Music Features

My Teenage Dream Ended: A Reconsideration

The Internet age doesn't really allow for much outsider music. It might have something to do with how musicians have to be savvier self-promoters in order to achieve an audience, but also there's a huge difference in the way music is received. YouTube clips are so ephemeral that "bad" music will be dismissed as a throwaway joke - rarely do real curios of "bad"ness come along any more, and indeed, Farrah Abraham's bizarre attempts at music making were almost completely overlooked. My Teenage Dream Ended was received, initially, with universal derision, but has since been reconsidered, and appeared on end of year lists by The Guardian and Tiny Mix Tapes as a significant example of outsider art.

I had no idea who Farrah Abraham was until I listened to it, but it turns out she appeared on reality TV (Teen Mom, a 16 And Pregnant spin-off) and has 700,000 Twitter followers, yet no individual Wikipedia entry even though she reportedly has her own spin-off series due out next year. This year she wrote an autobiography which reached #11 on the New York Times bestsellers, and released this album of the same name which accompanies it, all at the age of 21. I’m not sure how the album got made, but it seems to be completely self-produced – in her own words, Abraham “just was playing around with music and people took it WAY too serious.” It draws on chart pop, popular dubstep, and heavy autotune. It has almost no melodies, no real sense of structure or subtlety, and nonsensical, rushed and unedited lyrics. At the time of writing, it has 46 reviews on Amazon – 42 1-star reviews, three ironic 5-star reviews, and one sincere 4-star review. I want to argue that the reason that there’s been such a negative reaction is because people were expecting something inoffensive and standardised, but instead got something wildly emotional, something extremely aesthetically effective – and that’s why it’s become an object of ridicule.

As with most outsider art, listening to this record is a deeply uncomfortable experience, but it’s one which I found myself repeating compulsively. I feel like my intellectualisation of this music is in some way offensive, like I’m sneering at Abraham’s too-public, unstable personal life; indeed, certain reviewers seem to have attached discomforting intellectual signification to it, comparing her to people such as David Lynch, Laurie Anderson, and David Cronenberg. But it’s not necessary to pretend that she’s accidentally created something that goes beyond the Livejournal-entry-as-album that we have here. On the other hand, my fascination with it isn’t like Wesley Willis or Rebecca Black-type “so bad it’s good” irony (even though my first response was, “This is so BAD!”). I listened to it over and over because, like The Shaggs, Abraham appropriates the music she enjoys with an utter lack of knowledge of the rules, but with so much feeling behind it that you can’t help but empathise profoundly with her. Not only that, but whether by accident or on purpose, her haphazard autotune non-melodies actually fit the lyrics perfectly – so when she sings something as vacuous as, “My hopes have dropped / My sadness flares / My anger is my power / My heart just stares” (On My Own, not too far from commercial hit ballad level lyrics), you’re completely on board with this sense of postmodern alienation, which Abraham conveys so convincingly.

She spends the whole album going for tell-not-show pure self-expression, but it’s like she’s unable to do this properly, leaning on references to Adele and Soulja Boy (and saying very little through them) or expressing her shock at her boyfriend’s lies by saying, “I stood there, your pants on fire” (Liar Liar). I’m not sure I want to admit this, but in some tangential way, I really relate to her, just because she finds self-expression so difficult yet so important; she speaks like a Mark Ravenhill character – but whereas Ravenhill can sometimes seem heavy-handed in his portrayal of disaffect, it’s difficult to dissociate Abraham from the persona in her songs. This is the real thing, the realest thing I heard in 2012, completely blind to listener response. My favourite track (With Out This Ring…) is the one where she opens up most convincingly, in all her self-contradictions and expressive failures – “Is this really what love is like?” she asks, overwhelmed. “I don’t want to make mistakes / I still need to make more mistakes” is the couplet which makes me wonder if she might be in control of her aesthetic approach after all. And having read about the death of her daughter’s father, I recognise how tragic Abraham’s life has been – which makes hearing the closing track’s self-affirmation, vague and fragmented though it is, genuinely moving.

It’s the postmodern album that I didn’t realise I wanted to be made, something that fractures and distorts the seamless, standardised conventions of mainstream pop, re-instilling emotion in the genre by emphasising its failures. But even if I had realised I wanted it to be made, I’d have expected it from a detached perspective (experimental pop labels like Hippos In Tanks and Not Not Fun probably have this on heavy circulation), not someone on the inside, acutely aware of the harrowing consequences of pop culture exposure – and that solid link between form and content is what makes the album so astonishing.