Originally published in The Worcester Journal on April 3, 2015
At 25 years old, Aly Spaltro is no stranger to the small ironies and binaries of modern life. As her moniker, Lady Lamb, suggests, there’s a powerful sense of grace in her music and persona, alloyed with the sweetness of a teenage girl who shyly started teaching herself to play guitar and experiment with making music in the after-hours of her part-time job at a video rental store. Since these early undercover days, Spaltro has come a long way. “I ain’t no warrior or king,” she roars in the final chorus of “Vena Cava,” the opening number on her second studio album After (Mom+Pop Music). Knowing that anyone who has heard her work would beg to differ, she is quick to qualify, adding, “But how I am one when I sing.”
I was first introduced to Lady Lamb The Beekeeper (a name that came to her in a dream, and which has since been shortened) as a senior in high school, when she was hardly known beyond the corners of our shared state, Maine. Her first studio album, Ripely Pine (Ba Da Bing! Records) came out shortly after I started college and experienced a rapid procession of feelings from first-breakup devastation to homesickness to newly-found self-reliance and spirit. Spaltro recently told Nylon magazine that she can now see the songs on Ripely Pine as “very dramatic” and “kind of all over the place emotionally,” but at the time I felt that lines like “You make me into an egg without yolk” and “I still need your teeth round my organs” were written specifically for me.
Ripely Pine was almost all I could stand listening to that year. With an offhand blend of unusually long and uniquely structured songs, Spaltro’s first album covers a range of adolescent attitudes, from the intimacy, betrayal, and complexity of “young love” (I really hate this phrase, but what else do you say when someone’s young and in love?) to a pure and quiet affection for her family.Almost all Ripely Pine’s songs can be seen this way: is it about love, or family? Heartbreak or home? Even in these simplistic terms (or perhaps, especially), it’s easy to see why the album would speak so much to a kind of dramatic, very emotionally-all-over-the place 19-year-old; as the composer and wordsmith of such lyrically beautiful and universal expressions, hopefully Spaltro isn’t embarrassed by that.
With this in mind, After seems an appropriate title for the follow-up. Listeners expecting a development, a grown-up looking back at a distance to her reckless teenage years, might very well feel satisfied with After. With a sleeker stage name, succinct song titles, and shorter song lengths, Spaltro shows some real adult-like temperance and maturity (like her debut, After has only three songs that even come close to acceptable radio-standard length, but lacks the added boldness from Ripely Pine’s five songs stretching over the five-minute mark). The twelve-track album is more polished in both mixing and vocal quality, with nothing that comes near to the raw voice cracks in “Regarding Ascending the Stairs” or the sung-screamed lyrics of “Crane Your Neck.” Only two songs explicitly deal with romantic relationships as Ripely Pine did, with the rest either crossing into home and family territory or leading listeners somewhere else entirely.
The recurring words and images in the lyrics are telling: apples, ghosts, and airplanes; birds, blood, and Jesus. Indeed, her infatuation with the vocabulary of eating, death, and animals is reminiscent of the major motifs in the literary nonsense genre of Alice in Wonderland creator Lewis Carroll and adapted by the likes of Emily Dickinson, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles. Oranges and nectarines (not to mention strawberry cake) appear, as does chewing, gnawing, and most prominently, starving. Lines like “I could be cracked open like a cartoon watermelon” demonstrate Spaltro’s stomach for potentially gruesome imagery combined with the comical, almost like Wallace Stevens. As with Stevens, playing with the notion of death is clearly important to Spaltro as well, as images of ghosts, skulls, and graves intermingle with her details of ordinary life and often descend through nonsense surrealism into absurdity. “You will become your most favorite color” is her idea of death (from After’s poignant “Sunday Shoes”), while disembodied descriptions like “You with the watercolor eyes, you who bares all your teeth in every smile” are distinctly whimsical and evocative of Carroll’s Cheshire Cat.
