Recently, I finally got around to watching the video analysis bonefromthevoid did of “Emily.” Her excellent and careful analysis made me think of all the important binaries Joanna explores in her music (art vs. science, religion vs. science, life vs. death, love/desire/sex vs. hate, home vs. wandering, reality vs. fiction—the list could go on). Of course, those very dichotomies dictate our entire lives and most of the art we have the pleasure of enjoying. But the reason why Joanna is so special as a musician and a lyricist is because of what she does to analyze and further problematize the ambiguities and the complexities those binaries offer.
The one dichotomy in much of Joanna’s corpus that I have been the most interested in exploring is the binary between man and woman. (And admittedly, I focus on that binary in her corpus so I am not overwhelmed with how replete her art is with different avenues of analysis.) This is, of course, one of the many binaries (white vs. non-white, straight vs. queer, rich vs. poor, cis vs. trans, able-bodied vs. disabled, etc.) which leads to systematic oppressions in our world. And Joanna does not shy away from examining how this gendered dichotomy leads to real pain and punishment for her female narrators, pain and punishment for both those who adhere to the standards the binary establishes for femininity and for those who deviate.
On Ys, the female narrator in “Only Skin” is slut-shamed for her pursuit of pleasures by those in her community (“…what I do to keep you warm, being a woman, being a woman”). Bear, a surrogate for the dominant female character on Ys, is emotionally manipulated and coerced into sex work by Monkey (Bear’s performances can easily be interpreted as a metaphor for erotic dancing) and then Monkey proceeds to ridicule and condemn her body before and after she performs (…”washing that matted and flea-bit pelt/In some sea-spit-shine, old kelp dripping with brine”). Joanna equates Bear’s demise with an escape from gendered and stigmatized work which she despises, but also with the extreme femininity of uncontrollably and emotionally satiating one’s desire (whether that be luxury, sex, or even food in Bear’s case). Bear’s escape still displays some facets of the sex work performed as she dances her way towards the fish in the water (“balletic and glacial of Bear’s insatiable shadow”). Lola Montez in “Have One on Me” suffers similar alienation and stigma for her sex work (“And the old king fell from grace, while Lola fled,/ to save face and her career”) and she, too, like Bear is emotionally manipulated by the man on whom she depends, Lola being particularly manipulated by alcohol (“Will you have one on me?”)
Throughout much of Have One on Me, women are ridiculed for their emotional dependencies on men, especially in “No Provenance” when the dominant male character likens the narrator to a “poor old dirty little dog-size horse, swaying and wheezing” and almost revels in what he thinks is a loss of identity and strength (i.e., a horse with “no provenance”). ”Go Long,” as one of the more sinister songs on the album, shows us that the narrator feels harmed by the trappings of femininity (“Do you know why my ankles are bound in gauze?”) and that when she decides to transgress the boundaries of femininity and to enter the realm of masculinity, real physical violence awaits her (“Well, I have never seen such a terrible room/ gilded with the gold teeth of the women who loved you…”) Overall, the real triumph of Have One on Me, is that “Does Not Suffice” at the very end of the album affirms that the narrator finds power, strength, and healing in femininity despite what patriarchy says and that she is not as “easy” as other expect her and want her to be. She has her own sense of self and independence.
* I do not think sex work is intrinsically exploitative or harmful. As an occupation, it often becomes exploitative and harmful because we live under kyriarchy, a system in which basic human decency is not afforded to the marginalized and to those who are not given the same opportunities to survive and prosper. I think the same about all occupations under kyriarchy. I respect the self-determination of sex workers, I respect that they deserve safety on the job, and I appreciate the difference between sex workers and those who are coerced. We can talk more about this in messages if you want. This is a larger political issue that I might explore in more in the future through “Monkey & Bear” and “Have One on Me.”
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.
[CONTENT WARNING: ABUSE, DOMESTIC VIOLENCE, RAPE, SUICIDE]
I have been having thoughts about the refrain of “sooner or later, you’ll bare your teeth” in “Monkey & Bear” for quite some time now. I wrote an early draft of this mini-essay on my iPhone while on a disastrously long subway ride to Queens a month ago and it’s taken me this long to actually set it down officially.
As mentioned previously on this blog, “Monkey & Bear” is probably my least favorite from Ys musically and aesthetically, but its lyrics have always been a treasure trove for feminist analysis. Some of what I will talk about below responds in part to Rachel’s most wonderful essay on Bear, clothing, and performative femininity.
At a literal level, the refrain refers to Bear and her (in)ability to eat because of Monkey’s abuse. Monkey is controlling her food consumption as a way to fetter her and exploit her. He explicitly begins their “liberation” from the farm with fear-mongering about eating (“But, Ursala, we’ve got to eat something/ And earn our keep, while still within/ The borders of the land that man has girded”).
