I was an English major with a focus on poetry writing at Harvard, and my poetry teacher gave me Joanna Newsom’s first CD— he was like that teacher who totally changes the course of your life. So I was super into The Milk-Eyed Mender, and then my friends invited me to go see Joanna Newsom play live when Ys came out. I felt like I’d been transported to another world. Ys has a lot to do with the death of a loved one and discovering your own creativity, all done through very mystical poetry, and I was also dealing with those same things. I felt like she was speaking directly to me the whole concert. I was like, “How can this happen?”
I listened to that album on repeat for so long. I could spend days trying to figure out just a single complex metaphor. The one that stands out to me is: “In the mud cloud, mica-spangled, like the sky’d been breathing on a mirror.” It’s like John Donne, who was a really early metaphysical poet, or Yeats. That image has so many layers and the ideas you can draw out of it are also manifold.
The main thing I learned in college is that if you’re going to make a piece of art, you’d better have some emotional urgency behind it; otherwise, it’s not worth making, and you’ll never accomplish anything with it. When I think of a performer who’s willing to be super weird and super naked and always writes with some kind of urgency, I think of Joanna Newsom. It’s a good lesson in being yourself. Live, she makes these faces, and she squats a little bit, and she is very physically involved with the instrument, which is cool. I try to do all that stuff, maybe not consciously, but I like to think that I’m not just standing around and staring at my shoes. I don’t really care about keeping up with appearances—I’ve pretended that the guitar is a machine gun and shot the audience with it. I saw a nine year old do something similar at the Rock ‘N’ Roll Camp for Girls showcase concert a few weeks ago. It was a little shocking.
Do you think you would like to share your essay with us? I would love to re-blog it or you could submit to the Blessing All the Birds. I’ll forgive you if it doesn’t mention Joanna Newsom at all. Haha.
Did he or she really say that? It’s like responding to the statistic that women only own one percent of property in the world with the statement: “Women own property outside of the mainstream.” I can’t even LOL at that.
You are making us blush! Rachel started this blog because she was pretty disappointed about discussions of Joanna on tumblr and the media. No one really had anything to say about the pretty overt feminism in Joanna’s corpus. I think it has something to do with the fact that one, no one actually listens to her music and two, she doesn’t look like what people consider a feminist to look like.
I would love to! They definitely need a more prominent female presence over there and more people who will call out their boys’ club mentality! I’ve been keeping a closer track of their reviews lately and they have barely even reviewed female artists in the past month and have granted no new Best New Music’s to women. They don’t even feature female artists on Pitchfork TV very often. A reader of Blessing All the Birds suggested to me that I stop complaining about Pitchfork and write my own music critcism blog, but that’s like complaining about the New York Times and then distributing my own ridiculously famous and respected newspaper! I think it’s worthwhile to hope/demand that Pitchfork reform itself.
I keep on receiving messages in our ask box telling me that Pitchfork does not have a hivemind complex and that my argument is therefore unsound. I think people are merely reading my original post and not my clarification post. Here it is. And here is the quote from the former editor-in-chief of Pitchfork:
The ratings are not assigned lightly. “Over and over we revisit decisions before they’re on the site,” said Plagenhoef. Albums are discussed via e-mail and on a staff message board. The review is then assigned to a writer trusted to deliver the group’s opinion. Reviews have individual bylines, but they represent the Pitchfork hive-mind.
So, the 9.4 Pitchfork gave Ys and the 9.5 they gave Bon Iver do reflect the overall opinions of all the writers (though, of course, some writers will have more weight than others and an individual writer can assert her or his opinion somewhat). I thought more people knew about this because when I that article was first published a ton of people were making fun of it on tumblr and elsewhere on the Internet and that’s why I didn’t mention it in my original post.
Yes. I have most definitely considered all of this on the blog when I have previously and almost ad nauseum-ly discussed the gender-binary in music journalism, particularly concerning Joanna Newsom and Kate Bush. I hate that the genders in music are put into genre-boxes and that most definitely does affect how women are perceived by music journalists. But that is why female artists like Joanna Newsom deserve even more praise! She said “no” to the box placed before her in so many ways! Anyway…what makes me think that Pitchfork’s sexism is more than just a reflection of institutionalized sexism in the music industry is the boys’ club aura of Pitchfork. 45 out of 50 of their main writers are male. I can’t help but think that is a factor in their Best New Music category and end-of-the year lists. I would say the same thing about the Supreme Court decision today against the women who held a class-action suit against Walmart. There are only three women on the bench and they all, plus one man, sided with the plaintiffs. And then the rest of men thought that the plaintiffs could not prove sexism conclusively. The pervasive Boys’ Club mentality is so problematic for more reasons than I have the patience to elaborate on right now.
