(NOT REALLY A) WEEKEND ARTS SECTION: Manic Pixie Songwriting Dream Girls, A History in Youtube and Published Slur

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!

TORI AMOS

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.”

KATE BUSH

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.

BJORK

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.

AMANDA PALMER

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

Yoko Ono

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.

Author: has written 21 posts for this blog.

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67 Responses

  1. Caitlin
    Caitlin April 4, 2010 at 11:53 pm |

    I CANNOT LOVE IT ENOUGH.

    SERIOUSLY.

  2. Heather
    Heather April 5, 2010 at 12:49 am |

    Joanna Newsom is amazing, it’s really too bad the critics feel so assaulted by her unusual style that all they can do is make sexist remarks about her appearance. I think that first commenter at the end of the article really articulated it well, great read!

  3. Dyssonance
    Dyssonance April 5, 2010 at 2:01 am |

    LOL I wouldn’t say she’s having sex with the Devil in “Waking the White Witch”, but yeah, Kate Bush is totally awesome.

    I’m a pop girl, myself, — unabashedly so, and so Hounds Of Love was totally on my must have list, as was Tori’s Little Earthquakes. Never was a big fan of Bjork. Disliked Boys for Pele, but the last few albums are in list to join my ever growing collection of B sides and special releases from Tori.

    Utterly unavoidably, I have a thing for faeries, and I seriously doubt anyone would have the gumption to call me such without fearing for their lives, but that’s because for some strange reason I’m too tall, too ethnic, and have the wrong physiological origin to qualify for subtextual commentary on girlishness or height.

    I love the comparisons. Totally love them.

  4. Amelia the Lurker
    Amelia the Lurker April 5, 2010 at 3:01 am |

    I like Joanna Newsom’s instrumentals, and think she has talent there. I have mixed feelings about her lyrics. It’s her voice I can’t stand, and I honestly think I can stand on some pretty solid ground and say that, because a (female) friend of mine, a music major with vocal training, is of the opinion that Newsom is damaging her voice doing what she’s doing. There’s singing “differently,” and then there’s hurting your instrument…objectively bad, IMHO.

  5. Kathy
    Kathy April 5, 2010 at 5:07 am |

    I wrote a little about this, but I’ve yet to publish it. Note her voice, not her songwriting, but the press’s treatment of Joanna Newson sort of reminds me of how twenty years ago every article you’d read about Throwing Muses mentioned Kristen Hersh’s bipolar disorder almost at the expense of her music. Yeah, her music isn’t exactly linear, but there are other factors than just “crazy person making music.”

  6. Samantha b.
    Samantha b. April 5, 2010 at 6:11 am |

    As I brought up in another thread, it irks me to no end that Newsom’s “voice” is inevitably subject to criticism. When in fact, it seems fairly evident that it’s the contrived use of her voice that irks many. It may or may not be to your taste, but it should be credited as a technique that’s been controlled and mastered rather than dismissed as something innate. I do feel like she’s being continually reduced on this point in a most likely sexist fashion, as if it couldn’t possibly be that a woman might *want* to put herself right in your face. She doesn’t just happen to sound a way that some find grating; she’s explicitly chosen to sound a way that some find grating. I find it completely astounding that people can listen to her work and not register the vocal contrivance.

  7. Maggie
    Maggie April 5, 2010 at 6:59 am |

    Thanks for this, I’ve only ever heard one Kate Bush song and it was one that was improved by the band that covered it, so I never checked her out further, but now I kind of want to. And I can definitely see the point about the “elifn” thing.

    But the Amanda Palmer section is just disappointing. “Let’s just skip this one”? Why don’t you, here’s an idea, actually skip her if you think her mistakes wipe out her accomplishments entirely, instead of bringing her in and then dismissing her? It’s frankly petty to bring up your disapproval for someone in a post that is unrelated to the thing you’re disapproving of – did you just include her so you could get another shot in? Or because of the Neil Gaiman connection? Why is the Neil Gaiman Connection category there at all? If Amanda Palmer fits into the picture you’re building here, which is about women musicians’ portrayal in media, then damn well write about her portrayal in the media, if she’s not relevant then don’t give her a heading. It’s not like she’s ever been called elfin, that I know of, anyway.

