If I were to ask you, "Where will the next great female avant-garde musician come from?", I doubt you'd say "From the cast of MTV's Teen Mom, of course." But Farrah Abraham's album My Teenage Dream Ended proves that you never can tell who's gonna turn out to be some kind of secret genius. This short album (10 tracks in under 30 minutes) is one of the most brilliantly baffling and alienating records I've ever heard. Its sheer cyborg whackedness can't possibly be accidental, and to make something that sounds like this on purpose evinces a commitment to anti-listener hostility that's genuinely impressive.
Abraham has the aggression and willingness to assault the listener's preconceptions that's made artists like Peaches and Le Tigre cult queens, but her methodology is one of extreme aesthetic/philosophical distance and arch commentary, better suited to gallery installations than sweaty club gigs. Her ideas regarding the marriage of theoretically danceable rhythms and baffling, Dadaist language play, as well as the radical manipulations applied to her voice, are reminiscent of Laurie Anderson's work in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Her concept also seems to incorporate some ideas drawn from William Burroughs, particularly regarding the power of non-linearity (the "cut-up" texts seen in books like The Soft Machine and The Ticket That Exploded) and the disruption of conventional language as a means of breaking links of control. Abraham has taken a form-the therapeutic/confessional pop song-seemingly inextricably bound by cliché and, through the imaginative use of technology, broken it free and dragged it into the future.
Yes, I'm being sarcastic. But still, there is a kind of accidental futuristic freakiness to Abraham's work that bears scrutiny.
My Teenage Dream Ended, which is theoretically a musical companion to her autobiography of the same name, is built almost entirely around laptop software and Abraham's ultra-Autotuned vocals. Her words are frequently indecipherable, having been so thoroughly reshuffled by electronics that they sound like burbling, random syllables following no discernible pattern. They're not providing a countermelody to the music; they're just there, flopping around between the programmed drums and the bare-bones synth lines, and when the lyrics can be parsed, they're bizarrely disconnected, phrases that don't relate to each other strung together in sets for no discernible reason. On "With Out This Ring…" [sic], she says, "Stick to our guns/We're just young/Is this really what love is like" and "Can't be sure/I don't wanna make mistakes/I still need to make more mistakes" over a loop of haunted-house piano and a minimally plucked acoustic guitar, eventually joined by thunderous programmed drums that don't add any rhythmic impetus; they just batter the listener. And that's the chorus.
On "Liar Liar," the phrase "We're fighting/We're fighting now" is repeated over and over, heavily echoed, like the voice of a ghost trapped in a Speak & Spell. The rest of the words are difficult to decipher, but one thing's clear, as it is on the rest of the album-there's no rhyme scheme, no attempt to construct a traditional verse. Phrases are of irregular length, and conform to no pattern. It's a breathtakingly anti-pop performance. And the music is every bit as weird as the vocals, balancing synth washes and a one-finger melody with a bass line like a ghostly dub throb. It's one of the most distanced, yet savagely emotional pieces of music I've ever heard; it's like watching someone have a breakdown through a foot-thick sheet of Plexiglas.
Some tracks, like "Unplanned Parenthood," "The Sunshine State," and "Finally Getting Up From Rock Bottom," seem aimed at the dancefloor, but the vocals are so piercing and operating at such cross purposes to the music that there's no way anyone could dance to them. Basically, this is an album that attempts at every turn to disrupt the traditional relationships between music and lyrics, between singer and listener, between rhythm and melody, between music and pleasure. Calculatedly resisting conventional concepts of celebrity, she remains off camera in her (also self-produced) videos, offering instead footage of fish swimming in an aquarium; flaring club lights and silhouetted, faceless dancers; or her young daughter playing on swings, visiting her father's grave, and eventually running away from the camera.
In the same way Burroughs used the languages of American business, law enforcement, and pulp entertainment to satirize and disrupt society, Farrah Abraham is using seemingly out-of-control (but in fact exquisitely controlled) technology and jarring lyrical randomness to satirize and assault the confessional pop song form and the illusions it fosters in girls her age. She's a feminist, an avant-gardist, a master of her chosen form even as she goes about its destruction. If the two members of Autechre and Emiko, Paolo Bacigalupi's titular character in Windup Girl, collaborated on an album, it might sound something like this.