Pete's Blog

Joanna Newsom

My daughter has introduced me (and, I assume, quite a few others) to the music of Joanna Newsom, a California songwriter whose principal instrument is the harp and whose singing, lyrics, and arranging strike a lot of people as coming from well beyond the left-field fence. To me, Newsom is nobody's naif. She reminds me a bit of a distaff Captain Beefheart, cloaking real insight in a surface of eccentric inscrutability. Instead of bluesman's swagger her surface comes from the more Alice-in-Wonderland style of second-generation hippiedom, her voice moving from maiden to mother to crone and back again in its journey to the Eternal Feminine. Whew! I'm being followed by a moonshadow, here. To me one of the cultural stories of the 20th century was the efforts of newly accepted female artists to find a uniquely female artistic voice, which led down a lot of dead ends. I keep thinking of Janis Joplin, the object of much triumphal feminist analysis. The fact is her singing was less the sound of an entire gender seizing equality than the cries of a wounded soul longing to die. Nobody can accuse Joanna Newsom's music of being unhealthy. To me she's more like Aretha Franklin, complex and elemental at the same time. Of course, Aretha (ever notice how geniuses are called by their last names, royalty by their first?) was the preeminent female artist of the 20th century, it says here. Standard-issue critical wisdom holds Newsom too "quirky," too "eccentric," too... attentuated to play in that league. But who really knows? She's certainly more than the sum total of her quirks. In fact, they may not be quirks at all. They may be a vocabulary of female expression that could once and for all free American literature from the ghost of Ernest Hemingway.

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