By Steve Weinstein
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It seems so long ago—certainly more than 52 weeks—since we were all a fluster at the audacity of Lana Del Rey. Her crimes, it seemed, were legion and very, very serious—far beyond whether her music was good. She was not good on Saturday Night Live. Her lips, perhaps, had collagen in them. A few years ago, she was playing A&R showcases with hired guns in an ugly blouse, and now she was all over Pitchfork like she was a real-deal indie ingénue, but it turned out she already had a deal with Interscope. Her name was not actually Lana Del Rey, and unlike any artist in the history of ever, she went to private school.
As we bust Hey Kool-Aid–style into the new year with a clean slate and hindsight, it seems fair enough to chalk up our lil' Lana freak-out as part of the continuing and long-standing issue with female ambition and the idea that image consciousness is somehow antithetical to making true art, an insult against rock's visceral heart. It's a problem we tend to have with girls and women more than with the boys (word to Jack White's continuing Campaign 4 Rock 'n' Pop Realness). This past year proved there is a special sort of animus reserved for women—Lana Del Rey, Taylor Swift, and Grimes's Claire Boucher—whose ambitions seemed especially naked and, if you will, feminine.
So it is only natural that young female artists engage us and communicate with their image(s) as much as they do with their music. Image is perhaps an even more effective vehicle for their expression than songs. No girl escapes teenhood without a keen awareness of exactly how the world sees her, what it expects of her; she knows the weight of the world's desire down to the ounce. Young women's arduous fandom of an act is often seen as the very proof of their music's artlessness, so rapt are girls with image that it supersedes any sort of real relationship with the music. And even though Swift and Boucher placed high in this Pazz & Jop—Lana less so (Born to Die, #54 album)—the critique with all three has frequently fallen to the seeming purposefulness of their artifice: their awareness of it; their dutiful maintenance of it.
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We took Del Rey's ambitions personally, as if she was preying upon us, marking us as hornball simps so seduced by her porny licking of her fake/not-fake lips that we'd buy in on whatever she was selling. The offense being? That we'd fall for something so constructed? Or was it the fact of the construction itself?
In the case of Grimes, Boucher's great trespass was mutability. It implied that Visions was not art, but just a parcel to her extended play of dress-up. Through her videos and stage wear, she flirted with Gothic Lolita, manga-fied superheroine, neon-clad Sea Punk. Regardless of what that tells us about Boucher, it reads as immaturity, typical teenage-girl phases rather than a rapid artistic evolution. She doesn't really know who she is; she's merely flitting through whatever strikes her fancy. She is not serious about music. Her playful experimentation was written off as "human meme" (Stereogum) and, most derisively, "a human Pinterest board" (the Onion A.V. Club) for adopting ideas as they inspired her. Perhaps if she stopped dyeing her hair and ditched the MPC for an acoustic and some Bon Iver–grade earnestness, she could be taken seriously.
Part of what made Boucher's work so exciting this year was her zealous courtship of the zeitgeist, the irreverence of her ambition, that her cultural reference points were young and female. She's an autodidactic indie artist who reveres the plasticine qualities of Mariah Carey as her greatest influence. Subversion of manga imagery and lost-in-the-mix baby-voiced cooing are far from overt riot-girl raging that we use to commonly identify/verify feminist messaging in music.
Boucher's merchandising of pussy rings is more overt, though some still write it off as a ploy for attention.
Boucher had the temerity to manufacture merch that wasn't a T-shirt, something that asserted some shade of feminist expression, a rebuttal to the cock-'n'-balls scrawl on every dressing room wall, which is what she claimed. How is a plastic rendering of a vulva so utterly escandalo in the Internet age of 2012? (The gender divide on the pussy-ring reporting is stark and telling of just how and who Grimes connects with.) While Boucher can be faulted for some things—is that a rain stick sample on "Know the Way"?—would she really be a better, more credible artist if she showed less ambition?
Swift, who is only a little younger than Boucher and Del Rey, and seems infinitely more fixed in what she presents, appeared to have a year of evolution for her image, as well. On Red, Swift deflects power with a kind of guilelessness. Love is something that she falls victim to; men are fundamentally the bad actors. She is amid a careful transition from pop's Virgin Queen into an age where it's less of a big deal to sing songs that imply that she has maybe had adult relations or a sleepover or two. Swift is a multimillion-dollar industry unto herself—she cannot simply pull a Miley. Throughout Red, she is frequently seduced, victimized, or unable to steel herself against her own desires. It is a curious thing to watch one of the most powerful cultural forces so carefully abdicate her own might.
Swift's mastery of her own feckless image is as finely honed a piece of work as any of Red's half-dozen singles; it engages so many of the common expectations of girlhood that it presents us with an impossibly perfected persona. Those controlled iterations of Swift are subject to constant remix due to her celebrity status, where her songs conflate with the tabloid fare of her life and create a grander narrative work. Be they peer, cad, or Kennedy, each new Swift boyfriend presents or disproves some song theorem of Red. The latest heavily circulated pap shot, which, this week, is Swift exiting a tropical isle, alone, via small craft, reads as forlorn from a distance of a pixely 30 yards—adding chiaroscuro to "Sad Beautiful Tragic." Swift's got a Joni problem now: The interest in whom she's seeing and speculation over which song is about which dude now obfuscates the merits of her work (though it is hard to suggest any human force could blunt the thundering Max Martin'd chorus of "Trouble," but alas).
To be galled by these three women's advances upon their audiences is to play the Pollyanna about how and why music is sold and produced, how any product gets across the transom to us. In their manipulations and fluid manifestations of their images, they show incredible deftness—a cultural prescience that speaks to their ambition and interest in being understood. All this girlish guile makes their art no less pure.