Ole mate and ground-breaking 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant is famous for a number of things: his mind-warping yet teeth-grindingly dull theses; his bizarre bedtime habits; and for being one of a litany of obscure thinkers that your art school boyfriend kept name-dropping at parties after one too many craft beers.
Yet above all else, Kant is perhaps most famous for developing the concept of the sublime, that complex emotion that gets stirred up in us when we are faced with sights of incredible magnitude, devastation or scale. You know the feeling – it’s that weird mix of heart-in-throat fear and unfettered amazement; the eerie joy we got from watching a wire-walker, for example, or while staring slack-jawed at a video of a tidal wave.
When I listen to My Teenage Dream Ended, the feeling that comes over me is not the waves of nausea and disgust that racked so many other music critics.
But Kant didn’t just work to demarcate the sublime; he sought to understand it. And ultimately, for Kant, the feeling of the sublime is so dizzyingly addictive largely because it provides a way for humans to marvel at our own powers of reason. We can gaze at a Turner painting of a ship being tossed about in a storm and be at once terrified of the unfathomable whims of nature, and yet also strangely comforted that our rational, logical minds have the capacity to render destructive forces; that the might and majesty of nature can be transformed into oily brushtrokes that we can gaze upon while wasting a few spare hours in an art gallery.
So yeah, the sublime is an admission of our own mortality for Kant, but it’s also an appreciation of the fact we can do things that no other mortal animal can; that we can render, and understand, and process, and think.
Which is all a way of saying that when I listen to one time reality TV star Farrah Abraham’s debut pop album My Teenage Dream Ended, released alongside a tie-in novel of the same name, the feeling that comes over me is not the waves of nausea and disgust that racked so many other music critics, or the complete apathy exhibited by the American public at large. When I listen to one time reality TV star Farrah Abraham’s debut pop album My Teenage Dream Ended, I am filled at once with feelings that I can only describe as sublime.
“I Can Only Put So Much In A Song”
Critics like to talk endlessly about the albums that have defined prior generations – those pivot points on which musical history turns. But really, whenever they start disseminating the ineffable power of Patti Smith’s Horses, or The Who’s Tommy, it doesn’t take long to realise that what they’re really talking about is market value.
My Teenage Dream Ended is not as much a pop album as it is a parody of one.
See, for so many American critics, a defining album is one that : A) sells extraordinarily well, and B) fits their narrow, often obligatory definitions of “great”. That, after all, is why you can’t move but for bumping into thinkpieces about the enduring impact of Nevermind, or even The Velvet Underground And Nico, which only became a worthy contender for the moniker of “timeless” after it had recuperated from its initially poor sales and became the record to buy for mopey teenagers the world over.
It would be illogical for many of these critics to consider that a genuinely timeless, genuinely revolutionary record might be one that sells poorly, or barely sells at all. But why? It is just as easy to trace the anxieties and pressures of a generation in a record that has all the commercial impact of a fart in a bath tub as it is in a record that propels its creator into superstardom. In fact, in some ways, it is easier to see such fault lines in a stranger, more indelicate record; in those albums that try and fail to ape the confines of pop culture, and reveal something more honest along the way.
Which leads us, again, to one time reality TV star Farrah Abraham’s debut pop album My Teenage Dream Ended. Because My Teenage Dream Ended is not as much a pop album as it is a parody of one. It is the skeleton of 60 years of pop experimentation and chart sales onto which a loose, baggy skin has been hung; a blueprint for success that has been shakily traced over in crayon.
Farrah is American pop culture’s Jay Gatsby, always holding parties and spending money.
Of course that’s partly because, for Abraham, the album was more a career stepping stone than the product of years of artistic desire – one more bullet point ticked off in an itemised checklist of the hallmarks of American success. Which, in turn, fits Abraham’s career as a whole: her life in the public eye has been one long string of carefully carbon copied career turning points, slowly worked through which an efficiency that is both admirable and faintly distressing.
She did the reality TV stint; then she sold the merch; then she released the sex tape; then she dropped the album. She is American pop culture’s Jay Gatsby, always holding parties and spending money and chasing, always chasing, the green light that glimmers on a shore she forever finds herself on the opposite side of.
Indeed, that selfsame longing is the key to My Teenage Dream Ended. The record is a means to an end; an attempt to gain success by releasing an album about success, not to mention a desperate plea for attention auto-tuned to the point of pitched perfection. For Abraham, the record wasn’t some way of satisfying some years long creative itch, or about communicating her soul to the world, or any of those trite reasons that artists dole out for making their art when they are pressed on an album’s publicity tour. My Teenage Dream Ended was reverse engineered. It was as conniving and as calculated as a presidential campaign run.
And in its bare-faced honesty – in its sheer, uncomplicated grasping – it has a genius all of its own.
