What is outsider art outside of? Farrah Abraham’s My Teenage Dream Ended lays bare this question in making manifest the fact that, in the postmodern era, there is no outside. We are all trapped in socio-political systems that resist the possibility of imagining an alternative, but we’re also trapped with our Selves and, worse, doomed to reflect perpetually upon our own Self, the secular reincarnation of the soul. But as we grasp for this Self, it fractures, proves itself unstable, unsatisfactory, made up of fragments of self-help cliché and half-remembered earworms. And as we seek to merge the evanescence of mandated “flexibility” and “innovation” with the coalescence demanded by “actualization” and “validation,” we have no place to rest, existing in a state of perpetual anxiety. All that is solid melts into air, but we are now chasing the evaporated phantoms themselves.
In other words, MTDE is the sound of a postmodern nervous breakdown. In being so, paradoxically, it creates its own weird authenticity. Sonically, we encounter the fresh, shard-like ruins of contemporary dance-pop, each beat or fragment teasing but failing to resolve into regularity. Over this, Abraham intones in a voice masked by Auto-Tune so consistently and heavily applied that it speaks to the alienation of the recorded voice — the impossible struggle to hear oneself truly, and the typical recoil — as well as the fact that emotions recorded can never be commensurate with phenomenological experience, particularly given that all language available for such expression is now stereotype.
Is it absurd to take a piece like this seriously? Not in the opinion of much of the indie music world (to the howls of an outraged crowd who think the term “music” is itself a positive value judgement). If you didn’t know, Abraham herself came to prominence as a participant on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and, subsequently, Teen Mom. Critics might bewail MTDE as evidence of the tastelessness with which celebrity culture — more precisely and tellingly, “reality as a genre” — elevates figures like Abraham: “the sleep of reason produces monsters” (as modernity would have it). One wonders whether the cultural gatekeepers, if that role even exists, should feed these trends, whether that in itself is a political and artistic abdication. Are we celebrating ignorance in the desire to appear culturally relevant or, worse, considering as a purpose in itself the game of finding highbrow in lowbrow, an all too common and regrettable depoliticization of the original impetus of Cultural Studies?
One way the above critique can be incorporated into an appreciation of MTDE is to read it as that classic internet saw, “so bad it’s good… and can be loved ironically,” along the lines of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” (which has become the standard critical point of reference) or as an example of unselfconscious camp. But these readings don’t do justice to the seriousness with which we can take the piece. Musically, this is not “cheesy pop,” but cheesy pop taken apart and stitched back together à la Frankenstein’s creation, with the same horrific-tragic outcome.
On the one hand, Abraham is a typical reality subject, in the nature of her concerns and the unbounded spillage with which they make their way into the public domain. The album is an accompaniment to her autobiographical book of the same name (reader, your humble scribe’s dedication did not extend to reading the volume in question). But there’s something here too about trauma and the response to trauma — the tragic death of Derek Underwood, the father of Abraham’s child. The empathy that should be forthcoming for such a situation has often been lost in responses to the album and to Abraham’s persona. The suffering represented on MTDE is not the queasy interpretation of abuse or self-destructiveness as “edginess” familiar since the Romantics. It is, however, written into the music not only lyrically, but in terms of form.
As well as this, though, MTDE is a reflection and magnification of the typical issues of the teen Self (love, sex, parents, partying, drugs). In this aspect of the album, we see that the interesting thing about celebrity culture is not its individual content as such, but precisely the way in which celebrity writes large the now-universal relationship to (deconstructing and improving) the Self in a way that is simultaneously utterly shallow yet deeply human and heartfelt, a cry of pain and desire for transcendence based on nothing more than “being oneself” (Abraham’s website takes .me as its domain, and this is exactly the domain to which the album transports the listener).
But let’s put Abraham’s “me” aside: to ask whether the weirdness of her album was intentional (if at all) is not an interesting question, precisely because of the accuracy of the place from which it reflects the contemporary situation. One review invokes Laurie Anderson, William Burroughs, and Dada, only to take it back as sarcasm… but why, when it’s this very mode, the uncomfortable inability to solidify one’s voice, that is precisely at issue? All questions of zeitgeist aside, MTDE is also an album that creates a unique mood, one that stands up to repeated listens, rather than being a single-listen concept novelty piece. We can approach this work, then, bearing in mind the principle of the death of the author. But the problem it embodies is not the fact that the author’s intentions are irrelevant. Rather, the author’s Self itself is irrelevant, because it now encompasses the world, magnified — and in that magnification, reveals the seams.