The other night, as I was up listening to the new Scott Walker album Bish Bosch and browsing through some of its online reviews, I came upon a review praising the new album from Farrah Abraham, entitled My Teenage Dream Ended. Abraham was the focus of a season of MTV’s reality show Teen Mom. She had just written a book by the same title as her album. It made it to No. 11 on the New York Times‘ best-seller list. The album is what they call a “companion piece” to the book.
The review praised Abraham’s work: “Perhaps My Teenage Dream Ended is to teen angst what Eraserhead was to domestic angst.” Another review cited the album as a a new mark for “outsider music.” Outsider music, in the most general of terms, is that for which professionalism or even competence is not of highest regard. It’s made by total amateurs (or worse) whose efforts nonetheless reveal something unique about the creative process; it’s evocative in its own isolated way.
The Shaggs, wholeheartedly justified by many critics and musicians, are an example of outsider music. So is Rebecca Black and the entire “song-poem” industry, who aren’t justified by anyone who actually means it. Outsider music proves value that defies the aesthetic principles of good and bad. Meaning it doesn’t matter if it’s terrible, if you can get past its terribleness. Many revile Abraham’s album as well, comparing it unfavorably to Black’s infamous “Friday” single and video.
Abraham’s life as a teen mother has been fairly awful—the father of the baby died in a car wreck before it was born, and her relationship with him apparently was hormonally fraught. (This is all biographical information I got from research, as I haven’t watched MTV in years.) The song titles on the album, which correspond to chapters in the book, give some indication as to how the drama unfolded: “The Phone Call That Changed My Life,” “Unplanned Parenthood,” “Liar Liar.”
The songs themselves are unglued. They’re filled with the usual accoutrements of contemporary pop music—thick drums, melodramatic piano, some of those electronic flourishes that are associated with dubstep. It’s a mess. The most obvious feature of the album is Abraham’s unreserved dependence on Auto-Tune, the electronic vocal alteration device that’s either valued or reviled, depending on who you talk to. Abraham gives her voice over to the most extreme filtering possible on the Auto-Tune device, letting it run roughshod. It gurgles more than T-Pain, venturing perilously close to the realm of R2-D2. It is not human. The effect is one of disembodiment.
Yet My Teenage Dream Ended features probably the most artistically appropriate use of Auto-Tune in the checkered history of the device. Without judging Abraham’s life choices so far (partially because I haven’t delved deeply into them, such effort doesn’t seen necessary), she’s given her troubled human self over to the artificiality of reality TV. Whatever her trials have been, she allowed them to be depicted on television, the act of which scales her life with technological sheen and vulgar machinery.
So if you fuse the two together—Abraham’s real-life struggles and the synthetic oversight of TV culture—what would you wind up with? A robot howling about personal pain, unrefined stream of consciousness, ambivalence to musicality or aesthetics. That’s exactly what Abraham’s album is. It’s fascinating in a way, but at the same time I’m glad the album lasts less than 30 minutes.
Praise for the album seems to stem from the notion that it’s as direct a personal statement as robo-culture will allow. Some of us who’ve matured in the Internet age nonetheless don’t necessarily like the glossy chipset lobbed at us by youth culture. Some of us are trying to learn how to profit from it, or reconcile the more integral narrative of old-fashioned storytelling with the technology we have.
As for whether I think Abraham’s album is actually good or not? Well, it just is. It exists. That’s about as solid a judgment as I can give. I think it’s better than the Lou Reed & Metallica album that got reamed last year, but let’s face it: Abraham’s ambitions were far, far less than Reed & Metallica’s, and nowhere nearly as chylous.
Is it, as the Guardian claims, the 32nd best album of 2012? Well, the Guardian thinks so. Or says they think so. But for me the album is more motive than art – or, actually, more blithely disposing of the need for motive, which is the whole attraction of outsider music. The main tenet of outsider music is that you have to decide if you’re going to subject yourself to it. For a lot of the genre, that’s where the potency of the form begins and ends. Whether you decide to pursue its deeper, human messages—if after your decision you can even pretend to take these messages seriously—that’s your choice.
I don’t have any increased sympathy or distaste for Abraham’s life choices after hearing this album. But one thing I could assert with confidence is that it’s truly representative of its time, its culture and its setting. That’s where we have to draw our own conclusions. Or forego them.