And although cats have yet to appear in one of Spaltro’s songs, she does show a Carrollian affinity for creature comparisons, incorporating such “rabid beasts” and “handsome animals” as mice, wolves, dinosaurs, and alligators into her often surreal imagery and metaphors. Deer, ants, whales, and lions appear, but Spaltro’s true affection is for birds–crows, vultures, sparrows, and now an eagle with a fish in its beak. Often, hand in hand with these animal allusions are bodily references to limbs, organs, and bones. Spaltro’s attention to details of the body makes each song feel like a dissection as she severs eyes from their sockets, ribs from their cages, spines and clavicles from their exquisite bones structures. Even after severing the parts she needs, though, the body is often further disfigured by incorporating the language of animals into its description; just as Ripely Pine’s opener “Hair to the Ferris Wheel” has such lines as “It’s a zoo in your room when you part your lips” and “Let’s crawl all over one another like crows on a carcass,” the fairly existential “Spat Out Spit” furthers and exemplifies the thematic association between the human body and an animal one. “Animal hearts, pumping that animal, animal blood,” Spaltro sings lightly and low, leading into the main question of the refrain: “Was I born wild? Have I been asleep this whole damn time, dreaming up a life? Will I awake to find that I’m deep in the woods and I’m snarling on all fours?” This chorus actually brings up other themes in the Lady Lamb catalogue, from the viewing of humans as savage animals to the recurring ideas of infancy, sleeping, and dreaming. Newborns appear almost as often as apples, and the repetition of “asleep” and “awoke” throughout both albums reinforces her uncanny ability to make even unremarkable details of life feel like a dream.
More so than these perennial images, though, it is clear that what has remained consistently important across Lady Lamb’s discography thus far–and is even more prominent in the new album–is her love for home and her family. The language of travel weaves throughout her songs, but when it’s about love, the plane crashes, the ship wrecks. When the song leans towards home, nostalgia takes over and we are painted a golden map of Spaltro’s memories, spanning from her New England roots in Maine and New York to Arizona and Arkansas. Her parents, sister, and brother are all mentioned, and always in tender solo songs featuring only Spaltro and her guitar. “Ten” comes near the end of After, an ode to home ripe with affection for her sister, best friend, and mother. The song was the closer to Lady Lamb’s recent album release shows in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Portland, Maine, and it left the audiences the thought that “there’s a sweetness in us that lives long past the dust on our eyes, once our eyes finally close.” After all is said and done, after the droughts, gore, crashes, slaughter, swords, and pistols, she knows where she ends up, and she knows where she comes from.
Originally published in The Worcester Journal on January 14, 2015
To be clear: I am not here to talk about what’s punk and what’s not. As much as I’d like to have the authority to do so, my knowledge of punk is scant compared to what I really love – pop. And while the two may seem to be diametrically opposed, it seems to me that pop is beginning to take a few small but visible notes from punk’s playbook.
Pop culture infiltrates our lives – in fashion, film, slang, TV – trickling through our minds, memories, and conversations in big and small ways, but perhaps most obviously in music. And right now – sorry guys – women own the playing field. The influence these women can have (and are already having) on thousands of girls today could be immense, but what are we actually learning from them? And is it really as bad as some people seem to think?
Exhibit A: Taylor Swift. Undeniably attractive as she may be, the seven-time Grammy winner is also undeniably more conservative than most of her other female pop peers, somehow remaining as innocent and adorable as when she released her debut album in 2006; for all we know, Ms. Swift has been completely sober and sexless for all her twenty five enchanting years on earth. Despite the self-professed confessional nature of her songwriting, criticism of what some may call an obsession with boys continues to crop up year after year. Referred to as “a feminist’s nightmare” by Jezebel, Swift has publicly admitted that her relationships are most often what inspires the strong feelings behind her songs, with countless defenders who thrive on the connection built between the artist and fans in hearing familiar stories and moments retold in such an articulate, relatable voice. What some interpret to be a “feminist’s nightmare” is Swift’s apparent inability to write about anything but these relationships, with haters arguing that the lyrical message of her music is little more than simply, BOYS; fans, however, see something very different.
