I really like this question, too. Thanks for asking and sharing your thoughts! I am going to reblog my response on Blessing All the Birds, too, even though this is not directly related to feminism.
The line you are reference here has always been a piece of Joanna’s poetry I felt I immediately understood: it is a beautiful and touching way to express loss, personal disorder, and a seeming inability to cope with change (“…but I have never known the way to border them in…”).
If I were to take a stab at what I believe “Emily” as a song could be chronicling, I would say that at its most basic level, the narrator (Joanna) tries to find healing from catastrophe, from isolation, from dislocation, and from rumor by going back home and reaffirming her familial relationships with primarily her sister and then her father towards the end of the narrative. Home, family, and healing in this song are all intimately tied to nature and to memory. The chorus is an expression of a memory bound in nature, a moment of bonding between two sisters, one an artist and one a scientist, as they sit by a river and look up at the heavens.
The narrator’s goal in “Emily” seems to be to find rebirth. Emily, the character, helps Joanna achieve this rebirth primarily through a (re)communion with nature, a nature which is both terrestrial and celestial. The narrator colors the rebirth theme throughout the song with very Christian symbols and concerns by casting Emily as a Jesus figure (for more on the role of Christianity and its iconography in “Emily” and the whole of Ys, see this post from bonefromthevoid, who very much influenced parts of my analysis in this essay and who really just gets Ys at a deep and impressive level). The whole concept of rebirth has had deeply Christian connotations for millennia and rebirth for even longer than that has been tied to cleansing with water (and that is precisely why Christianity incorporated it into its mythology and religious practices from pagan religions). The rebirth imagery throughout the song is also emphasized by mentions of midwives and motherlessness. Emily is not only Jesus, she is a mother, both images of self-sacrifice and protection.
After the (re)communion with nature (and thus, family and memory) is complete, Joanna revels in the “sweetness of being,” but this sweetness is juxtaposed and undermined throughout that verse with imagery and reminders of hers and our own mortality. The Christian sacrament of communion which Joanna explicitly references in this verse (“take this and eat this”) commemorates that very paradox of life and death: the Eucharist promises those who eat it a blessed existence on earth and a blessed existence in heaven. But the Eucharist is the physical embodiment of Christ’s mortal corpse. As they eat the Eucharist, they are eating life and death. And we must consider that rebirth itself is a form of death. What happens to the self which came before?
The narrator seeks rebirth throughout Ys, a complicated matter that I do not at all claim to comprehend very meaningfully. I probably only understand about one percent of Joanna Newsom’s corpus at a very deep level since all of her songs are teeming with different symbolic, thematic, and narratological resonances which are still quite mysterious to me, even as a very dedicated consumer of her music and poetry. And that is why I feel most comfortable analyzing her corpus from a feminist lens, an analytical framework in which I can claim some expertise. But anyway…I can confidantly say that Joanna on Ys heavily connects rebirth to water and to death (see “Monkey & Bear”) and to nature generally (see the end of “Only Skin” where her bones are buried).
Lastly, just to address your cool connection between “Emily” and “Soft as Chalk,” Joanna describes the narrator’s “sanatorium” as a place rooted in nature and responding to nature, a description which really comes as no surprise considering the connections between healing and nature all over “Emily” and Ys. “Soft as Chalk” even has all that dove imagery, drawing it even closer to Emily symbolically. If we consider the narrator the same on Ys and Have One on Me (which I think is a fair thing to assume), finding comfort in times of hardship in the physical world is an important part of her characterization.
This was a question posed to my personal blog, which I wanted to cross post on Blessing All the Birds, even if not strictly feminist.
N.B. Since I can’t edit the ask, in the last paragraph I meant “drawing it even closer to Ys symbolically,” not Emily.
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.
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.