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The reluctant, inevitable mainstreaming of Joanna Newsom

Joanna Newsom is moving past the myths.

Joanna Newsom is moving past the myths.


A romantic scrappiness has undermined Joanna Newsom her whole career.

Since her breakout 2004 LP The Milk-Eyed Mender dropped, Newsom has indeed endured a lot. From the pervasive mystical language people use to diminutize her talent to the demented theory that her music is somehow emasculating, Newsom was pinned to the margins by a deliberate lack of understanding. 

In their review of Divers, Newsom's October release that she'll be supporting Thursday night at the Fitzgerald Theater, the Chicago Tribune noted that, after a career of underestimation, the Appalachian-inspired melodist is now "edging toward the universal." In fitting irony, this is an understatement.

As of Divers' release, Newsom is a best-selling singer-songwriter. She's appeared in The Muppets, Portlandia, and, most notably, Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice, developing a cult following for her vintage fashion sense in the process. Her husband is a Golden Globe-winning sitcom star, and yet she's the one charming Larry King speechless on primetime. Anyone still claiming she's an outsider is trading in relics.

But the mainstreaming of Joanna Newsom has come with reluctant consequences.
— Larry King (@kingsthings) December 14, 2015 Newsom's music is extremely personal, which makes it easy to take personally. Her careful, idiosyncratic odes create emotional experiences, no matter how archaic or daedal the language. It's music that people either engage with on a deep, resonant level or totally dismiss, which has created a devoted — albeit fanatical — fanbase.

This fanaticism is only exacerbated by how often Newsom is misinterpreted. The us-versus-them ideology isn't fandom, though. It's a hipster's misguided instinct. It's tokenism. Regardless of how personally Newsom's songs strike you, they do not belong to you, and trying to mothball her commercial appeal is just as destructive as calling her a wood nymph.

I'm writing this mostly as a letter to myself. The first time I heard Joanna Newsom, I was sitting in my poetry professor's office going over my portfolio. Newsom's "Emily" — at the time, her most elaborate and, aptly, poetic piece of music — was playing in the background. I remember the lyrics more vividly than anything said in that office. "The meteorite's just what causes the light / And the meteor's how it's perceived / And the meteoroid's a bone thrown from the void / That lies quiet in offering to thee." I took home his copy of Ys and absorbed it into my identity. 

From that point on, I instantly recognized anyone who owned her albums as some sort of spiritual analog. I have relationships with fellow music writers that hinge on the fact that we both see Joanna Newsom as some sort of musical deity. Anyone who engaged with her music on only a surface level was seen as beta. 

At first, I cringed when I heard "Sprout and the Bean" play during The Strangers. I sighed at her voice on the chorus of a song by the Roots. I've been reluctant to give her over to a general public that didn't get or deserve her genius, but Divers has taught me that I was a fool to ever think I could own her music to begin with.
The album feels more immediate than anything she's laid to wax prior. It's a lament for the impartial passage of time. The existential threat of forgetting. Lead single "Sapokanikan" is a reflective late-night walk through an old city. "Leaving The City" unwinds her growing discontent with New York City. "Time, As A Symptom" — perhaps the hypothesis of the album — navigates through literary allusions to come to terms with the idea that things come and go and the only thing you can do is accept it.

More so than those things, Divers is the latest piece of evidence that Newsom's genius cannot be sequestered anymore — personally or commercially. Joanna Newsom is not yours or mine anymore than heartbreak, disillusionment, or death are. She, like other artists, is an aesthetic interpretation of the universal. If she resounds more deeply or dramatically, it's because you're hearing your own echo of all humanity.