I am definitely going to improve my statistical “analyses.” My initial statistics were, admittedly, a bit slapdash in concept. But I was thinking exactly what you suggested farther down the line. I’d be happy to collaborate with you or anyone who wants to do more research on this topic. I know this might seem trivial compared to so many issues in feminism, but to me, as a lover of music and a budding musician, it is very important. And feminism is about being feminist in big and small ways and looking to combat every manifestation of sexism one comes upon.
That was my post! Thank you for reading! I certainly don’t think the density of the album was a problem for Pitchfork. They closely listen to albums like Have One on Me all the time. With publications like Pitchfork and their caliber of writing and analysis, it’s more about their preconceived notions of how a feminist looks and what she does.
Thank you for your response. Keep them coming, people!
1. The main point of my post wasn’t how much I love Ys and Joanna Newsom, although my love for the album and Newsom led me to research some troubling things about Pitchfork. My main point was that Pitchfork has never given a 10.0 rating to a female artist. Pitchfork has only awarded six BMNs to artists/bands this year with females as primary songwriters out of twenty-five such stamps. And most importantly, Pitchfork has only named albums as best of the year twice with women as the primary songwriters. Even considering the sexist, male domination of the music industry, those numbers are still disconcerting. Pitchfork is disproportionately telling its huge audience that men and their projects are better than women and their projects. And it’s not even that Pitchfork is excluding genres in which women have a major presence. It reviews and covers solo, singer-songwriters all the time.
2. I called Pitchfork as a whole sexist because of its admitted and notorious hivemind complex. The former editor-in-chief of the publication said that all the writers and contributors discuss an album and then they decide which writer will best be able to reflect Pitchfork groupthink. So, yes, an individual writes a review and he or she can assert her or his subjective opinions on ratings somewhat, but her or his review will be a representation overall of the website.
3. We must remember that sexism does not only have to be conscious. I would say most of the time it is often subconscious. I am not arguing that the Pitchfork staff is systematically and consciously excluding women from the high echelons of praise—there is no evidence of that (although the male-domination of their staff, 45 out of 50 writers being male, is quite eyebrow-raising; boys’ clubs like Pitchfork are always troublesome; it’s like the government and Hollywood and big business). Sexism is sexism is sexism. Subconscious sexism has the same result as conscious. No female artists have been granted a 10.0 rating from Pitchfork, etc., etc., etc.
If you want to talk about this more, feel free to ask a question or submit a post.
So, I wake up this morning and I start my daily Internet routine as usual. I realize it’s Monday, so Pitchfork will have new information and reviews, etc. I am glad they posted the new WILD FLAG single because I hadn’t heard a high quality version of it yet. I then look over at the reviews and I see that they typically gave Bon Iver’s new album (Bon Iver) a Best New Music stamp. I didn’t think the album deserved it after three listens (and I sort of love Bon Iver) because it’s middle section was very weak, although there are many standout songs (“Calgary,” “Perth,” “Holocene”). I was expecting them to give it an 8.4, 8.5, which is what they usually give BNM’d material. But to my absolute horror, they gave it a 9.5. I just couldn’t believe it. This album received a higher score than anything Joanna Newsom has ever created? And yes, that is seriously always my indignant question when Pitchfork rates something higher than Ys, which received Newsom’s highest score of 9.4 from the publication. I know I shouldn’t care because it’s just a music journalism website, but I care because everyone else in the damn indie universe cares. Soon, as a result of the Pitchfork phenomenon, everyone will start talking about how Bon Iver’s pretty good album is the album of the century, just like Kanye West’s pretty OK My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which I think are absolutely false claims. Sure, Bon Iver’s new album and Kanye West’s last album did not receive such glowing reviews from other music criticism sites, but it’s undeniable that Pitchfork is the most prominent and trusted by indie music fans.