Apr 122010

“Beside, I’m offended by her wearing fur!”

  23 Responses to “Please Explain: How Is Taking Cheap Shots at Joanna Newsom Any Different Than the Cheap Shots Taken at Any Other Musician Whose Music Someone Doesn’t Like, Such as Pat Benetar, Billy Joel, or Even Michael Stipe?”

  1. sammymaudlin

    Poll addition: the cheap shot is funny (at least to me).

  2. mockcarr

    Doesn’t matter if it’s a cheap shot as long as it’s your best shot.

    I’m sorry, that was cheap.

  3. mockcarr

    By the way, I am very much in favor of odd hats like she’s sporting. It would eliminate the need for a lot of this fruitless hair discussion. I saw some solo dude singer open up for Brendan Benson a while back and he and his band (except for the obvious girlfriend keyboard player) wore various boring hats. I wonder if they were Conservative rockers, who must cover their heads in respect to the rock God. I didn’t think Benson was of that sort. He’s pretty good, though.

  4. Let me explain as clearly as I can. The comments directed at Newsom fall into one of the following stereotypes:

    1. She’s a girl playing the harp–isn’t that cute? As if anyone could play the harp; it doesn’t take any training at all, does it?

    2. She’s doesn’t rock, man. Nor do her songs flatter the male ego. They tend to be about girl stuff, like love and relationships. And, boy, they sure are long and complicated.

    3. She’s so exotic, a far out chick. After all, it’s not like she’s released two previous albums that chart a definite artistic path, that she was studying classical composition and then switched to creative writing. All of which you could figure out fairly easy with little to no effort.

    I do hope this answers your question.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    It’s a good summary of the criticisms, dr john, but I’m not sure it answers my question. You’re still asking us to treat Newsom differently because she’s “smarter.” I find that as unfair and presumptous on your part as you find my cheap shots.

    Pat Benetar was a classically trained vocalist (opera, I believe) whose possible strengths as an artist and the admirable intent of her “women power” songs were easily dismissed by “intelligent” rock fans like ourselves because she marketed herself in spandex. Her band was led by her muscle-bound Italian Stallion of a husband who was actually quite a tasty lead guitarist within the context of the music they played. Don’t think you’re not aware of all this and have this stuff in the back of your mind while you (or any of us) take shots at a Pat Benetar. You, of all people, have completely dismissed her as idiotic, or whatever it was you said.

    I’m not arguing that her music is not idiotic or anything more than terrible, but we’re all very comfortable holding her up for mockery, primarily *because we don’t like her music,* right? I don’t believe we had major issues with spandex or something like her political views, if she had ever stated any. She wasn’t Sarah Palin leading a rock band, right? How was she that different than Joan Jett, who had just as base, sincere, hard-rocking aspirations but who has been lauded over the years? Because Jett, to her credit, kept it stoopid and never threatened any guy by her looks.

    Many of us think Benetar’s music stinks and, for whatever reasons, “stands for” rock values we can’t get behind. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I feel a similar way about Newsom, and I feel she’s got her own “spandex” issues that are fair game. It’s not “right” that I say things like, “No harp-playing indie rocker would get the time of day if she looked like Mama Cass,” but I stand by my belief that it’s true. If I’m missing the boat on the musical goods that Newsom delivers I take full blame. When I hear her music I think it’s OK, but I don’t really like it and I don’t like the entire notion of making a fuss over a harp-playing Lady of the Lake. Sorry, but I feel I have the right to find the whole affair downright silly, just as I found the notion of Pat Benetar fronting a rock band in that leotard downright silly. I found the notion of Mick Jagger in football pants and Capezio slippers downright silly, and I’m comfortable making fun of him for that too. The vanity that goes into the effort to become a rock star can cross the line into pure silliness. The way people react to what they see can become silly, my own perceptions included.

    I wish I could be like BigSteve and not have a visual relationship to music, but I’m not like that. I think the dynamic of Newsom getting critical acclaim for playing a ridiculous instrument is silly. And before you defend the proud tradition of the harp, dr john, if Sting played a harp instead of a lute, we’d be very comfortable bashing Sting for playing the harp.

    I think the media’s fawning over her has little basis in anyone’s real taste in music. I think her fans’ fawning over her has little basis in anyone’s real taste in music. If you lined up all the young people in America who had a history of listening to harp music prior to the emergence of Joanna Newsom they might stretch across a suburban development. Then how many of those harp afficionados would be tuned into the indie rock scene? What if half of them were people deep into the folk and/or classical music scenes and Newsom didn’t appear on their radar?

