“The voyager is in every boy and girl, / if you want to get to heaven / get out of this world.”
On July 29th, Jenny Lewis released her first solo effort, The Voyager, since the sensual alt-country album Acid Tongue of 2008.
I expect a lot from Jenny Lewis. I expected sci-fi to blast us off and let us escape, I expected sex to ground us, I expected sliding guitars to remind us of where we come from.
Yet, squarely in the middle of the album, she croons, “Forgive me my candor.”
The Voyager probes, sent on their mission in 1977, are the furthest that human-made objects have ever been from planet Earth. They famously contain a disc, a Golden Record each, an audio-visual capsule of life on our planet. These records are at once extraordinary and accessible: they contain greetings, mathematics, measurements, silhouettes, and songs. Yet, in order for their beauty to be unpacked, they must be tapped into by an intelligent life form.
I’m saying Jenny Lewis expects a lot from us in turn.
These expectations are not intellectual—rather, the songs of The Voyager are universal and expressive. They sound catchy, cute, and playful. She has released a certifiable summer bop.
However, the hardships she sings of on this album are hidden beneath a slightly challenging campiness.
This is why I’ve had to reframe my sky-high expectations for this record: what I’ve always loved about her is her raw honesty. This twiggy redhead singing brutal confessions about sex and betrayal and growing up all tied up in a bow, vocals all fried up through the speaker. Her journey has been excruciatingly personal. As a former child actress, as an artist, now as her own woman, Jenny’s whole personal life has been public, played with, profited from.
So, I forgive the candor, I can embrace the campy. I understand the need to pose.
This album was long and painful for her to make. Following the death of her father, the dissolution of her band Rilo Kiley, and getting crushed by insomnia, I want Jenny to keep some of her pieces. It hurts to see your secrets blast off on a golden disc to be interpreted by alien life forms (because we are all really alien life forms to each other sometimes). It takes a part of you.
If the Voyager probes were sent off into space with the intention of elucidating Earth and its many voices, The Voyager was released for the voices of women. I think she’s taking a part of us.
Yes, pop feminism stole gender, and advertising stole girl power. But this is a woman with a reputation for realness, amplified by accessing other realities.
Susan Sontag famously wrote in Notes on “Camp” that the theatrics of campiness can still be taken seriously, as the sensibility in play is that very “relish for the exaggeration…” that hints at the heart of the matter but becomes larger than life. Pose as us, for us, and camp it up in that pantsuit, girl.
“It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; it’s not a woman, but a ‘woman,’” mused Sontag.
Those quotation marks around “woman” are campy post-feminist play, but they can connote speech, as well.
Jenny Lewis has gotten cozier to campiness and country as her career has gone on. From her winking and mugging in the “Rise Up With Fists!!” music video, to the sex kitten allegories in Under the Blacklight, she’s told other stories and featured other voices along with her own—that’s nothing new.
But the “Just One of the Guys” single and music video stirred the pot like nobody’s business.
“No matter how hard I try / to be just one of the guys, / there’s a little something inside that won’t let me.”
To speak of camp again on this most obvious example of it, Susan Sontag called it “… a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous—these are grave matters.”
I just said that pop feminism killed gender, and it’s killing feminist discourse about body image right now through the rhetoric and ploys we hear ad nauseum. But here’s a little single that toes the line.
This song is about at once embodying womanhood and running away from it. About that voice that says “I’m a woman,” though that statement doesn’t feel true, while it is.
To show this, Jenny Lewis, Anne Hathaway, Kirsten Stewart, and Brie Larson dress in hyperbolic drag and pout while lip-syncing. By the way, shout-out to Kirsten Stewart for being a shining star of campiness and looking more fabulous in drag than in her regular feminine presentation. Swoon!
Being a woman right now is all about contrarieties, especially if you’re the type who thinks too much about these things—am I fat, thin, dependent, happy, pretty-from-a-certain-angle, a mother, a sweetheart, a tease? It’s about uniting all of those warring forces inside one person in the face of all the expectations society has for “woman.”
One of those huge expectations is that of motherhood. Although the childless population has grown and continues to grow, many women still have to fight for birth control, and furthermore, fight against the idea that having children is just part of the journey.
“When I look at myself, all I can see / is I’m just another lady without a baby.”
After saying these words, the campy androgyne Anne Hathaway sheds a tear. But the very real Jenny Lewis, so power-femme in her rainbow blazer and circus lipstick, dances.
I called the forces of gender “warring” just now, but to use another militaristic term, what if in that attitude lies the strategy? Play to find peace.
In this way, “Just One of the Guys” has that serious, highly-relevant sensibility along with the summer single sensibility which, united, make it a true song of the moment.
My favorite standout tracks on the record include “Late Bloomer,” “Slippery Slopes,” “Love U Forever,” and “The Voyager.”
“Late Bloomer” is worth it for the growly, partially-submerged-in-water voice Lewis uses in the chorus alone. It explores the concept of “girl crushes,” and the wish for solidarity in a sister. It can be hard to tell the difference sometimes.
Moreover, sex is complex, open to exploitation, subject to confusion. The narrator of the song comes of age between a man and a woman, stuck in a taboo sexual act with her own sexuality that she doesn’t yet understand. Confused, and still feeling like a lovesick girl in over her head, therein lies the title.
“Love U Forever” will make you want to grab your girl squad and dance in the living room. The narrator gushes, “I can’t believe I’m getting married in May.” What she really wants before caving to tradition is to spend time with other women, and it’s left ambiguous whether the foreverlove is saved for the man she’s marrying or the girlfriends she’ll value until all “our hair turns grey.”
I’m over songs about love lost, love found, and I’m over how hard it is to find a song about lovin’ the crew that isn’t in hip-hop or already sung by a girl group. Ten Moira points.
“The Voyager” wraps up the album with the allegory. It’s a gorgeous, echo-heavy, low-tempo song. The real Voyager is far out, it’s simple, yet it’s on a mission. While nothing on this album particularly is out there, it’s accessible to all, taking the complicated and making it campy.
“You’re the voyager. / The voyager’s in every boy and girl.”
If you expect to be up in space with the voyager’s voice, it’s not always going to happen on this album, because these emotions come from everywhere. If you expect depth and complexity that cuts you and only you here, you need to remember that little Golden Record out in space that has a bit for everyone and a piece of everyone.
Most of all, though, you need to roll your windows down and sing along this summer. Sometimes, you might be soaring along with her. Sometimes, those campy quotation marks around “woman,” around “me,” might be for your voice.
Sometimes, as Carl Sagan said of the Voyagers, you might just be far away, seeing something new, something simple and beautiful, appreciating the pale blue dot.