As I’ve mentioned earlier, I’ve long been on the fence about Joanna Newsom. I remember playing “Bridges and Balloons” from The Milk-Eyed Mender once when I was still at KVRX. Her name had been bandied about in hushed, reverent tones by fellow deejays and I had to find out who was causing this kind of fuss. Upon first listen, I promptly thought to myself, “what is this art school pixie nattering on about? Is this some Nell shit? More like Joanna Nuisance.” Immediately after the song finished, a female listener called to thank me for playing the song, espousing its beauty with complete sincerity. Yeesh. Point taken, sister. I took a little more time with Ys, but wasn’t converted.
My flippancy might seem unjustified given my professed adoration for Björk, and I recognize that. Bottom line: I respected that Newsom was a rare talent, but I didn’t get her appeal. In theory, I’m down with Lisa Simpson playing a harp, but actual listening didn’t beget actual enjoyment.
So when I found out Newsom’s long-awaited follow-up would be a triple album, I was like “ho boy, that’s going to be a lot of obscure words and ululating.”
It is, but in a great way.
I’ve since spent the last week listening to her new album, Have One on Me and feel like I need to check back in with Ys. For smart criticism on Have One on Me, I’ll gladly refer you to reviews from Ann Powers, Jonah Weiner, and Mark Richardson. Oscillating almost exclusively between it and Dessa’s A Badly Broken Code, that’s a lot of time with two smart women’s words. It was a week well spent and has carried over into this one. I’m certain that these two albums are the ones I’ll treasure from this year.
One reason I was able to warm up to Have One on Me is because it’s “accessible,” at least comparatively speaking. Some might interpret this as a taming of Newsom’s sound. Her voice is more controlled. Her arrangements, though spare in a way that recalls The Milk-Eyed Mender, are approachable and gorgeous. They even suggest a pop sensibility that gestures toward a potential connection between her and Carole King and Joni Mitchell’s work in the early 70s. I think all of this does a service to what are ultimately straightforward songs about the complexities of adult relationships. She’s not accessible so much as she is direct.
In addition, I think my attitudes toward pretension have changed since I last considered Newsom. I’ve spent some quality time with Kate Bush and Elizabeth Fraser, post-punk’s grand-mères of affectation. Song cycles about drowning? Lyrics pieced together out of gibberish, abstruse terminology, random words, and antiquated names? Hello.
These considerations have prompted me to stretch back toward Mitchell. They’ve led me to reconsider favorites like Björk, PJ Harvey, and Neko Case. I celebrate contemporary artists like Bat For Lashes, Fever Ray, Antony Hegarty, and Julianna Barwick with renewed vigor. I even volley contradictory opinions about Lady Gaga. In fact, after Newsom I should revisit Patti Smith and Tori Amos to see if my opinions of them have changed. I might want to see who this Amanda Palmer person is all about too.
I’m interested in how these artists use pretension for two reasons. For one, I like the effrontery of female musicians whose work seems to bellow, “I’m an artist with a capital A. My music is really important and great. If I need my work to be excessively florid, doggedly conceptual, or sonically challenging, then you can deal. If there was room for prog rock, there’s room for me too. In fact, I am prog rock. No, I have eaten prog rock, along with the book Roan Press published that exalts my genius.”
More to the point, when pretension is used in the service of songs about female experiences, it seems as though there’s potential for the mundane yet particular realities of being female to contain artistry, fantasy, and perhaps even transcendence. In Newsom’s case, as the record is teeming with reflections on motherhood, the pressures of couplehood between creative people, and the struggle for women to maintain autonomy as they mature, the pretensions feel earned.
That said, my threshold for pretension is slanted by my gendered purview. Newsom stretches odes to break-ups, possible abortions, empty rooms, and the West Coast well past the three-minute mark here and I listen. When it’s Decemberists’ leader Colin Meloy, I want to stab him so he’ll quit singing or reaching for his thesaurus. “Forty-winking in the belfry,” indeed.
Of course, while I may approve of female pretension, I also have to check it. Here’s where Annabel Mehran’s album cover seems necessary to consider. Newsom is draped across a chaise, suggesting an archetype in portraiture known as the Odalisque. Strewn about her are knickknacks from a decadent bohemian lifestyle — shawls, rugs, lamps, pelts, stuffed animals, antiques, a peacock.
