Phoebe Bridgers is “Wise Beyond Her Years,” and That’s the Problem

Phoebe Bridgers is often the subject of maybe my least favorite form of praise: “wise beyond her years.” The implication of that phrase is that if Bridgers (who is 25) sounded her age, her music wouldn’t be noteworthy or interesting. But by adopting a quiet, deadly serious folk style, her work is perceived as “mature” and “sophisticated,” earning her the attention of critics and listeners who want to celebrate young, up-and-coming artists without feeling like they’re listening to “kids music.” When I listened to her latest album, Punisher, I found myself longing to hear music by a young person who actually was willing to sound like they were in their early-mid 20s. That would be more honest and authentic than these listless songs that mistake the absence of joy for profundity.

“Joy” in this case doesn’t mean that Bridgers should make overtly happy-sounding music when that isn’t who she is. What I wanted to hear on Punisher was any sense of creative spark or a feeling that Bridgers loves making music. Artists like Fiona Apple and PJ Harvey made serious music in their early 20s, but there was a life and verve in their performances, even if the subject material was dark. Rid of Me was a messed-up album, but when I listened to it, I knew that PJ Harvey was incredibly passionate about what she was doing and there was catharsis there due to its extreme, daring sound. It’s hard to glean anything close to that from Punisher, which is constantly stuck in a whispery, slow-tempo rut that lacks any feeling of youthful exploration. I’ve also praised contemporary artists like Girlpool and Free Cake For Every Creature for portraying early-mid 20s life with somewhat similar poetry to Bridgers. Those artists were willing to sound their age, with all the vulnerabilities and flaws that entails, whereas Bridgers seems too concerned with proving her wisdom with her unadventurous songs that are obsessively focused on a narrow range of moods (mostly being mopey).

A lot of people love this kind of music, and I guess I just don’t get it. I can recognize that Bridgers is good at what she is doing, but why would anyone want to listen to this? Everything after the album’s high-point, the third track “Kyoto” — in which Bridgers actually embraces some melody and energy — is one-note and dull. It’s one hushed folk song after another, all done in a style very familiar to anyone who has listened to a Saddle Creek album. Obviously, this is getting into very subjective and nebulous territory (welcome to music criticism), and so I don’t want to be overly critical of Bridgers as a talent when this is a matter of taste more than anything. I’m just struggling to see what separates this from any number of contemporary songwriters who haven’t gotten a fraction of this album’s hype. I also can’t get past a possibly unfair gut feeling that Bridgers is performing this world-weary style because her musical heroes (Conor Oberst, I suspect Neutral Milk Hotel) did it, not because these are sounds and feelings she arrived at organically. It’s hard for me to buy into the material when it’s someone who is 25 going on 60.

“Motion Sickness,” Bridgers’ breakthrough song of sorts, was genuinely great, and should probably be canonized as one of the defining songs of the last few years. I wish anything on Punisher jumped out at me like that track, which had autobiographical lyrics that instantly cut deep and some actual hooks. It’s possible that this album is too subtle and will grow on me, but nothing on it even provided that simple level of intrigue that would make me want to revisit it much more. There is nothing exciting going on here, and at some point an album needs to offer more than just being depressing because that’s what “important music” sounds like.

Popular Things That Suck: Lizzo

It’s no secret that we live in highly polarized times, and artists like Lizzo profit from the fractured “you’re with us or against us” nature of communication, especially online. A key part of Lizzo’s ascending fame is seen in the reality that, as a white man, if I’m looking to criticize her music or brand, I know I have to tip-toe very carefully and try to dodge landmines with every step (also, it’s important for me to acknowledge being a white man, which some will take as reason to disregard everything I say). One mistake and I’ll be branded as racist, misogynistic, fatphobic, prudish, or any other variety of insult that could result in me being “problematic” or “canceled.”

Lizzo’s brand is built to withstand criticism because she represents the admirable traits of self-worth, body positivity, sexual liberation, etc. Shrewdly, she has incorporated all of these positive themes into her persona, turning her art into a morality litmus test — to like Lizzo is equated with being a progressive person who holds the valorous, correct views on these subjects, which means hating her as an artist is now seen as akin to not being down with the cause. Complicating this is that, yes, if someone is a racist or misogynist or hates fat people, they are likely to also dislike Lizzo and raise a big stink about it, and those are often the most visible negative reactions to her. This means that even legitimate criticism of Lizzo only results in you being grouped in with an assortment of internet trolls and human garbage. The trick played here is one I’ve also been witnessing a lot in corporate public relations: associating your product with social justice allows you to frame any reasonable objections as the offensive ramblings of internet bottom feeders, which squelches dissent and assures the consumers that they’re “the good ones” who are part of a cause.

