You know what people don’t do enough of? 4,000-word essays about sexism in pop culture, published on the Internet. One such person who does these things is me! Frequently! But another such person is B. Michael Payne, favorite Internet presence/sometimes Tiger Beatdown contributor/person I know well enough, in real life, to tell you what the “B” stands for (it is not, as I once fervently hoped and semi-suspected, “Bret”). And this week, he has done a good one! On Joanna Newsom!
Specifically, on press coverage of Joanna Newsom. He has read a lot of it, some of it by (yikes!) Dave Eggers, and seemingly all of it uses, at some point, the word “elfin.” He points out that “language of diminution and deprecation pervades even positive reviews of Newsom’s work. She’s ‘elfin,’ ‘fairylike,’ ‘whimsical,’ ‘eccentric,’ ‘childlike,’ ‘batshit insane.’ (You would think she was like the protagonist of ‘The Yellow Wallpaper.’)” His conclusion? All of these things are, secretly, synonyms for “girl.” You know, because of how girls are stupid and irrational and not fully human yet adorable like precious little children and such! The essay points out that the habit (which even Newsom’s fans have) of conceptualizing her as a wood sprite with “the hands of Jimi Hendrix and the mind of a precocious child from a Wes Anderson film” and the continuing emphasis on female musicians’ musical or personal weirdness — often overemphasized, or just blatantly made up in the mind of music journalists — serves to give said music journalists good cover for not talking about any of those girls’ actual, technical accomplishments, and for implying that basically all girl musicians birth albums directly out of their vaginas without giving it a second thought.
Bauhaus Michael Payne is right! And do you know how I know he’s right? Because there have been approximately fifteen thousand other female musicians to receive exactly the same press coverage as Joanna Newsom. Or, you know, worse. Join us now, as we take a tour of (only some of) the glamorized, vilified, infantilized and weirdly sexually-fixated-upon Manic Pixie Songwriting Girls of years present and past!
FRIENDS WITH NEIL GAIMAN? Yes indeed! As documented in graphic novel, personal essay, and song!
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Classically trained pianist; frequently constructs songs in complex, non-standard time signatures (9/4? Is that even a thing?) and uses more than one of said time signatures over the course of a song; said songs also feature carefully worked-out, highly complex piano-vocal melodies and harmonies, often referencing classical pieces or styles of note, with unusual chords, non-standard voicings and keys, and frequent key changes; improvises substantially on and/or re-arranges those highly complex songs on every tour; can play piano, synth, harpsichord, Hammond, and basically anything else with a keyboard on it; on last tour, switched between four keyboards, often playing two simultaneously, on nearly every song.
PRESS COVERAGE FOCUSES ON: Did you hear she’s got this thing about faeries?
Yep. She spells it with the “ae,” and believes in them, and mentions them in interviews, and thanks them in her liner notes! Or did, but stopped twelve years ago! You know who else has a thing about faeries: People who interview Tori Amos. She’s been called, in print, a “sprite,” a “moon child,” the “queen of the faeries,” and basically every other character from the movie Legend, in addition to being described as “quirky” and “kooky” by apparently every representative of the press ever to come into contact with her. And that’s on a good day. On a bad one, well…
REPRESENTATIVE QUOTE FROM TORI AMOS PRESS COVERAGE: “Of course, the real news about Tori Amos is that she’s genuine article, platinum plated, 100 percent crazy… In place of apparently disposable stuff and nonsense like Expression, Definition and Lucidity, Tori boasts an uncooked sausage pallor and terrible, grinning eyes. My first thought is ‘Help!’ My second is ‘Hilbilly.’ My third involves the word ‘Run’ and ‘For it’… Having spent 90 minutes with Tori Amos, I can vouch for her instability, lunacy, and mental decrepitude.”
REPRESENTATIVE QUOTE FROM TORI AMOS ABOUT HER PRESS COVERAGE: “If you call me an airy-fairy new age hippie waif, I will cut your penis off.”
