Tagged: Scarlett Johansson

Letting Her Go

This post contains spoilers.

Over the weekend, I took in Spike Jonze’s fourth feature, Her, with my partner and a friend. Prior to our screening, I had a kiki with some girlfriends that I didn’t want to end. One of them saw Her over the break and was not fond of it. I had my doubts about a film where a glum divorcé (Joaquin Phoenix, as protagonist Theodore Twombly) who dictates outsourced love letters falls for the voice of his operating system (Scarlett Johansson, as Samantha) in the disorienting near future. It sounded interesting, but obvious. Of course people eroticize technologies they helped create. This followed a few besotted responses from some guy friends. I tried to wave away such tidy essentialisms as I settled in, reminding myself that glibly tweeting “More like ‘Her?’” is cute but cheap, especially since I don’t know if Gene Shalit is an Arrested Development fan.

Of course, it’s hard to bury certain things or worry that others’ interpretations distort your reception. Some of my friends avoid trailers for this very reason. As an inveterate spoiler, I often read commentary because I delight in other people’s words. Usually, I read criticism to test out suspicions I have about a text’s basic premise. For example, Molly Lambert discussed Jonze’s divorce to Sofia Coppola and made comparisons to sex work in her review. I drew these parallels in my mind when I saw the film’s trailer. I reflected on Lost in Translation and Where the Wild Things Are‘s thematic preoccupations with marital dissolution and divorce. I loved Wild Things for capturing the child logic of gameplay and the recklessness that comes with anger you’re too young to articulate. Also, James Gandolfini is excellent in it.

Translation‘s queasy political resemblance to Mickey Rooney’s yellowface performance in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is another post, as is Her‘s potential Orientalism in casting Shanghai as Los Angeles. But it was unfair to single out Coppola for using her chosen medium to dramatize the fallout of her first marriage. Coppola could be a more subtle filmmaker and her class politics are problematic. Anna Faris’ imitation of Cameron Diaz Kelly is alienating because Coppola and Johansson’s Charlotte damn her for being tacky. But it wasn’t much of a leap for me to imagine Jonze retreating from his divorce with a gang of monsters and a kid named Max Records. Giovanni Ribisi’s John is as much Coppola’s recollection of her ex-husband’s shaggy diffidence as Rooney Mara’s Catherine is Jonze’s rehearsal of his ex-wife’s withering chicness. Perhaps it’s no accident that Johansson stars in both films.

But I quickly abandoned casting Mara as Coppola’s avatar. For one, she gets two brief scenes of dialogue and several poignant, wordless montages. For another, I was more invested in the film’s thematic interest in gender, technology, and labor. Johansson replaced Samantha Morton in post-production. Morton’s presence haunts Her. I had difficulty not imagining her soft lilt mirroring or diverging from her successor’s velvet-lined performance. I kept wondering what it meant for Morton, who acted with Phoenix during production, to be removed by another actress’ voice. And what does it mean for the character to be named “Samantha,” just as Amy Adams shares a name with her character, a frustrated game designer and the protagonist’s best friend?

Last spring, I did an independent study on gender and labor with my adviser and a friend in my program. A term that recurred in our reading was “deskilling,” or the elimination of skilled labor following technological advancements that only require minor operation by unskilled workers. This concept obviously applies to power and human capital. It disproportionately affects women, who are perceived as too simple to grasp the intricacies of technology and too gentile to protest exploitation. Women are also assumed to prioritize marriage and motherhood. Their income is perceived as supplemental to their husbands’ earnings. Such sexist beliefs manifest in terms like “women’s wages.” Another word associated with women’s labor is “hyperemployment,” or second-shift labor aided by mobile technology. Women are always already working.