To me, the image composition most clearly brings to mind Henri Rousseau‘s “The Dream.” Erté may also be an influence, as Newsom is fashioned a bit like his “Scandinavian Queen.” The political implications of these artists’ styles, and their respective involvement with Post-Impressionism and Art Deco should not be overlooked, particularly with regard to race. The former was notorious for its problematic, first-world fetishization of its own notions of primitivism. The latter poached quite a bit from Japanese woodcuts, thus perpetuating Orientalism. Indeed, when you juxtapose Newsom’s alabaster complexion against her exotic surroundings, the racial implications of female pretense become troubling. Who is afforded the time to ruminate? Who gets to lie in repose?
With that said, the cover, like the contents of the album, are beautiful, troubling, and revealing. They demand considerable examination and they’re getting it from at least one listener.
When I originally started thinking about artists who might expand the definition of what a diva is, the first person who came to mind was the subject of this post. Who else but a diva could be seen in concert halls and magazines as well as museum exhibits, obscure sitcoms, and cultish b-movies? Campy, profane, versed in popular culture, obsessed with the fragmented nature of female personae, and tailed by a devoted audience, Magnuson definitely seems to meet the requirements of being diva.
Like Wynne Greenwood (aka Tracy + the Plastics), Magnuson made a name for herself through the available art scene, specifically by managing Club 57 in the East Village during the early 1980s. At the time, Club 57 — which originally claimed its residence in a church basement — was a burgeoning scene comprised of folks like Keith Haring, Kenny Scharf, the B-52s, Klaus Nomi, and Fab Five Freddy. Magnuson and her patrons were obsessed with the radioactive kitsch of their Cold War-era adolescence and she would often arrange theme nights like day-glo erotic art show and Elvis Presley hootenannies or turn the venue into a putt-putt golf or a tiki lounge. During this time, she also became a part of Pulsallama, a percussion-based girl group that Magnuson thought of as an anti-band rebelling against the “fashionable primitivism” Malcolm McLaren was espousing with Bow Wow Wow, who he was managing (re: manipulating) at the time. Magnuson had left the group by the time they made “The Devil Lives in My Husband’s Body,” but you can get a good sense of what they were about by listening to this.
A key trait for any diva to me seems to be the ability to inhabit various roles, sometimes in opposition to one another, through performance. Folks might be quick to offer up a better-known pop icons like Madonna, Christina Aguilera, and Beyoncé, but let’s not forget Magnuson who often differed from these women by using her chameleon-like ability to create characters that poked fun at female stereotypes, materialism, confessionalism, and the hollowness of fame. Pairing up with Tom Rubnitz, she put together “Made for Television” in 1981 for PBS’s Alive From Off Center. The 15-minute piece, which simulates late-night channel surfing, features believeable send-ups of televangelism, soap operas, and game shows with Magnuson playing all the parts. Particularly with regard to how hollow and alienating our collective fixation of fame can be, it reminds me of Eileen Maxson’s “Lost Broadcasts,” which depicts the artist as a reality show hopeful whose staggeringly candid audition tape is being fast-forwarded and talked over by a disinterested casting agent fielding a phone call.
I cannot locate “Made For Television” online, but I have seen it in exhibition. If you hear about it coming to your town, I suggest you see it. If you find it on the Interwebz, share with the group.
In the mid-1980s, Magnuson got together with Mark Kramer to form Bongwater, a band where this kind of performance was all too common.
Ever the actress, she would off-set duties with Bongwater with turns in the ABC Jamie Lee Curtis/Richard Lewis sitcom Anything But Love, The Adventures of Pete and Pete, and The Hunger as well as Susan Seidelman’s beloved Desperately Seeking Susan and Making Mr. Right (which totally looks like a movie I should see).
In 1995, Magnuson released her first solo album, The Luv Show, which was apparently inspired by the mad-cap narratives, sex-crazed vixens, and pop-art shine of Russ Meyer movies. It certainly explains the cover, though no explanation needs to be given for songs like “Miss Pussy Pants.”
While Magnuson was never going to be a mainstream talent, it’s heartening to know that our media culture had room for a smart, cheeky lady all too willing to represent in the margins. Actually, they still seem to have the room for her, as Magnuson released her second solo album Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories in 2006, embarks on cabaret tours, and does occasional film work. More importantly, Magnuson seems all too willing to deconstruct the very idea of the diva, who she is, who she pretends to be, who she represents, and where her markers of identity blur and splinter. She might be Cindy Sherman‘s kind of diva. She’s definitely my kind of diva.