans and friends!

Rachel