  8. lesleyclaire
    lesleyclaire April 5, 2010 at 7:30 am |

    Thanks for this post! The manic pixie dream girl seems to pop up everywhere these days (okay, forever). Some other singers who sometimes fit into the types of press coverage listed above:

    Zooey Deschanel
    Coco Rosie (both sisters)
    Florence and the Machine
    Lady Gaga?

    Any others? I would be curious to know…

  9. WildlyParenthetical
    WildlyParenthetical April 5, 2010 at 7:52 am |

    This is such a great article.

    I wonder about how this relates to music history. There was some discussion about this in Australia last year after a ‘youth’ radio station ran the Hottest 100 songs of all time thing, and there were, like, two women leads in the whole thing, both of whom were guests on other artists’ songs, and a few more women total (like, including guitarists and other band members). So, the radio station in question had some ‘discussion’ which ran pretty much as follows: ‘Wow, kinda a problem that the top 100 songs included so few women!’ ‘It was a democratic vote! We are not responsible!’ ‘I wonder why it is that so many ‘great songs’ are understood as written by men?’ ‘It was a democratic vote! We are not responsible!’ &c.

    But there’s something about how only certain people go down in history as genre-makers, as classic songsters (in the discussion referred to above, an academic pointed out that Nirvana and Hole were both pretty key to grunge at the time, but one is taken as The Grunge in retrospect, and the other, well, how wacky is she anyway? And didn’t she like kill him? Or not stop him from killing himself? Or make him kill him? Or something that in any case overshadows any actual talent…) And I guess I wonder about how this is connected with this tendency to act like women just incidentally produce awesome music, without intention? They don’t create genres, they do weird stuff that seems to be figured as tangential to other genres, and as tangential to the history of music. Or something. Anyway: any thoughts, wonderful Sady?

  10. Dave
    Dave April 5, 2010 at 8:27 am |

    Man, this makes me want to go back and reread criticism/reviews of Heart. If anyone described Ann Wilson as “elfin” or “pixie-like,” I think we’ve got a pretty ironclad case that music critics are idiots.

    I don’t read enough criticism to know – did reviewers refer to male artists who were similarly genre-breaking in the same ways? I doubt it. Bowie might have been an alien, but not a manic-pixie-dream-alien.

  11. Thomas
    Thomas April 5, 2010 at 9:27 am |

    When white men are brilliant and talented and kind of nuts, even when they’re three quarters asshole, nobody ignores the talent or treats it like a fluke, and nobody likens them to elves (Zappa, Captain Beefheart, Black Francis and too many others to mention).

  12. Ergo
    Ergo April 5, 2010 at 9:51 am |

    Granted, I’m probably biased because I almost universally hate this kind of music (Tori Amos, Kate Bush, Newsom, what have you: my girlfriend, a longtime queercore fan, amusingly calls this stuff “vagina music”) but it seems like a lot of artists who fit this mold deliberately cultivate a sort of MPDG personality, which is extremely irritating and helps to reinforce the MPDG as a cultural archetype, thus making it a little bit harder for women trying to break through in less stereotypically feminine types of music. Their hardcore fanbases (Amos’s comes to mind especially, since they eat all that fairy bullshit up) really, really don’t help this at all.

    BUT: I do have a big problem with reviewers brushing off these musicians’ technical prowess, however, and that’s totally a sexist phenomenon. Look at how often (more male-dominated) prog and metal bands are talked about in terms of their complexity and difficulty, for example. These women may be cutesy and grating, but they’re certainly talented as all hell.

  13. b michael
    b michael April 5, 2010 at 10:19 am |

    Hi.

    A common theme I noticed in interviews (early and late) with Newsom is that she’s 100% totally fully aware of the fact that she has a bad voice, ie, little trained, very primitive-sounding. It’s a reason, I assume, she wanted to go into composition rather than pop performance. I wouldn’t say it’s bad per se or that it’s bad qua technique. It just is what it is. If she continues to record and release music, I’m sure it will actually be a ‘good’ voice within a few albums. The more skwaky sounds she makes on Have One On Me are pretty self-aware sounding, to me.

  14. Sarah J
    Sarah J April 5, 2010 at 10:33 am |

    Sady is awesome.

    Also, having interviewed Tori Amos my own damn self, I must say that she is brilliant, warm, funny, raunchy, and wears spectacular heels. And she didn’t say a damn thing about faeries.

