In his often-repeated quote from 1978’s “History of Sexuality,” theorist Michel Foucault professed that “Western man has become a confessing animal.” These words pop up in every undergrad seminar on critical theory, every class on memoir and in my own experience, are referenced so often that I often roll my eyes as soon as they exit someone’s mouth. Just as academics love to talk about Foucault’s idea of the panopticon, they similarly clamp onto this idea of the “confessing animal,” to an almost comical level.
To the Frenchman’s credit, I believe he is completely right, and managed to condense a huge idea into a very neat soundbite. But the idea of what constitutes a relevant confession is a different discussion altogether. We all have the impulse to confess, whether the stories we are divulging are hidden or just what we ate for breakfast today. It’s why things like Twitter and Facebook exist — the Western idea of truth only exists when others validate it, as if we don’t know anything is real if we have not confessed it to another.
But to challenge Foucault’s “Western man,” it is interesting to see how the idea of “confessional” art seems to have attached itself particularly to women, especially those who choose to subvert or openly resist the heavy hand of patriarchal society. To call something confessional in the last 50 years has been to call it lesser-than, half-baked, the product of a scrambled mind that funnels its chaos into words or music. Even now, in an artistic age where women’s stories are heard as often as men, it is almost an insult to use that adjective. We want our art already mediated, seemingly raw but already parsed-out for a waiting audience.
When women in the arts give us a taste of their own confessions, the public relishes the information revealed but disregards the strength and talent necessary to create beauty out of disarray. It’s a problem that has plagued people from poets Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath to songwriters like Joni Mitchell and most recently, Taylor Swift. Love them or hate them, they managed to use confession as a tool, not as a release valve. But it seems that the perception of their work seems to hinge on that falsity, as if sharing the deepest darkest parts of oneself is a reflex more than it is a process.
As I sat down to watch the new Netflix documentary “Miss Americana,” which follows Taylor Swift’s career, personal struggles and life in the public eye, all this was whizzing through my mind. I’ve long been careful not to demonize Swift because of her tendency for confession, because so much of it is the product of not knowing what actually goes into writing songs like hers. Near the end of the movie, she sits on a couch in her own home, reflecting on the fact that even though the press has joked about her for years, she bought everything she has with the money she made by writing her own songs, about her own life. No matter what happens, she says, she wants “have a sharp pen, a thin skin and an open heart.”
However many slideshows of her past romantic partners exist online, she has a good point — the public can laugh at her all they want, but she is one of, if not the face of modern pop music, for better or worse. Despite the fact that Swift has taken some questionable career steps in the last few years (namely the release of the utterly confusing Reputation) there is no denying that she remains on top because of her skill for turning confession into universally moving songs. Just because they are confessions doesn’t warrant the scrutiny of millions, if not billions on the decoding of each lyric. If we hate her penchant for turning her life into art, why do we love to dissect it so much?
Another confessional songwriter, Joni Mitchell, has been quoted as saying “There are things to confess that enrich the world, and things that need not be said.” That, I think, is what sets apart people like her and Swift from a teenager writing in her diary. It is the act of self-censorship, the ability to create a persona from your own multifaceted person that allows confession to become art. Sometimes the specificity of one person’s experiences pave the way for their universality, as we as listeners or readers fill in the blanks of their story with our own details like Mad Libs. Mitchell was and still is a master at this, the intense magnification of her own life becoming a way for us to feel what we feel without having to psychoanalyze ourselves to get there. She’s already done it for the listener, in a way — and it is here that the difference between confessional as a descriptor and as an insult rests.
If a man told us the nitty gritty details of his life, we would applaud his strength, his ability to turn the day-to-day into something beautiful. Though Mitchell is heralded as a master of songwriting today, her early critics latched onto this somewhat misogynistic perception of confession immediately. They thought she was leaning too much on her own life, on the scenes she herself experienced in California’s Laurel Canyon, in the blue TV-screen light of a bar in the middle of nowhere, at a party where everyone seems to be having their own individual crises.
But what people don’t realize about these women like Mitchell and Swift — as much as putting them together in one sentence will make some people cringe — is that they are much less confessors than they are observers of their own lives, their own emotions and the way that people move around them. The argument that it is easy to share your inner thoughts without mediation falters when this becomes clear. Mitchell summed this up perfectly when she said “You could write a song about some kind of emotional problem you are having, but it would not be a good song, in my eyes, until it went through a period of sensitivity to a moment of clarity. Without that moment of clarity to contribute to the song, it’s just complaining.”
That moment of transparency is brave, as we often call the divulgences of male writers when they show up on the radio or in our books and papers. Complaining or not, we can all confess in one way or another. It is that step, the one in the middle where you clear away the fog to see what lies underneath, that separates the “confessing animal” from the confessional writer, no matter what gender they are.