The Fragile Ears of Men

by Leah Finnegan

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The mainstream press has remained leery of the multitalented harpist Joanna Newsom since her much-touted 2004 debut, despite consistent favorable reviews. It’s endlessly interesting to watch the press try to interpret Newsom, who is known for her acrobatic singing voice, operatic albums, and magisterial lyricism. She’s not what a woman musician is supposed to be — Taylor Swift? — and clearly it’s difficult for many of them parse a person like that. A recent New York Times profile pegged to the release of her fourth album, Divers, reads:

The untrained but deliberate squeaks and warbles in her voice and her pure disregard for established idioms — more like distance than active rejection — initially deceived some listeners into thinking she was a naïf, when in fact she’s a meticulous musical architect. (Emphasis mine.)

Who knew there was a brain under all that hair?

On a cold November night a few years ago, I saw Newsom in concert at Carnegie Hall. I had no prior exposure except a disdainful Times profile that asked if she was a wood sprite or a serious musician. My expectations were low. As a rule I do not typically enjoy live music unless it’s classical or opera (I know, I know). But I loved this concert, because it was immediately clear that Newsom is exceptionally good at what she does. It was eminent that she was a genius and I promptly bought all her records and listened to them for two years straight. It would seem reasonable that Newsom would be considered among the greatest living musicians. Her songs are intricate and complicated and beautiful, even when they seem simple; her work builds upon itself and becomes better and better with each album. So why were her critics, mostly men, so quick to reduce her, even while giving her favorable reviews?

I would argue that it’s very simple: Because she’s a woman. In the male critic world, music is like a sport, and women shouldn’t be able to play it. Men have certain standards of how music should be, and no woman musician could ever be as good as a man, according to men. And since Newsom is kind of kooky, and the Times reported that she went to a thing called Lark Camp, and she has a high voice, and plays the harp, she projects weakness, not strength, like, um, Mick Jagger? Her “weirdness” works against her, unlike Kanye West or Prince, who are applauded for their quirks and treated like precious adult babies.

Whenever certain male critics write about Newsom, you can be sure her voice will be mentioned in a condescending fashion. Newsom indeed has a distinct-sounding singing voice, as have many well-loved and extremely successful musicians past and present, including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Waits, Freddie Mercury, James Brown, Axl Rose, Robert Plant, Isaac Brock, Eddie Vedder, and Geddy Lee. These male critics often deign to unfortunate stereotypes to characterize Newsom’s voice. Writing in theTimes about Divers, Ben Ratliff described it: “The tone of her voice oscillates between goofy young-girl singsong and constricted old-woman crackle.” In a review of her 2010 opus, “Have One on Me” on Pitchfork, Mark Richardson described her voice as “squeaky.” Mike Powell of the Village Voice said that her voice is like “a brave little coo with intermittent breaks that sounded like air being let out from a balloon through pinched fingers.” On VanityFair.com, in an article titled “The Virile Man’s Guide to Liking Joanna Newsom,” Andrew Wagner wrote, “I’ve heard the voice described as everything from a ‘dying cat’ to a ‘prepubescent teen whining about the mall’… But it is different. It is unique. And in my book, that’s worth something.” Big of you, Andrew. (It’s likely safe to say that these men don’t mind twee male singing voices.)

But really, what is a musician’s voice if not distinctive? Isn’t that… good? Entire pieces have been written about the voices of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, so American and vital and wise in their manly scratchiness, like unshaved bristle and whiskey and dirt. Man voice make music good. Woman voice music bad: Too high. Too sharp. Too warbly. Sounds like birds, screams, mother. It speaks volumes that men always seem to love PJ Harvey, she of the deep timbre.

Male reviewers also compare her to other female artists to demean her further. The AV Club called her a “unique hybrid of Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone,” while on Pitchfork, Richardson equated her to Joni Mitchell: “Newsom can sound a fair bit like her with her more richly textured voice” (not really, but ok). He continued: “One significant difference between Newsom and Mitchell is that the latter, especially early in her career, was writing songs that would sound good on the radio. For better or worse, Newsom is not a pop singer — that’s just not what she does.” I suspect in Richardson’s view this is mostly for worse (“I don’t want to overstate this record’s accessibility,” he wrote of “Have One on Me.” But how can music be inaccessible? All you have to do is listen.) The Kate Bush and Bjork comparisons are endless, and one can safely infer that these reviewers enjoy her predecessors more. Most puzzlingly, a recent Fader piece compared Newsom and Joan Didion: “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion, a smart Californian just like Newsom, once wrote.” Two white people with female anatomy from California, so they’re basically the same. The woman who produces peerless modern music is simply not allowed to stand on her own.

