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.
(…) and did things that only men were allowed to do, and therefore disturbed people that lost their power over them. Witches, in reality, were nothing but forceful women who weren’t understood, and generated fear due to their intense pasion and love and freedom that were so restricted for the twisted society of that era. And in a way, Joanna, Kate and Björk are like that, and to look at them as witches is not that offensive. Maybe being a witch doesn’t always got a negative connotation.
Hi, thanks for the great question! I agree about the innate power of witches and I realized a little while ago how much empowerment I actually derive from reading the history and culture of witches. And I understand the impulse for people to call Kate Bush and Björk and Joanna Newsom witches. They are powerful, they are special and talented, they tap in to and use feminine energies that are important (but misunderstood), and they are extremely independent and smart. But my main criticism around that moniker for them as artists is that it is too often cast upon them by people and critics who don’t actually analyze and engage with their femininity and its power in a critical and clear way. They cast that moniker on them because they are being reductive and unwilling to explain what “witch” means in a literal and figural way and also many times, I think they are intimidated. Witches directly threaten kyriarchy and when one is called a witch, it’s a warning to those who want to uphold oppressive structures. And we also cannot divest that moniker of its sexualization. Witchcraft and (illicit) sex have been tied together for centuries and I think that is part of the impulse to give them that moniker, too: it’s just another facet of how objectified and sexualized female artists are in this society. Witches are desired and hated because of their sexual independence. Transgressions are attractive, but they also must be squelched.
Let’s keep on talking about this. Anyone else have any witchy stuff they want to discuss here?
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.
So, I re-read “The Bloody Chamber” by Angela Carter recently and seriously, whenever I read it, I always think about how it will help to illuminate “Go Long” and many of the themes of Have One on Me. (I suppose I am ultimately more interested in Joanna Newsom and hence, the Newsom blog and not the Carter one.) The connections between these renditions of the Bluebeard myth are almost too hard-wired now. I know Blessing All the Birds is always going on about “Go Long” and Bluebeard and all that, but the questions raised by Newsom and Carter as they explore the folk tale affect me so personally as I constantly navigate and contemplate my own femininity and its existence under the imperium of the patriarchy.
The thing that truly terrifies me about both Carter’s and Newsom’s take on Bluebeard is how enforced femininity or at least femininity expected and demanded by a powerful male figure is presented as dehumanizing. The more vain the narrator becomes in “The Bloody Chamber,” the more materialistic she becomes, the more she dependent she becomes on the riches of a powerful man—the more she is complicit in dehumanizing herself and the more she becomes like an object for Marquis to possess and violate. The more she is corrupted by greed the more corporeal she becomes and the more she is like a piece of meat for Marquis to slaughter. She swears early in the story that before she met him she was never vain or very feminine. Marquis does not believe he truly owns his wives until he dominates them with luxury, beds them in the bed of his patriarchs, and kills them for the curiosity he detects in all of them. Curiosity is only another form of greed. In the end, femininity in “The Bloody Chamber” in part becomes about the capacity to be corrupted and dehumanized and to be rendered vulnerable to violence. This becomes even more apparent to the audience because the possessions he gives the narrator directly reflect violence he will inflict upon her (his first gift to her is a ruby choker and he chooses to murder her by decapitation). But does femininity always render one a victim? Carter at the very end of the story subverts that notion and makes the maternal figure the narrator’s salvation against male predation. There is so much to unpack about this short story with all its contradictory impulses.
In “Go Long,” in the very first stanza we learn of how much the narrator has relinquished her bodily autonomy and has become a possession. She is carried in on a palanquin, “made up of the bodies of beautiful women”—women who have faced the ultimate dehumanization and the ultimate loss of bodily freedom. And she has been “brought to this place to be examined…” perhaps to see if she has become feminine enough, if she has enough curiosity. We learn later that the narrator’s ankles are bound in gauze, which may illuminate why she was carried in a litter. Is she no longer free to escape? Can she not run away from the violence? Has her surrender to femininity incapacitated her? But if we think of the narrator being static throughout Have One on Me, it becomes very hard to decipher the narrator’s feelings about enforced femininity and the violence it manifests. The narrator throughout is also very keen to highlight the pleasures she derives from femininity and how much it defines her identity, especially in “Does Not Suffice.” The narrator in “Does Not Suffice” emphasizes her possession of the feminine garments over and over again (“I will pack up my high-heeled shoes…”). The clothes are all hers and she uses them to help her cope with her loss and to remind the person she loved “how easy [she] was not.” Instead of the clothes dehumanizing her, they “re-humanize” her. To the narrator of Have One on Me, femininity does not automatically translate into possession and loss of self and violence. Femininity is very capable of affirming her humanity. But throughout Have One On Me such destruction is always disastrously close. Can femininity ever have one meaning? One type of consequence?