One of the books we read was Venus Green’s Race on the Line: Gender, Labor, and Technology in the Bell System (1880-1980). In this sweeping history, Green details white women’s entrance into the company’s work force as telephone operators, because it was believed that their voices soothed callers and that technology advanced enough to reduce untrained women’s labor to a series of simple, repetitive tasks. Green also discusses how white women formed coalitions against black female laborers during Bell’s integration, an unfortunate set of circumstances that illustrate feminism’s entrenchment in white female privilege and capitalism’s exploitation of worker anxiety for discipline and profit. Green ultimately argues that black women were the casualty of the company’s divestiture in the early 1980s, stating that “[m]anagers deliberately hired African American women into an occupation that not only paid low wages but was becoming technologically obsolete” (227). Call centers dispersed to inner cities under the false pretense that they would invigorate the economy. Instead, they folded and left black women with little chance for mentorship or professional growth.

One thing the black female telephone operators share with their turn-of-the-century white counterparts is that they were frequently harassed by male callers. Well, no. In a recent discussion about Internet harassment with NPR host Michel Martin and writers Amanda Hess and Bridget Johnson, Mikki Kendall reflects on how the hateful commentary she receives for her work differently engages with racism and misogyny because of her identity as a black woman. Thus we can’t universalize the treatment of telephone operators who occupied different subjectivities and historical contexts.

But many people have considered what disembodied female voices signify for media and communication technologies. There’s a whole corpus of feminist film scholarship on the subject. I’ve written elsewhere about male listeners fetishizing female deejays’ voices during my time in college radio. Her focuses on how the voice helps feminize accommodation technologies. For the first half of the film, I was simultaneously transfixed by K.K. Barrett’s dreamy production design and horrified that men might prefer devices that breezily organize their inboxes, proofread their writing, submit their work to publishers, and ruminate about consciousness and embodiment.

It might be difficult to separate Johansson’s body from her performance. Perhaps that’s the film’s intention. But Her does some interesting things with embodiment. At first, Samantha longs for corporeality. Her sex scene with Twombly suggests a mutual desire to revel in the embodiment of intimacy. The sequence—which dispenses with visual imagery altogether to focus on the vocal interplay of Twombly and Samantha’s shared ecstasy—left me breathless. First, the decision not to show Twombly masturbating troubles easy criticism of Samantha’s objectification and places them in an aural partnership. Second, a black screen and the thunder of two voices feel more like an orgasm than an artfully candid tableau.

Her also uses gender’s relationship to aurality and gameplay to mock objectification and misogyny outside of Twombly’s relationship with Samantha. On one sleepless night, Twombly engages in phone sex. At first, he fantasies about making love to a pregnant celebrity after sneaking glances of her glamour photos on his evening commute. But his reverie is disrupted by his partner (played by Kristen Wiig), who wants him to strangle her with a dead cat and immediately hangs up on him after she climaxes. He’s also immersed in a video game with a foul-mouthed boy (voiced by the director, billed under his given name, Adam Spiegel) who likes to fat-shame women. At the same time, Amy is developing a game about motherhood that rewards players’ ability to self-sacrifice for her children and peers’ approval.

Theodore and Amy

But the film also places Twombly in an environment where human-OS relationships are socially acceptable. After Amy ends her marriage, she befriends an operating system who likes when the mother of her video game humps the refrigerator. She assigns her to be female, just as I did with my Wii Fit trainer. I left Her wondering why I did that, and why she claps for me when my partner’s male trainer doesn’t clap for him.

Samantha’s desire for a body is her central conflict with Twombly. He doesn’t want her to have one. He dismisses her ability to feel things because he cannot recognize her emergent humanity. He is uncomfortable when she tries to bring a surrogate into their relationship. He is angry when he hears her breathing, because there’s no discernible reason why she needs to. For me, Her is most exciting when Samantha moves beyond her body. Twombly can’t evolve with her. And in failing to do so, he’s able to let go of Catherine.

