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.