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.
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.
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.