    Again, if it turns out she’s a revolutionary musician who inspires a generation of harp-playing indie rockers I’m willing to be one of history’s fools. Beatles-approved Ravi Shankar once turned the world onto sitar, didn’t he? Who’s that generation’s second-favorite sitar player?

  6. hrrundivbakshi

    For the record, I’m on Team Moderator on this one.

  7. Well, as long as I don’t have to actually listen to her music, I’m on Team Newsom.

  8. Let me put it this way: if you were comparing Thomas Pynchon to Tom Clancy (both successful writers), if you were to say it’s unfair to rank Pynchon higher on the basis of artistic merit, you’d look kind of silly, wouldn’t you?

    In short, when you discuss Pynchon, you discuss his work, not whether he gains or loses value cause he’s famously reclusive, for instance.

    Now, I sincerely regard Have One On Me like I do Gravity’s Rainbow. It’s dense, complex, and takes many listens for it all to sink in. If people want to debate the work, that’s fine. But that’s not what’s going on. And it’s not like people elsewhere aren’t taking her seriously–read her reviews by critics who don’t seem bothered by the fact that she plays a harp.

    When I criticize Benetar, it’s for her music alone–yes, she may have classical voice training, but the melodies she comes up with are predictable–yes, the guitar player has chops, but does not play anything interesting–yes, she has a message, but it’s trite.

    In sum, Newsom has proven, in many ways, that she is a serious artist and should be treated like one, like Pynchon. You don’t have to like her. But don’t be condescending to those who do.

  9. BigSteve

    Dr. John, you missed one of the stereotypes. When I first heard about Newsom, I thought I should check her out. When I did, her voice made me want to run screaming from the room. I don’t think I ever even heard the harp. I thought my reaction was relatively common.

  10. I want to respond to these statements in particular:

    “I think the dynamic of Newsom getting critical acclaim for playing a ridiculous instrument is silly. . . if Sting played a harp instead of a lute, we’d be very comfortable bashing Sting for playing the harp.”

    The harp is “ridiculous”? What instruments aren’t in some way? The ones you are most familiar with? What gives you the power to decide anyway?

    “I think the media’s fawning over her has little basis in anyone’s real taste in music. I think her fans’ fawning over her has little basis in anyone’s real taste in music.”

    That’s funny because most of the reviews of her work (that I’m sure you’ve read) tend to emphasize musical taste. Can’t see why you would ignore this, unless, perhaps it doesn’t support your claim. And then you blame her fans, another classic move. Works so well with the Grateful Dead, doesn’t it?

    “If you lined up all the young people in America who had a history of listening to harp music prior to the emergence of Joanna Newsom they might stretch across a suburban development.”

    Really, the harp never appears in classical music? Which people, even those “young people,” listen to, say those in music programs at colleges? Go count how many music programs there are in the U.S.–go ahead, I’ll wait.

    “Beatles-approved Ravi Shankar once turned the world onto sitar, didn’t he? Who’s that generation’s second-favorite sitar player?”

    Truly amazing: an entire musical tradition of India needs to be validated by Western listeners. I’m speechless.

  11. I’m often skeptical about reviews that “emphasize musical taste” but on closer inspection are just echoes of other reviews which ultimately source back to promo materials coming from the artist.

  12. general slocum

    Dr. John, could you miscontextualize any other comments in one posting. I wish you really *were* speechless. Indian music obviously doesn’t need validating by Western listeners. And no one made that claim. But in Western music (RTH’s Indian Desk is yet to open) the sitar’s flavor of the month of 1960 whatever didn’t turn into the sitar being an instrument commonly seen at the local open mic.

    I presume you’re smarmily still waiting for someone to tabulate the number of college music programs in the US? To find out how many young people “are into the harp” and thereby dispell the silly notion that it is an absurd instrument? Well, why don’t you go and find all the students at any one of those institutions who are self-described as “into the harp.” Go ahead I’ll wait. *That* crowd will stretch across an entire bathroom stall, which he rarely leaves, for social reasons. Even harpists think it is an absurd instrument.

