|Helena Fitzgerald||Jan 25, 2019|
Jenny Lewis’ tits look great. If I sound like I’ve been transformed into a male mid-1990s profile writer who has just interviewed a female artist he hadn’t heard of until he got the assignment, Lewis’ album cover, newly revealed this week along with her new single, “Red Bull and Hennessy,” puts the viewer in just that role, and asks us to make exactly this observation. She wears a shiny blue dress, strategically low-cut and edged with brassy gold sequins, like a Vegas showgirl’s costume, belligerently sexy. The pose, and the crop of the photo, echoes the cover of 2014’s The Voyager, her last album, which showed the same waist-to-neck square, but in a fanciful rainbow-colored blazer. The dress here is slightly rumpled, fitting the way such a dress fits on a real human body, its close-to-the-skin sexiness making small flaws more visible. The fabric bunches up a bit and isn’t smoothed or straightened out for the picture. It’s careless and textural, the same hedonistic feeling as the song that goes with it, a big, maximalist, fast-drive of old-fashioned heartbreak.
A new Jenny Lewis song, or album, always seems impossible to me because I have yet to fully accept that Lewis’ music exists outside of my own head. I have never managed to see Jenny Lewis live, and I have barely ever listened to her music other than in headphones. When I hear one of her songs in public, when, god forbid, A Better Son/Daughter or Spectacular Views comes on in the places where the popular songs from the early 2000s play now, drugstores and furniture stores and the locker room at the gym, it makes me feel the way I imagine my very proper, very Catholic grandmother would have felt if she had heard someone swear in a church. These songs aren’t for playing in public, for hearing around other people, for sharing. The whole point of them, at least on those early albums, from Rilo Kiley’s The Execution of All Things through to Lewis’ first solo effort, Rabbit Fur Coat, is the wobbly line between being visible in the public world and yet fully private in the world of one’s headphones, dwelling across the two in the same way that one lives with an external body, keeping up manners and social cues and crosswalks and staircases while at the same time governing the private chaos of an internal self.
Lewis’s music is about these divides, what goes on the outside and what stays on the inside and the confusion of the two. Hot Sad Girl Artists are always working with the subject of exteriors and interiors, the private and public, the revealed and the kept-away. This why performative conventional beauty has to be part of the persona, part of the story. The exterior has to jar with the interior, the face has to be dissonant with what comes out of the face’s mouth. A beautiful woman singing about ugly things. Someone you want to bang singing about the very worst results of that desire. The talking leads to touching, and the touching leads to sex, and then there is no mystery left is a line that makes me blush whenever I hear it not because it mentions sex but because it is so astonishingly artless, the opposite of how we expect beautiful women, women who fuck, to have learned to talk about these things. It isn’t just that it says what you aren’t supposed to say -- it says what you aren’t supposed to say in the way you aren’t supposed to say it. The clumsiness is what jostles the listener to attention, what brings us up short on hearing.
Lewis was the epitome of the exact way women were supposed to be pretty in the early naughts when Rilo Kiley blew up and everyone you knew hummed baby I’m bad news on their walks home in the morning. Her delicate scrappy quirkiness and blunt bangs and prairie-doll dresses should rightly have alienated me from her, but they didn’t. Much like Lana Del Rey’s Americana-Barbie hotness in the next decade, Lewis’ exact adherence to the ideal of the moment seemed to be part of the thing she was performing. Lewis may have been visibly twee in the early days but her music dug down to a different story. The new album cover looks the way she has always sounded, a heart-broken glamour girl putting on a show because what else is there to do.
It’s impossible to say who was the original sad and horny girl online, since it’s an archetype - the “online” part included - that extends well past the existence of the internet and way back into the mists of antiquity. Certainly she turns up around every corner in Homer and in the Greek myths, and she swaggers and melts - hot, sad, defiant, defiantly hot about her sadness - all way down any old-textbook classics course on Western Literature and culture. The hot sad online girl is beautiful in an aggressive way, horny in a way that acknowledges desire as a farce and a tragedy. She is defiantly and messily emotional, and the “online” aspect of her persona refers not so much to the internet as to a belligerent confessionalism, an insistence on making the private public, on being looked at in a way that indicts the viewer for looking.
Lewis has assembled an absolute flex of a back-up band for On The Line, a star-studded lineup of men including Ryan Adams, Beck, and Ringo Starr. On the one hand, this is a thrilling gesture toward her own importance - look who wants to be my band. But the fact that it is specifically famous men feels deliberate, part of the performance. The sad horny online girl is often the girl in the boys’ club, the girl who can hang. This is another facet of desirability, but it is also meant to expose the way in which the cool girl’s story is always a tragedy and often an atrocity. The way we survive things is at once glamorous and horrifying. The glamour is the horror, the vulnerability is the armor. Lewis’ lyrics, when she sings about pain, always acknowledge herself first and foremost as the author of that pain. The story was always look what I chose to get myself into as much as anything. Accountability is itself a triumph -- I made this trap for myself and here I am, standing up, singing about it.