  15. matthew
    matthew April 5, 2010 at 10:34 am |

    I agree with the points that music critics tend to all use words like “elfin” to describe musicians like Newsom, but also I think that Newsom consciously wants people to percerive her that way.
    Also, focusing on how Joanna Newsom is “eccentric” and “fairylike” makes sense; one of her album covers features her in Ren Faire garb with a crown of flowers and a raven and a butterfly and whatever the hell else is on that album cover. Since her whole persona is completely affected–and, tangentially, intensely grating and horrible–I’m not sure why it’s wrong for writers to remark on it. (Also, in general music writers tend to be repetitive with their descriptions. And when multiple reviewers are using the same words to describe someone, those words can be traced back to press releases and promo materials sent by the label. I don’t know if that’s true in Newsom’s case, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Secretly Canadian or whoever was sending out press sheets alerting the media that she’s a spritely nymph from the woods of your soul.)

  16. daniel rothman
    daniel rothman April 5, 2010 at 11:49 am |

    One supporting example:
    - Stevie Nicks

    A few counter-examples:
    - Suzanne Vega
    - Sarah Mclachlen
    - Annie Haslam
    - Loreena Mckennitt
    Granted several of these are obscure enough references to fall beneath the radar of the media (and hence haven’t drawn fire), but they all fit firmly and squarely into the creative/original singer/songwriter, and all fit firmly into the ethereal/elfin/pixie mold.

    For me, “manic pixie dream girl” is a positive label for a musical style. Heck, I think Sting and Bowie fit the mold in a certain gender-neutral way. The personalization and diminution of the people behind the music is an unfortunate projection of the sound-bite media.

  17. Samantha b.
    Samantha b. April 5, 2010 at 11:54 am |

    @Ergo, I dunno. I question that the “stereotypically feminine” argument isn’t getting close to the stuff Julia Serano talks about in other contexts. Why should a “feminine” voice connote something lesser than a more “masculine” voice? I don’t have a problem with Courtney Love singing at the top of her fucking lungs, but I also don’t see why women who choose to do otherwise should be denigrated as “vagina singers.” Essentially what you’re saying there is that “masculine” rules the day, and that it’s the baseline by which women musicians ought to be judged. To my ear, the musicians listed in this post all have voices well into the “feminine” register that they nevertheless use in a very aggressive fashion. And this much unsettles people, given that it’s deemed inappropriate for women to be “feminine” and yet simultaneously aggressive. Aggressiveness is somehow more socially acceptable when it still mimics the “masculine.”
    As I’ve said above, their music may not be to your taste, but to suggest that these artists are holding women back by behaving in a “stereotypically feminine” fashion is, I tend to think, problematic.

  18. Michael
    Michael April 5, 2010 at 12:11 pm |

    Amanda Palmer would like you to pretend that Kate Bush and Ute Lemper don’t exist…

  19. Garland Grey
    Garland Grey April 5, 2010 at 12:26 pm |

    Icicle is a pretty amazing song. The long piano introduction incorporates an alternate arrangement of Amazing Grace, which adds another layer to the story. This makes you realize that what she is attempting to do in the introduction is recreate what a prayer revival would sound like if the listener was a floor removed from the piano – perhaps upstairs discovering masturbation.

    Honorable Mention: Precious Things from Little Earthquakes, if only for the line “So you can make me cum, that doesn’t make you Jesus.” The live version on To Venus and Back is not to be missed; she burns the house down.

  20. Elizabeth
    Elizabeth April 5, 2010 at 12:56 pm |

    Fiona Apple! She got all of the same precious-crazy-girl coverage.

  21. Persia
    Persia April 5, 2010 at 1:20 pm |

    Great post. I find it interesting– can’t believe I didn’t realize it before– that Lady GaGa uses big dark shades that are really, really similar to Ono’s in a lot of videos/appearances.

  22. littlem
    littlem April 5, 2010 at 1:27 pm |

    You know whom I realized were some fairly glaring omissions?

    (And not from the article, I mean. From the discussion. Interestingly.)

    Angie Stone. Lauryn Hill. Erykah Badu. Jill Scott. Alicia Keys. La Bruja. M.I.A.

    All of whom also write their own lyrics, some of whom also write their own music.

    I also find it additionally ironic since at least two of them have been rather visible in the news lately. At least one for a topic that I can see as related to the omission. I’ll leave it to you all to guess whom and why. Or perhaps to overlook this comment entirely. Or attempt to explain it away. Which, I have to say, would also be quite telling.

    For similar reasons.