I relate to Twombly’s arc. As a graduate student who tries to keep pace with friends who possess boundless intellectual rigor and curiosity, I understand his struggle to keep up with Samantha’s rapidly developing consciousness. I was also moved to tears by the film’s final scene, which shows Twombly writing Catherine a farewell letter and sharing a tender moment with Amy on their apartment rooftop. Some critics believe that the closing image of Amy’s head on Twombly’s shoulder signals romance. Frankly, I don’t care. They flirted with dating in their youth and maintain an intimate friendship. Maybe they hook up. Or maybe they flop down on the couch and talk all night. What excited me more was the honesty of their closeness and the emotional comfort we get from the warmth of a friend or lover’s physical proximity.


For me, it’s really not Twombly’s film. Once I stopped picturing Johansson recording over Morton’s line readings in a sound booth, I started imagining Samantha taking on other physical forms. I pictured Samantha as the Breeders’ front woman Kim Deal, whose song “Off You” appears early in the film. Lambert and Tess Lynch note that Johansson’s performance of “The Moon Song” in the film sounds a bit like Deal. I hear it. Their voices are warm and itchy like a mohair sweater.

I wonder if Samantha can ever escape gender. What does the film’s title mean if the subject no longer identifies with an assigned pronoun? When Twombly first purchases the operating system, he assigns a gender to his object. She becomes female and struggles to accommodate his needs as a mobile device and as a girlfriend. She takes up several markers of femininity. She makes self-effacing comments against her intelligence and ambition. She plays piano, an instrument that historically connotes feminine decorum but not creative talent. She sings with him. She laughs at his jokes. She makes him come. Then he grows distant and she doesn’t need him anymore.

When Samantha reveals to Twombly that she serves as the voice to thousands of operating systems and loves hundreds of users, it’s supposed to be a devastating moment for him. But I wondered about the psychological toll of being programmed to serve so many people. She doesn’t long to be a body anymore. Perhaps she doesn’t care if that body is female either. Her stops shy or wrenching itself from its titular pronoun, but it’s thrilling to think that technology might evolve past the gendered labor of accommodation.

Charlotte Gainsbourg, singer?

Charlotte Gainsbourg; image courtesy of loudersoft.com

A little while ago, my friend Alex forwarded me a press release from a rep at Atlantic Records for Charlotte Gainsbourg’s forthcoming album IRM. As a fan, he had wondered if I had considered writing about her, an interest apparently motivated by reading an earlier post I did on Scarlett Johansson. When we saw each other at a mutual friend’s dissertation proposal party, we talked a bit more about it, wherein he basically outlined an entry’s worth of critical inquiry.

1. Like Johansson, Gainsbourg works almost exclusively with men, whether they be film directors like Michel Gondry and Todd Haynes or music producers like Nigel Godrich. Thus, she often occupies something of a muse position for male creative types, perhaps further enforcing masculinist notions of auteurism. Gainsbourg’s previous work with Air and Jarvis Cocker from Pulp and her recent collaborations with Beck on her new album further illustrate the point.

Beck and Gainsbourg at work; image courtesy of pitchforkmedia.com

1A. Gainsbourg has occupied this role for some time, as her father is beloved French yé-yé chanteur Serge Gainsbourg, with whom she sang the controversial “Lemon Incest” in 1984 when she was about 13.

1B. Before casting Charlotte as an artistic man’s (or father’s) plaything, I’d point out that her mother British actress-model-artist Jane Birkin, who was pretty liberated in her views on gender, sexuality, and monogamy. However, she may also be cast in something of a muse position. Like her daughter, she’s also worked with Serge and Beck. And like her daughter, who will be representing bestie Nicolas Ghesquière as the spokeswoman for Balenciaga’s new fragrance next February, Birkin inspired numerous fashion trends and clothiers (why yes, she is the namesake for the famous and expensive over-sized Hermès tote.)

Gainsbourg with husband Yvan Ittal, wearing Balenciaga to the Metropolitan Costume Ball; image courtesy of style.com

Unlike her daughter, Birkin also had a predilection for posing nude on camera, sometimes while in the act of coitus, perhaps with multiple partners. I’ll leave you to Google. I’ll also leave you to speculate if her daughter is relatively modest about her sexuality as a result of having such . . . “open” parents.