FUN FACT: Both of those quotes are from the same publication. The first quote is from 1992, when she was promoting her first album. The second quote is from 1994, when she was promoting her second. She says, nowadays, that she doesn’t read her own press. I’m guessing, in 1992, she did?
BEST SONG: There are several theories! It depends on if you like Boys for Pele, the cloistral, inward-turning, classically inflected record; Little Earthquakes, the literal, autobiographical record that doubles as a reasonably priced therapy session; or, From the Choirgirl Hotel, where she got a whole bunch of synthesizers and a band and basically reminded everyone that her records were available in the “rock” section of the store. However, some of us are sex-positive feminists from religious homes who were kicked out of Catholic school during the orientation because we started arguing with the principal about gender-normative uniforms, my friends. That is to say: Some of us have no choice but to pick “Icicle.”
FRIENDS WITH NEIL GAIMAN? Before his time. Even though they’re roughly the same age (Bush, b. 1958; Gaiman, b. 1960). She is rumored to be friends with Andre 3000 Big Boi, though!
(UPDATE: You dudes, this is CONFUSING. For one, some of the same quotes about Bush — “Kate Bush’s music opened my mind up,” and “she’s so fucking dope, so underrated and off the radar” — were attributed to Andre in some places and Big Boi in others. It was announced that Outkast wanted to produce a Kate Bush album, and it was announced that Outkast wanted Kate Bush to produce their album. It was announced, in 2006, that Big Boi had been invited to stay at Kate’s to collaborate on his solo album. Unless it was Andre 3000 she invited to her house, and he showed up IN DISGUISE! But Big Boi is the one who calls her his favorite artist, and talks about her work more often, SO. Mystery solved! Maybe! Some people say she invited them both? Quotes from Kate Bush about all this are, as always, hard to find.)
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: She started out as a piano-playing singer-songwriter with a helium voice. That deepened with time, and so did her work; she ended up making hugely ambitious, hugely original synth-pop/singer-songwriter/look-there’s-no-easy-genre-classification-for-this albums incorporating sounds and styles from music hall, various “world musics” (more on that later), sound collage, interconnected narrative song cycles, and basically anything else she could get her hands on. And her singing voice became one of the more flexible and distinctive instruments out there: she could scream, whisper, croon, murmur, go down gravelly and deep, hit highs normally reserved for pre-pubescent children, and then just straight-up bark like a dog. It’s often pointed out that you couldn’t get to Amos, musically, without Bush; you also, probably, couldn’t get to Bjork, or CocoRosie, or Bat for Lashes, or St. Vincent, or My Brightest Diamond, or even the more yelpy, music-hall moments of Amanda Palmer, maybe even Newsom herself, without Kate Bush having happened. They might still make the very same music, but they’d be making it for the first time, without any easy precedent to refer back to — which, as Kate Bush can tell you, is not the easiest thing in the world. Or: She would tell you that, if she had not famously become a “recluse” (cue Miss Havisham comparisons! Although she is married, with a son!) who does not speak to the press unless it is absolutely, and probably contractually, required.
PRESS COVERAGE: Her fan site has compiled some gems. Aside from the omnipresent “eccentric” and “hippy,” we have, “the warblings of some unearthly fairy princess.” Or, “If people fantasise about her, it must be as an elfin [Ed. Note: !!!] sprite, an immortal of love, not a flesh and blood thing with the smell of female.” Or, “the sort of girl who pours all her books and beads into the pot and stirs it up until you come out with an opera. Most of her records smell of tarot cards.” One reviewer did, however, acknowledge that “she’s still front cover type material (less sincere chaps might say only through the size of her buttocks and mammaries, but I won’t).” Thanks, dude! Then he called her album, and I quote, “poop.”
AND ALSO: The Kate Bush song “This Woman’s Work” was released on her album The Sensual World (in which, on the title track, she sang excerpts of Molly Bloom’s soliloquy from Ulysses). It was written for, and featured in, a crucial montage sequence in the John Hughes movie She’s Having a Baby. It was a single; it peaked at number 25 on the UK charts. Then, it was covered by Maxwell. (UPDATE: On “MTV Unplugged,” where Maxwell first attracted notice for his cover of the song, he specified that it was “written and produced” by “an artist by the name of Kate Bush. I don’t know if you all are familiar with her. But she is the bomb, truly.” Which is to say: He both gave her credit and recommended her work.) It is now frequently referred to — sometimes by people who cover music for a living or as a passionate hobby, as when an American Idol contestant covered it this season — as “‘This Woman’s Work,’ by Maxwell.”