NPR interestingly called Swift a “princess of punk” upon the release of her fourth album, Red, in 2012, commenting on the noticeably new attitude of the songs and noting that Swift’s growth is evident in the tones of both anger and acceptance (as opposed to what might have previously been called whining and obsession) felt throughout the album. Swift’s maturation is by far most visible in light of her newly-released fifth studio album, 1989, and is perhaps most palpable in the single “Blank Space” and its music video. In what the New York Times called a “metanarrative” about her reputation as a perpetually lovelorn, occasionally clingy ex-girlfriend, Swift seems to have directly dedicated “Blank Space” to her haters, shamelessly acknowledging her notoriety in lines like “You look like my next mistake” and the gleefully knowing chorus, “Got a long list of ex-lovers / They’ll tell you I’m insane / But you know I love the players / And you love the game.” The accompanying video brings Swift’s self-awareness to a new level, following a traditional fairy-tale love story and featuring caricatures of Swift’s alternately girl-next-door and crazy-ex personas, teaching us just as much about rolling with the punches and knowing yourself as her earlier songs did with issues of growing up and dealing with young love and heartbreak. Swift is in good company though: fellow pop princess Lana Del Rey also defied the mainstream culture by abandoning the reputation built by hip-hop inspired Born to Die (2012) when packing her second album Ultraviolence (2014) full of slow, psychedelic songs, none of which make the traditional three-minute radio cut. Del Rey took a bow to her skeptics as well, most notably in the Ultraviolence song “Brooklyn Baby,” which highlights haters’ perceptions of the artist whom Rolling Stone called “rock’s saddest, baddest diva” as an unapologetic hipster. Swift may have taken a note from Del Rey’s book as she gave her haters exactly what they were looking for in “Blank Space.” Though Swift’s sugar-sweet, pure-as-a-virgin image may have made (and continues to make) her music marketable to younger listeners and often causes older ones to undermine or disregard her music, Swift is undeniably succeeding in the powerful cultural position she holds – in fact, because her sound is so accessible to young girls, she is actually instilling her ideas of how to work through relationships and expressing strong feelings in girls at a younger age – kind of empowering, right? And isn’t that the kind of ability we’d like our daughters growing up with?
The one girl who probably has the most to say on growing up is actually the youngest of most pop stars on the radar right now. At 16, Lorde topped the U.S. Billboard Charts in 2013 with her hit “Royals,” from her debut album, Pure Heroine (the name itself basically says all you need to know). Now, at 18 years old, Lorde remains admirable in a traditional sense — incredibly talented, wildly successful — yet at the same time “punk” in the way she defies our expectations; a 16-year-old girl writes an album almost entirely absent of boys, romance, or sex? Her incredibly impressive debut instead focused mainly on the concept of youth and the strangeness of getting older, a theme as universal as Ms. Swift’s obsession with writing about boys. “Royals” even challenges the elements of songs on the radio as of late: “But every song’s like gold teeth, Grey Goose, trippin’ in the bathroom / blood stains, ball gowns, trashin’ the hotel room / we don’t care.” How punk is it to write a number one international hit song that rolls its eyes at every other number one hit?
And then there’s Miley. Once the woman of the hour, arguably old news, yet consistently relevant and discussed amongst fans and cynics alike.
Ridding herself of the long, luscious, Hannah Montana locks in favor of a Twiggy-inspired shaved head and bleach blonde bangs, and crowned as “Princess of Twerk” by tabloids everywhere.. Cyrus has gone through an incredible transformation. Under intense public scrutiny for the majority of her life, the singer received shocking amounts of negative publicity in the aftermath of the controversial 2013 VMA performance. Her public sexuality and discussion of drug use has been criticized as an overly dramatic way of saying, “Y’all check me out, I’m not a kid anymore,” and her carefree attitude towards the situation has upset parents telling CNN they are now forced to think that Cyrus does not either a) care what her younger fans think of her or b) hasn’t even bothered to think of what her actions are doing to her image…but isn’t that what continues to make her so awesome?