  23. littlem
    littlem April 5, 2010 at 1:32 pm |

    (When I say “article” and “discussion” here, before any comments have a chance to devolve into dissection of my pronoun placement and how it makes “which discussion” I’m referring to “confusing”, when I say “article” I refer to that written by B. Michael and the “discussion” as Sady’s essay and comments here criticizing said article.)

  24. Athenia
    Athenia April 5, 2010 at 1:58 pm |

    I love Tori Amos.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the Pig picture.

  25. Shannon Drury
    Shannon Drury April 5, 2010 at 3:12 pm |

    OH, YOKO! The anti-elf. “Yes, I’m a Witch.” No article on the belittling of musical/artistic women is complete without her. Good one.

  26. Hannah
    Hannah April 5, 2010 at 4:15 pm |

    Bahahaha. I love this post. and as soon as you said something about coverage of the “personal weirdness” of female songwriters in the first paragraph, I was like, TORI! TORI! :D

    but seriously, this is not only a great post but it reminded me of a few things to start listening to again/stare wishfully at when I go to record and tape traders.

  27. Bitter Scribe
    Bitter Scribe April 5, 2010 at 4:30 pm |

    I’d never heard of this woman until I read a review of her latest album in today’s Chicago Tribune. Between that and this post, I got curious, so I just listened to a couple of her songs on YouTube. Put it this way: To me, a lot of female pop vocalists all sound alike, but she definitely doesn’t have that problem.

  28. little light
    little light April 5, 2010 at 4:57 pm |

    a: Sady, you continue to be a national treasure.

    b: littlem, I kind of took that as a large part of the point? Those composers/musicians/singers of color don’t get discussed in the same way. Their talents and accomplishments are obscured by different problematic discourse–rather than the weird “she is a magical pixie!” exoticization, which still to some degree presents these talented white performers as appealing or charming in their weird kooky feyness, similarly-situated artists of color aren’t even given that–rather than the weird airy-fairy coverage, they’re flat-out ignored, de-womaned, and dehumanized. The genres a lot of them work in are different, and their cultural places are different, such that they get left out of the discussion–for a lot of problematic reasons, you know?

    The white female singer-songwriters get to be “vagina music” and get associated with queerness and kookiness and this whole genre of feathery floopy isn’t-she-cuuuute paternalism, and I think that’s worth talking about and I’m glad Sady’s having the discussion. At the same time, their counterparts of color don’t get to be kooky or queer or even have exoticized personalities, because they don’t get to have personalities–they’re part of some indistinguishable mass of women of color who’re angry and tough and probably had some kind of rough past or something, and no matter what genre they actually do you can just call it “hip-hop” or “R & B” and look no further. They don’t get to be distinct enough to be labeled with this irritating discourse Sady’s pointing out.

    …well, except for Yoko Ono, of course. Yoko Ono is a whole nother kettle of fish, and I think it’s telling that rather than the weird “awww she’s such an adorable ball of fairylike nuttery!” contempt, she just got flat-out hated.

  29. littlem
    littlem April 5, 2010 at 5:38 pm |

    I think that’s worth talking about and I’m glad Sady’s having the discussion.

    little light, I think it’s absolutely appropriate and quite commendable to have the discussion.

    You’ve brought it up obliquely, but it interests me less that B. Michael completely omitted the discussion of these women in his discussions of “lady musicians”, however paternalistically, because I’m (unfortunately) quite accustomed to men — especially entertainment industry men — being reductive like that.

    It interests me more that — again, because it’s received some not altogether insignificant media coverage lately —
    there’s little discussion here of how much more limiting the “songwriting pixie” description is, as far as it’s attempting to conscript “optimal ‘talented’ womanhood”, than it even appears to be — as such a description, even (part of me wants to say “especially”) as it tries to be complimentary, completely erases an entire roster of women artists.

    (And short of a deconstruction of orchestration — because I didn’t even mention Fefe Dobson, Corinne Bailey Rae, Danielia Cotton, or get into the “tangential” issue of what “rock music”‘s origins really are — I’m not at all sure a subdivision by genre of the music is relevant here.)

  30. Dyssonance
    Dyssonance April 5, 2010 at 6:33 pm |

    I’m going to add into the mix another one not noted thus far, and see if anyone can identify the same general theme:

    Best known album: Tigerlily

    Artist: Natalie Merchant

  31. Darcy
    Darcy April 5, 2010 at 7:02 pm |

    @Samantha b. Amen. I have always thought that people dismissing something as “vagina” music really meant that they have a problem with a feminine-sounding female voice, and therefore women. They completely ignore the ferocity behind that voice.

