My thoughts on Visions of Joanna Newsom

Cover to Visions of Joanna Newsom (2010, Roan Press); image courtesy of roanpress.com

Recently, I had lunch with a fellow Austin-based feminist and pop culture critic. We were talking about blogs and Web sites we follow and at some point, she mentioned that she doesn’t really follow too many other music blogs because too many of them dwell on Joanna Newsom. Fair point. Tonight, however, I will completely disregard it in order to discuss Visions of Joanna Newson, an anthology about the singer-songwriter Roan Press released earlier this year.

As I’ve indicated a few times on this blog, I have harbored mixed feelings about Newsom. When her full-length debut The Milk-Eyed Mender was released on Drag City in 2004, the genius label was already affixed, most notably by white guy music geeks who seemed far too interested in casting her as their manic pixie dream girl. When I finally worked past the hype and actually heard her, I was instantly put off by a voice I dismissed as pretentiously twee. In short, I would not have been the ideal reader for Visions.

While I have no interest in being any text’s prefered audience, I came around a bit on Newsom. I warmed up to Ys and really liked Have One on Me. Much of my reappraisal of Newsom stems from how the artist talks about herself. I was pleased to find the person behind the guise of her generation’s fairy laureate is a talented, self-aware young woman who can take a joke and doesn’t much take to people calling her voice child-like. And when I finally got past her polarizing voice, I was stunned to find a devastating wordsmith with a keen sense of phrasing. Now that I’m used to it, I really don’t see what all the fuss was about.

So, much as with Newsom’s oeuvre, I attempt to come to this book with an open mind. I admit to having some reservations going in, principally that it would be nothing more than a collection of love letters to the miraculous god(dess)head that is Joanna Newsom, offering much fan boy frothing but little to no critical insight.

Frankly, some of my suspicions were confirmed here. The most discomforting example of idol worship was in Tim Kahl’s arch “Your Feyness,” which reveals that he possesses feelings for a collapsed sense of the artist’s persona and her work that make him feel like a Japanese businessman who buys schoolgirls’ soiled underpants from vending machines. I also bristled when reading Dave Eggers’ re-printed “And Now, a Less Informed Opinion,” wherein he intimates that he hasn’t seen what Joanna Newsom looks like and hope that she’s hideous because her quirkiness would be forgiven by a beautiful face (which, I’d argue, it has). I get that both authors are trying to call into question the sexist impulses of some men’s fan practices, but neither of them overcome it in my estimation. 

I was also not fond of tendencies toward formless sprawl and indulgence here, particularly evident in Robert McKay’s “The Awakening of Desire in the Classic Musical Work: A Speculative Exegesis of Ys.” After wading through 42 pages that refer to Newsom as “the Bard,” don’t conclusively argue why we cannot consider the album as pop music, and much philosophical application of four of the album’s five songs, I’m still not sure of the essay’s point. Also, I completely disagree with the writer’s need to set value-based distinctions like high and low art, positioning Newsom as an exemplar of form and composition rather than as the bad object. The only thing I gleaned from it is that the protagonist or dominant theme of one song often makes a small but substantial appearance in the next consequtive track. Interesting point, though given that four of the songs are meant to represent life-changing events in one year of the singer’s life, overlap seems intuitive.  

Apart from finding such commentary personally useless, it may speak to my interest in hoping for a more refined and disciplined approach toward criticism away from humanities-based tunnel vision. In addition to narrower focuses into Newsom’s contributions, I was also hoping for inquiries outside the text that consider the cultural and industrial factors that evince Newsom’s artistic relevance in this particular moment. 

I will say that some close readings of Newsom’s work were quite valuable. I enjoyed editor Brad Buchanan’s meditation on how Newsom employs both affection and affectation toward similar ends. I appreciated Jo Collinson Scott’s insights on how music invites the process of becoming and inhabiting identities outside one’s personal experiences. I liked T.S. Miller’s essay on “Colleen,” which explores the cultural origins of the folk tale, the feminist implications of naming and transformation, and the etymology of the word “Colleen,” which originates from the word “cailin,” an Irish term for “girl.”  

I also valued insights into who the artist was beyond the records and thus found childhood acquaintance Aniela Rodes-Ta’s recollection of coming of age in Nevada City with Newsom to be interesting. I was most invigorated by essays who thought outside the text, like Shayne Pepper’s essay on how The Milk-Eyed Mender critical success generated out of the emerging cultural viability of music blogs as tastemakers, which also created spaces to circulate Newsom covers by reknowned male indie musicians like Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett, The Decemberists’ Colin Meloy, and M. Ward. 

