Posts tagged: confusion
“I have greatly sinned,
in my thoughts and in my words,
in what I have done and in what I have failed to do…” (Mea Culpa)
It seems that I have incurred the wrath of a fellow Joanna Newsom fan, and for good reason - I didn’t do my research in full, and implied serious accusation and judgement without providing a complete explanation. We are all guilty of forming opinions about what we don’t fully understand (we also are all probably aware of the public backlash against Mike Daisy for his more-than-questionable monologue about Apple and Foxconn (poor Ira Glass!)). Artistry and journalism are two very different things indeed. I want to make a few things clear about what I wrote in my post Women in Music: Spectacle and Commodity and elaborate on my sentiments.
Firstly, you should know that this blog isn’t about one thing or even a group of things. I work primarily as a musician, and everything I mention in regrettably low detail is quite selfishly filtered through the lens of my creative influence. I recently wrote about Plato’s Theory of Forms. If you asked me to describe this theory in depth I’d probably need a beer and the internet if a cohesive summary was going to be forthcoming. I’ve also written about Lemony Snicket and Jessica Valenti, but if you asked me to outline a chronology of their works, I’d draw a huge blank. I’ve read and studied all of these things/people, but I’m not perfect or perfectly educated, and I will be the first to admit that maybe I shouldn’t be preaching about what I don’t know in complete entirety. The world doesn’t need another Sarah Palin. Unlike Russia’s kooky fence-mate, I don’t have a team of eager media coaches at my disposal…
But I still want to speak my mind.
And without further ado, here is the Joanna Newsom Summer School discussion of my writing:
“A case of misunderstanding between the artist and the public, or the dangers of irony.
In her post about the sexualism of women in the music biz, Maryofegypt writes ‘Even Joanna Newsom, who is lauded for her musical achievements, poses for the album art of Have One on Me in a very provocative way’ and thus gratifies Newsom with the same motives as Madonna, Lady Gaga and other singers seemingly fond of showing skin, butts, boobs, tongues or finger as a strategy to draw attention. Or is it that she just bows down to the sexism of the industry?
I must say I’m a bit surprised by this interpretation. Let us remind how Newsom presented the incriminated cover : “All my three record covers depicted “me” in an allegorical setting—embroidered, on the first album cover; painted, on the second; and then photographed on the third. In each case, there are factors relating to physical appearance that can be tempered to underscore the spirit of the album and the identity of its narrator. The photo on the cover of Have One on Me was modeled after typical Orientalist fantasy-figure iconography, like an odalisque or a Venus in Furs—a sort of cartoonish amalgamation of feminine signifiers stylized to illustrate the Lacanian idea “Woman is a symptom of man.” Annabel Mehran, the photographer, used black-and-white film that the artist Becca Mann later hand-tinted over with watercolors. The idea was to mock-up a shabby, 1920s Parisian studio with an absinthe-dulled lady posing on a divan in bits of old drapery fabric, and then paint over the resulting tableau into some idealized, Technicolor, hedonistic fantasy set. The specifically female, earthbound, corporeal, and decadent character in that album art reflects the character of those songs’ narrator as well as the idea of feminine self-diminishment. That was a definite application of the idea of beauty. I don’t know whether that specific application could have any reason to occur again for me creatively. I have no idea who the narrator of my next record will be, and whether there will be a clear physical embodiment of that character.”
Of course there’s a possibility that she’s intellectualizing her intentions and that, deep down, she’s just like the rest of them, a lascivious callypigian pop diva who just wants her chance to be invited at music awards and sports competitions in order to sell more records to the lecherous populace. But I think that we should give her more credit than that.”
When I read this post I was floored. As a musician, I deeply adore Newsom’s work (as in an entire summer spent listening to Ys unceasingly, and a homemade piano arrangement of Peach, Plum, Pear). I had read some reviews and interviews, but had never researched in depth what her artistic intentions are re: cover artwork. I give the lady credit, I do! And so I hurriedly wrote to this unknown blogger:
”maryofegypt asked: Hello, after posting my “women in music” rant, I have done some actual research regarding my inclusion of Newsom’s cover art and the underlying feminism in this album. I will acknowledge that my discussion of this photo and lamentation of it is perhaps uninformed, thank you for bringing this to my attention. In my defense (of which there isn’t much) I can only say that I was initially disappointed to see the album art.
I think the relations between Newsom and feminism are complex and somehow ambiguous, and it’s perfectly understandable that one could misinterpret her persona in that regard. There’s a tumblr called allthebirdsabout Newsom and feminism if you’re interested (if you haven’t found it already). I’m not in agreement with everything they say but their posts are interesting reads.
I just wanted to point out that Joanna Newsom probably didn’t deserve this critique, that her approach to beauty and seduction couldn’t be compared at all with the pop singers’ behaviour you mentioned.”
Yes, intelligent stranger, you are right. Her approach to beauty should not be compared to that of Madonna or M.I.A. But I thought, when writing the post, I had made it clear that Newsom was in a category of her own. The bulk of my discussion of the other singers I mentioned was regarding poor musical-decision-making and safe-bet songwriting. I meant to include Joanna as a polar opposite to their works, and I should have stressed that more firmly. But as you say, the relationships between Newsom and feminism (or really, any woman and feminism) are “complex and somehow ambiguous”. Indeed, I’ve misinterpreted an “irony” that she has utilized in crafting her cover art. I am happy to be more informed regarding Newsom’s intention to depict herself “in an allegorical setting.” Even if she is intellectualizing her intentions, she’s done so in a very interesting and artistic way.
