The great masthead of "confessional songwriters," Joni Mitchell, has said, "When I think of confession, you're imprisoned. You're captured. They're trying to get you to admit something. To humiliate and degrade yourself and put yourself in a bad position. Then there's the voluntary confession of Catholicism, where you go to this window, and you talk to this priest and tell him that you're having sexual fantasies, and he's wanking on the other side of the window. That's the only two kinds of confession I know... voluntary and under duress... and I am not confessing."
Very vocal about her disdain for her public image, Mitchell hates the term "confessional songwriter," and, yet, when I hear it, she's the very face that pops into my mind. This is, most likely, the very root of her disdain. That cultivated image of the California Woodstock sweetheart is uncomplicated, and, quite frankly, it's lazy; she's from Canada and wasn't even at Woodstock. I imagine most of Mitchell's contempt comes from the oversimplification of her image, the labelled package she's been boxed in and sold out by. However, at the core of it all, I believe there's a part of her that's viscerally repulsed by the very femaleness of the term... a part of the insidiousness of patriarchy at work. She, understandably, doesn't want to be relegated to a separate sphere, but it's also her separateness that makes her interesting.
"Confessional" artists, whether Joni Mitchell or Sylvia Plath or Anne Sexton, have accessed the universal through their subjective experience. Truly solipsistic, it makes perfect sense to make art from one's subjective inner life because it is the only inner life we have direct access to.
Confessional music, almost always, is a genre or term attributed to female artists, and the way it's commonly used often entails a hefty dose of condescension. Avant-garde pop-rock artist St. Vincent once responded to an interviewer's reference to her music as such by saying, "I think there's something slightly pejorative about the term... it presupposes in a kind of sexist way this idea that's ingrained in culture that women lack the imagination to write about anything other than their exact literal lives. And that's not true."
Historically confined to the domestic sphere of life, there still remains the misconception that women aren't qualified to make statements about society or the state of affairs. However, it's often those on the periphery of mainstream culture that are able to critique it more objectively. But even that narrow of a critique of cisheteronormative patriarchy is problematic because it implies that housewives didn't and don't live full lives... the underlying presumption being that success and ambition are interchangeable and the foundation for what we define as success still being established by patriarchal values.
In the contemporary world, we empower women by encouraging their dormant masculine traits. We're praising their ambition, teaching them that the route to respect in the world and a sense of power in yourself is through your masculinity. Female empowerment campaigns like Sheryl Sandberg's "Lean In", #BanBossy, HeforShe and others encourage women to stop apologizing for taking up space and to demand equality. But this form of feminism is oversimplified and is more of a campaign than a radical reshaping of gender politics. By teaching women how to be more like men, we're still not dealing with the root of the problem which is ultimately fear of the feminine.
The only man I've heard referred to as a "confessional songwriter" is Frank Ocean which paints a specific picture considering he's publicly come out as bisexual. If we look at the roots of homophobia/biphobia, sexism is one of the key factors lying at the very core of it. When "gay" is used derogatorily to describe a man, his masculinity is often on the line, and the charge is femininity. "You're being a pussy;" "Don't be such a girl." What's so bad about being a girl? While a woman is praised for her masculine traits, a man is downright shamed for his femininity.
Encouraging women to be more like men is not true feminism; it's not radical enough; it's not getting to the root of the problem. It's a temporary solution, and it keeps the status quo patriarchal structures in place. What's so bad about being feminine? I'll tell you what is, and it's something no one has the balls to touch. At its very core, the concept of femininity goes against the principles of capitalism.
There's true, uncompromised power in femininity, essentially in vulnerability, but it's difficult to package that in our corporate branded capitalist social system which traffics goods/media to girls and then mocks women for enjoying them. So, of course there would be this condescending notion that it's easy to write about one's subjectivity or that emotional art -- feminine art -- is bad art. The very existence of that art dismantles the ground on which the person making that notion stands on.
The subtlety of the word "confessional" is important, because the very thing it undermines is not inherently anything, but it's patriarchal conditioning that has us cringing and seeing it as negative. We need to all be a little more confessional, so the word can cease to mean what it means, so it becomes a non-word -- a thing that just is -- but until then I think all artists need to proudly own it. The concept of confession may be all muddied up with guilt and sin, but there's also an element of release and of freedom. The confession implies a freedom and wholeness unto oneself, and that becomes universal, and that runs against the current of capitalist mainstream masses. So of course it's going to be used with a pejorative tone, because the person employing it depends on those masses for his livelihood.