    And you know that Pynchon novel where the protagonist keeps screeching in a baby-talk voice, and it’s still thought of as one of the masterworks of our time? I mean, all of those novels. Every Pynchon novel with screechy squealy protagonists. What do we remember from those novels? Their fricking hats! God, the myopic neanderthal idiocy of this culture! Look beyond, people! Don’t hate her because the harp is the veritable Dockers of musical odinariness, or because her compositions are Alban Berg like in their towering intellectual challenge. Just bask in the tiny-shards-of-glass-in-your-skin beauty of the voice…

    I’m fist-bumping my friends Indian Culture and Pat Benetar as I write.

  13. Mr. Moderator

    Thank you for your considered thoughts, General Slocum and others, and our continued dialog, dr john. NO THANKS to members of any “team” without putting anything more into the discussion. Really, I do appreciate your input and humor, but joining a “team” makes what I’m getting at look bad and gives dr john much satisfaction.

    Good Doctor, as someone else who thinks he knows what’s best for us aesthetically, I get what you’re saying with Pynchon AND with Newsom. I’ve never said that her music “sucks” or is without merit. I don’t really like it and I don’t really like what I think it stands for, but sure, it could be argued she’s aiming higher than Benetar. On the other hand, it could be argued that Benetar was aiming for something more elusive: million-selling success through the use of nothing but cliches. “Anyone” could write a Pat Benetar song, right, but how many of us can sell a single copy of that stuff?

    I’m glad Slocum got what I was saying about the “flavor of the month” aspect of Shankar. Yes, his music may have been fantastic and aesthetically richer than I know, but of all the ’60s kids who dug that stuff for a couple of years, how many of them took anything away from the experience? Obviously I don’t know the answer, but there is not a “second-best sitar player” identified by that generation, and let me know when today’s Joanna Newsom fans get around to identifying their second-favorite harp player with a screechy voice. Again, that doesn’t mean it’s bad, but it’s the basis around which I take my cheap shots. The shots are directed at the media more than the artist. More power to her for making something commercial out of that music and, yes, ridiculous instrument.

  14. Mr. Moderator

    dr john, one more thing regarding your analogy to Pynchon and the submarine book guy… Let’s say I agree with you that there are artists who possess more “artistic merit” than other artists – and generally I do share your snobbish view of “high” and “low” art. That said, can’t you accept that I may love reading Pynchon and not like reading Faulkner? Can’t you accept that my not liking Faulkner – and perhaps what I think he stands for – may inspire me to cut on his writing for flaws real and perceived? Do I have to automatically love or even respect all artists whose work crossed the imaginary threshold of “real” or “serious” art? This is what I sense you want me to do when you bring up the fact that Newsom studied harp and creative writing, or whatever you related. Why should that matter? Should she, therefore, be held in higher esteem than the Beatles, who did not apply themselves in their short time at art college? I’m joking on this last point, but do you see what I mean? Do you see how you’re wanting to draw a protective barrier around Newsom? I’ve been cutting on her as I cut on many musicians, but I’ll listen to her music again some day. It’s not like I’m some lunkheaded Status Quo fan when I cut on her. I’ve got enough knowledge of “serious” art to make a judgment. So do a lot of people who don’t care for her music.

  15. BigSteve

    Hey no need to be condescending to Status Quo fans!

  16. Mr. Moderator

    You’re right, BigSteve. My heartfelt apologies, Quo fans!

  17. jeangray

    Just as a side-note:

    Has anyone heard this relatively new band called Florence & the Machine?? They have a full-time harpist in the band. Perhaps it’s the start of a trend??

  18. Remember that group Rasputina that featured a trio of cellists? I had one of their CDs and eventually got rid of it. A little of that goes a long way.

    I don’t own or have really heard any Joanna Newsom. I’ll have to do some research and see for myself (I’m scared of folks who can release double and triple sets).

    I was a music major back in my college days, however. We didn’t have any harpists or people “into the harp” at our small university. I went through a “music major” phase in my college years. I was into weirdness and dissonance and “modern” stuff. I was also a little snotty about it. I would listen to Zappa and Steve Reich in the pursuit of musical knowledge and expansion. And I thought I knew more than anybody else because I could spot a G diminished 7 chord.

    After burning myself out, I returned to the glorious single and beauty of a simple pop song. I came down off of my cloud. While there’s still room for all that modern stuff, I can dig some Turtles, too. In other words, I like it all. If it moves me, I don’t care if it’s Riley or Frehley.

