As a man forged in the decadent ‘90s—the music, the stupidity, the happy good times of a dress-staining president who was part Eric Stratton and part Ernest P. Worrell—I was intrigued when a friend suggested I check out Jenny Lewis’ “Just One of the Guys,” produced by Beck “I don’t play Midnite Vultures anymore” Hansen. As Beck’s latest skews heavily toward sad Beck rather than toward the classic fun and entertaining Beck, the Beck we came to love in the ‘90s, off I went to YouTube to watch Lewis’ video.
The song, a seemingly lighthearted bit of indie rock, isn’t lyrically lighthearted. At all. Especially lines like this one: “When I look at myself all I can see/I’m just another lady without a baby.” Hold up. Fun indie rock with a sucker punch at the end? Talk about a stark example of the divide between artists and intellectuals, between the fecund and the sterile. My interest piqued, I purchased the album, gave it a few whirls, and came to the conclusion that Lewis is quite possibly a subversive artist, one who embraces fecundity while challenging the sterile intellectual status quo.
My initial assumption was that she is a young woman. A quick Google search revealed that she is young, in that she’s 9 days younger than me. It also revealed I am oblivious to large chunks of pop culture from my formative years. Regardless, as a fellow child of those decadent mid-to-late ‘90s, back when people still had beepers and there were no such things as smart phones, Lewis speaks to me despite her relative youth. Throughout “The Voyager” are winks and nods to the hedonism we kids got to enjoy before everyone got concerned with “safety” and “accomplishing things” and not taking hallucinogens. We didn’t have life-scripts, we just went headlong into stupidity. Somehow, though, things mostly worked out. Maybe not least of all because we didn’t have smart phones with which we could record and broadcast every idiotic decision we made, but I digress.
Jenny Lewis’s Baby Rabies
Given our age, Lewis and I are at the point where some number of women (I’ll let y’all fight that number out amongst yourselves) realize the window is closing and get a severe case of the baby rabies. (Sorry, it’s true. I know it’s currently vogue to signal how much one loves science and then equate biology to ridiculous mystical alchemy, but that doesn’t change the fact that biology is real and is a harsh mistress.) But I don’t presume to guess Lewis’ intent with her lyrics or demonstrably state she has a case of the baby rabies. She could be infected or maybe her tongue is just planted firmly in her cheek.
This dude at Slate, on the other hand, does have her figured out. “[“Just One of the Guys is] really about why someone like her is seen (including by herself) differently than any male musician her age would be.” How does he know this? He doesn’t say. Lewis herself certainly doesn’t present it that way.
I’ve gotten a lot of questions about it, and I suppose when you have lyrics as direct as I do, it’s your fault if people ask. But I don’t have a problem talking about it because I think it’s okay. Whatever you choose in that department, it’s your personal business. There’s a certain amount of pressure from people if you don’t have children. Not to say that I won’t end up having kids, but I think it’s like a very sensitive issue for people.
Oh, so it’s not a metaphor for how being a woman causes her to be viewed differently? Perhaps one shouldn’t automatically assume identity politics when the songwriter in question doesn’t seem to embrace them. Though she does greatly upset some who do, whether because, yuck, Carl’s Jr. or because “Just One of the Guys” is the most offensive video ever.
Refusing Identity Politics
From the former—a diatribe against Lewis for allowing her work to be used for a fast-food commercial, because artists we love should never get paid, right?—we get this: “Even though you never outright said it, I always thought of you as a feminist. You appear confident, tough and totally in charge of your sexuality.”
How dare Lewis disabuse a fan of her assumptions? Artists are ours. They exist for us and thus owe it to us to conform to our preconceptions. They shouldn’t say things that run contrary to those preconceptions, especially things like this statement from an interview with Salon, one which naturally ran with a headline barely related to the overall interview. In said interview, Lewis responded to “Is there anything frustrating, obnoxious or just difficult that you’ve experienced as a female artist?” thusly:
Being a woman — just in life — can be frustrating at times … But I never really thought of it like that. My goal was always to write the best songs I could possibly write. Not to be considered a “female songwriter” — I’m just a songwriter. I hope my songs can exist next to good songs across the board.
It’s as if she isn’t paying any attention to the people telling her that being a “female whatever” is her primary goal. Pay attention, Jenny! First and foremost, you’re a female. Everything must be defined through by being a female whatever. Any attempts to distinguish yourself solely as an individual are to be ceased immediately. Which brings us back to a permutation of the original question: Is Jenny Lewis a subversive female songwriter who embraces fecundity?
No Qualifications Necessary
Well, she is prolific and she upsets the intellectual status quo, but she doesn’t box herself in with little labels. She’s a good songwriter, not a good female songwriter, just a good songwriter. So, yes, she is a songwriter who embraces fecundity, though she isn’t deft at being a “female songwriter.” Is “The Voyager” the next Led Zeppelin IV? Nope, but Led Zeppelin IV isn’t even Led Zeppelin IV anymore. If you don’t believe me, play “Stairway to Heaven” on repeat while explaining how turning passages from “The Lord of the Rings” into lyrics was the most genius thing ever.
From the open to close, “The Voyager,” while devoid of Hobbit references and, let’s be honest, anything as awesome as “When the Levee Breaks,” is a solid and well-produced album. It’s perfect for driving to work or sitting in the back yard with your dogs and a cold one. Or two. Equally impressive, in this age of participation trophies, Lewis never gives the listener the feeling that she is too full of herself. Nor does she whine. And that’s a welcome respite for this Gen Xer from the decadent ‘90s.
I speak fondly of the ‘90’s, but I really, really don’t miss them, particularly the music. Yes, I said it. There were highs and there were lows. Many lows. Thankfully, most of those lows, other than some emo dudes who just keep ranting, have passed. And although many of the songs were loud, fun to poorly jam on your first electric guitar, and emblematic of the latchkey child of divorce experience common to my generation, they were also often ridiculous and whiny. I’m sorry dad forgot to pick you up from soccer practice that one time. Get over it. It’s the only way to find oneself capable of that which Lewis has accomplished—writing and recording good songs that don’t get buried under “identity” and cultivated despondence.
Regardless of whether Lewis is wistfully gazing upon women with baby bumps, she is embracing life and being productive. She isn’t following the script. She isn’t wearing a helmet 24/7 and clamoring for a special recognition because of her sex. Personally, I do hope she produces a young ‘un or two because one thing the world needs is fewer helicopters and more skydivers. More people who are focused on being judged on their accomplishments and not their efforts. It’s radical, it’s subversive, it’s fertile. Most importantly, it’s hopeful.