I find Lizzo to be the peak of this kind of noxious empowerment marketing, which makes her an artist I think about disproportionately to how much I actually interface with her work. My visceral skepticism with this seemingly well-meaning artist who has a positive effect on people has also led to me questioning myself: does my irritation at Lizzo make me one of those garbage people? I don’t know, maybe it does. But I think there are elements to her presentation worth analyzing and criticizing, and I’ve grown frustrated with the cheerleading portrayal of her in the media, especially locally in Minnesota where any artist from here who “makes it” (turns their art into a commercially successful product) is treated as if they just found a cure for cancer.

At the core of Lizzo’s whole positivity brand is the idea of “self-care,” which is personified in her music that is aggressively uplifting with themes built on her own confidence and disdain for anyone getting in her way of flaunting it. “Good as Hell,” her most inescapable song, celebrates the self in a way that obviously appeals to a wide range of listeners who relate to Lizzo or aspire to have her “no fucks given” attitude. Like all things Lizzo, this is a potentially beneficial concept that gets stretched to the point of irritation. Of course having confidence is great, and so is empowering others, but Lizzo’s music also encourages contentment and a refusal to work on or accept your flaws. The actual ethos of “self-care” was revealed last year, when she tweeted “PEOPLE WHO ‘REVIEW’ ALBUMS AND DON’T MAKE MUSIC THEMSELVES SHOULD BE UNEMPLOYED” after Pitchfork gave her a positive, but not suitably over-the-moon, review. Lizzo’s idea of self-care isn’t about growing and improving as a person, whether through internal reflection or criticism, but about embracing yourself as the flawless center of the universe and your skeptics as ignorant losers who must not understand your special gifts.

It’s a convenient position to hold for an artist whose success is more due to sociopolitical trendiness than talent. Part of Lizzo’s egotistical “self-care” lifestyle seems to involve ripping off other artists, as she has faced notable plagiarism accusations for using the line “I just took a DNA test, turns out I’m 100% that bitch” from “Truth Hurts,” for which her defense was that she simply “borrowed” a line in her song from a popular tweet. While this isn’t a horrendous crime or anything, it’s not exactly a ringing endorsement of someone’s talent that their lyrics are coming from Twitter. But nothing Lizzo does goes a whole lot deeper than a tweet anyways. Her entire brand is this surface-level, thoughtless positivity that cloys, and most of the music I hear of her sounds like the sort of corny “get happy, people!” sounds you could picture being played during a 7 a.m. workout class at a mandatory corporate retreat. I never sense any introspection in her work — there’s no need for it when you’re already perfect.

The more difficult to critique aspect of Lizzo’s presentation is in her sexually provocative imagery, which is mostly seen on her Instagram profile or music videos. Lizzo is proud of her body and shows it, which is (again) admirable and I suppose you could even say brave given that few people who look like her are in positions of celebrity. But Lizzo is also in a bit of a catch-22, where the whole reason for her success is because she’s “not like the other girls,” which gives her sexuality shock value. A lot of her audience, along with music writers, eat this up, acting like it’s completely amazing and stunning that a fat woman has sexual desires and isn’t ashamed of her body, similar to those old Susan Boyle viral videos where everyone condescendingly acted incredulous that an unattractive person could have talent. In this way, Lizzo’s presentation only reinforces stereotypes, and it benefits from the same collective prudishness that she thinks she is fighting against. To be fair to the artist, none of this is really her fault, but is more about the hysteric reaction to something that shouldn’t be a big deal. It adds to what makes her popularity grating when everyone is in utter disbelief over what is really no different than anything else from the old “sex sells” playbook.

There should be more body diversity and acceptance in media, and maybe Lizzo’s obnoxiousness is a price worth paying if it leads to that. The problem is that, despite her portrayal as an outsider who is different, she is succeeding in the same superficial way that every other pop star does, and there is nothing in her work that goes deeper than novelty. All of it is shamelessly commercial, and based on how often her music shows up in advertisements, it’s been a boon for corporations who want to commodify social issues while conveying that buying their product is in some way rebellious. There is a lot to think about and discuss with the intersection of body image, sexuality, and confidence in society, but Lizzo only addresses those potentially fascinating subjects in the most thoughtless, obvious way. Of course, this is why she is successful: her entire brand benefits from a culture that has no interest in considering these difficult subjects beyond the most feel-good and simple conclusions.

