The XX Factor

The Sorrow and Comfort in Joanna Newsom’s Song “Baby Birch”

In Slate today, Jonah Weiner asks whether singer Joanna Newsom is talking about her regret over an abortion in her new song ” Baby Birch ,” which Jonah calls “a nine-and-a-half-minute ache.” Newsom can’t be pinned into any single meaning. But there is mourning for the loss of a child in her opening stanza: “This is a song for Baby Birch/ though I will never know you./ And at the back of what we’ve done/ there is the knowledge of you.” Is this a child born or stillborn or unborn? Well, this child has green eyes and gold hair, then blue eyes and black hair. Also, “a barber who [is] sitting and cutting away at my only joy.” It’s a disturbing image, and if Newsom has abortion in mind, “barber” is angry and aggressive. And yet the song, as she unspools, it conveys only haunting sadness. One of my (male) colleagues reports that he choked up when he heard it.  And so I hope that the song lands in that often-empty spot where women look for comfort when they have lost or given up pregnancies, and feel sorrow for whatever reason. There are so many nuances to the emotions that go along with this territory, and too few expressions of them.

Photograph of Joanna Newsom by Mike Flokis/Getty Images Entertainment.