Jenny Lewis And The Art Of Empowering Sad Girls

If I wasn’t proud of anything else about me, I’d still be proud of my musical tastes. I was reflecting the other day on how many people I can attribute my musical education to, and how spot on each of them was in exposing me to their own individual tastes. My grandparents shared with me beautiful classical arias and operas and equally as beautiful Big Band and jazz music – from the 1920s to the 1940s. My dad handled my classic rock education (I’m pretty sure the most proud of me he’s been was the day I came home to visit from college wearing a Pink Floyd t-shirt). Thanks to him, I impress anyone over 40 with my ability to name the artist and song title of most rock songs from the early 1960s to the late 1980s. Going to a high school that required getting your hunting permit as a part of the gym class curriculum made me very aware of country music (old and new), and my attempt at a grunge phase around the same time provided me with knowledge of the music of the early 1990s. And who doesn’t love hip hop and rap produced in the late 90s and early 2000s?

But one of my very favorite artists — introduced to me by one of my very favorite people during my freshman year of college — is one who has continuously released songs that have struck some chord in me, within lyrics that give words to thoughts and feelings I couldn’t quite verbalize myself: Jenny Lewis.

Born Jennifer Dianne Lewis, Jenny was the primary vocalist of the indie rock band Rilo Kiley (it was one of their albums, The Execution of All Things, that was uploaded onto my iPod by my friend at the time), has released three solo albums, and has worked with The Watson Twins and The Postal Service. If you’ve been on the internet in the past week, then you’ve probably already seen her new music video for the song “Just One of the Guys” and might also know that she has a new album set to release today (July 29th): The Voyager.

After seeing the video and marveling once again at the genius that is Jenny Lewis, I revisited all of my Rilo Kiley/Jenny Lewis favorites and wondered why I’d veered off into other musical preferences, as these songs all still seemed very relevant to me. It wasn’t until I read this article by Lindsay Zoladz — which draws parallels between her first exposure to The Execution of All Things to the release of Lana del Rey’s Ultraviolence — that I realized just what Jenny Lewis and Rilo Kiley did for me. Her lyrics provide a relatability in both their almost unbearable sadness and seemingly unlikely resolution of an insuppressible strength.

Good music makes us feel so fervently that it can become all encompassing at times. And I’m as ready to jump up and happy dance around my room to Ke$ha as the next girl but, for me, that’s not always a reasonable solution when melancholy sets in. When it does, Jenny Lewis — in addition to some Lana del Rey, Stevie Nicks, and Ella Fitzgerald — is there to sing me through it. As Zoladz points out in her article, the melancholy of women and girls (particularly those in their teens-twenties) is very different from the melancholy of men. “It had an air of weariness, disillusionment, and above all things an awareness of being looked at,” Zoladz says of Lewis’s lyrics in The Execution of All Things, later adding, “She seemed to subtly say something that my friends and I new but couldn’t quite articulate yet, that the deck was stacked differently if you were a girl. Because to be a girl is to be seen, even in the moments when you wish you could disappear.” And we as women know this to be true. I can’t count how many times I’ve been told by someone (almost always a man, usually a stranger) to smile or cheer up while he added some commentary about how I’m too pretty to be sad (as if the two are somehow connected). But feelings demand to be felt, as much as you may try to avoid them; and when I’m sad, Jenny Lewis is there.

In this odd way, Jenny Lewis and other “sad girls” of music have become a source of empowerment for their listeners. And how do I make that claim when the resolution of one of my favorite Rilo Kiley songs, “A Better Son/Daughter,” is to one day get the “strength” just to get out of bed and have a normal conversation with your mother, in spite of your crippling depression? According to French writer Catherine Vigier, in her essay on Lana del Rey and post-feminism, “[Lana del Rey] is representing and speaking to a contradiction facing thousands of young women today, women who have followed mainstream society’s prescriptions for success in what has been called a post-feminist world, but who find that real liberation and genuine satisfaction elude them.” This is a contradiction Jenny Lewis also embraces in most of her songs and was especially apparent in “Just One of the Guys,” with its breezy, catchy, happy-sounding melody coupled with the wistful lyrics about her ticking biological clock.

It’s been six years since Lewis released a solo album (Acid Tongue in 2008), and The Voyager will be her third solo album overall. According to Lewis, this album came from a very personal place, calling it “the hardest one I ever made.” As I sit here, waiting on my own copy of The Voyager to download, I look forward to the cathartic release that will come from all of her new lyrics and melodies.

Jenny Lewis began writing The Voyager following a creative meltdown following the dissolution of Rilo Kiley. “It nearly destroyed me,” Lewis said in a statement. “I had such severe insomnia that, at one point, I didn’t sleep for five straight nights. Many of the songs on The Voyager came out of the need to occupy my mind in the moments when I just couldn’t shut down.” That statement, in and of itself, reflects the empowerment that comes from Lewis’s work. Much like I am when I’m listening to Jenny Lewis or Rilo Kiley albums, Lewis explains how she is overcome with emotion, and it’s inspiring to see her use a strength inside her that turns those struggles into amazing songs.

Lindsay Zoladz calls Jenny Lewis, “the older, wiser, elegantly jaded older sister I didn’t have” and says, “She [is] a comfortingly mortal combination of vulnerable and strong, usually within the same song.” I couldn’t put my feelings about Lewis any more precisely or eloquently than this, except to add that she is a silver lining personified. For this, she will always hold a special place in my heart and in my music collection.

Kat Wiseman

Kat Wiseman

Kat (@kat_calling) received her Bachelor’s degree in English-Creative Writing from Winthrop University, where she found her voice writing poetry. Her poetic influences include: e.e. cummings, Kesha Rose, Lana Del Rey, and Bob Dylan. She’s a certified yoga instructor and a textbook Libra. Her hair and life are always a mess but she figures she must be doing something right to have made it this far doing what she loves.

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