BEST SONG: Common wisdom points us in the direction of Hounds of Love on this one. The first half is solid, ambitious, very pretty synth-pop — the first track, in particular, is kind of unavoidably great. Your tolerance for the second half will depend on how you feel about complex interconnected narrative “song cycles,” and sound collage (there is one where she appears to be having sex with the devil?) and Kate Bush’s tendency for (I find!) appropriatey use of “world music,” but that half and the B-sides contain some of the loveliest piano ballads you ever will hear, like “And Dream of Sheep,” or “Hello Earth,” or, God, “Under the Ivy,” a B-side that might not make you cry if you are DEAD INSIDE but which you could probably wring out a few tears over in any other circumstances. HOWEVER, since your reviewer has established that she lacks all critical objectivity, she has no choice but to go for “All the Love,” from The Dreaming, a cautionary tale for overcommitted work-at-home ladies about how you are totally going to die alone since you’ve been so busy that you haven’t answered any of your friends’ phone calls or voice mails or e-mails or GChat messages or Facebook wall posts or oh GOD.
BUT SERIOUSLY: This is a song called “This Woman’s Work.” You’ve heard this song! You know this song! Here is the song, sung by the person who initially wrote, recorded, and released it! IN THE YEAR NINETEEN HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FUCKING NINE.
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: So, okay: Imagine if Kate Bush had happened again, in the 1990s, and was very popular, and you were able to find out about her easily, maybe because she had a really catchy song on the Tank Girl feature film soundtrack. That, in a sense, is Bjork. Which is not to say that she sounds anything like Kate Bush: Aside from the fact that they’re both fond of synthesizers, and have really distinctive voices, there’s almost no commonality. But neither of them sound like anyone else, either. She started out as a child singer; then she went punk; then she went jazz fusion; then she went punk again, this time as a member of an arts collective; then, she went dance-pop; and then, along the way, she picked up lush orchestral arrangements, and Tricky, and at some point decided that she could create an entire album out of rhythmic a cappella arrangements — and she pulled it off! — and by that point, she wasn’t doing anything that belonged to any genre other than “Bjork album.” I find “Bjork album” to be a very satisfactory genre, myself! And also: No, you can’t sing like that. No-one can sing like that. No-one, that is, except Bjork.
PRESS COVERAGE: Six words: Swan dress, swan dress, swan dress!
FURTHER PRESS COVERAGE: Rarely is a woman referred to so frequently as a “pixie” that it is mentioned on her Wikipedia page.
FRIENDS WITH NEIL GAIMAN? Facts: Tori Amos and Bjork were at one point (and maybe still are) friends. Tori Amos is a good friend of Neil Gaiman. Through the transitive property, we can therefore determine that Bjork is in fact friends with Neil Gaiman. It is all connected!
BEST SONG / NAIL IN THE “PIXIE” COFFIN: Of course, it’s not every woman on this list who actually writes a song in which she assumes the character of a magical wood nymph with power to make the moths do her bidding.
FRIENDS WITH NEIL GAIMAN? Uhhh…
ACCOMPLISHMENTS: Oh, dear. Look, let’s just skip this one, shall we?
And, finally, it is not possible to conduct a magical mystery tour of superwackybonkersweirdofreak female musicians who might actually know what they’re up to, music-wise, but whose accomplishments in that field have been continually derided and downplayed by the press, without addressing
THE FUCKING OBVIOUS
ACCOMPLISHMENTS / PRESS COVERAGE / STATUS AS MOST VILIFIED WOMAN IN ROCK MUSIC FOR PAST HALF-CENTURY OR SO: I just… I don’t even… Cara, you want to take this one?
Anyway, here’s a song.