The cover of Lewis’ album is one more reminder that she exists in a longer tradition of Sad Hot Girls than the early internet or even than angry girls with guitars. The dress is a torch singer’s dress and the photo is of a torch singer, a sexy redhead purring about heartbreak in the late hours of a dark bar, to a crowd of velvet-headed drunks (Lewis’ parents were a Vegas lounge act who performed under the name “Love’s Way;” this kind of performance is part of her literal origin story). The torch singer is a glamour girl who has been done wrong, the beautiful woman to whom life has not been beautiful. One way to look at it is that the singer’s beauty makes the pain palatable, the sugar that makes the medicine go down. But the popularity of torch singers through a piled-high handful of decades also points to a conscious or unconscious sadism on the part of the audience for beautiful women singing about the pain they’re in. Ellen Willis wrote, in 1976, after Janis Joplin’s death, about the uncanny juxtaposition between Joplin’s subject matter and her male fans, “Janis sang out of her pain as a woman, and men dug it. Yet it was men who caused the pain, and if they stopped causing it they would not have her to dig. In a way, their adulation was the cruelest insult of all. And Janis’s response - to sing harder, get higher, be worshipped more - was rebellious, acquiescent, bewildered all at once. When she said, “Onstage I make love to 25,000 people and then I go home alone,” she was not merely repeating the cliche of the sad clown or the poor little rich girl. She was noting that the more she gave, the less she got, and that honey, it ain’t fair.”
Willis summarizes here the whole thing of the Sad Hot Girl Singer, and arguably the larger thing of the sad horny girl online. This paradox, this return to the source of pain, is the material from which these artists make their work. It’s not that these women are not awake to the problem of the same male fans at their shows being the perpetrators in their songs, nor of the ugliness that runs through a raucous, blitzed crowd all grooving to the onstage exposed nerve of female pain. The torch singer’s persona depends both on the awareness of this dynamic, and the acknowledgement that awareness does not solve anything, that it is only one more piece of the larger tragedy. Lewis is conscious of this danger and this juxtaposition, but then again I’m pretty sure Joplin was, too. The unfortunate fact is that for women artists who take on this role (sad, hot, vulnerable, beautiful when they’re angry, crying but DTF), the negotiation with their fans and their subject manner, with the “area man enjoys, causes the blues” at the heart of what they’re singing, always has to live at the center of their work, and how they do that negotiating too often defines their career. Part of both Courtney Love’s genius and her problem was that she knew she was the kind of woman men wanted to hurt. So she hurt herself in front of them, and they loved it. Self-awareness can easily become just another kind of self-harm, a sharp thing on which to repeatedly wound oneself.
Lewis’s approach to the problem was to take the recognizable wounded bad girl archetype and made it blatantly about mental health, saying in so many words the things that torch songs had always implied. This wasn’t Patsy Cline cooing I’m crazy for feeling so blue; rather, it was the daily dreariness and routine of counting out pills, of getting out of bed, calling your mom, seeing a doctor and deciding whether to tell them the truth. She made what had always been the subtext of these kinds of songs the text. She said the quiet part loud.
If Sad Horny Girl Online were a Western Literature course, Rilo Kiley’s “A Better Son/Daughter,” off of 2002‘s The Execution of All Things would be Crime and Punishment. It’s not the whole foundational text, but it’s still hard to understand where we are and how we got here without it. Straightforwardly, it is a song about depression. Lewis sings, in a sweet, baby-ish sing-song, about waking up but being unable to get out of bed, crushed by an unnamed weight until she cant breathe. Her mother calls and she is cruel to her mother on the phone and then feels bad about it, and goes back to bed, imagining a better time. And then at 1:39 there’s a deathless, gut-punch kick-in rivaled (in my mind, anyway) only by the one on “Thunder Road.” The fuzzy sing-song disappears and an adult woman’s voice takes its place, crashing in the lyric, and sometimes when you’re on / you’re REALLY FUCKING ON” (there’s no way to write it without using capslock). The song describes what might be the doldrums and upswing in a manic/depressive cycle.
Lewis’ work in this era echoed almost uncannily the dialogue around mental health awareness that would develop in the obsessively interpersonal corners of the internet over the next two decades. On twitter and tumblr, a sort of off-handed, dark-humor approach to one’s mental health has become standard. A subject that has long been strenuously taboo, mental health in all its prescriptions, diagnoses, symptoms, and logistics has become on the internet casual and omnipresent, a development that -- like Lewis’ music -- seems bleak but is oddly hopeful. These uncomfortable jokes let the air into the room, and at best act as encouragement for individuals to seek out support. Lewis’s early music was a version of this same thing, using the joke at once as a way to hide and a way to not allow herself to hide. In later albums, when she sang in more mainstream and less raw ways, the subtext of the real, ugly daily logistics of mental health had been set firmly in place by those early works, and gave further dimension to the slinking jams on Under the Blacklight and The Voyager.
Of course, “Red Bull and Hennessy” isn’t “A Better Son/Daughter.” Lewis is older now and so are the rest of us who grew up listening to her. It’s harder for glamour to seem glamorous, for baby I’m bad news to seem like a glib brag rather than a life sentence. Being messy and unhappy doesn’t necessarily mean being hot anymore; in fact it’s more likely to mean the opposite. Sad things are just sad rather than sexy, and our choices are more likely to be who we are rather than merely what we did. A lot of my friends (myself included) have given up drinking recently. Everybody is going to bed earlier, speaking in quieter tones, turning away from our own psychodramas.
But “Red Bull & Hennessy” is a party. Lewis grew up with us, but she hasn’t gotten boring, because she hasn’t healed. And neither have any of the rest of us, following her music and her hard-rocking pain from album to album across the beginning of this nascent century. Hennessy is the Vegas showgirl’s dress of liquor and Red Bull is a college student’s idea of a good time; Lewis may have gotten older, but she hasn’t matured out of either heartbreak or longing. There’s still a party because there’s still pain. We can’t solve the things that haunt us, we can just learn to make bops out of them. The album title “More Adventurous” came from a Frank O’Hara poem, and Lewis’ work from end to end follows sneakily in the same tradition as O’Hara, confessional pain that finds its way to optimism, not because everything will be solved, but because nothing will be.