Despite the scandal created around her new look, Cyrus is flourishing more than ever because she simply does not care – which is why VICE magazine even went so far as to call her “the most punk rock musician around” at the height of her controversy. Subsequent appearances on Saturday Night Live and The Ellen Show proved her capacity for eloquence, honesty, and a good sense of humor (about herself) and what it’s like to suddenly be the most talked-about person in the world. She’s not perfect, but she’s rich, pretty, and testing her limits, paving the way for her own independent image, trying to figure out who she is.
That Cyrus can disguise her fourth album, Bangerz, (which is, in fact, a breakup album) as what most angelheaded hipsters would write off as another shitty pop record trying too hard to get in the Top 40 is actually an incredible feat. When some girls might be tempted to fill their album with acoustic emotion and bittersweet strings, Cyrus shook off her broken engagement with actor Liam Hemsworth by reestablishing her confidence in herself: “So don’t you worry ‘bout me, Imma be okay / Imma do my thang.” The lyrics of the album tell the story of real feelings, but the upbeat quality of most of the songs instills a sense of conviction and empowerment – occasionally admitting to unhappiness, but never giving in to it. “Wrecking Ball” is the obvious exception, but we can allow her a few minutes of sadness, right? And can we please allow her to wear what she wants? To dance how she wants? Though the initial hysteria surrounding the transformation of Ms. Cyrus has faded, I think it’s important to remember how harshly and cynically many of us reacted. Everyone has (had) at least a little bit of Miley in us, in our reckless, fun, experimental youth. We watched her evolve and now here she is, and some people still want to criticize her for not keeping things PG? All I can say is: grow up.
Rock critic Lester Bangs said that “punk represents a fundamental and age-old Utopian dream: that if you give people the license to be as outrageous as they want in absolutely any fashion they can dream up, they’ll be creative about it, and do something good besides.” Not to say that girls like Miley, Taylor Swift, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde are punk musicians — not at all — but they’re bringing an element of the tradition into mainstream popular music. The women of pop are stronger than ever as they continue to top the charts, make bank, and make the news every week, joining the ranks of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga, and other established queens of the radio. As they use their words, sounds, and images to express themselves with confidence and be who they choose to be, listeners of our generation should feel more and more comfortable following suit. Punk is, after all, “just another word for freedom.”
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of this article appeared in the magazine STIR in 2013.
Originally published in The Worcester Journal on January 14, 2015
Well, I did it: I finally forced myself to watch some of the “classics” I’ve somehow missed on my inadvertent journey to becoming a Screen Studies major. By compiling a list of every movie I am ashamed to have never seen and forcing my friends to initial the ones they wouldn’t mind watching twice, I figured I had set myself up for success, achievement, culture, education. I chose Easy Rider (1969, Dennis Hopper), The Birds (1963, Alfred Hitchcock), and Blue Velvet (1986, David Lynch).
And now, here I am, trying to consider exactly what I’ve seen.
I’ve seen a lot of things.
I’ve seen a man with bloodstained holes where his eyes used to be, another gruesomely stabbed to death in a sleeping blanket, and a group of gangsters moved to tears by a lip-synched rendition of “In Dreams.” More unsettling, I’ve seen Dennis Hopper as both one half of a freedom-chasing, drug-using motorcycle duo and as a sadomasochistic sociopath who gets off wearing a gas mask. Perhaps even more unsettling still, I’ve seen a vulnerable Jack Nicholson (vulnerable? Jack Nicholson?) succumb to the peer pressure of two freewheeling hippies and anxiously take a hit of his first joint.