The Sound Of Her Voice
Farrah Abraham can’t really sing in the typical way that we use that word, so for much of My Teenage Dream Ended, she doesn’t. The album opens with a snatch of spoken word, her voice buried under layers of autotune, and it ends with one too, as Abraham spits out a line she has seemingly lost the energy to sing.
Not that everything inbetween those two bookends is significantly more melodic. Abraham’s voice is a cross between a helium squeak and the sound adolescents think grown-ups make when having sex, and it fluctuates between the perverse and the pained through Teenage Dream. That’s partly, one assumes, because Abraham is singularly lacking in confidence as a singer: there are times on the record, most pertinently the song ‘On My Own’, when one could swear they heard the cocking of the gun pointed at Abraham’s head.
Abraham’s voice is a cross between a helium squeak and the sound adolescents think grown-ups make when having sex
Of course, the irony of the record – not to mention Abraham’s career – is that she is the one holding the gun. Abraham is the archetypal self-made woman, except she is yet to be made. She is all ambition and no pay-off; a pure serving of the slobbering desire that underpins everything Americans really talk about when they talk about success. She is going at it alone; fighting the grim odds laid out in songs like ‘Unplanned Parenthood’ and ‘Caught In The Act’ with nothing but her own sense of resolve to help her.
For the record, that’s Teenage Dream’s other defining characteristic; an aching, seemingly insurmountable sense of isolation. All those echoey, reverb-heavy vocal effects plastered over Abraham’s voice make her sound trapped in the least metaphorical way that word can be used, as though she is singing from the confines of a safe in which she has locked herself for all eternity. “We’re fighting, we’re fighting now,” she sings on ‘Liar Liar’, her voice a million miles away. She could be the very last person on the earth.
And in some of the bitchier lyrics, she claims that she is. Abraham has had a number of publicised spats in the media, many of them with her mother, and these are referenced with a wearied sense of predictability across Teenage Dream. Abraham has been abandoned, she assures us, and the only way she can reclaim any sense of identity is by being mean about those who have done her wrong, adding a thin layer of vengeance over the record’s polished, plastic sheen.
The instrumentation is about as warm. Songs turn on thin, wasted ‘drops’ – moments where the writhing mass of electro parts find some sense of communion and all build to the same instant of catharsis. It’s house music as produced by someone who has spent a lifetime reading about house music without never once having heard it; club bangers reduced to an intellectual exercise, or a game.
Which makes it sound maybe like Teenage Dream is “bad”, or the kind of record that can only be enjoyed ironically. But that is most stridently not the case. Like other anti-art oddities such as Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or The Shaggs’ Philosophy Of The World, Teenage Dream shatters such binary modes of looking at art.
Teenage Dream is not terrible, although there are many people who had that first, instinctual reaction to it. Nor is it a masterpiece, although certainly amongst contrarians there was the impulse to call it that too. Instead, it is this kind of miscreant combination of both of those things – an at times cringeworthy, at times inspired piece of art that feels flung out of space, or dug up from deep beneath the ground.
“Finally Getting Up From Rock Bottom”
Because Teenage Dream is an insular, self-contained record – a serpent eating its own tail – the record’s success is meant to be its own happy ending. The concluding track, ‘Finally Getting Up From Rock Bottom’, is Abraham’s acknowledgement of personal potential; a song about the great strength she has exhibited while crawling out of the self-made controversy she generated with her James Deen co-starring sex tape, not to mention the great success of the self-made album the listener has just spent a little under half an hour making their way through.
Of course, that the album was not a success, and was generally chided by the critical establishment, only reinforces much of what the album is really about – which is sadness, and isolation, and the unashamed aping of achievement. That last, spat out line (“dig yourself out!”) is a carefully planned victorious, hot-blooded rallying cry that is not victorious, nor hot-blooded, nor even really a cry. It is an acknowledgement of a triumph that does not exist; decades of late capitalistic greed and ethical quandaries reduced to a cliché half-sung by a reality TV star.
Teenage Dream is the true defining record of our generation
Which is the perfect way for the album to end, really. Abraham has learnt from other pop stars that you end your record with self-congratulation, so that’s what she does, and that she has nothing really concrete to congratulate herself for seems to be far, far from the point.
And in that way as in so many others, Teenage Dream is an American pop album stripped off the true meaning of that word “pop” – a pop album that is not popular, and the endpoint of that great, hulking, ominous thing we call the American success story.
That is why Teenage Dream is the true defining record of our generation – the true expression of what decades of late capitalism, and VH1 Behind The Music segments, and the myth of American economic and ideological superiority have been leading up to. It is Jay-Z’s The Blueprint without the hustle; Bret Easton Ellis’ American Psycho without the self-awareness.
It is the creaking, endlessly whirring machine that drives all American culture and politics laid bare, revealed in the work of a young, middle-class American playing success the way her young daughter plays dress-ups. And that is why it is a work of the sublime in the purest sense – a gilded, chintz-draped monolith in the face of which one can do nothing but sit, slack-jawed agape, and marvel.