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 "Pitchfork"

I saw Joanna Newsom at Pitchfork Music Festival yesterday. You can read my personal review here. As we probably all know, Joanna shared two new songs yesterday, one harp one and one piano one. She also played “Look and Despair” and “The Diver’s Wife” again.

This is a really interesting group of very different songs and I am really curious as to how they are going to be grouped coherently on the new record. There is also the possibility that the album won’t have an overarching theme, which would be strange indeed and I’m probably just wildly theorizing. But maybe she will do something like Hounds of Love by Kate Bush and have distinct suites.

As for what Blessing All the Birds does with these new songs, I have decided that I don’t want to listen to all these new songs beyond a few times before the album comes out. I want to savor them in the context of the full album. I have also decided not to try to make a statement on them analytically until the full album comes out with an official lyric sheet (I did the opposite with “The Diver’s Wife” and I am now eating my words as a result of some lyrical clarifications from yesterday’s performance).

I have already noticed some connections to her older songs and interesting avenues of analysis I can go down. I still want to analyze The Pearl by John Steinback in relation to “The Diver’s Wife.” With just first impressions while listening during the set at the festival, I think one could definitely thematically compare the new piano song to “Have One on Me” and the new harp song to “No Provenance.” And I want to write about the cultural erasure of women in art and history by men in “Look and Despair.”

I’m looking forward to delving into these songs. 

And speaking of indie marquee names, the song on We the Common liable to generate the most chatter is probably ‘Kindness Be Conceived’, a sprightly and predictably pastoral duet with Joanna Newsom. (According to Thao, the two met somewhere that I assure you is not a soundstage for a ‘Portlandia sketch’ but an actual place in the world: ‘a Virginia Woolf-style farm paradise where women writers get their own cabins and write all day and meet in the evening for dinner.’)
Lindsay Zoladz for Pitchfork on Thao and the Get Down Stay Down’s collaboration with Joanna Newsom. My big question/reaction is: that camp most be one of the most glorious, feminist, and creative places on the planet, right? And, of course, this means Joanna is writing new material???

This is a review from Pitchfork of My Brightest Diamond’s latest album, All Things Will Unwind. Within the review, they compare Shara Worden’s musical ambition on this album to Joanna Newsom’s overall ambition. But, is that really a solid comparison when they both make very different music, lyrically, thematically, and sonically? Aren’t there a ton of musicians who make ambitious statements every week? Why does Worden have to be compared with Joanna Newsom at all? Because they both do orchestral music? Don’t a lot of artists? Or is this comparison made in the first place because women must be compared to other women and Joanna Newsom is the closest analogue they can pick from a hat? Yeah, it is definitely “they are both ladies” thing and as we have shown again and again on this blog, that is so lazy and reductive and sexist. Why not make the Sufjan Stevens comparison, which in my mind, is much obvious and tenable?

Moreover, I feel uncomfortable with the term “oddball vulnerability” to describe Newsom’s music. One thing I love and I am sure we all love about Newsom is the emotional openness in her music, masked by layers and layers of poetic technique, but do you have to call her an “oddball?” It just perpetuates stereotypes about women who express themselves, really. That they’re strange and unbalanced.

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.

Amy Klein of Titus Andronicus on Ys. This is obviously the better quote about Ys in Pitchfork’s fifteen year retrospective. Amy Klein is a really cool person and a great feminist activist. I did a protest against the Rape Cops in New York a few weeks ago with her. 
I was into her first record but I wasn’t obsessed with it, you know? But I loved Ys, specially with its Van Dyke Parks association— I would be really excited to listen to everything he does. It’s hard to say anything interesting about this album because it’s such a classic to so many people.
Robin Pecknold of Fleet Foxes on Ys. Why does he have to mention Van Dyke Parks? Why is this composer always in the conversation surrounding Ys, despite his awesomeness? I can’t help but think that people always mention Van Dyke Parks from a subconscious or conscious need to diminish Newsom’s talent. I need to do a bit more research and see if Van Dyke Parks is always mentioned when people talk about Beach Boys’ Smile. He probably is because the Beach Boys are not that great and VDP is, but it wouldn’t hurt. Is there another album made by men in which a famous composer contributed? Readers?
I just wanted to leave you a note about how wonderful this blog is, and how much I appreciate it! I could really relate to the point brought up several weeks ago about how so much of the music blogosphere is a boys' club, written largely by male writers and often catering to male artists, or at least taking them more seriously. I actually wrote a small essay about exactly that a few months ago, and one Pitchfork contributor dismissed criticism of the lack of female writers in prominent music blogging/criticism spaces by trying to counter with the fact that there were great female critics writing in other spaces, or that tended to fly under the radar! LOL NO. Anyway, I do love to have blogs like this where favorite artists of mine are discussed quite in-depth and taken seriously (with no asides about strange vocals), and in a feminist context. It's not just a refreshing perspective for me (in comparison to much of the dialogue I see), it's an essential one. And I find Joanna so inspirational!

Much love!
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

Thanks so much! (And everyone, he or she is referring to these posts).

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.

—Melissa

I think Pitchfork would be greatly improved if you worked/wrote for them. Just sayin'
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

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 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.

While I certainly agree that there is sexism on Pitchfork and in the larger music media community, I wouldn't necessarily cite the lack of female artists on best music lists and the like as evidence of such. The fewer number of female artists on these lists is a result of the male-dominated music industry and, more importantly, I think, the tendency of record labels and music companies to pigeonhole female artists. It seems like it is much more difficult for a woman to breakthrough with an original, unusual piece of art than it is for a man, chiefly due to a lot of preconceived notions of what kind of music each gender should supposedly produce. My point being that if Pitchfork's best music lists are a reflection of a greater, more heavily institutionalized sexism and not the sexism of the site itself.
A more valid claim might be to calculate the percentage of reviewed albums by each gender and a.) compare these percentages to percentages culled purely from the "best new music" category (so, percentage of female albums reviewed period versus percentage of female albums given the best music stamp) and b.) compare the percentages of "best new music" from each gender (so, percentage of female albums of all versus percentage of female "best new music" of all best new music). My explanation has become derailed (and I'm obviously generalizing is delineating between "male" and female" albums), haha, but I think the gist is apparent.

I think better evidence for sexism at Pitchfork was a post on here about ignoring Joanna Newsom's feminism because of her appearance and the persona that the media has created for her. Have One On Me is an exceptionally feminist record, and this fact was ignored largely because Newsom is a "pixie" (or whatever) and because it's a rather dense piece of work.
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

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 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; their troublesome systems). 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.