Calling Bullshit On Jenny Lewis

When Jenny Lewis made her transformation from child actress to indie songbird in the early ’00s, an assortment of sensitive girls with bangs and hormonally charged boys welcomed her with their underfed vegan arms. After all, her image was pure alternative perfection. She was a chick from the Valley who liked to hold a guitar and have issues with her musician boyfriends. Girls wanted to raid her closet and boys wanted to see what was underneath those short shorts and peasant tops. Her “deep” lyrics about California, heartbreak, and being fake poor made her the undisputed messiah for alterna-teens.

Full disclosure: When I was a teenager, I saw Rilo Kiley perform three times, and I witnessed Jenny Lewis’ solo act twice. I was obsessed. I ate her lyrics up with a religious fervor; I sat in my room trying to cry to “Bulletproof” 8,000 times. When she ditched the band in 2005 and released Rabbit Fur Coat, I totally bought her reinvention as a broke country goddess who was hell-bent on spiritual redemption. In the cover booklet, there’s even a photo shoot of Jenny Lewis wandering through a grocery store and trying to find money to buy milk for the children she definitely doesn’t have. Her new gimmick involved channeling the drama of Loretta Lynn and Dusty Springfield, and I thought it was totally genius.

Somewhere along the way though, she lost me. Her obsession with being a down-on-her-luck  country singer seemed like a cheesy extension of her acting days—she was playing a role that didn’t quite fit. I realize that musicians are also performers. Madonna and Lady Gaga, for example, have built their careers around constant reinvention. But Jenny Lewis ain’t Gaga. She’s an indie princess living in a manse in Laurel Canyon with her hot songwriter boyfriend. She probably gets stoned a lot and buys organic. Her whole image is predicated upon relatability so seeing her adapt this new hokey persona seemed disingenuous.

I also realized her songwriting was totally LOL. Let’s look at some samples, shall we? Here’s a snippet of Rilo Kiley’s “The Good That Won’t Come Out”.

Let’s get together and talk about the modern age.
All of our friends were gathered there with their pets
just talking shit about how we’re all so upset about the disappearing ground.
As we watch it melt….

A teenager’s perspective: I love the way she says the word “shit.” It sounds so raw. And I love the phrase “the modern age” because we are in the age of now and we are modern and that’s real. There’s a lot of good that won’t come out of me. It’s buried underneath all this, like, hurt and resentment. I’m trying to be a better person. I just need to focus on passing Geometry fist.

A grownup’s perspective: I don’t even know what any of this means. Why are they all with their pets? Is that what people do? Have a “let’s hang out with our pets together” party?

Here’s a nugget of Lewis wisdom about financial hardship in “Paradise”.

The phone, it has been ringing
Ringing off the hook
And the creditors have said
That all of your debts have grown legs
And are running off the books
Correctional facilities
Sure, I’ll accept your calls
But the tales have grown tall
And the till isn’t at all
And tears are only bread crumbs
For the crooks
And my paycheck, it is bleeding
But it’s fight or flight
The exit from debt could be the entrance
Into paradise

A teenager’s perspective: This is some authentic shit. I wish my parents would give me ten bucks to go to the movies.

A grownup’s perspective: Wait, is Jenny Lewis wearing a Marc by Marc Jacobs romper while performing this song about poverty? #DARK

Lastly, the hilarity that is “Pictures of Success”.

i’m a modern girl but i fold in half so easily
when i put myself in the picture of success
i could learn world trade
or try to map the ocean
…i’ve had it with you
and mexico can fucking wait
and all of those french films about trains
cause i’m not scared
but i’d like some extra spare time
i’m not scared
but the bills keep changing colors

A teenager’s perspective: That’s what I’m gonna say to my boyfriend. “I’ve had it with you and Mexico can fucking wait!” That’s so true. I also totally get what she’s saying about those french films about trains.

A grownup’s perspective: She’s having hallucinations about bills, and making nonsensical comments about Mexico and French films. She’s either schizophrenic or eating too much gluten.