She’s also not even really allowed to make high art. Further on in that sad Vanity Fair piece, Andrew Wagner writes of Have One On Me:

“Does anyone really want three discs of Joanna Newsom? [Ed note: Her… fans?] Have One on Me is like listening to the Pride and Prejudice book-on-tape while driving on 1–94 through Indiana and Illinois with NPR’s Jonathan Schwartz riding shotgun. It’s long (3 discs!), sad, depressed, flat, antiquated, boring, and runs the risk of making you nod off at the wheel and die. All this against a beige backdrop flanked by decaying industrial towns. I mean, three discs?”

Some reviews of Divers are similarly, if subtly, dismissive of feminine art.

From the Chicago Tribune:

Newsom can still be a daunting listen, and Divers requires time and attention to fully embrace. Those who do invest in it will find an artist whose highly personal art is edging toward the universal.

The AV Club:

Newsom’s artistic lineage isn’t difficult to track. Centuries of English, Irish, and American folk music informed a modernist revival in the 1950s and ’60s spearheaded by the likes of Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger, before being taken up by Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, Fairport Convention, Crosby, Stills & Nash, and the aforementioned Joni Mitchell.

Remember, ladies: Behind every great women there are decades of greater men.

That this type of writing persists makes me think of what Chris Kraus said in I Love Dick, her novel-memoir about how men are terrible: “Who gets to speak and why… is the only question.” (The only answer is men.) Women’s stories, which, yes, tend to focus more on relationships, the domestic, family, will always be considered “sad, depressed, flat, antiquated” or worse, trivial, until this changes.

That’s just the way it is, and it can be seen clearly in the way men write about Newsom: that silly voice, a long album about the breakdown of a relationship? Boring! But Bob Dylan — now there’s a true unadulterated genius. (An aside: Artistic feminism only works if you’re a Beyonce feminist — feminism as marketable product, equally appealing to men and women. Feminism that sells. This is not Newsom’s feminism, which is not marketed to the masses.)

It deserves to be said that there are more critics today working against the mutedly anti-woman grain than when Newsom’s previous albums came out. Unsurprisingly, many of them are women. Laura Snapes, in Pitchfork, gives Divers a rave without comparing Newsom to another artist; she writes, rightly, that Newsom “is only her own yardstick.” In Entertainment Weekly, Melissa Maerz points out that “Newsom has been called an ‘outsider artist,’ though she’s actually a best-selling singer-songwriter and minor movie star [in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice].” This is progress.

Newsom, for what it’s worth, doesn’t seem prone to pulling a Liz Phair anytime soon. It’s good that she does whatever the fuck she wants, stays “true” to her art, doesn’t sell out to a huge label, and more or less ignores the haters — those whose tolerance for what they perceive as “feminine” or “flighty” is low. In an interview last week with NPR, Scott Simon asked Newsom about the stereotypes that haunt her:

Simon: If you kind of trace back the way in which your career has been written about over the years, early on you were often characterized as sort of an ethereal, whimsical girl of the woods. How do you feel about that now?
Newsom: Well, I do think that pretty much every person that makes music has some thing that he or she cannot shake, and doesn’t really relate to, and this is mine. So, I can’t complain too much. I do think that most of the people who actually like my music, and listen to it in any way other than a passing, casual listen — I think very few of those people are quite that reductive about me.
It does still bother me. It also is funny to me, because it takes enormous effort at this point to maintain that interpretation of the music. You have to ignore 90 percent of the lyrics!”

So really, most of the Newsom-reductiveness comes down to the fact that those doing the reducing are simply not listening to her. Not to stereotype men, but this does not surprise me.

Last week a friend and I went to see a movie at IFC. Before the film started they played the video for a single from Newsom’s new album. Her visage loomed large on the screen. “A woman is alive,” she sang. Two men sat next to us, chatting through the video and noisily eating popcorn. The song was very beautiful. As the video’s credits rolled, the men laughed. “Paul Thomas Anderson directed that piece of shit?” one said, incredulously.

Photo by LaVladina