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 "Van Dyke Parks"
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. 

I think you should consider that when Rufus Wainwright's first album came out Van Dyke Parks was always mentioned in his reviews and interviews (in fact every single review I found his "trademark" orchestrations were mentioned). It was simply a case of him being more famous and legendary than Wainwright. I'm sure if Joanna Newsom played on a Van Dyke Parks album she would also always be mentioned in relation to that album.
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

Yes. I don’t expect him to not be mentioned in anything to which he contributes. But from the reviews I just quickly perused from Metacritic on Rufus Wainwright’s self-titled, Van Dyke Parks is never mentioned in a way that overshadows Wainwright’s creation significantly. On the other hand, I have found dozens of examples of that in reviews of Ys (examples are all over this blog). Not all were like that, but far too many. If you could find one in which that happens to Wainwright, that would be much appreciated. And that’s a good point about another-way-around-collaboration. Joanna is famous enough now that that would probably happen. But again: would a reviewer ever wax poetic about Joanna’s contribution over Van Dyke Parks even if she basically wrote the album? I don’t think so. Newsom was often mentioned when Vashti Bunyan came out with her second album, but there was the ubiqitous trend of framing Bunyan’s comeback in the new freak folk scene which adored her. 

I agree they were completely different types of collaboration: Joanna Newsom micromanaged everything Van Dyke Parks composed and Brian Wilson didn’t (and before anybody yells at me for insulting the Beach Boys again, this is fact and not an opinion). Notice that on Ys, even though Van Dyke Parks received production credit, she didn’t give him any songwriting credit and never has given songwriting credit to anyone else. Brian Wilson did on Smile and therein lies the great difference. This is a difference we should definitely consider and I believe the only reason Van Dyke Parks got any production credit at all is because of his fame and Newsom might have thought he would have perceived it as an insult if she didn’t offer it to him, particularly because he is a man (this goes along with another issue I’ll talk about more below). There’s a big difference between production credit and writing credit. From what I have gathered from interviews and what Van Dyke Parks himself said, Newsom was completely in control of essentially everything he did and produced although he did offer some independent ideas sometimes. If she didn’t like a certain violin part, she told him exactly how it should sound instead. It appears obvious to me that Van Dyke Parks was a tool for Newsom’s creativity. For example, I recently designed and launched my website. I mapped out exactly how it should look, but I don’t know HTML/coding that well, so my coder friend helped me, although I strongly collaborated with him as he was coding. I think that is a good analogue for Newsom’s and Van Dyke Park’s relationship. Sure, the orchestration is extremely important to Ys and how much people love it, but again Newsom is the main mastermind behind it and I think people’s reluctance to admit that is an insult to Newsom’s talent and female talent in general and is once again putting male creativity on a superior pedestal to female creativity. Van Dyke Parks admitted all this himself and that is why I often think Newsom seems upset/exasperated when people talk about Van Dyke Parks so much and his contribution (see NPR interview and German interview on this blog). 

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I agree that there is an underlying issue with the whole Van Dyke Parks thing, but I disagree that the issue is that he is being mentioned because he is a man, or that it is ‘reinforcing the notion that men are superior creators’, or that people who mention him have a ‘subconscious or conscious need to diminish Newsom’s talent’. Even if you see them as peers, he has still been around longer and is much more famous than her. I don’t think there is any point in comparing reviews of Ys with reviews of his work with the Beach Boys or with Brian Wilson, because they were completely different types of collaboration.

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Asker shoiyer Asks:
Hi, I'm the person whose response (re: van dyke parks) you'd posted earlier. I'm so sorry if my remark caused you so much grief! that was not my intention, and in fact I took your reply seriously, and agree with you, and thank you for explaining your position with so much clarity. Sorry I haven't responded until now, been busy with real life. Sorry again if my question caused a barrage of other, unpolite ones!
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

Hey! It’s OK. Thanks! I am going to publish one more submission about this topic and I think I am going to move on even if I get more input about it. It’s not as interesting to me as some of the other stuff I am working on (which is more about the text of Newsom’s song), but the more interesting stuff to me is on the back burner because people want to talk about this, which is still great, though! I love when people talk to us! Maybe if a ton of people want to talk to this, I can just come back to it after I have finished my other pieces. 

And I know this shouldn’t be a platform for talking to another reader, but hurumble, you don’t have an activated ask box. Thank you so much for your submission, but I am not going to publish it on here since it is not strictly relevant to Joanna Newsom and feminism. I’ll revisit the Beach Boys, even though I am pretty familiar with their corpus (my mother is a huge fan). But as for now, I still think comparing the musical/lyrical/intellectual talents of Joanna Newsom to the Beach Boys is just not appropriate and just (to Newsom) and I do think Van Dyke Parks and Joanna Newsom are peers in many ways that Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks are not. But I’m extremely biased, and I don’t compare anybody to Newsom fairly. But hey…this is a Joanna Newsom blog and this should be expected. 

Asker shoiyer Asks:
Re: Van Dyke Parks, I'd say it's because Joanna constantly refers to him and his contribution to the album, and how much they worked at the album together. I don't think it's necessarily anti-feminist to recognize his arrangements for the album, when she herself has talked about the same often.
allthebirds allthebirds Said:

Hey! Thanks for the question and feedback!

Does she really always mention him (I know she thanks him in the liner notes, but beyond that…)? Or do interviewers always mention him first and then she talks about him? And reviews of Ys always mention him, Albini, and O’Rourke and then sometimes never even engage with her music! I guess what I am asking here is if you or anyone can provide examples of her mentioning Van Dyke Parks first. I’m a cynical, hardened feminist activist who sometimes can’t see straight anymore. 

