Light Me Up should have arrived on store shelves and download sites with two warning labels. The first should have been the music industry’s standard “parental advisory” label. The second should have let fans of Gossip Girl know that the album has absolutely nothing to do with the show.
Fronted by platinum blond teenager Taylor Momsen—best known for her role as Jenny Humphrey on Gossip Girl—The Pretty Reckless dives into material that would shock even the jaded, morally vacuous teens and twentysomethings who inhabit CW’s drama. Because even by that randy-to-raunchy TV show’s loose standards, Momsen’s mascara-smeared musical exploits with The Pretty Reckless aren’t pretty reckless, they’re a whole lotta reckless.
Liberally appropriating the taboo-shredding attitudes of Runaways-era Joan Jett, early Alanis Morissette and the always-controversial Courtney Love, this tired-beyond-her-years teen growls with the world-weary soul of a vampire who’s tasted everything life has to offer … and is left with a soul hollowed out by decades of drugs, abuse and sexual indulgence.
The title track hints at recognition that a relationship is abusive (“Do you think it’s right/When you hit me to the ground?”). Several songs involving sex, drugs and alcohol include moments where Taylor seems partially aware of how empty those choices have left her. On “Just Tonight,” she admits, “Here I am/And I can’t seem to see straight/But I’m too numb to feel right now.” “Miss Nothing” records the outcome of similarly soul-sapping excesses: “I don’t know where I’ve been/And I don’t know what I’m into/And I don’t know what I’ve done to me.”
“Since You’re Gone” says that life’s been better since a breakup with a lying, cheating, stealing boyfriend. “Nothing Left to Lose” expresses a desire to be known (“I want you to know me”).
“My Medicine” is a drug-dazed fever dream. “Somebody mixed my medicine/I don’t know what I’m on,” Taylor sings. Smoking and (probably) cocaine turn up on “Light Me Up”: “Do you have a light?/Can you make me feel alright?/There’s plenty of white to go around.” “Just Tonight” admits, “Can’t think from all of the pills,” so the singer invites her inebriated partner (“You’re too drunk to hear a word I say”) to “Start the car and take me home,” where, it seems, they’ll share a one-night stand (“Just tonight I will stay, and we’ll throw it all away”).
A gothic, Twilight-esque vampire vibe haunts “Make Me Wanna Die,” which proffers the lyrics, “Taste me, drink my soul/Show me all the things that I shouldn’t know/ … I could belong to the night/ … Everything you love will all burn up in the light.” Taylor repeatedly sings, “You make me wanna die,” a disturbing line that is no less problematic if we interpret the song as a young woman’s wish to become like the vampire she loves. Similarly, she dramatically inhabits the body of a 2,000-year-old undead girl on the nihilistic and hopeless “Zombie” (“I am wandering right through existence/With no purpose and no drive, ‘cuz in the end we’re all a lie/ … Dear all of you who have wronged me/I am a zombie/ … I’m dead/I’m dead”).
“Miss Nothing” drips with self-contempt and careless disregard for everyone else, too (“I’m Miss Autonomy, Miss Nowhere/I’m at the bottom/Miss Androgyny, Miss Don’t Care/What I’ve done to me”). I’ll note that this song’s lyrics are curiously absent from the album’s liner notes, replaced with “Censored,” allegedly because Taylor mispronounces misconstrued in a way that evokes the obscene c-word.
“Goin’ Down” is about a 16-year-old who confesses to a priest that she’s killed her boyfriend and mutilated his genitals (“Next day on the television they identified him by the circumcision that I made”) after catching him in bed with someone else. She then strips in the confessional and propositions the priest.
“Nothing Left to Lose” finds a 19-year-old reminiscing about the great sex she had with a 29-year-old beau who left her. Now she says she’s “lost between Elvis and suicide.” “Factory Girl” glorifies a Los Angeles prostitute’s backseat business. On it, a John tells her, “Wait a minute girl/Can you show me to the party?/Just let me in through the back door,” and a double entendre alludes to an orgasm.
The title track dismisses critics. “Does what I’m wearing seem to shock you?” she asks. “Well, that’s OK.” Regarding the suggestion that she should jettison dangerous habits, she says, “I don’t think I can be anything other than me.”
“After Jesus and rock ‘n’ roll/Couldn’t save my immoral soul/Well, I’ve got nothing left to lose,” Miss Momsen brags on “Nothing Left to Lose.” And that “confession” succinctly encapsulates this astonishingly hardened 17-year-old’s musical message.
Taylor’s breezily detached depiction of debauchery (with an assist from the liner notes which picture her in fishnets and lingerie) feels like the desperate work of a insecure girl who’s gunning for the title of “Nastiest Teen Star Ever!” What’s more troubling, though, than that kind of vamping is her suggestion that her songs (which she co-wrote) correlate with her real-life experiences. “The hardest part about writing is writing honestly, and I think that’s the most important thing—to make an honest record,” she said in an interview with thefrisky.com. “It really takes a lot of looking at yourself, and it’s not the easiest thing to do, but to say something true you have to be honest with yourself.”
Given such unexpurgated “honesty,” then, it’s probably best to take Taylor seriously when says, “I wouldn’t recommend 8-year-olds to buy the record. … I wouldn’t recommend young people to listen to it, [and] I wouldn’t recommend a Disney audience to listen to it.”
Did I mention she’s 17?
After serving as an associate editor at NavPress’ Discipleship Journal and consulting editor for Current Thoughts and Trends, Adam now oversees the editing and publishing of Plugged In’s reviews.