Monday, 25 January 2010

I Just Don't Like Joanna Newsom

What's the etiquette here, can anyone tell me?

Am I supposed to put some big label, or yellow and black-striped-back sign saying “WARNING: POTENTIALLY CONTROVERSIAL POST”? Or has this rather self-effacing first couple of sentences (along with the – let's face it – fairly descriptive title) tipped you the wink that Something Polemical This Way Comes?

Yes, I don't really like Joanna Newsom. And yes, even a relatively mild statement like that (it's a statement of dislike, but not exactly a strong one) may potentially be enough to summon forth the armies of slightly twitchy indie fan boys (and girls) she seems to attract. And yes, she's critically acclaimed, and yes, I do value critical acclaim a lot, but no, to my ears she can go and ceremoniously do one. And no, like all things of dislike, it's not a completely rational thing – why should it be?

But let's start with something I can actually defend – her music. Note: this isn't about her voice, which I don't really have that much problem with, but the actual music. Oh yeah, I listened to the Milk-Eyed Mender when it came out, though for the life of me, I'm not sure why. Okay, that's not true – it starts promisingly enough, if her toddlerlike voice doesn't bother you. “Bridges and Balloons” and “Sprout and the Bean” were nice enough ditties; gentle, melodic and sugary, but not so twee they became annoying because they were interesting. Part of that was that she had a new sound, but new things can be interesting, right? However, the album fairly dwindled after fact, I'm struggling to remember what many of the other tracks were called – I think one was called Swansea, which I remember finding amusing because how unlucky is it to put what you think is a joyously quirky title to something, only to find it shares the name of a godforsaken South Wales shithole. I remember the music failing to spark, the pleasant melodies became tacky and repetitive, the sparse arrangements became instantly forgettable. I didn't mind her voice though.

Ys did the same trick, pretty much. Sure, she managed to get in Van Dyke “No, I wasn't one of the Beach Boys, I just kinda hung around near them” Parks to do some string arrangements, and sure, the songs were more like epic pieces of storytelling, but by the end of the album, I couldn't give a monkeys. Ys pulled off the rather unfortunate trick of being the kind of album I can put on, then forget to pause when I nip down to the kitchen to make a cup of tea. You don't realise it's on, and while sometimes that can help an album get under your skin, I guess my skin must've been Teflon-coated for its length, cause it bounced off me like rainwater.

And everyone LOVES her, so it seems. EVERYONE loves her. I generally consider metacritic a good summary of reviews – bringing attention to overlooked gems (like say, Amadou and Mariam), and also giving opportunity to mock critics over albums that were actually shit (step forward, the Magic Numbers. Ys got 85. That's ridiculously high. WHY? I've heard more engaging pieces of music when overhearing my flatmate squiring some lass in the shower when I'm just trying to play computer games and ignore the world.

Of course, if we're talking about “everyone loves her”, then well, I mentioned slightly twitchy indie boys earlier. Part of the problem! Christ, it seems like to some people, any vaguely human looking woman performing 'indie' music is instantly a hottie. I'm reminded of the comment about Josie Long, “a plain, dump girl in a Les Savy Fav t-shirt is still a plain dumpy girl.” I want to just grab them all by the collar of their fucking plaid shirt and shout “listen, she's not going to sleep with you just because you listen to her music!” Although, the average twitchy indie boy is probably more scared of sex than anything else, so maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree.

There's plenty of other things that annoy me about her, most notably her association with Devendra Banhart (who is utter bobbins and annoying to boot), but they're personal gripes. And this is going to get more than personal. See, the problem is that because Joanna Newsom's pretty much the most successful contemporary female singer-songwriter who's “a bit weird”, there's no unco cases of people getting tarred with the same brush as her. Take Blue Roses, for instance. Blue Roses is Laura Groves, a female singer-songwriter from Yorkshire. She ploughs an interesting furrow, pastoral yet dramatic tunes which have hints particularly of Kate Bush and early Joni Mitchell about them. I adore the album, which is why I've brought it up. Let me tell you, my heart sank a foot or two when I started seeing reviews comparing her to Newson. See, there's a couple of songs in which she affects a vaguely childlike voice for a few lines, but that's it; for the most part it's post-teenage drama of the likes Bush and Mitchell were so good at during the starts of their careers. IT DOES NOT SOUND LIKE JOANNA NEWSOM. And this is symptomatic of a wider malaise – I ought to be lambasting the music media for its love of lazy comparisons, Joanna Newsom, no problem. She's given them an excuse, an easy reference point that isn't that accurate. Laura Groves has more character in her little finger than Joanna Newsom, yet she's lumped into the “if you like Joanna Newsom, you should give this a chance” category. Completely unfairly!

So there you have it, I don't really like Joanna Newsom. I don't like her music, I don't like the swooning adoring legions of fans who are either misguided or pathetically lustful, and I don't like the effect she has on more talented artists. Would anyone else care to add a reason why they dislike Joanna Newsom?


  1. Dear Nick,

    I agree with you - Joanna Newsom is not really my cup of tea. I just happen to react against her voice, which I think is a love/hate sort of thing.

    However, the part of your post where you got around to discussing her looks left me feeling slightly ill. The quote about Josie Long that you repeated was especially mean-spirited. I do like Josie Long a lot (as you know) so you could argue bias, but attacking someone's looks like that you might as well be a high school bully. Maybe keep musical criticism to the music?