Here’s a bit from an interview with Newsom about the title of said album:
“[Have one on me] refers to a kind of self-sacrifice that is a theme in a lot of the songs. It’s a very feminine thing as well. It’s the giving of yourself in […] drinking terms, like pouring something from a bottle, and the level of the wine goes down and down and down with each glass that you pour and hand out. And it relates to the title track because that’s sort of essentially what I saw in Lola Montez’s life [Lola being the dancer who was the mistress of the King Of Bavaria, who ultimately lived and died an outcast in America, who is the subject of your title track and Newsom seems to be referring to in the album inlay photographs.] This constant wandering and diminishment of the self through the giving of the self, through performing, and just as the myth grew, the self shrunk until she just died poverty stricken and alone[…] The way women were, and the way women are in that sense, is fundamental.”
Now that I’m more fully informed, I completely get the album cover art. Newsom is giving herself, physically as well as musically.
But here’s the rub: I, personally, as an individual woman who may or not be in agreement with other wonderful individual women, see ironic or artistic self-objectification as confusing. Because at the end of the day, to me it is still what it is upon first glance- objectification. I love Have One on Me. I actually bought it twice because I misplaced one of the three gorgeous discs (the second). All the praises I can sing aside and in all honesty, when I first picked up the album, I was shocked to see Newsom looking like a pin-up.
Wanting to put “herself” on the cover of such a unique work is not something that I am critiquing, as a fellow champion of individual creativeness. But I feel that this goal can be accomplished through many, many other visual venues besides including an image of the self’s visual appearance. None of my other favorite albums have ANY artwork which contains the creator’s image, and yet they manage to present a visual representation of narrative voice and self.
As an independent musician, I made the decision early on to never include a photograph, painting, etching, stitching, drawing, sculpture, cartoon (you get the idea) of an identifiable image of myself on an album cover. I even shy away from promotional photos. It’s probably because, when I listen to music, I like to close my eyes. The image of the artist is distracting to me. I acknowledge again that maybe it’s just a personal preference.
I actually have a reoccurring problem with David Longstreth and his tendency to visually hide behind his (albeit gorgeous) female bandmates. I first saw the Dirty Projectors perform years and years ago, before they were well known, at a small Brooklyn venue, where much of the audience walked out halfway through his set. I was struck by the fact that Longstreth seemed to cower at the back of the stage - the pretty girls were at the forefront, but the creative genius preferred stationing himself, nearly unseen, next to the drummer:
Music is often an experience that fundamentally lies both inside and outside of the auditory domain (as my readers will have heard me mention many, many times over). When I write music, my physical appearance is the last thing on my mind. However, I myself write a LOT about female self-diminishment and female mythology, both in my music and in my blogs. A ton of prevalent artists are always writing “about” something. While it’s true that there are many musicians whose main concerns are sound and texture, etc, it’s also common to encounter those who are writing about social, cultural, political, linguistic/poetic, or philosophical issues.
But those artists are usually trying to capture and depict their “extra-musical” ideas inside of the auditory domain. I find that women artists, as wonderful and groundbreaking as they are, are much more prone to resort to depiction of artistic sentiment (like self-objectification) in their visual representations.
Let’s take Feist as another example of personal opinion. The Reminder remains a catchy yet consistent fave of mine. I had looked forward with childlike anticipation to seeing Leslie play live at Radio City for an AIDS benefit concert (also, David Byrne and Dirty Projectors were playing, it was a musical wet dream) a few years ago. When Feist was set to take the stage, I collapsed inwardly when she walked on wearing a see-through white blouse with a black bra underneath. Then (speaking of irony), she went on to sing a song with strong feminist themes: “a slave to her husband for the rest of her days”.
It’s all very confusing. I’m incredibly afraid of how this inward disappointment of mine could stem from a sort of female misogyny. I want to clarify now that I think women should be free (and safe!) to dress however revealingly or seductively they so choose. Self-expression is the ultimate freedom and equalizer.
However, I also am very afraid that women have to to be seductive and attractive in order to be taken seriously as artists. I am afraid that, though they may have the best of intentions and be attempting to celebrate femininity and beauty in general, they are doing so through the male gaze. If a woman writes beautiful music about women and women’s issues, that will come across in the music itself, as it does in Newsom’s auditory work. Furthermore, the common inclusion of sexual images seems to imply that beauty is the domain of women, or a “feminine” pursuit. I admire that Newsom embraces the female voice wholeheartedly. But men can give themselves too. Men (and the transgendered, and the asexual) can work towards the creation of beauty, softness, and generosity. They just seem to do so without providing their bodies as a backdrop.
Does that mean that performers shouldn’t pose provocatively if they so choose? No. It just means that sometimes, I personally wish they wouldn’t, because in my own mind it comes across as confusing if not self-objectifying.
Maybe I just have a problem with pop music in general. Classical musicians, though they are often required to provide sensual head shots and promotional materials, are much more concerned with auditory experience. They’d rather be masters of technique/artistry than masters of fashion. Look at Angela Hewitt, whose manager told her she’d never make it professionally because she “looked like the girl next door” (this info from an Eastman prof in my piano lit class!).
She is now hailed as one of the greatest Bach interpreters of our time.
Perhaps, since Newsom’s work is so thoughtful and through-composed, I have mistakenly assumed she is a “classically” leaning artist.
“I would place myself squarely on the nonclassical side. As a composer, I require assistance. I have ideas and I have an album in mind but I’m limited, I need help making the record. I’m a very poor composer. I really am. That may change over the years, but right now I have such a huge gap between what’s in my mind and what I’m able to notate. I think it would be disingenuous for me to claim to be part of the classical world.” - Newsom
I don’t want to conceive of music as genre-specific. If Newsom is appreciated in both classical and indie spheres, it shows me that music, at its best, is unclassifiable. And that’s because even the blind can enjoy it.