Musical Genius Is a Gendered Idea

But really, what is a musician’s voice if not distinctive? Isn’t that… good? Entire pieces have been written about the voices of Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, so American and vital and wise in their manly scratchiness, like unshaved bristle and whiskey and dirt. Man voice make music good. Woman voice music bad: Too high. Too sharp. Too warbly. Sounds like birds, screams, mother. It speaks volumes that men always seem to love PJ Harvey, she of the deep timbre.

Male reviewers also compare [Joanna Newsom] to other female artists to demean her further. The AV Club called her a “unique hybrid of Joni Mitchell and Nina Simone,” while on Pitchfork, Richardson equated her to Joni Mitchell: “Newsom can sound a fair bit like her with her more richly textured voice” (not really, but ok). He continued: “One significant difference between Newsom and Mitchell is that the latter, especially early in her career, was writing songs that would sound good on the radio. For better or worse, Newsom is not a pop singer—that’s just not what she does.” I suspect in Richardson’s view this is mostly for worse (“I don’t want to overstate this record’s accessibility,” he wrote of “Have One on Me.” But how can music be inaccessible? All you have to do is listen.) The Kate Bush and Bjork comparisons are endless, and one can safely infer that these reviewers enjoy her predecessors more. Most puzzlingly, a recent Fader piece compared Newsom and Joan Didion: “‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live,’ Joan Didion, a smart Californian just like Newsom, once wrote.” Two white people with female anatomy from California, so they’re basically the same. The woman who produces peerless modern music is simply not allowed to stand on her own.

In The Awl, Leah Finnegan uses the originality and artistry of harpist Joanna Newsom to call attention to the gender biases and skewed, often low expectations that underlie many male critics’ perception and assessment of music.

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