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 "Misogyny"
Asker getawaydrug Asks:
What do you think about influential critic Piero Scaruffi's treatment of Newsom's work?
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

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. 


one of my weird death hills concerns Joanna Newsom fans who are extremely resistant to the idea that “Baby Birch” is about an abortion, and who write lots of words about how this song is OBVIOUSLY about lots of things like… things (maybe she’s just really sad she broke up with a dude before they got to make babies :( did you ever think of that) and it’s JUST SO COMPLEX NO ONE CAN ASSIGN A MEANING, IT’S UNPOSSIBLE and how dare you imply my fragile ethereal elf queen might write anything that reaffirms abortion as a necessary choice sometimes blah blah blah

I mean, have you even read the lyrics? it’s not vague at all, you’re just really fucking resistant to the idea that abortion could inspire a complex, emotional song that simultaneously examines regret about limited possibilities and offers no apology for the decision made, because you’re choking on pro-life propaganda that implies that no one could think about an abortion for two seconds and go through with it, much less produce art about it

long story short, these fans can kiss my ass

I completely understand and appreciate this rage. Anti-abortion rhetoric and beliefs make my blood boil to dangerous temperatures. The very root of my feminism is about absolute self-determination and bodily autonomy and if people do not have absolute control of their uteruses, they are not liberated. And true liberation will not happen until abortion is available to everyone, for free, on demand (many other things have to happen as well, of course). Abortion stigma, even from those who work within and for reproductive justice, also makes my blood boil. There is this extremely problematic rhetoric going around which amounts to: “abortion should be safe, affordable, and rare.” First, as mentioned, abortion should be free and on demand, not “affordable.” Second and more importantly, “rare” stigmatizes the act of abortion and attaches a treacherous ethical value on it. “Rare” implies that abortion should be eliminated and that if the world were a perfect, utopian place, abortion would be “bad.” Someone should be able to have an abortion NO MATTER WHAT THE CIRCUMSTANCES. There should be no ethical judgments placed upon abortion as some sort of “necessary evil.” The “rare” rhetoric also implies that people have to explain WHY they had an abortion. No one should have to explain anything to anyone about their bodies and we should stop trying to police them by demanding an explanation. I would get an abortion no matter how I became pregnant. I just never, ever want to be pregnant. That’s it. The demands for explanations make some situations appear more legitimate than others. All abortions are legitimate. None should be policed. None should be shamed. All are about controlling one’s body without apology. 

We live in a society that absolutely and constantly stigmatizes marginalized people (e.g. people with uteruses) when they control their bodies. Marginalized people controlling their bodies is a direct threat to kyriarchy and we are taught from the moment we are born to uphold kyriarchy and it takes years of unlearning to even acknowledge that there is kyriarchy. And I know it is the case that sometimes when people interpret “Baby Birch,” they are reacting within that stigmatizing, kyriarchal framework. We live in a world where it is much more acceptable and admired for a person to say they deeply regretted their abortion than that they were deeply relieved by their abortion. There is so much more room for abortion stigma and apology than abortion acceptance and joy and that is so deeply problematic. I am not going to call out people whom I believe interpret “Baby Birch” in this way because I am much more critical of the “system” than the individual cases. I do not want to police people’s interpretations, I just want people to be aware of the system of interpretation and what voices and opinions there are room for in the kyriarchy. I am not at all saying that those who interpret this song as a miscarriage are wrong (it absolutely could be and I think “Only Skin” is in part about a miscarriage rather than an abortion). I am discussing those who absolutely deny that “Baby Birch” could be about an abortion because of the cultural narratives and stigma around abortion. I just want people to unlearn abortion stigma. That would be great. 

Moreover, it is completely valid for the original poster to bring up how if “Baby Birch” is about an abortion, it muddles the dominating narratives about Joanna Newsom and her (expressions of) femininity. Perfect ladies like Joanna don’t talk about abortion and they certainly do not get them! Controlling one’s body is radical in the kyriarchy and talking about it openly is just as radical. Too often I see that some people have no idea how messy and dark and troubling Newsom’s music can be, especially on Ys and Have One on Me. And people are resistant to see that because that complexity does not fit their preconceived notions of femininity. Ladies cannot talk eloquently about death, sex, mortality, obsession. They can only talk about love!!! Just take a look at some of the reviews of Have One on Me. They are pitiably uncritical and recycle sexist tropes and they are so and do so because of misogyny. That is a real concern and I do not think we throw that concern away because the original poster is angry. I am angry, too! Anger is a valid reaction to misogyny.