Lana Del Rey’s New Album is an Overhyped Bore

There’s this popular and annoying Twitter account called So Sad Today that posts depressive “deep” aphorisms that are clearly engineered to be retweeted by people who are feeling vaguely down and can’t articulate why — stuff like “i love when i’m not awake” and “just got a terrible feeling that I exist.” The account is run by Melissa Broder, an educated woman who is married, lives in LA, and has published four books. I don’t question the validity of her experience with mental illness, but I do find the way this account portrays depression to be rather distasteful. It’s this cutesy, faux-self-deprecating tone that many use on the internet, and it glorifies depression by turning it into a blandly relatable performance that doesn’t contain any real truth.

Lana Del Rey is the So Sad Today of musicians. Her new album,  Norman Fucking Rockwell, appeals to the same audience of disaffected young women, and it taps into very contemporary feelings of nostalgia and anxiety about the future. It’s a huge, ambitious album, and it has an undeniably appealing sound with its piano plus string arrangements and Del Rey’s vocals, which are gorgeous and full of longing, similar to Hope Sandoval’s. Despite these obvious positives, and some good songs like “Mariners Apartment Complex,” I find myself loathing this album because everything feels so fake and performatively sad.

Admittedly, this might be my contrarian instincts kicking in in response to the wave of hype surrounding this album, which has frankly been preposterous. But I can’t buy into this material, which is presented with such seriousness while taking on this silly and cliché 50s Americana aesthetic. Del Rey can sing and back herself with good production, but it never becomes anything to me other than some vapid tunes done in a style that has been performed by countless much more interesting artists. This nearly 70-minute album does not contain a single original thought or sound, yet it’s presented as this majestic, novel commentary on American life.

Norman Fucking Rockwell is so transparently ambitious and trying to be a Great American Album that it becomes unbelievably tedious despite its beautiful sound. A song like “Venice Bitch,” for instance, has no real reason to be nine minutes long except that this is an epic album that needs epic songs. Its long instrumental section tries to be mesmerizing and psychedelic but is really just some pointless noodling– it’s length for the sake of length. That song ends up being a microcosm of this album’s entire contrived self-indulgent vibe. Del Rey now believes she is an artist who has Something to Say about America and culture and everything else, so the album drags on and on with samey songs that are full of banal observations about how great things used to be, how she has no fucks to give, etc. There isn’t really poetry or depth in these lyrics, most of which sound like they were algorithmically generated to maximize likes on Instagram. Anyone pretending that these songs are some really deep exploration of the American Dream is out of their mind. I’ve read fortune cookies that had more insight.

What is maybe most frustrating about this album is that it’s totally in my musical wheelhouse as someone who really likes this type of nostalgic, emotive pop. It irritates me, probably irrationally, that Lana Del Rey is the artist being celebrated for this style when she is bringing nothing new to the table. Widowspeak’s Expect the Best did everything this album is trying to do in half the length and I might have been the only person to chart it on my year-end list. Fiona Apple makes music that is somewhat reminiscent of this album, but she puts authentic feeling and experiences into her songs. When Del Rey sings, I don’t get that — it all feels like a character and a performance, and she’s singing these lyrics because she knows people will relate to them and like them, not because she feels them. This entire album is such a surface-level exploration of subjects that have been covered so much better by other art. You could probably re-read most of The Great Gatsby in the time it takes to listen to this thing and be much better off.

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that this is the album people have decided is the greatest thing ever in the social media era. When people are brought up on the idea of likes and popularity being equal to quality, it makes sense that they all go wild for pandering middlebrow nonsense like this. And when writers and listeners are all desperate to seem positive about pop music to show how not-snobby they are, they convince themselves that Lana’s vacuous lyrics about walking on beaches in California are the pinnacle of the form. Meanwhile, the music that really does have something to say often goes ignored in this social media driven cultural monopoly held by mainstream pop. Norman Fucking Rockwell being a boring album isn’t what bothers me so much: it’s that it represents a tipping point in our culture where every big pop album with some hype behind it is lapped up uncritically by maniacal fans and celebrated for accomplishing the bare minimum artistically. Our standards should be much higher than this.