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.
Recently, my partner got season nine of The Simpsons on DVD. Perhaps suggesting our age, this was the last season either of us watched in its entirety upon original broadcast. We’ve caught episodes from season ten on in syndication, and I marvel at how the show has maximized high definition’s potential. We also saw The Simpsons Movie, which was more remarkable for the assuredly bombed woman who sang loudly to herself, yelled at Maggie for being a “cunt,” and called us “asshats” for telling her to be quiet before being escorted out of the theater. But for both of us, the ongoing series peaked 13 seasons earlier. The show may be sporadically hilarious and subversive, but like many successful television shows that go on for too long, it has also exhausted premises, developed a frantic tone, got further away from the family’s class struggles and feelings of mediocrity that made the show especially poignant in the early seasons, and dispensed with much carefully-crafted character development.
This last point seems especially true of Marge and Lisa Simpson to me. The show was never especially savvy with what to do with the tower-coiffed matriarch, who has dumbed down considerably in my estimation. The show’s predominantly male, Ivy League alum writing staff admit as such in several episode commentaries, noting that they rarely provided her with friends, struggled with ideas for a character so doggedly sensible, and sometimes relied upon female personnel to give her character development and narrative action (ex: season seven’s “Scenes from the Class Struggle in Springfield” was written by Jennifer Crittenden).
But the family’s spiky-haired middle child prodigy was always the show’s center for me growing up. What’s more, Lisa episodes were penned by male writers and rank among the best of the series for me, though they tend to focus more on her relationship with Homer than with Marge. Bill Oakley and Josh Weinstein’s “Lisa Vs. Malibu Stacy” is my absolute favorite, but it’s in rich company with Jon Vitti’s “Lisa’s Substitute,” Dan Greaney’s “Summer of 4 Ft. 2,” Mike Scully’s “Lisa’s Rival,” Greg Daniels’s Emmy-winning “Lisa’s Wedding,” and David S. Cohen’s “Lisa the Vegetarian” (note: Oakley and Weinstein were show runners from seasons 7 and 8 and were replaced by Scully for 9-12 to develop the animated series Mission Hill; Greg Daniels went on to co-create King of the Hill and adapted the American version of The Office). So you’ll excuse me if I get snotty and say that Lisa has no business lip-syncing Ke$ha’s butt-stupid “Tik Tok.”
Much of why these episodes work so brilliantly, apart from the writing, is to do with the animators and animation directors working in accord with voice actress Yeardley Smith, whose distinct performance captures so much nuance around the heartache, loneliness, and ironic detachment that often comes from being the kid sister of a popular kid and is too smart for her surroundings. As creator Matt Groening often points out, Lisa is the only character he envisioned leaving Springfield. He and many other show personnel counter this by claiming her as the show’s tragic character whose ideas and actions are often thwarted or go unnoticed. Several smart girls can relate.
However, while I have noticed a slight lapse in Lisa’s all-too-precious perspicacity as the series has gone on, I recognize that she’s still a smart girl committed to change. To echo Jonathan Gray’s claims in Watching The Simpsons, Lisa remains the longest-running feminist character on television.
One thing I especially like about Lisa is her interest in music. Assuredly, she’s motivated in many other areas, including environmentalism, writing, and film-making, among others. But I always delighted in seeing Lisa strut out of Mr. Largo’s band practice while belting out a saxophone riff, as the director clearly doesn’t know what to do with free-thinking talent who have exceeded his teaching abilities. She has also used her musical aptitude toward political change, rallying her father Homer and his co-workers with her acoustic guitar and an impassioned protest anthem when they staged a strike at the power plant for better health benefits.
Having recently watched season nine’s “Lisa’s Sax” (written by past and current show runner Al Jean), I was touched while relearning the origins of how Lisa came to the jazzy woodwind instrument. Unable to afford admission into a ritzy private day care for their accelerated toddler, Marge wracks her brain for a way to encourage her daughter. Homer ends up forking over money he was saving for a new air conditioner when a chance visit to a music store presents Lisa with her artistic calling. I think it was a wise investment.
So, I finally saw last week’s episode of Gossip Girl. For my money, there is nothing surprising about Sonic Youth performing “Starpower” and bassist/guitarist Kim Gordon marrying Rufus Humphrey and Lily van der Woodsen-Bass-etc. The reason, as I will outline chronologically below, is that flirtations with mainstream popular culture is completely in keeping with their career. This cameo isn’t an isolated incident. If anything this network-savvy band pioneered how indie does synergy.
March 1, 1988: Ciccone Youth, a side project formed in 1986 between the band and Minutemen bassist/co-founder Mike Watt releases The Whitey Album. In this configuration, they took part of their name from Madonna’s surname. They also covered some of her songs, including “Into the Groovey” and “Burnin’ Up.” For good measure, they also covered Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love.” Were they taking the piss or celebrating 80s blockbuster pop? Maybe both? You decide.
June 26, 1990: Goo is released on DGC, marking their major label debut.
In 1991, the Goo video album is released, a clip accompanying each song on the album. Among them are “Mildred Pierce” which features Sofia Coppola dressed as Joan Crawford, who starred in the 1945 film noir of same name, “Disappearer,” which was directed by Todd Haynes, and a few clips directed by Tamra Davis, including “Dirty Boots” and “Kool Thing,” which also featured Public Enemy’s Chuck D.
September 17, 1991: Kim Gordon co-produces Pretty on the Inside, Hole’s debut album, released on Caroline, a subsidiary of Virgin.
July 21, 1992: Dirty is released. Two noteworthy music videos come along with it. Actor Jason Lee, then unknown, is featured as a tragic skateboarder in “100%. The clip was co-directed by Davis and Spike Jonze, who just made some movie about kids and monsters based on a children’s book. Chloë Sevigny, once a Sassy intern, stars in “Sugar Kane,” which also showcases Marc Jacobs’ Perry Ellis grunge collection.