Funny, right? Not quite how you remembered it? I think the moment you realize how awful her songwriting is is the moment you are officially no longer a teenager. Leaving the Church of Jenny Lewis is an eye-opening experience and a true marker of adulthood. You can look back at it fondly, but thank your lucky stars you no longer relate to faux-deep lyrics about pets talking shit.

* I apologize to anyone who’s still a member of the church. I realize that everyone has to be ready at their own time. TC mark

image – via

Ryan O'Connell

I'm a brat.

Trace the scars life has left you. It will remind you that at one point, you fought for something. You believed.

“You are the only person who gets to decide if you are happy or not—do not put your happiness into the hands of other people. Do not make it contingent on their acceptance of you or their feelings for you. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if someone dislikes you or if someone doesn’t want to be with you. All that matters is that you are happy with the person you are becoming. All that matters is that you like yourself, that you are proud of what you are putting out into the world. You are in charge of your joy, of your worth. You get to be your own validation. Please don’t ever forget that.” — Bianca Sparacino

Excerpted from The Strength In Our Scars by Bianca Sparacino.

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  • Guest

    the lyrics aren't stupid, they're just self-indulgent. easy to relate to because they're emotional, but only jenny knows what they really mean.

    • Padface

      “but only jenny knows what they really mean”

      It's not like she's speaking in tongues.

      • EB

        Sometimes the best thing a songwriter (or writer) can do is simply create for themselves. When someone says “but only Jenny knows what they really mean” what they're saying is that only the creator knows the origins, their references. When you bring up examples like “and all those French films about trains” you're talking about something very specific that was put in the song for a very specific, maybe personal, reason. Maybe it doesn't relate to any bigger picture for listeners (and maybe it does), but it's significant to the person creating those lyrics – and that's why I like Jenny Lewis. Not because she speaks to me, or because I can relate – but mostly because she's a story teller. Her songs and the lyrics in them are very specific to the experience she is writing/singing about.

        I think this little piece has about as much impact and validity as a negative YouTube comment and really presents no clear argument or thesis about why the music is so bad. It's basically someone ranting their opinion and judging others for feeling differently. There is nothing factual about this. But I suppose we all need practice, right? So yes – I'm 27 years old – but clearly still such a teenager because I still like Jenny Lewis. I think the “grown ups” are the ones who need to do some growing up here.

    • God

      you're not making sense

    • Papillon

      I know plenty of people, myself included, and many very good songwriters included, who think she is one of the best songwriters of the 21st century.

      • TeamJenny

        Especially those of us who watched you bust free when you were 63.

  • http://twitter.com/stillgray Ian Miles Cheong

    You win.

  • http://www.thenextgreatgeneration.com Alex Pearlman

    Oh man… I used to love Jenny Lewis. I, too, saw Rilo Kiley a number of times as a teenager, and my bi-curiosity definitely started with a mad crush on her. But when Acid Tongue came out, I thought, 'wait… what?' my boyfriend is still drinking the kool-aid, but yeah. I'm over it. Great article.

  • John

    Holy smokes, I'm so glad to agree with this post. As soon as somone said she was “like Neko Case” and was very very clearly nothing like Neko Case, it was clear people were not quite paying attention…

  • http://pleasureiseasy.info math

    typo

  • Rhetoric Police

    I agree in general, and never really liked her whole schtick, but think your arguments are weak!

    The first quote is sarcastic and self-deprecating, like if people with a dog in a bar in Park Slope make fun of the people with babies in the same bar also in Park Slope. Also, Freedom.

    Re: difference between lyrical first-person and actual first-person, this could be brought up about basically anyone ever. I don't think Elvis had a lot of Jailhouse Rock under his belt, nor that the Stones had met a honky-tonk woman before they sang that song. Ditto Johnny Cash “totally faking it” that he's in Folsom Prison and can't get out, or every rapper ever.

    Third one. Bills change colors under some billing systems as you get into the 2nd, 3rd, etc. notice. Like they're printed on different color paper, or just have louder and angrier stamps stamped on them. Everything else in there is pretty clearly about a theoretical model of success for the well-read and well-traveled consumer which she is having a hard time living up to.