  32. piny
    piny April 5, 2010 at 7:25 pm |

    Their talents and accomplishments are obscured by different problematic discourse–rather than the weird “she is a magical pixie!” exoticization, which still to some degree presents these talented white performers as appealing or charming in their weird kooky feyness, similarly-situated artists of color aren’t even given that–rather than the weird airy-fairy coverage, they’re flat-out ignored, de-womaned, and dehumanized.

    And called crazy as in messed up, weird, and gross. Eccentricity is accomodated in racist ways, too.

  33. b michael
    b michael April 5, 2010 at 11:29 pm |

    @littlelight

    And the next time I write an essay specifically about professional wrestling, I’ll be sure to make it also explicitly about parliamentary cloture. Further, I can assure you that interracial dating is something that is -never- on my mind.

  34. b michael
    b michael April 5, 2010 at 11:33 pm |

    I apologize. I should make it clear that I was being very ironic in the previous comment.

  35. tomoe gozen
    tomoe gozen April 5, 2010 at 11:42 pm |

    I am surprised that this thread has gotten to this length and that no-one mentioned Diamanda Galas. Her image is perhaps the polar opposite–austere, confrontational, (nearly) forbidding, militant– of most of most of the artists mentioned so far.

    Being a tremendous hater when it comes to the Dresden Dolls, I would love to see links to where Amanda Palmer says anything racist or anti-woman… more grist for the mill.

  36. Jackie
    Jackie April 6, 2010 at 6:13 am |

    Tori Amos also did some work with Trent Reznor. I just find that an accomplishment, more cause um he’s really sexy, and wish I knew him yeah. ‘-_-

  37. norbizness
    norbizness April 6, 2010 at 7:44 am |

    Joan Armatrading is out with a new album, the 20th or so in her nearly 40-year career.

  38. Maggie
    Maggie April 6, 2010 at 9:53 am |

    @Sady, I have no problem per se with the idea that her mistakes outweigh her accomplishments, I’m not trying to say you’re not allowed to make that judgement or something, that would be silly. I was just grumpy because, well, it seemed to me that this post was not about Amanda Palmer, and her very real problems deserve to be addressed on their own, not alluded to in an aside/injoke that sounds, incidentally, in context, like you think her behaviour makes her fair game for the shit you’re complaining about the press heaping on women performers.

    You know, remember back when people were calling out fellow lefty writers for using trans-phobic language to attack C. Rice or someone, or implying that it was okay to be sexist toward Sarah Palin just because she was a horrible parody of a feminist candidate? Because the whole point about shit like that is that NOBODY deserves it, not that people who are nice don’t deserve it. Because nobody has the right to draw that line.

    So it just seemed to me that, in a post that was specifically about women artists’ representation in the media, it would still be appropriate to talk about Palmer’s, you know… representation in the media.

    Making her the punchline, it just felt to me like it was suddenly a totally different post about a totally different thing. If nothing else, all those other ladies deserve better than to be an elaborate set-up for a snide joke at somebody else’s expense.

  39. Maggie
    Maggie April 6, 2010 at 10:08 am |

    I didn’t know Palmer had been dismissive of Amos et al, though, so I can see how you wouldn’t want to include her WITHOUT mentioning her issues… I just felt you could have addressed her portrayal in the media AND noted the problematic elements. I mean, you didn’t HAVE to mention her just because she owes a lot to the women you did mention, artists like that are not particularly uncommon, after all. Choosing to do so, and to the point of including the otherwise mostly irrelevant Neil Gaiman category, thus making her part of the rhythm and not just an afterthought, threatens to hijack the point – at least, for me, perhaps because I’ve been following the recent Palmer drama quite closely. (In fact, I probably only commented in the first place because, as someone who neither idolizes nor hates the woman, I have found myself metaphorically standing between two press-gangs on this issue, and so it is perhaps more of a sensitive topic for me than it should be. That is, I believe my point stands, but it doesn’t necessarily rate particularly high on the big-deal-o-meter, sorry if I implied otherwise.)

