I Met Myself Through Jenny Lewis (Essay)

Words by Anne T. Donahue.

2006 was bleak. I turned 21 that summer. I was tragically blonde for several months, and I was professionally and academically flailing. On top of having dropped out of college, I was working part-time in retail and using my obsessive love of indie music to curate a hip-girl personality to mask the insecurities I was scared would define me.

I wanted to be cool in the Penny Lane sense of the word, and not because of anything I created myself. I stood front row at concerts, eyeing lead singers and guitarists in hopes they’d choose me as the woman they’d fall in love with. None did, but if I was recognized from a show I previously attended, I relished in that moment and told everybody I knew. “I met him,” I’d casually drop if a song of theirs came on at work. “He’s cool.”

He probably wasn’t. I was three years away from being a music journalist and about five from recognizing band life as anything more than a career choice. (Not to mention getting to see the music industry as the boys’ club it is.) But at the time, bands were all I knew or cared about. Or more specifically: how I could use bands and my relationships with them to define me.

Around that same time, my friend introduced me to Rilo Kiley’s 2004 album, More Adventurous. A Christmas gift I embraced for its connections to Death Cab For Cutie, I basked in the warmth of Jenny Lewis’ voice, and tried to see myself in her lyrics. I couldn’t, at least not at the time. (2009 was a different story.) I filed the album away, sure that at some point it would resonate as something more than an album that contained the opening song from the Grey’s Anatomy pilot.

I wasn’t paying attention when Lewis released her solo debut, Rabbit Fur Coat, in January 2006. But by early spring, I recognized the album cover by skimming through my favorite music magazines. I picked it up one afternoon on my lunch break. And while I thought the melodies were pretty, I kept it at arm’s length. Like a crush you know could completely destroy you, I kept myself guarded from Lewis’ words on religion, sexism, and relationships. Her lyrics were scary because they were honest. And while not everything she sang about applied to me, she dared question what I had been too afraid to. Deep down, I knew that religion could be problematic, that sexism was prevalent, and that relationships could end–but to say it out loud wasn’t common then. (Plus, there weren’t any guys involved which was common.)

It helps if you understand that at 21, I saw feminism as the enemy. While my parents encouraged me to do or be anything, the f-word was never used, and I didn’t learn its true meaning until my mid-20s after one of my best friends delivered the truth. (“Dude, it means equality.”) Then, the idea of a woman backed up by two women was intimidating. Until then, my favorite female artists were tied to male artists I loved in some way, so hearing a woman call out patriarchy with such accessibility resonated in a way few albums had before.  I’d operated under the myth that the only drama-free group of women was the one I belonged to. At 21, I was quick to dismiss women so I could establish myself as a Cool Girl–as one of the guys.

By October, the same friend who gave me More Adventurous went with me to see Jenny Lewis and the Watson Twins in concert, and while it was phenomenal, I was more concerned with having seen and met Broken Social Scene’s Kevin Drew. In fact, it wasn’t until the next day, listening to the album with my mom on our way to Thanksgiving dinner, that I realize that Lewis was articulating my own feelings about religion. “Is she saying she doesn’t believe in God?” my mom asked, listening to “Born Secular.” I told her she was bang on. My mom was indifferent, but I was not.

I grew up in a Catholic house, went to Catholic school, and went to a Catholic church. My late teens saw me begin to question spirituality, organized religion as a whole, and everything that came with both. But, like feminism, I wasn’t sure how to talk about it, so I pushed my feelings down and rolled my eyes whenever me and my mom went to church. I was angry at religion, but didn’t know why. Rabbit Fur Coat told me I had a pal.

Of course, had I listened to More Adventurous properly, I’d have heard the same secular undertones that define Rabbit Fur Coat. But through songs like “Rise Up With Fists!!!,” “The Charging Sky,” and “The Big Guns,” I recognized the same sad and angry feelings that had come to define me, post-Catholicism–and this mattered way more than some hot dude in a band.

I combed through the album for more meanings and nuances. “Melt Your Heart” vindicated the feelings I’d had about boys I’d invested feelings in and over-romanticized, only to be disappointed by their lack of reciprocation. “You Are What You Love” introduced me to the idea of being a trophy or of being someone’s Manic Pixie Dream Girl–a role I embraced far too eagerly until my late 2os. The title track painted an accurate picture of the entertainment industry, which has been my longest relationship to date.

Rabbit Fur Coat told me that me and my feelings and thoughts were valid; that a woman standing onstage and speaking her mind was something viable, important, and powerful. It made me realize that other women might feel the same way too.

I wish I could say that in that moment I was changed, that as of 2007 I’d become the boss-ass bitch I knew I could be. But disappointingly, it took a lot longer to get to a point where I could remove my relationship with men from my relationship with music–or even become a version of myself I liked. However, Rabbit Fur Coat started that process. It raised questions about religion, about guys, about what it is to be a woman with something to say. It pushed me into a corner and made me confront the parts of myself that I wanted to hide: vulnerability, creativity, and also a desire for attention. Through Lewis’ lyrics and her choice to step out from Rilo Kiley and pursue a solo career, she demonstrated that there is power in independence. Something that means a lot to me.

Rabbit Fur Coat made me fall in love with myself, or at least recognize the traits I would come to fall in love with. I still celebrate independence and the act of asserting one’s voice, and I have many feelings about abandoning Christianity, though they’re less angry than they were ten years ago. Music, however, is totally different. Now, music is a job, a conversation, and a reflection of who and where we are. It is an extension of self, it is a diary, it is a grand-scale narrative. And now, my relationship with it music about me, not about men.

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