Needless to say, these movies have left me with a lot on my mind, while 20 years of life and education have left me with an infuriatingly insufficient ability to articulate it all. I’ve nearly finished the course requirements that fulfill my Screen Studies major thus far, and as a result I can critically examine the meaning of certain camera angles, costume decisions, light temperature, and transitions, among other details. I could point out the total absence of non-diegetic music in the soundtrack of The Birds, how horribly the silences enhance the anticipation of impending crowing sounds, how starkly it contrasts with the feel-good road trip playlist of Easy Rider and the recurring nominal theme of Blue Velvet. I could analyze Hopper’s jarring quick cuts back and forth from present to future, scene to scene, and explain how such an unconventional technique underlines how strange the easygoing motorcycle life seemed to the square society surrounding Billy and the aptly and unsubtly named Captain America. And I could talk about how Blue Velvet – well, I wouldn’t even know where to start.
But this is the trouble when movie lovers become film students. Once you are trained in the art of noticing technicalities, the ability to simply sit back and watch a movie slowly but surely evolves into a constant process of interpretation and evaluation, until you suddenly find yourself reading an impossible amount into every romantic comedy and action movie you see with your family, and they all get sick of you asking what they thought because “I liked it” is no longer good enough. Frankly, and from a film student’s unrelenting eye, the movies I watched are so rich with deliberate mysteries, I feel I could write a thesis for each one in an attempt to solve it all – but there is a thin thread tying together my discombobulated train of thoughts. Hanging over my mental rubble is a hazy but discernible smog, an overwhelming and conflicted sense of America.
Dennis hopper charms kyle maclachlan
But what else is new, really? On-screen, off-screen – the Americas are the same.
Though these films are aesthetically dated in ways that could never be recreated now without accusations of insincerity or that unconvincing, too-smooth Hollywood glow, I was surprised (I don’t know why) to realize that, in theory, America is just as terrifying as it always has been. Whether I imagined the past or the present as more of a golden age I couldn’t say; I have just always been under the impression that something fundamental had changed between “now” and “then,” but now, I’m not so sure. A while back, I recall posting a rare politically-charged status on Facebook regarding the Supreme Court decision which allows corporations to refuse contraception health coverage, openly wondering how we’ve allowed things to get so unreasonably out of control. (I try to keep these comments few and far between – sooner or later, everyone starts to hate that one person who posts too much of a too-strong opinion). Through my passionately confused, concerned fit of outrage, dulled only by the silent, padded walls of the Internet, I was suddenly reminded of Easy Rider’s tagline: “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.” Then an image of Blue Velvet struck me, vaguely – white picket fence, green grass, red roses, and all the filth that lives beneath.
America. Looking. Can’t find. Anywhere.
It was all so big, I wasn’t sure if the links were truly there or if I had imagined them in a desperate attempt to create some meaning in my stupid life – and then – Godzilla! The Birds! Apocalypse! America! It was there, all there! It was all one horrible, beautiful web of fiction and lies, of myth and reality, of now and then, of me and of them.
What really unites The Birds, Blue Velvet, and Easy Rider, is the responsibility of the individual, and the deeply significant absence of love. Whether or not this is indicative of some universal lack of love for the American Dream is relevant in some ways, but irrelevant in others. Human relationships, whether between Tippi Hedren and her handsome pet store customer, Blue Velvet‘s young hero and his high school lover, or Billy and Captain America, are irrelevant to these stories. While flirtation, sex, and friendship do exist and move the plot, the utter emptiness of these relationships mainly highlight the utter emptiness of these characters and the world they live in – that is to say, America. Things have changed – the specifics, yes (the distinctly eighties hair, the sixties cinematography, the political context, the popular culture) – but what struck a nerve in me was realizing how true these movies still are, and how alone we and you and I often feel in the universal longing to do or make something worthwhile, in this world or in ourselves, asking, is this the way to live?
Perhaps, as it so often happens, I’m reading too much into things. Perhaps I’m a twenty-something cynic, doomed to a life of reading Dostoevsky with troubled, furrowed brows. Or perhaps I ought to buy a pack of cigarettes and Mrs. Wagner’s pies, walk off, and look for something better than the America found here.