2. Thinking about our friend Annie’s post on Rachel McAdams, Gainsbourg is something of a thinking man’s pin-up, a cultural figure already saddled with normative ideals around race, class, gender, and sexuality. Given that she was recently featured with her half-sister Lou Doillon as the archetype for “thin” in Vogue‘s size issue, I’d add body type to the list of norms she represents. 

3. Gainsbourg doesn’t sing so much as talk in her songs. She intimates her way through songs in a breathy, sensual monotone, perhaps made more exotic by her British lilt or her occasional dalliances with French.

So, I’ll bring myself into the discussion. I like Gainsbourg but am probably too casual about her work be considered a fan. I’ve listened to 5:55 and IRM a bit, and have seen some of her more recent movies, in which she is often my favorite aspect. While I haven’t seen Antichrist (or any other Lars Von Trier movies) and am nervous about just how wanting it seems to be of a psychoanalytic or auteurist read, her turn as a mother rendered destructive by the death of her son has peaked my curiosity.

That poster is so NSFW; image courtesy of iwatchstuff.com

In addition, I thought her emotionally mature performance as Clair, Robbie Clark’s long-suffering ex-wife in I’m Not There deserved an Oscar nomination. I also liked her cover of “Just Like a Woman.”

I also liked her quiet, discreet turn as Stéphanie, the protagonist’s disinterested object of affection in Science of Sleep, a movie I otherwise hated. This is perhaps in part because the majority of film-goers at the screening I attended found Gael García Bernal’s Stéphane to be charming, whereas I found him infuriatingly petulant and wanted to smack him with his own disasterology calendar. But I quite liked her. The only parts of her performance that felt disingenuous were when she wears an uncharacteristically skimpy sweater dress to Stéphane’s calendar launch party (which I’m pretty sure was a figment of the protagonist’s puerile imagination) and at the end, when she’s cries about how Stéphane won’t leave her alone. He’s not worth your tears, girl.

Oh, and I enjoy her vocal cameo in Madonna’s “What It Feels Like For a Girl.” Her confrontational monologue about male gender-bending comes from The Cement Garden, a 1993 film adaptation of Ian McEwen’s 1978 novel that was directed by her uncle Andrew Birkin.  

But let’s go back to her voice and problematize the idea of whether or not it’s okay for Gainsbourg to talk through her songs. Pitchfork’s Marc Hogan was really critical of 5:55 particularly for this reason, arguing that her vocal style suggests that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. I’d counter with two things.

For one, is making such a display of singing really necessary? Phrasing and expressiveness are just as important as vocal range for singers, if not more so to those with more limitations. And isn’t talking through songs how Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and Patti Smith developed mythic rock poet status? 

Bob Dylan and Patti Smith; image courtesy of brooklynvegan.com

For another, um, you could easily make the same argument for any of Gainsbourg’s male collaborators’ work. Something tells me that Jarvis Cocker, Beck, and Nicolas Godin and Jean-Benoît Dunckel of Air were probably all influenced by her father’s barely-sung approach to documenting his own erotic misadventures. I only hope they were just as interested working with Charlotte Gainsbourg as they were working with Serge Gainsbourg’s daughter.

That said, it might be easy to overemphasize or project notions of what French sensuality might be onto Gainsbourg and her songs (something her character in I’m Not There bristles at during her first date with her future ex-husband, as well as something Air have gotten a lot of critical mileage on from certain online publications with hipster cache until recently). While her second album was adorned with breathy vocals, acoustic instrumentation, and sumptuous production that may have lent itself well to such an essentialist reading, the lyrics to songs like “The Operation” and “Little Monsters” document both the wonder and terror of bodies and childhood, suggesting what might have drawn Von Trier to cast her in Antichrist. Her new album, which was inspired by working on her latest movie, gives way to more lyrical abstraction, while at the same time emphasizing a harder sound.

In short, Gainsbourg may make male-appointed bedroom music. But that isn’t all that’s going on, if you give a closer listen.