I originally began this post as something of a love letter to Joanna Newsom’s clothing. Her closet is, no doubt, the stuff of 1970s, full skirted, chiffon-swirled dreams. Over the past year or so, Joanna Newsom Fashion, byaspringforaspell and Milky Moon forum user Claire have thoroughly researched and documented Joanna’s beautiful stage costumes and provided sources for Joanna-inspired adornments, all happily consumed by admirers of her aesthetic world. Joanna herself has been spotted in the front row at fashion shows, shopping at vintage clothing stores, on the streets ofNew York wearing designer trench coats, and featured in numerous fashion-focused print magazines. I realized, as I thought more about it and as I struggled to siphon my thoughts onto paper, that this topic is more a series than a single post.
Joanna Newsom isn’t just a clothes horse or a dress-maker’s mannequin. She’s an intelligent and thinking human being whose relationship to clothing is as complex as her harp rhythms and lyrical worlds. In this series, I hope to provide a compendium of quotes and lyrics from and by Joanna that deal with clothing and fashion, along with my own commentary and that of other fans and/or critics. It will look at the role that clothing plays in the lives and performance of female artists, the way that clothing is used to shape and shame the female body, the way that womenfolk use clothes to shape themselves and how women speak about their clothing in relation to their identities.
Here is an overview of the organization of this series (although I may not cover the topics in this particular order), as well as some of the topics I’d like to touch upon:
Clothing and Identity – This post will focus mostly on Joanna’s early days and her love of Gunne Sax dresses, specifically the way in which those particular dresses have forever shaped the popular perception of her as a “fairytale princess”, “wood nymph”, and “pixie” etc. etc.
“Fashion”, Backlash and Internalized Sexism – Looking at Joanna’s work with major fashion designers and the “Fashion” world. How does she speak about “Fashion” and how do others speak about her relationship to it (particularly other women). I will use a reading of the song Ribbon Bows to explore some of her ideas here.
Clothing and Performance/Artistic Expression – I’ll use quotes from interviews, as well as lyrical references from Have One on Me and Monkey and Bear to discuss the role that clothes play in “performing femininity”. I will also touch on the packaging aesthetic of Have One on Me as it relates to the overall artistic vision.
Clothing and the Male Gaze – Here I’ll challenge the assumption that women’s fashion choices are made solely for the purpose of sexual appeal. I’ll discuss how body ideals have been imposed upon women and how women have challenged those impositions in order to shape their own bodies. I’ll look at lyrics from Does Not Suffice, Colleen, and Monkey and Bear to see how Joanna subverts the idea that women’s bodies are not their own to shape and clothe in whichever manner they choose.
Clothing and Materialism – This post will briefly discuss the way that indie culture has commodified the female body and the role that Joanna’s image played in the “bohemian”/ cultural appropriation trends of the past decade. Also, I’ll talk about Joanna’s vintage aesthetic and the implications behind it.
Clothing and Practicality – Looking at the way that Joanna herself discusses clothing. It’s not all dress up and fairytales.
I look forward to writing about this over the summer. I hope you’ll enjoy it and, as always, if you have any suggestions or topics you think I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them!
[EDITOR’S NOTE from Melissa in 2013: I never picked up the second part of this intended series. Mea culpa. Maybe sometime in the future.]
The other day on the train, I broke down and cried over “Have One on Me.”
This is a pretty common occurrence for me, especially when I haven’t listened to Newsom in a long time (i.e. two weeks). Most of the time, I cry over Newsom’s music because it’s just too amazing to even be conceivable, but sometimes I cry because her words on the feminine condition are too powerful and too close to home. And I don’t even mind weeping in public over music. It’s part of my personal feminist agenda to reclaim crying for female-identified persons and to legitimize it as a radical action.
Have One on Me speaks too profoundly about the dependency, self-sacrifice, self-destruction, masochism, pretense, and shame that can arise from femininity. But it also speaks of the pleasures that femininity can bestow upon people. As a female-identified person, I have (fortunately and unfortunately) experienced the full spectrum of femininity. And the narrator on Have One on Me does, as well, although it most often seems she is exorcising herself of its detriments and traps.
Much of what I will speak of below and in the future, we have already touched upon on at Blessing All the Birds. My recent series “‘When I Broke My Bone,’ Parts I and II,” which detailed the images of physical dependency and self-victimization and its links to femininity, will most definitely have some analytical overlap. But nevertheless, I wanted to more specifically explore the themes of self-destruction, the expectation of self-sacrifice, the expected erasure of identity, the empowerment of identity, the pleasure, and even the performative tendencies which derive from traditional femininity and how those themes manifest themselves in many of the songs in Have One on Me.
As a result of too much verbiage on these topics, this will become a series that we all can digest a little at a time, although, admittedly most of my efforts will be expended on my analyses of “Easy” and “Have One on Me.” I shall also be exploring “No Provenance,” “In California,” “Go Long,” “Kingfisher,” and “Does Not Suffice.” But for now, let’s look into “Easy.”
This blog began with a post about Joanna Newsom and “enchantment”, a sort of rant that grew out of my increasing frustration over the portrayal she received in major press, particularly the conversations surrounding her “fairy princess” image.