I wrote about this earlier (and I still feel the same way): 

Van Dyke Parks on Joanna Newsom

Back to recent history, you’ve worked with Joanna Newsom.
Yes, but I’ve gotta remind you, I haven’t worked a day in my life – I’m a musician. I’ve worked for Joanna, that’s as close I can say. And of course I put my heart into the work, and I worked very hard to try to surround her and give her space and power and definition.

She comes across as someone very sure about what she wants.
She’s very explicit in what her intentions. That’s why they call her an artist, because she is easy to read and you can see that she is a very able communicator and it doesn’t take a hell of a lot of instruction. Quite frankly, I got what I needed from her on first blush.

I think this an important quote to consider. I have been thinking a long time about how I feel people overemphasize Van Dyke Parks’ contributions to Ys (and I thought I should post about it now because several people brought it up in the Joanna Newsom community today in relation to this article, which though problematic in a lot of ways, I find generally spot-on; we often talk about many of the same things on Blessing All the Birds). I often read reviews of Ys which just namedropped Parks and Steve Albini and—the key word here—then refused to even engage with Joanna’s lyrics, which I think are the best and most innovative part of the album along with her vocal and harp melodies. Yes, Steve Albini and Parks should definitely be mentioned, but we have to ask if they are often overemphasized for reasons beyond their fame. If music critics did engage with her lyrics, it was on “Sawdust & Diamonds,” where critics are often surprised that she could write a powerful song without Parks’ orchestrations.

To me, the overmemphasis stems from a need to demean the capacity and talent of a woman and to ensure that everyone knows that men are the most talented and are the arbiters of female creation (see Merrill Garbus on exactly this phenomenon). I noticed that Newsom seemed a bit vexed by this overemphasis in an a guest spot on All Songs Considered (stokewithoutsound posted a couple of months ago). That particular interviewer admitted that he had barely listened to the album and then spent a big chuck of the interview asking her about other people and their work on the album. Even if not consciously sexist, it unconsciously contributed to a sexist music culture and the belief that women are not independent creators.

It seems with this quote that Parks views his orchestration on Ys not as a collaboration or a co-write, but as a contribution heavily guided by Newsom’s vision. I wonder if this would have changed critical reaction to Ys if he said this at the time of its release.

Of course, I would also add that people namedrop Van Dyke Parks and do not engage with her music because her music is hard and orchestration is much easier to understand and absorb than her lyrics, for example. That is probably often at play in interviews with her about Ys and reviews of Ys. But it still is unpleasant to me because it reinforces that Van Dyke Parks, a man, is the important one, and she’s just this lady, who no one should pay attention to and lady who didn’t really make Ys, Ys.

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?

FIVE INTERESTING DEVELOPMENTS FROM THIS INTERVIEW DURING THE YS ERA WHICH ARE RELEVANT TO THIS BLOG:

1. She does not like the Björk comparisons because she does not understand them and she was in no way influenced by her, but she has accepted them because Björk is a true artist. I have talked about this again and again: she is only compared to her because of the gender-binary. There are plenty of men who revolutionized music with their unique visions and voices, but yet, where are those comparisons?
2. “Only Skin” is a synthesis of all the other songs, which are inspired by four, biographical, yet highly fictionalized, events. This will affect any further analyses I do for Ys. Do you guys have any ideas for the synthesis? I have always seen “Sawdust & Diamonds” and “Only Skin” as inherently and overtly linked, but all the others linked by broad themes: prisons/freedom, water, death, rebirth, loss.
3. We had a question about “Monkey & Bear” a while back and our opinions on whether bear died at the end or not. I answered that’s it was up in the air, but it didn’t really matter. Joanna Newsom feels the same way: she is either liberated from her former life or just liberated from life itself. It’s also interesting that she says the song is about a journey of decadence and manipulation. The song is about being liberated from work and just feasting. Rachel has discussed these points previously.
4. “We have to talk about Van Dyke Parks” says the male interviewer. Do we, really? Joanna made sure to tell the interviewer that she gave him very explicit instructions. The story of their collaboration is pretty extraordinary, though. He requested that she record her final harp tracks and vocal tracks separately. That’s amazing. She wanted to record it live with an orchestra, but she supposedly varied her performances too much because she’s so awesome. She wouldn’t have been too nervous. She valued the freedom and spontaneity. That goes with the themes, too. The orchestra would have been a prison, of sorts.
5. Two women as major influences: Ruth Crawford Seeger and Texas Gladden. Seeger, according to Newsom, did not see a difference between folk and arty music. Joanna sees this a cultural goal. But then she says that she does not identify as a folk musician and she doesn’t want to be part of a scene. Are people too quick to put her into a box? Into a gender-binary box, into a genre box? What is the matter with music journalism?

(via stokewithoutsound)

Back to recent history, you’ve worked with Joanna Newsom.
Yes, but I’ve gotta remind you, I haven’t worked a day in my life – I’m a musician. I’ve worked for Joanna, that’s as close I can say. And of course I put my heart into the work, and I worked very hard to try to surround her and give her space and power and definition.

She comes across as someone very sure about what she wants.
She’s very explicit in what her intentions. That’s why they call her an artist, because she is easy to read and you can see that she is a very able communicator and it doesn’t take a hell of a lot of instruction. Quite frankly, I got what I needed from her on first blush.

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