    Don't get me wrong, I get your point about indie kids jumping on the bandwagon, and even professing infatuation for the latest cool singer-songwriter. You're just going to put me off if your reviews are this demeaning.

  2. Susie, I'll be honest with you, I made a bit that you'd object to the bit about looks. I can now afford to buy that mansion in Kensington.

    It wasn't an attack on her looks - in fact I make no comment on what Joanna Newsom looks like, merely that indie boys have a propensity to fancy anything with a female face and vaguely indie music, which is what I find ridiculous and in my opinion it's one of the cons that make people like the overwhelmingly average Joanna Newsom (musically, that is) popular.

    One thing I generally agree with is that peoples' appearance is something which is in some way 'sacred', in some way not open to comment. With someone of whom a lot is made of their looks (as is made with Joanna Newsom, as is made with Josie Long, as is made with, well, pretty much everyone in the popular culture spotlight, irrespective of age, gender, race), it's massively fair game to offer up a different opinion. I found the Josie Long quote to be funny, and an antidote to the clucking which seems to accompany her. Aside from that, when I saw her live, she did a skit about being smugly in a relationship with someone who thinks she's beautiful - ignoring the fact that my comment will probably never be read, it's a response to something she herself is trading on. If that's not fair game, I don't know what is.

  3. Congratulations, Nick, you have always been very good at finding the things I am bothered by. Enjoy yr mansion.

    "...everyone in the popular culture spotlight, irrespective of age, gender and race"? Do you really believe that?

    To be honest, I am not objecting to your specific comments about Joanna Newsom, or even Josie Long, just the fact that you aren't taking into account the wider context.

    I am not into bringing people's looks into consideration of their work, but also bear in mind that doesn't happen to everyone. Is anyone discussing Andrew Bird's looks? Noticed how horribly sexist the stand-up comedy world is? In all honesty do you think anyone would have said a similar thing when criticising the perceived hype of a male comedian?

  4. To me her voice is like fingernails scraping across a blackboard. I get very irritated whenever that freakin T Mobil commercial comes on with her freaky toddler voice. Grr.

  5. it's funny how people take the time to write about things they hate. if you hate something, stay away from it. if you don't like joanna newsom, don't listen to her music. it's not like you're being forced to do so. i mean really, stop whining and complaining about how you don't get how everyone likes her and you don't.

    and you mentioned "the indie kids jumping on the bandwagon." so you are like, so kewl because you don't like joanna newsom. so you felt the need to let it be known you are not following the crowd. congrats, you are a hipster~!

    i might have taken you seriously if you didn't include the clever pic edited in microsoft paint, mention "the indie kids jumping on the bandwagon" (really though), or her looks (which have absolutely nothing to do with her music).

    and to be quite honest, it sounds like you don't have THAT much of a problem with her music. like, you say it's not her voice that bothers you, and i see no criticisms of her songs or albums. all i see is that you're annoyed by insignificant things (like her association with devendra banhart....REALLY NOW?) and mostly at how much everyone likes her. once again, hipster!

    and one more thing that confuses me. you hate HER. do you know HER? i mean it really kills me when people say they hate musicians when you're only familiar with their music and not them as a person. i mean, i can understand if this person is a famous musician, always in the media, controversial, always saying and doing stupid things to get attention, like lady gaga perhaps? but joanna newsom? you don't know her or her life. all you can go on is a few interviews and quotes, none of which you've cited.

    (not really) sorry, but this post is pretty much pointless.

  6. Hello Nick, before starting speaking I want to clarify that I come from the Argentina for which my Englishman is going to leave that to wish.
    At all, I believe that Joanna Newsom (my favorite singer of all the times, but it does not mean that he does not listen to your critiques), is a symbol of the psco-folk but principally of the modern music. I believe that it is a bit closed by the new kinds since instead of putting to the defensive saying that the music is "vulgar", and that sounds badly, it is necessary to hear her with another ear, and understanding that Joanna's voice is, though rare, really beautiful (you prop if you hear his last disc you are going to verify that his voice turned mas normally), his managing of the harp, piano and clavichord they are excellent, his very well worn out letters and his sense of the composition of the best.
    So ..., nothing, vos time something that they all criticize in an excellent way, and that at sight is perfectly produced, and to this you saw the ear and remains with the same thing of always. At all, it only.
    Pd: Anyhow, the photo that you put is of offensive mas for the poor woman who alone wants to delight us with his music

  7. ha that last comment is hilarious! His music i find annoying too.

  8. You're an absolute moron. She is beautiful, talented, and smarter than most people. Her knowledge speaks volumes and she has a great ability to derive one idea to another. I guess you're focusing on how...well maybe you're just not focusing. You're probably jealous of how beautiful of a person she is.

  9. Oh man, I need to write more wind-ups. This was still getting comments this year?

  10. I, (please excuse the strong language) fucking hate Joanna Newsom as an artist. I can't attest to her as a human being, I don't know the woman obviously, but she is an assault on my ears and artistic sensibility. I cannot understand her hype and fanboy following. Besides her whiney, pathetic, weak vocals (which have been done before) she's not a stunning harpist either. Sorry, just because you're not mainstream doesn't mean you're original or talented. Stop coyote-calling my poor senses!!!! Also, whoever said she's more intelligent than most people isn't setting their bar very high....