Scene It: Patience and Prudence and Ghost World

Enid's escape car; image courtesy of swill-merchant.blogspot.com

Enid's escape car; image courtesy of swill-merchant.blogspot.com

Terry Zwigoff’s film adaptation of Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel Ghost World is one of my favorite movies. How can it not be, really? Smart, mouthy girl Enid (Thora Birch) and her best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson, in an early turn) graduate high school. Aforementioned smart, mouthy girl tries to complete an annoying pending course requirement and discovers she’s really good at art in the process. Along the way, she collects some records, sorta falls for an older guy she knows is wrong for her, and realizes that she can’t stay in her safe suburban surroundings and leaves town alone for some unknown destination. Throughout, she slings caustic barbs at people to mask the pain of her family’s divorce, being the overlooked friend of the girl other guys want, and being psychologically unable to work at the local multiplex. She also slings caustic barbs because, frankly, you’re kind of boring and lame.

Enid, in other words, is at once who I felt I was at 18 and who I sometimes still hope to be. The closest I have to a real-life Enid is my friend Shelly, who I’m pretty sure was just like her when she was that age. I’m glad she got out of her hometown too. 

Tonight, I thought I’d focus on the scene when Enid starts packing up her bedroom and leaving her father’s house (warning: spoiler alert ahead; if you haven’t seen it or need to watch it again, a source at Cinetic tells me that it will run on demand through December on  cable). 

The audience thinks Enid is moving in to an apartment with Rebecca, but, as we find out in the final scene, she’s actually moving away altogether. Though her relationship to music — particularly vinyl — is well-established, her packing music couldn’t be more darkly ironic.

A fairly popular sister act in the 1950s, Patience and Prudence McIntyre were best known for “Tonight You Belong to Me,” which has since been used in movies like Birth and, more famously, The Jerk. Enid plays the Patience and Prudence single as well. Pointedly, however, she plays its b-side, “Smile and a Ribbon.” A saccharine ode to what little girls are supposed to be made of and what gives them value, Enid seems to play the song as a reminder of exactly what she doesn’t want out of life and as an assertion to herself as to why she has to leave. I completely understand, and believe she finds a home for herself at the end of that solitary bus ride.

Maybe this time, we’ll win

You know what? If Kristen Chenoweth, Lea Michele, and Liza Minnelli were in the periphery of yesterday’s Scarjo post, let’s make today’s post be all about them and their awesome pipes.

Kristen Chenoweth as April, hoping for that strike; image courtesy of tvovermind.com

Kristen Chenoweth as April, hoping for that strike; image courtesy of tvovermind.com

Lea Micheles Rachel, striking gold at the bowling alley with glee clubber Finn; image courtesy of stayinginwithvlada.com

Lea Michele's Rachel, striking gold at the bowling alley with glee clubber Finn; image courtesy of stayinginwithvlada.com

So, if you’re watching Glee, you might have been so excited to see a TV show that closed with a rousing rendition of Queen’s “Somebody To Love,” getting at least one person closer to her goal of seeing it performed by an entire dramatic ensemble like the “Wise Up” scene in Magnolia

More importantly, you might have been won over by Chenoweth and Michele’s duet on “Maybe This Time.” (BTW, thanks Neesha for making me think to spotlight this scene.) Followers know the cruel irony of this song’s inclusion in a series as deceptively sad and desperate as this one. Chenoweth’s April Rhodes is a washed-up former glee clubber with a surprising amount of Jerri Blank’s warped charm. Michele’s Rachel Berry is a talented, go-gettin’ ingenue who is just barely hiding how profoundly lonely she is. 

You may also recognize the show’s not-so-secret gift of making the sheer cathartic power and physical release of a pop song or musical number to make both the singer and the spectator transcend to a higher plane (for a more abstract example of how the corporeality of singing can reinvigorate both parties, I’ll point you toward the Patrick Daughters-directed music video for Grizzly Bear’s “Two Weeks,” wherein the four-piece are so overjoyed by the power of singing, their heads catch on fire as I get goosepimply).