As time has gone on, I have come to realize and even accept that for some listeners, this image is part of the appeal. I even admitted, in my original post, that I find Joanna “enchanting”, that there is something otherworldly and fantastical about her music that speaks to me as a lover of fairy tales, folklore and all things associated with “childhood”. This blog project has allowed me the space to “unpack” some of those associations, to understand exactly what it is I find appealing about Joanna’s particular representation of that world of innocence (as it is so often erroneously perceived) and how she uses traditional folk forms, references to “children’s stories”, rhymes, and fable to convey sophisticated commentary on feminist issues.
I’d like to write a more polished piece on this subject and am opening the floor to any suggestions, discussion, or recommendations our readers might have. Here are some questions I would welcome feedback to, but feel free to just generally comment on this topic.
Thanks, Joanna fans and friends!
[Melissa’s note: this is the second part and conclusion (for now) of an essay on dependency, agency, and femininity in Have One on Me. As we have written often on this blog, Have One on Me chronicles very basically the burdens and constraints and implications of femininity. One offshoot of this is the theme of dependency and almost self-victimization which runs throughout the album. We can observe many images of this, particularly of the narrator being carried or supported or held or possessed by men. Her reliance on alcohol, femininity, and love then extend from these images. I previously discussed these themes in the songs “Easy,” “Have One on Me,” “Good Intentions Paving Company,” “No Provenance,” and “In California.” Please check out the first part of the essay for serious amounts of context.]
As we explored in my last post, “Jackrabbits” echoes the narrator’s reliance on both men and alcohol in “Have One on Me.” In this song, she is tired of being drunk, but still pleads for support from her lover (“I stumbled at the door with my boot…/And I scrambled at your chest like a mute…”). She assures him that she could “love [him] again.” However, she wants to support him as well (“you can take my hand in the darkness, darling/ when you need a friend…”), an urgency which we will explore in “Go Long.” Here we see the same glimmer of independence we saw in “No Provenance” and “In California.” She regards her dependency issues as something she needs to escape, but it not something she feels comfortable explaining to her lover because of her very dependency (“And the verse I read in jest/And Matthew spoke to me/ Said, there’s a flame that moves likes a low-down pest/That says: ‘you will be free’). The narrator concludes the song by not even allowing herself the independence to love her lover freely (“Only tell me that I can, tell me that I can/I can love you again/Love you again’).
In “Go Long,” the sinister qualities of her feminine dependency are made very clear, particularly because of the narrator’s allusions to the grisly Bluebeard myth (“I was brought in on a palanquin/made up of the bodies of beautiful women”). The Bluebeard figure in this myth wants to possess her and has done so many times before to other women. In this song, the narrator comments on how men are not dependent on women especially because of their “loneliness.” Women are socialized to be dependent, to be carried on palanquins, to be subservient to finery. Interestingly, the narrator wants him to be reliant on what her femininity can offer him: she will tuck in his shirt, she will bear his children, she will be his little nurse. But has her eagerness to be a woman for him contributed to his loneliness (“Have I had a hand in your loneliness?”). Her reliance on him is dangerous even. The narrator’s ankles are “bound in gauze” and then of course, there is the metaphorical room she finds. Her comments about how women are eminently curious about the realm of men (“what a woman does is open doors”) also is a comment on her need to escape from dependency. But peering in the realm of men, the narrator is giving herself agency? But does she want that agency after her find out what that curiosity entails? Dangerous knowledge?
“Does Not Suffice” ends Have One on Me, mirroring and refuting much of what we have explored. The melody is that of “In California” and it makes a verbal echo of lyrics in “Easy” (“…how easy I was not”). That verbal echo is important because it reverses and explodes much that we have seen previously and what was lurking underneath the entire time. She is not easily possessed, she is not easily supported any longer. That part of her identity from “In California” has disappeared at least for now. But that is not to say that she is still not essentially feminine. She asserts her independence over the situation by reclaiming and appropriating all the feminine materials that had been used against her in “Have One on Me” and “Go Long.” She takes all her finery out of his drawers. These are now hers to possess freely. And even the love she had for him, she lets him keep that (“And everywhere I tried to love you is yours again and only yours…”).
As we have written often on this blog, Have One on Me chronicles very basically the burdens and constraints and implications of femininity. One offshoot of this, which I hope to explore today and in another post, is the theme of dependency and almost self-victimization which runs throughout the album. We can observe many images of this, particularly of the narrator being carried or supported or held or possessed by men. Her reliance on alcohol, femininity, and love then extend from these images. As mentioned, I will be presenting my thoughts in two separate posts, mostly because of length concerns. This may develop into a series if I find other images of this in Have One on Me and in the rest of Newsom’s corpus.
The narrator first proclaims her concern with love (and the dependency it suggests) in “Easy.”* Though the song harbors a serious dose of irony, predominantly because of her lover’s controlling behavior—from this narrator, it is hard to ignore that her words may be doubly meaningful: on the one hand, ironic and on the other, sincere. When she says she is “easy to keep,” she both welcomes possession and simultaneously resents that it is an option she desires and that he offers. The haunting comparison to “Bloody Mary” at the end of the song moreover implies this same lack of agency: she will appear whenever he speaks her name. But is she something he should avoid?