August 9, 1993: “Cannonball” is released as the lead single to The Breeders way-ruling Last Splash. Kim Gordon co-directs the music video with Jonze.
September 14, 1993: Judgment Night is released, along with a successful soundtrack from Epic that pairs alternative/metal acts with rap groups. Sonic Youth and Cypress Hill collaborate on “I Love You Mary Jane.”
1994: Kim Gordon creates X-Girl with Daisy von Furth, a sister clothing line to Beastie Boys Mike D’s X-Large collection. I see DJ Tanner wear an X-Girl blue jumper on Full House and want one.
August 25, 1994: Sonic Youth contributes “Genetic” to the My So-Called Life soundtrack. Released on Atlantic, the compilation features other Juliana Hatfield, Afghan Whigs, Daniel Johnston, and (of course) Buffalo Tom, who every fan remembers played a show on Pike Street.
September 13, 1994: If I Were A Carpenter, a Carpenters tribute album, is released on A&M. An alternafest, acts like American Music Club, Shonen Knife, Babes and Toyland, and Matthew Sweet share time with SY, who cover “Superstar.” In late 2007, the song would make an appearance in the movie Juno.
October 27, 1995: CBS airs “The State’s 43rd Annual All-Star Halloween Special,” marking the MTV sketch comedy troupe’s network television debut. Sonic Youth is the musical guest. Few people watch (I am one of them), and CBS decides to pull the plug.
May 19, 1996: Fox airs “Homerpalooza,” The Simpsons‘ penultimate episode of its seventh season. In it, Homer goes on tour with Hullabalooza (re: Lollapalooza), taking canons to the gut to the bemusement of thousands of jaded slackers. Several acts made guests appearances, including Smashing Pumpkins, Cypress Hill, Peter Frampton, and Sonic Youth. The band also provides an “alternative” version to Danny Elfman’s iconic theme song, perhaps getting closer in tone to what creator Matt Groening had originally envisioned when suggesting that avant-jazz composer John Zorn write the show’s theme song. The song is later featured on Rhino’s Go Simpsonic With The Simpsons: Original Music From The Television Series compilation.
June 5, 1996: James Mangold’s debut feature, Heavy, is released in the states. Moore composes the score.
June 1998: I watch the “Kool Thing” video at a Gadzooks in the Mall of America during a trip to Young Life camp in Minnesota.
July 13, 2001: Larry Clark’s Bully is released in theaters. Moore composes the score.
July 25, 2005: Gus Van Sant’s Last Days, the director’s take on Kurt Cobain’s final days, is released in the states. Gordon appears as a record executive based on Danny Goldberg trying to turn the main character’s life around. Moore also served as a music consultant.
May 2006: Former Pavement bassist Mark Ibold joins the band. This has nothing to do with matters of synergy or cross-promotion; I just happen to think he’s kinda cute. He was also featured in a comic strip, but the name escapes me. His catchphrase is something to the effect of “I’m Mark, the bassist from Pavement” but I’m butchering it. My friend Susan told me about it, so maybe she’ll share in the comments section.
June 15, 2007: Pitchfork reports that SY will be contributing a new track to an SY retrospective distributed by Starbucks.
November 21, 2007: Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There is released. Gordon’s makes a cameo as folkie Carla Hendricks, who is based on Judy Collins. The casting furthers my suspicion that SY friend Todd Haynes must have been influenced by the band’s fandom of The Carpenters and preoccupation with Karen Carpenter’s tragic struggle with anorexia. They cover “Superstar.” He makes a biopic about Carpenter called Superstar. Coincidence?
September 8, 2008: Choosing not to renew their contract with Geffen, SY sign with indie stalwart Matador.
November 3, 2008: Moore and former Be Your Own Pet frontwoman Jemina Pearl cover The Ramones’ “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker” specifically for “There Might Be Blood,” a season two episode of Gossip Girl.
February 16, 2009: Gordon debuts a clothing collection called Mirror/Dash for Urban Outfitters.
Is this bad? Hmm, maybe. I suppose it depends on your outlook. I’d say it’s no worse than The Flaming Lips performing on Beverly Hills, 90210 (although, maybe for it to be equal, Wayne Coyne would have to play a short-order cook at the Peach Pit). Beyond paying the bills and circulating their brand, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a fair amount of post-modern, art-school, post-Warholian why-the-hell-not? factoring into all of Sonic Youth’s above-ground forays. Or maybe they (gasp!) like many of these texts and ventures.
Perhaps the band knows that dabbling with the mainstream is tricky business. Maybe this explains why Moore (and, to a lesser extent Gordon and guitarist Lee Ranaldo, though not media-shy drummer Steve Shelley) cultivated an authoritative presence in recent music documentaries like Punk: Attitude, Kill Yr Idols, and I Need That Record! It may also have fueled a need for an outlet through which to channel more experimental projects, resulting in the band releasing more challenging work through the Sonic Youth Recordings collection, along with Shelley’s Smells Like label and Moore’s Ecstatic Peace label. In addition, Ranaldo has done a considerable amount of writing, creates installation projects with his wife Leah Singer, has an extensive solo career, and has performed improvisatory film scores as a member of Text of Light.
And, you know. The band is still really good. Even as folks mine their discography or weave them into above-ground mainstream corporate media culture enterprising, they’re still challenging themselves and making great music. Earlier this year, the band released The Eternal, their 16th album. Peaking at #18 on the Billboard charts, it also boasts a consistently great set of songs and a painting by late guitarist John Fahey for its cover. This blurring of art and commerce, for good or for bad, is in keeping with the band and their contributions to music culture.