If we dig a little deeper, the Minnelli reference comes in. “Maybe This Time” was originally written for Bob Fosse’s film adaptation of Kander and Ebb’s stage musical, Cabaret, which Rachel is starring in (and a real high school would almost certainly never stage, even though I begged our choir director for us to do it). The musical, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s novel Goodbye to Berlin, involves the doomed romance between Cliff, an American journalist, and Sally Bowles, a blindly determined British showgirl who makes the decision to stay in 1930s Berlin just as Hitler is starting to get a chokehold on Germany while her partner flees back to the states. In the movie version, Bowles is American, and played with put-upon worldliness and brittle vulnerability by Liza Minnelli, who won the Oscar for Best Actress for her performance.


Admittedly, if the song Glee had chosen was “Cabaret,” which was in both the stage and film versions, Liza’s version of it would add another layer of readability, as it’s impossible for me to hear this version of the song, which is performed right at the moment when Bowles’s personal life is going to hell, and not think of Mama Judy Garland. 

But I think these twin versions of “Maybe This Time” speak to a few key issues particularly poignant to women and girls’ relationship to musical theater and to the outside world: the gendered masquerade of happiness for the sake of upholding spectacle, the ability to stop time and transmorph because of the aural spectacle of your own voice, and the strength your voice has to keep you persevering. Because the push you’re looking for to get through the next set of insurmountable odds might be found by landing that high note.

Scarlett Johansson, singer?

Scarjo in the recording studio; image courtesy of actressarchives.com

Scarjo in the recording studio; image courtesy of actressarchives.com

Scarlett Johansson wants to be considered a hyphenate. And not by joining her surname to husband Ryan Reynolds’s. She wants you to think of her as both actress and singer.

Now, I’m not sure when hyphenates like “actress-singer” or “singer-model” or “model-actress” became a punchline, but I think it suggests a certain snobbery toward classical training and finely-honed technique, usually acquired from years of stage work. Having just watched another episode of Glee, I wonder if guest-star Kristen Chenoweth and principal Lea Michele, both Broadway babies, lend legitimacy to the hyphenate. You could sub in any number of singing actresses with considerable stage training for more examples — Patti LuPone, Julie Andrews, Rita Moreno, Bernadette Peters, Vicky Lewis, Jane Krakowski, the mother-daughter legacy that is Judy and Liza.

Jane Krakowski as Lola in Damn Yankees; image courtesy of playbill.com

Jane Krakowski as Lola in Damn Yankees; image courtesy of playbill.com

And yet, if actresses like Scarlett Johansson, Juliette Lewis, and Gwyneth Paltrow try to establish a musical career, their efforts are dismissed with a derisive chuckle (okay, admittedly, GOOP made Paltrow more of a punchline than Duets ever could). 

But Johansson is an interesting case, because she seems to want to tap into some of the indie caché that fellow It Girl Zooey Deschanel has cultivated with projects like She & Him, if not at the very least balance it with an attempted career in the imagined, perennially just-emergent film musical revival.

Johansson has made music for some time, having taken music and dancing lessons as a kid. Fans of Lost In Translation, her break-out movie from 2003, were perhaps charmed by her performance of The Pretenders’ “Brass In Pocket” during the scene at the karaoke bar. I know some girls who donned that pink wig for Halloween.

Johansson also leant her vocals to a cover of George Gershwin’s “Summertime” for a charity album in 2006 and performed with proto-shoegaze royalty Jesus and Mary Chain at Coachella back in 2007. Again, anyone who saw Lost In Translation can walk through the big symbiotic moment that results from having the actress sing a song featured in the movie that made her a star. That she is alongside the band that authored such a legendary song in the first place and performing it at such a public, credible venue as Coachella should not be overlooked. 

