A few years ago, we were all supposed to decide that Jenny Lewis was uncool. In case you are, for some reason, unacquainted: Jenny Lewis is the painfully adorable former lead singer of Rilo Kiley. She has a big solo career. She just put out a solo album called "The Voyager." If you need to "get it," this is your song. If you're more a visual learner, try this one.
The backlash against Rilo Kiley really started with their biggest-selling record, More Adventurous. All of a sudden, Elvis Costello was an outspoken fan, the band was playing on Conan O'brien, and concerts were unanimously selling out. Anything that garners mainstream appeal like that is automatically (if ironically) unfashionable by default. In 2011, after Jenny Lewis had released two solo albums, a bunch of my friends started sending me this viral-ish Thought Catalog piece called "Calling Bullshit On Jenny Lewis." The thesis of the piece is that Jenny Lewis' lyrics appeal to teenagers, but at some point, you have to grow up and realize that they're objectively bad. The writer ends the piece with this: "I apologize to anyone who’s still a member of the church. I realize that everyone has to be ready at their own time."
On Tuesday night, while I stood toward the back of the Civic Auditorium watching (for the ninth time) Jenny Lewis perform, I finally began to understand that I would never leave the church.
Rilo Kiley was the last band I was categorically obsessed with. That was ten years ago, and it's not like I like music any less now; really, I would argue that I like music more. It's just that in high school, you sit around dreaming about your future, wanting things to look a certain way, and so you necessarily build a lot of pedestals.
I found Rilo Kiley on Napster. I don't remember the specifics -- I think "The Frug" popped up randomly and I downloaded it. I remember thinking I hadn't heard anything like that before, and that my life would be changed. Overnight, I was on all the Rilo Kiley message boards; I had found all the available albums at Sam Goody and Everyday Music; I had even ordered a T-shirt off eBay.
Back then, I was just beginning to understand that other people felt crazy. I had always suffered insomnia; I constantly thought about death; I cried ALL THE TIME. (Science class? Sure! Cats fighting? Tears galore!) In middle school, I was basically friendless; my anxiety and self-obsession made me really difficult to be around, and I didn't know anyone else who felt the same things I did. But high school was bigger than middle school. There were suddenly tons of (ok: like, six) bookish kids who scowled a lot and listened to radio versions of The Daily Show. Other people were reporting that not feeling OK all the time was, indeed, normal. And then Rilo Kiley showed up on the scene: a band of former child stars singing songs about "the weight crushing down," and "choosing sadness." It felt like a match made in heaven.
I have very fond memories of cutting chemistry class with my high school boyfriend to the tune of a Rilo Kiley anthem called "Better Son/ Daughter." The class had upwards of 50 kids in it, and not enough chairs to accommodate everyone (thanks, budget cuts!), so no one really noticed if you missed class once in a while. We'd sneak out the side door, climb into his Geo Prizm, put on "Better Son/ Daughter" as loud as it would go (his car had a CD PLAYER -- which was a crazy-big deal), and sing it at the top of our lungs with the windows down.
When I went to college, I arranged to take a trip back to Portland within my first two months to see the Rilo Kiley concert while they were on their "More Adventurous" tour. Luckily, I LiveJournaled about that experience, and it's captured for all of eternity here. I think this line pretty much sums up how I felt about it "Ben, Jessica, Alexis, and I saw GOD in concert. You may not believe we ACTUALLY saw god in concert, but we did." After the show, I had the entire band sign my copy of "Troop Beverly HIlls." (That was the movie Jenny Lewis child-starred in, in 1989. Say what you will: it was a really good movie.) This was a time in my life that will never come again: I was willing to wait for two hours after a long concert and a long drive just to interact with a person who would never remember meeting me.
That was ten years ago. As I write this, I'm 28, and I don't even look at concert listings anymore. I don't make much money, and I fear staying up too late and not getting enough sleep. But on Tuesday, my friend Elise texted me that she had an extra Jenny Lewis ticket, and did I want to go with her. I mulled it over -- I would have to go to bed so late; I didn't think "The Voyager" was that good, anyway; I would have to go to bed so late. And then my 18-year-old self slapped me across the face and said, "IT'S JENNY FUCKING LEWIS." I told Elise I'd be thrilled.
We stood in the back. I watched the people pouring over the stage -- the ones who got there hours early, to ensure a good spot to bear witness to their god. I couldn't help but think about how young everyone seemed. Was everyone always so young? When I went to concerts in my early twenties, I always felt like everyone was older than me. Did I miss the window where I matched the median age of concert-goers? Maybe I just didn't belong here anymore.
But when Jenny Lewis came on (miraculously looking exactly the same age she did ten years ago), all the doubt faded, and I tunnel-visioned in on this woman who had affected such an important part of my life. Everything came flooding back: listening to Jenny alone on the el train when I first moved to Chicago; listening to Jenny the first time I drove across the New Orleans Causeway; listening to her while falling in love ("So lets take a loan out, put it down on a house/ In a place we've never lived"); listening to her after every single heart-breaking bottom-scraping breakup ("we both know it's dead and it's been dying for some time"); listening to her while wishing I could learn how to love like I once did all over again ("maybe love won't let you down; and all of your failures are just training grounds").
I really don't care if the lyrics are overwrought. I don't care if Jenny Lewis is putting on a show for all of us. There is music that changes your life, and you don't always get to choose it. When the band played "Better Son/ Daughter" before the encore, I was back in the Geo Prizm, windows down, speakers up. I screamed the words, and wept for being allowed to remember.
Here's what I think: Love the songs you love. Don't overthink it. This is music's holy place in our human story: it is our greatest evidence of magic. Maybe we all want to think we've got objectively good taste, but really, we just love what we love. And Jenny Lewis says, "You are what you love, and not what loves you back." So just be who you are. Pray how you pray. And if the chance presents itself to remember what it was that once pierced your heart, take it.