I also enjoyed Lisa Fett’s piece on Benjamin Vierling’s cover art for Ys, which utilized applications of egg tempera in classic portraiture and wove various symbols associated with the artist and the album, while at the same time subtly positioning her in a contemporary context.

Cover to Ys (2006, Drag City); image courtesy of stereogum.com

After reading, I wondered what insights I wanted included to enrich my understanding Newsom. An obvious absence is an interrogation on Newsom’s whiteness and Northern Californian roots. I wonder how her racial privilege informs her interests in West African polyrhythmic harp playing, Appalachian folk singing, and American hip hop. I’m also curious as to how Newsom negotiates art with commerce, at once diving headlong into recording challenging musical material on an independent American label while licensing many of her songs and becoming a recognized style icon. With so much weight placed on Newsom’s formidable prowess as a lyricist, I’d like more emphasis placed on how she uses humor in her work. While I appreciated the inclusion of poetry inspired by Newsom, I wanted more writers to explore various writing forms in their exploration of her work, perhaps asking the artist to talk about herself rather than observe and weave quotes. Finally, I hope folks avoid the impulse to argue Newsom as exceptional and make more of an effort to put her in a context with other contemporary female artists.

Joanna Newsom, Simpsonified; image courtesy of prefixmag.com

As Newsom evolves, it’ll be interesting to see if she continues to inspire future generations of writers and critics to make their own sense of her and her contemporaries. While at times uneven, the offerings of Visions of Joanna Newsom suggest there’s much left to discuss beyond mere fan boy conjecture.

One comment

  1. Victor Schnickelfritz

    Dear Alyx:

    I appreciate your reading my piece “Your Feyness” for this review and commenting on it, but I’m not sure that you got the tone of it right. The speaker I was trying to create in this piece had a great amount of ambivalence about her work, and the points where this fabricated speaker indulges in libidinous excess are intentionally hyperbolic. This speaker is trying to come to terms with “being a fan” in the manner which irks you while secretly being somewhat repulsed by the artistic efforts of Newsom. The speaker feels a necessity to be generous to Newsom despite being somewhat non-plussed. It’s more of a piece about willing one’s self to lurid fanboy-dom. It’s also pretty funny, a point not lost on the crowd when I read the piece aloud at the book’s publication release [http://www.vimeo.com/12884748].

    I am somewhat surprised that others have read this piece as a kind of love letter. I had thought it was much too critical and dismissive, even ridiculing, of her work. [I, myself, was largely indifferent to her work though Have One on Me has won me over a little bit more.] I wanted my speaker to fight against that tearing-down impulse and arrive at a position less disparaging. Perhaps “not getting” what others were appreciating from her musically, this speaker pushes into the realm of idolatry. This is perhaps too safe of a move by any listener, but in the absence of any real connection with the work, one tends to connect to the personality. Whether we like it or not, this is what happens. We can object to the cult of personality, but it is a powerful agent in how people relate to music (despite how much one wishes for a more analytical appreciation for an artist’s efforts). What a wonderful world it might be if such a lusty projection as the speaker in “Your Feyness” commits could be disallowed. Alas, I fear that such a personal connection is the sizzle for any musician, the difference between hearing an artist on iTunes and seeing him or her perform live.

    Still, how anyone has gotten a love letter out of this is beyond me — maybe a facetious love letter that is trying hard to harbor good feelings despite some profound ambivalence.

    I’m also not sure my speaker “possessed feelings for a collapsed sense of the artist’s persona” or any other sense of the artist’s persona (not exactly sure what a “collapsed sense” is). Maybe you are saying that my fabricated speaker has developed fantasies for a degraded version of Newsom. Well, yes, there’s a bit of that, but I think that you focused too much on that Japanese business man line. It’s an arresting and troubling image, for sure (though one that apparently does actually occur and is not just a figment of my imagination). However, I am likely to disagree with you that this speaker’s main perspective of Newsom is a debased one. I think there are several different kinds of projections placed on Newsom in the piece by this speaker. Perhaps you might point out that none of these encroaching projections expectations placed on her is fair. No, they aren’t. Welcome to humanity.

    — Tim Kahl (aka Victor Schnickelfritz)

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