But the refrain also bespeaks of Monkey’s fear of Bear and the revenge she may take against him.
So, of course, I have been thinking about the newly-surfaced Joanna Newsom song over the past couple of weeks. I haven’t contemplated it as much as I would like because of MY HUGE ZOMG PH.D QUALIFYING EXAM, but it’s quite beautiful and wonderful and I hope to hear more live versions of it soon. I am not convinced that this a song she wrote recently. Its themes are so similar to her Ys period that at first I was a little dismayed with it (but—let’s be real—that didn’t last long).
Water for Joanna Newsom means so many things. In “Emily” and “Cosmia,” it’s a place of discovery and epiphany and family and grieving. In “Monkey & Bear,” it’s a place where Bear can finally escape Monkey, let go of her bodily shame, and take control. It’s freedom. In “Sawdust & Diamonds,” the water is where the narrator can possibly drown her desires and it again promises liberation. In “Only Skin,” water is the place where the narrator discovered loved, lust, and desire and the drowning, which we find in “Sawdust & Diamonds,” becomes more bodily for the lovers and represents the dissolution of their relationship and the impossibility of them staying afloat. Their relationship is never truly healed as they drown in waters of their sexuality. We must also consider the deep and complex interplay between fire and water in this song (both, oddly, representative of their desire and the destruction of desire). And in “Colleen” the narrator was once free in the water and is encouraged on land to forget about that freedom and to practice enforced and repressive femininity. Both Colleen and Bear, female-identified figures, find freedom in water and restrictions on land. Water offers fluidity and land offers rigidity.
As I mentioned a while back, I’m going to be working on exploring sex and sexuality in Ys through the lens of Freudian theories on the death drive and the pleasure instinct. This is most definitely something I am going to work on during the summer because right now real life responsibilities are interfering with my creative and interpretive endeavors and I took off the summer in order to “study” for an important exam. But before I embark on such an analysis, I just wanted to thank some of our readers (and also my friends outside of the Internet) who suggested books for me to read. So, thanks to my friends Nicky and Rebecca and thanks to our readers teenagelightning, sisterswallow (Anna who regularly contributes to Blessing All the Birds), and shoiyer.
Here are the suggested reading materials (I am sure this enough for now, but feel free to suggest some more):
About two months ago I saw the new Cronenberg film, A Dangerous Method. I thought it was all right, but it made me start to think about how Freud and psychoanalysis may have impacted and framed the themes and motifs on Ys, particularly the album’s expressions of death, sex, procreation, and desire.
I have made connections between death and sex in a previous post, “‘That’s an Awfully Real Gun:’ ‘Only Skin’ and the Life-Giving and Destructive Aspects of Sex.” But, to be honest, I always wanted that post to go further and to be more theoretical and to bring in all of Ys, which I have always found powerfully and terrifyingly and poetically corporeal. And then when I saw this movie, I was reminded of some of Freud’s theories on these very topics and I think I have found my chance to do so. I particularly want to look at Ys through the interaction of the death drive and the pleasure instinct. There are definitely links among death, sex, procreation, and desire at least in “Only Skin,” but I am wondering if these links exist throughout Ys and if they can be interpreted through a Freudian and feminist framework.
However, I have two big problems: One, I know next to nothing about Freud and psychoanalytical theory in general. My knowledge of Freud, to be frank, is only at a pop culture level. So, I would like suggestions of what to read about all this. Are there good, basic articles and/or books about the death drive and pleasure instinct and their interactions that you all are familiar with? Two, from what I know of Freud, he didn’t seem to be much of a feminist, or to put it another way, my impression is that it would be difficult to look at his work through a feminist lens. Is this a correct assumption? Do any of you know good, basic articles and/or books about feminist interpretations/reclamations of the death drive and the pleasure instinct? Help/input/advice would be much appreciated.
Rachel and I are so happy about the shout-out in Rookie Mag from First Aid Kit. But we would just like to add that although the first couple of pages of this blog will indicate differently, Blessing All the Birds is not only about dissecting Joanna Newsom’s media image. We also analyze her music as feminist literature.
We have been focusing mostly on the media side of things and not the literary side because of general malaise/stress/existential crises, Euro-tripping, increased responsibilities at work and with our activist stuff, and a lack of new material from Newsom. Writing about her media image is less time-consuming and therefore, easier for us…for now. But I am in the process of writing literary essays to be published next week. I have a five-week vacation from work and school and this blog needs serious attention because it means a lot to me and Rachel. We love Joanna and feminism!
So, after the jump, I have provided a list of the essays (with links) we have written about Joanna Newsom’s music. We are extremely proud of all of these and we hope you like them!
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.