    As far as criticism goes, I think it all has a place. I have always thought it better to “get” something than not. I find it far more rewarding to be able to appreciate an artist if I understand what that artist is there to do. Do I hold Bob Dylan to a higher standard than Cheap Trick? Yes! But I love them both. Everyone’s a critic whether they know it or not. You either like something or you don’t. If you like it, then you’ll support whatever artist. Some folks are just better at articulating why they like or don’t like something.

    Gimmicky artists? I remember when Ben Folds Five was an oddball. It was an “alternative” (God, I HATE that term.) act featuring a piano?!? Turns out Ben’s just a popster songwriter who happens to use a piano to do his damage.

    I’ll get back to you on Newsom. I was getting her confused with Julia Nunes, who I have a crush on. She plays the uke…


  19. One more thing…

    My bandmate Danny (also a snotty music major) once said that he puts all of his Hanson CDs in hiding while he leaves out the Phillip Glass for all to see.


  20. First off, I will admit that I was a little cranky yesterday and thus was more snotty than I meant to be.

    But I still don’t get your point about the sitar not being popular in Western music. Granted, but why is that important? I guess you’re trying to compare the sitar (60s trend) to the harp (now?), in some way, perhaps, well let me say this: what if personally I don’t care all that much that she plays harp (in fact she plays a fair amount of piano on the record)–rather I really like her skills as a composer and, yes, vocalist–that I don’t see this as a bandwagon thing, that she probably will remain a fascinating “cult” artist (like Van Dyke Parks) that I guess happened to be there at the right place and time?

    Whatever trend she’s a part of (and she has been labeled as part of the “freak folk” scene) she will outlast it, I believe. Just like how Pynchon outlasted many of his contemporaries (amusing take on his work by the way–I have no idea what novel is being referenced).

    Why I brought up Newsom’s study of creative writing is that it dispels one of the stereotypes used to define her: that she’s a “far out chick.” Because, then, it comes to light that she often sings in the “voice” of a character (like Randy Newman, whom she cites as an influence). Of course, her risk, is that, like many female actors, she gets identified with a particular “role.”

    And your comment on Faulkner, that you don’t like him because of what he stands for–well, what does any artist stand for? Isn’t that what pretty much drove Dylan around the bend? What Newman constantly pokes fun at?

  21. Edit on Faulkner comment: I was saying that you felt that what he stands for influences how you feel about his writing, correct?

  22. Mr. Moderator

    dr john, thanks for going through this with me. I meant to point out at some point that I know, based on your tastes as expressed here over the years, that you really do like Newsom’s music and that you’re not following a marketing-driven trend. You’ve got balls for standing up for what you believe in and enjoy and should always be complimented for that.

    I didn’t mean to pick on you – well, I did mean to pick on you, but for the sake of the picking, not for the sake of putting YOU on the spot. I wanted to pick at this subject a little more because I do feel it’s necessary to add something more than snark regarding stuff we don’t like. I don’t have a problem with snark, or whatever you want to call it, provided it’s at least occasionally backed up with something deeper, or at least more personal. What I personally objected to was the possibility that I was merely taking cheap shots at Newsom and her fans. There was something sincere that I was trying to express, and I think that’s usually the case with how we go about our business here.

    To answer your question, my joining of Faulkner with the idea of not liking what an artist “stands for” was only used as a possible example. Personally I have disliked the Faulkner novels I’ve tried to read for stylistic reasons alone. That “tall-tale” telling he gets into frustrates and bores me to the extent that I’ve never been able to generate deeper thoughts on his writing or what it might stand for:) In terms of this discussion, I do feel that some rock artists “stand for” the belief that energetic, beat-driven rock ‘n roll is yesterday’s news, and that’s something the grizzled, rock ‘n roll bully in me is likely to react against. You knew where I was coming from in that respect.

    You were part of the Task Force commissioned to help me appreciate that Jackson Browne album, remember? I don’t forget the power of being wrong, now and then, in a public forum like Rock Town Hall.

  23. No problem.

    Looking back, the appearance of Newsom as a discussion topic on RTH makes me think of Joni Mitchell on stage with The Band in The Last Waltz. Some discomfort, possibly (?) some broadening of minds.

    But I do really think Newsom is exploring the same territory as Newman, with the same tools (compositional training, conceptual ambition, unusual voice, singing in character, offbeat sense of humor). You either really like these kinds of artists, or you really don’t–or you might be able to appreciate what they’re doing and yet still not feel moved by their art.

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