Monday, April 5, 2010

On eccentrics and elfin fairy girls: why is women's music whimsical instead of challenging?

B. Michael Payne wrote a meaty article about critics' reactions to Joanna Newsom. If you're even remotely familiar with her music, you'll know that critics like to remind us of her whimsy, her elfin appearance, and her child-like voice almost at the expense of her music:

"Language of diminution and deprecation pervades even positive reviews of Newsom’s work. She’s 'elfin,' 'fairylike,' 'whimsical,' 'eccentric,' 'childlike,' 'batshit insane'.... Even positive reviews make a concession to these descriptors, which are all coded language for “feminine.” I understand that it is very difficult to write about music—or any aesthetic accomplishment. Is it possible that these words simply are the most appropriate for describing Newsom’s music? Again, I think besides displaying no small amount of lazy thinking, they remain coded language for “woman-like,” and in the context of the reviews they serve as negative-yet-charming traits. The message of these reviews is that women are deplorable but desirable. I simply cannot truck with that notion, even when it is coded into generally positive articles."

The entire post is worth a read, so I'll refrain from quoting it any further. It might be my age that led me to draw this parallel, but the treatment Newsom has received from critics reminds me of how everything written about the Throwing Muses a couple decades ago mentioned Kristin Hersh's bipolar disorder before her songwriting. One of the more interesting comparisons came courtesy of a commenter, likening Joanna Newsom's press to that of Antony Hegarty's:

"The writing about her work reminds me of the critical response to Antony Hegarty. Most of the people who write about Antony focus on his transgender identity, while treating his music almost as a curious footnote."

Further Reading:
Manic Pixie Songwriting Dream Girls, A History in Youtube and Published Slur (Feministe)

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