  40. Trina
    Trina April 6, 2010 at 11:23 am |

    Nothing to say other than that I agree entirely with Maggie, who’s said everything I wanted to but couldn’t express. I’m sad this is the first post on Feministe I’ve felt brave enough to comment on just because it raised my hackles…

  41. Matthew
    Matthew April 6, 2010 at 11:26 am |

    My point, @sady, which you did not address in the article at all but which is completely relevant to the point you are presumablytrying to make, is that music critics are given publicity materials from the record label along with the albums they are given, and that it may be worth seeing what kind of language is used in those materials before blaming the critics for everything.

    Also, I’m sorry if you don’t think my comment reflects a lack of understanding of your post. Please do not trouble yourself thinking about this anymore, as I will make concerted efforts to avoid your writing in the future so as to clear up any confusion.

    And I said in my comment that Newsom’s gratingness and horribleness were tangential to my main point. But thank you for misreading that. It’s really a treat when blog authors fly off the handle and capslock-yell at new commenters that don’t 100% agree with them.

  42. Jill
    Jill April 6, 2010 at 11:33 am | *

    It’s even better when commenters leave asinine comments basically reinforcing the exact dynamic that the post criticized, revealing their lack of understanding of the original post, and then get bent out of shape when that fact is pointed out to them.

  43. Samantha b.
    Samantha b. April 6, 2010 at 12:05 pm |

    @Matthew, I don’t know that “all the kids are doing it” counts as an appropriate argument on a progressive website.

  44. stephanie lynn
    stephanie lynn April 6, 2010 at 3:30 pm |

    If she ever gets any main-stream attention, Lay Low (Lovísa Elísabet Sigrúnardóttir) will get the same “manic pixie” treatment…

  45. annaham
    annaham April 6, 2010 at 4:37 pm |

    @Maggie: I have found myself metaphorically standing between two press-gangs on this issue, and so it is perhaps more of a sensitive topic for me than it should be.

    Just popping in here to say one thing: I got some extremely creepy and unsettling threats from her fans for recently speaking up about some of her work and not being 100% complimentary. It’s a “sensitive issue” for me, too. While I do think that it would have been useful for there to be a mention of her past criticisms of Tori Amos, I have to defend Sady’s stylistic choice here, especially given Palmer’s more recent behavior when it comes to disability issues and race. I would not be at all surprised if Palmer has been vocal (no pun intended) about separating herself from some of the other musicians mentioned here, if only to represent herself as an exciting and unique *~artiste~*.

    Then again, what the hell do I know? I’m just one a’them “disabled feminists.”

  46. littlem
    littlem April 6, 2010 at 10:58 pm |

    Sadie, thanks … I think.

    Because if writing that second article something you’re planning on doing, I do hope you’re not thinking about subdividing out “black music” as a sub-genre of “music” and/or “rock music” and/or “singer-songwriter” music.

    And if you’re wondering why I’d say something so apparently outlandish, I’d take a look at “rock music’s” derivative history first, and from what sources it was derived.

    Because if the piece-to-be-written’s first assumption is that “black music” is a sub-genre of “music”, I’d say that’s problematic as a foundational premise, and perhaps the piece shouldn’t be written at all, and you could spend that part of your weekend doing something else.

    As for b. michael, it’s probably not wise for me to make any reference to what was said — or be more plainspoken about what I said, since there seems to be some assumption that what I’m talking about has no reference to the original article — because I’m not even sure I was the one being spoken to, lolirony.

    But if I was the one being spoken to, and the original author is incapable of seeing the relationship between my comments and the original article, I can break it down further.

  47. littlem
    littlem April 6, 2010 at 11:00 pm |

    You know, I really don’t know where I got an “ie” from in “Sady”.
    Apologies. Long day.

  48. matthew
    matthew April 7, 2010 at 1:10 am |

    @Jill Actually, I got bent out of shape because one part of my comment was taken completely out of context and made fun of. And frankly maybe I’m a little annoyed, because your insistence that my “lack of understanding of the article” suggests that the fault is automatically mine and not the writer’s; that there is something really deep about this article besides someone just going on about how she loves Joanna Newsom and a bunch of white ladies with pianos who peaked creatively in the last century (except Amanda Palmer, who doesn’t count because she hates Tori OMG); and that a lack of understanding is something to be mocked rather than clarified. But obviously yelling and name-calling are preferred here.