    So, I don't think any of your “wtf rite?”-type criticism works. I do think that the band's kindof musically melodramatic, and that her observations are often the same, but this reads like making fun of a novel for “not making sense” when you should just look up some of the words in a dictionary.

  • Ok

    You can pretty much make fun of any song's (or poetry's) lyrics for “trying to be deep” if you wanted to be a dick about it. I get what you're saying and it is always kind of embarrassing listening to most songs you used to listen to as a teenager, but ehhh. None of the examples you gave are necessarily anymore cringeworthy than most songs if you sat down and tried to “analyze” the lyrics, I think.

  • thatgirl

    One of Rilo Kiley's earliest songs, “The Frug,” actually holds up the best.

  • http://sayyes.tumblr.com sayyes

    Say what you will about her entire catalog, but “Portions For Foxes” (awful title) is still one of the best commentaries on FWB relationships EVER.

  • Ben Leach

    I saw her live and she said me and her had a red-head connection. But for the most part i agree. Some standouts though for sure, like “Better Son or Daughter” is great. Her shtick is pretty tired. If i want to listen to thrift store country music, i don't think Jenny Lewis is the most practical or rewarding choice.

  • God

    helluva lot better at music than zooey deschanel

  • kelly

    if you're not understanding pictures of success, you're still not an adult. the bills are changing colors because they're past due and late. learning world trade & mapping the ocean are about “adult” jobs she's not qualifed for. mexico can fucking wait and the french films about trains are referencing “adult” travels & interests she hasn't experienced/isn't into.

    the song is clearly about getting older but not “succeeding” — i.e. getting a job, getting a family, etc.

    pretty sure your analysis of that song negates any other possible valid point you might have here.

    • Guest

      regardless of the thought behind the lyrics, it's still a really poorly constructed/written song (in terms of the lyrics).

  • kelly

    ok, i just re-read this and even more annoyed. rabbit fur coat came out in 2006, not 2005. you must be a huge fan!

    second, you said you saw her solo act twice as a teenager. that means you were a teenager less than 5 years ago. that means you can't be older than 23/24. which means you've presumably been out of colleg (if you went to a four year school directly out of high school) for approxmiately 15 minutes. which means you, you talking about “adult” stuff makes me LOL forever.

    (i just clicked your profile. you are 24! is this your job?!?! LOL EVEN MORE!!! ok, not annoyed anymore. you're hilarious)

    • Rockandrollme2003

      jenny, is this you?

      • Vee

        Jenny, you're barely alive!

    • lol

      commenters are fucking crazy as hale

    • Angus Bordo

      #haterzgonhate

  • PERFECTCIRCLES

    This reminds me of when a site posts something about Israel-Palestine and all of a sudden people show up out of nowhere to insult/defend the author.

    That being said, I still like JL, who is responsible for far fewer deaths than either the IDF or the Palestinian resistance.

  • Mrich

    Ryan, this is your third article in which you mention your new found distaste for Rilo Kiley/ Jenny Lewis. At least you're finally explaining why you have it in for her. Just stop looking down on those who don't agree. Also maybe acknowledge what Jenny Lewis did for you back then. If art gives life meaning, when you were a teen, she gave a part of your life meaning. So thank her for it. Maybe she doesn't do it for you anymore but she does it for other teens looking for meaning.

    I still love you Ryan! Your writing gives my life meaning.

  • earlobe

    i realized not too long ago that JL has pretty shitty music. you're right, in that it is definitely part of growing up, ryan, but i won't lie. i do still occasionally appreciate the shittiness of it all. sometimes shitty music is the best music. and i'd rather listen to rilo kiley/jenny lewis shit than say justin beiber/miley cyrus shit… unless i am drunk of course and then i will pick miley cyrus over jenny lewis because i just wanna dance with miley and i just want to swallow pills with jenny.

  • AJ

    bahaa I can agree with a lot of this. BUT
    I absolutely love that line in “silver lining” where she's all
    “I never felt so wicked/ as when I willed our love to die.”