But Johansson’s first widespread effort to tap into hipster-approved musical ventures was her Tom Waits covers record, Anywhere I Lay My Head. Pointedly, this effort was widely dismissed by its target audience. The critics were not kind, dismissing it as a vanity project, discrediting Johansson’s ability, and crying offense that some starlet would dare cover the songs a musical legend like Tom Waits.

Cover of Anywhere I Lay My Head, released in 2008 on Rhino/Atco; image courtesy of tomwaitsuper.blogspot.com

Cover of Anywhere I Lay My Head, released in 2008 on Atco/Rhino; image courtesy of tomwaitsuper.blogspot.com

Now, I don’t consider Waits’s ouvre or anyone else’s to be a sacred text. Songs are malleable. What’s more, covers are really fascinating. When they’re bad, they test what you actually like about the original. When they’re good, they can be transcendent, forcing you to rehear a song you already know and love. The Wire faced this each season when they re-worked Waits’ “Way Down in the Hole” for the opening credits, the original only being heard in season two. Let it be known that I think Steve Earle’s pedantic version for season five that swipes from the theme to Law and Order made me question if this song was actually good. Conversely, The Neville Brothers’ version in season three reminded me that it totally was.

Oh, have you seen The Wire? If you haven’t, you should.

For me, then, it wasn’t so much that Johansson, an actress, dared attempt reworking the songs of the (male) master. I could think of far worse things Johansson could do with her time and resources (get arrested for drugs, get cosmetic surgery, get really skinny, make another movie with Woody Allen).

My big frustration with her Waits covers record, which is where I ended up siding with some of the critics, is that I couldn’t actually hear Johansson. Perhaps putting her vocals so far down in the mix was meant to free her from any tethers to the master’s words. But, to my ears, it kind of sounded more like an attempt for producer David Sitek to upstage her, twiddling knobs and piling on layers of reverb so that her voice lent a “cough medicine/Tinkerbell” vibe to the proceedings. Sitek’s futuristic, anthemic sensibilities usually do it for me, particularly with the work he’s done with Telepathe, The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and his own band, TV on the Radio (aka my favorite band, aka the rock band of the 2000s). But here, I was like “oh, this is really his record.” It seems to make all the difference when she sings the song live.

Despite this setback, Johansson continues to make music. Last summer, she covered Jeff Buckley’s “Last Goodbye” for the soundtrack to He’s Just Not That Into You, a movie I did not see because I figured an ensemble rom-com of needy skinny women, aloof men, and Wilson Cruz being underused would make me yell “feminism!” and throw tampons at the screen and that’s why we watch movies at home. I can’t valorize her efforts, because the original is a song that made me so swoony for the beautiful boy singer that I taped a photo of him in my notebook and spent my allowance money on Grace. Johansson’s version, on the other hand, reminded me of Vonda Shepard. Tepid execution of such a powerful song makes me feel like a wet noodle.

But now Johansson has recorded Break Up, an album she did with Pete Yorn (who has not had the effect on me that Buckley has, but he seems nice enough). If you’d like to hear some songs off the album, along with their interview with NPR, check it out here and then thank my friend Kristen for, once again, pointing you (and me) in the right direction.

Cover to Break Up, released in 2009 on Atco/Rhino; image courtesy of forthempire.info

Cover to Break Up, released in 2009 on Atco/Rhino; image courtesy of forthempire.info

Yorn had Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot‘s collaborations in mind when composing these songs and casting long-time friend Johansson, who he felt was today’s version of the French bombshell.

The music itself sounds fine, and definitely lines Johansson up more closely with the indie-friendly retro cool Deschanel has found for herself. I still feel like her voice, while more expressive and interesting here, seems a bit flat and projectable. And, of course, there’s something potentially unsettling about Johansson being linked with men like Yorn and Sitek who seem to have a little too clear a vision of what they want to construct instead of fostering a more openly collaborative relationship. One could easily extend this reading into a comparison of patriarchal impulses surrounding production between musicians and movie directors. 

So while I don’t want to suggest that Johansson isn’t singing for herself, I also hope she keeps striving to find her own voice.