  49. Maggie
    Maggie April 7, 2010 at 10:11 am |

    @annaham oh yes, yes indeed. I spent some time trying to be reasonable in the comments of her blog in the first flush of the Evelyn Evelyn controversy (I’d thrown up my hands and stepped back some by the time the racism bit kicked in) and dear god it was horrifying. Somebody actually said to me that it’s your own fault if you’re offended because people choose their emotions, what the shit.

    I mean, rationally I realise liking the same music as me doesn’t exempt people from being douchebags/trolls/WRONG WRONG WRONG, because there are douchebags/trolls/people who are spectacularly wrong everywhere. Still a bit of a shock.

    Nevertheless, I make a point not to dehumanize people I disagree with, and because of the e-circles I move in it’s a lot easier to avoid Palmer’s more horrifying fans than it is to avoid people who think that if I don’t chime in to denounce her as a monster I must be a monster myself. (Not accusing anyone here of that, that’s somewhat further up the scale.) Perspective: it’s tricky.

  50. B Michael
    B Michael April 7, 2010 at 10:14 am |

    I welcome further breaking down. Please have at, since it entirely eludes me as to how slash why my essay should have countenanced the issues brought up and explicated in the linked to articles. Please keep in mind, I could really go for a spinach salad presently, and I failed to write about that, as well.

  51. B Michael
    B Michael April 7, 2010 at 10:42 am |

    I’d like maybe to clarify my thinking on ths and say that I 100% agree with you as a person who is often othered, targeted in racial insult, and considers humanity to be essetially of a kind and not a club for people to be admitted into. My point in the comments-discussion is that I wrote a post about a very narrowly circumscribed subject, which has broader implications, which I welcome everyone else to draw out and expand on–which is something SD started. But, since I had a narrow focus and a finite amount of energy, I had to limit myself. Please stop back because I will in fact write more about the general ideas with different specifics. I understand the entire concept of focus is used to alienate and exclude quote distasteful subjects, and I am not engaged in he rhetoric of exclusion; what I’m for is tight thinking and deep desedimentation of harmful presuppositions, which affect everyone.

  52. dandelionspine
    dandelionspine April 7, 2010 at 9:39 pm |

    This is a wonderful article, I should start off by saying so. And, well, I actually love the elfin, whimsical, fantastical, etc, just as much in literature and real-life as I do in music. I don’t think that they’re synonyms for “girl” at all! In fact, in saying so it likely makes it so, even if it wasn’t quite the case before hand. I’m a huge fan of all those artists listed, my first love was Tori Amos, then Kate Bush, then Joanna Newsom, and I feel like the fans of those folks really know what’s up with their music. I’d definitely call Joanna Newsom whimsical and elfin, psych folk, and what not, and it’s definitely a positive thing and evident in her lyrical style with the use of archaic and often whimsical language. Tori, mostly in her early years, was definitely eccentric, whimsical, and esoteric and she knew it (especially Boys for Pele days, my favorite album). And The Dreaming was my favorite by far of all of Kate Bush’s albums, mostly because it’s the strangest of lot. The stranger, more whimsical, spookier, etc it is, the higher the chances are that I’ll like it.

    All in all, there are always stupid critics that write ridiculous commentaries on artists, but there are also really great articles out there too, and there’s also the artists themselves that often have something to say about it, and like I said, if you’re really a fan, you probably know their opinions and the changes from album to album. Also, these artists are all really intelligent, wonderful beings and likely don’t really care much about what critics say, and if so, they’ll make mention of it (like Tori’s “I’ll cut your dick of” comment).
    I wouldn’t mind being lumped into those categories!

  53. dandelionspine
    dandelionspine April 7, 2010 at 9:40 pm |

    Also, someone made a comment about Bowie being a quirky elfin personality, and I would definitely agree and think Bowie likely would too, and wear it with pride and a fantastic mullet.

  54. Sady
    Sady April 11, 2010 at 9:58 am |

    @littlem: This is just a note to let you know that I’m holding off on that planned follow-up until I hear from you. BUT! I just realized that Tiger Beatdown is (hopefully) running some stuff on women and music next week; do you have a blog, or would you consider writing about the topic? You can reach me at tigerbeatdown@gmail.com.

  55. Robin
    Robin April 13, 2010 at 6:22 am |

    It really just means “girl?” I don’t hear anyone call Miley Cyrus or Avril Levigne “elfin” or, for that matter, “batshit insane.” Doesn’t it refer to a narrower stereotype of a certain type of girl?

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