  • OMFGILOVECREED

    “Let’s get together and talk about the modern age.
    All of our friends were gathered there with their pets
    just talking shit about how we’re all so upset about the disappearing ground.
    As we watch it melt….”

    LOLZZZZZ at this article! I mean, it's not like these lyrics could mean anything to my life right? How about looking a little deeper and extracting a ballad about how people get together to talk about what's going on in the news, like global warming, and don't do shit about it/ let republicans obliterate it into nonexistence.

    Oh wait, that's too intelligent.

    • rick schitiltiz

      political music sucks though so ryans right

  • bullshit.

    don't let all them haters get you down, ryan.

    even though this piece seems contrived with little validity and really anyone can do this superficial analysis on any songwriter that ever wrote any song ever, all of your failures are training grounds, right?

    keep on trekkin'

    • Angus Bordo

      i agree with this commenter, bonus points for the rilo reference in the last lin

  • Heather

    I recently had this same revelation and deleted my 100+ Jenny Lewis related songs from itunes. I guess this officially means I'm an adult even thought I'm only seventeen.

  • http://phmadore.com P. H. Madore

    If you don't like “Carpetbaggers,” you're probably Canadian.

  • Ashley Gray

    “Girls wanted to raid her closet and boys wanted to see what was underneath those short shorts and peasant tops.”

    SO heteronormative, ryan o'connell!

    and yeah, her music does suck these days, probably cos she doesn't give a fuck and just wants to play fun rock music with her hot boyfriend and live in her mansion in laurel canyon. can't really blame her. also i'm pretty sure there are worse things to listen to than rilo kiley when you're an angsty teen

  • Chris Murphy

    What of the music, the track? No music-making artist could withstand scrutiny of cherry-picking lyrics. It's pointless. I enjoy her short-shorts, but they are not relevant to me in measuring her value as an artist. I don’t hold her past or her personal life against her. Her voice and her ability to shape tracks in the studio are impressive to me. Looking for literal and universal meaning in every lyric is a dull exercise. See Mike Love causing the collapse of the SMiLE project in 1967.

    I am not going to grow out of Jenny’s music. But you've got to try to make a name for yourself. Plenty of suitable targets out there. Sounds like she personally offended you in some way.

    • TeamJenny

      I knew you were my favorite, Chris. #teamjenny

  • Hmmm

    the thing is, I tend to agree with everything you're saying here. but at the same time, all the things you're calling out jenny lewis for as a songwriter are exactly the same unrealistic and maybe even worn-out tropes that you use over and over as a writer. yes, she writes from that semi-ridiculous dreamy faux-romantic perspective that is so moving to people who don't know what the fuck life is really about, but so do you. if your greatest concern in life is whether or not to take a klonopin before you pass out in front of 90210, that's not real life either. that's not an adult perspective any more than arbitrarily sitting with pets or being emotionally overwhelmed by french films is.

    all that said, that's why I love both of you. her songs, her over-exaggerated portrayals of this faux-counry painfully indie laurel canyon pain and suffering allow me to willfully suspend for reality for a second. and by the same token when I read something you write, I love to pretend that skinny girl margaritas taste like making out with boys to best coast. I love pretending I can live in that world. I love pretending that that world is real. but call a spade a spade.

    • Padface

      One major difference though. Jenny seemingly isn't aware of her exaggeration, or is being disingenuous. The spirit in which she writes her songs is intrinsically different to that which is behind this author's articles.

      Personally I could care less. I liked Silver Lining but am not fussed about her music, but that's perhaps because it was only in my 20s that I “discovered” her. Just as well too, the last thing my fucked up teenage shit needed was a soundtrack.

  • NoahTourjee

    Who the fuck cares about Jenny Lewis, lets talk about Conor Oberst please.

    • chchch

      saw bright eyes in my hometown last weekend — been a fan for 7-8 years, followed everything he's done, and was SO let down. he's outgrown his lyrics, his voice, his image…and the backing band was just brutal. the end of an era for meeeee.

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