When Vampire Weekend released Modern Vampires of the City late last spring, several critics praised the album and group’s burgeoning maturity. The markers were easy to hear—the multi-textured production aesthetic, the religious references, the desire to nest, the mourning of geography lost to memory, the jolting intimacies of road trip arguments, the extracted wisdom teeth. Their third album is great. I was particularly struck by Rostram Batmanglij and Ezra Koenig’s evolution as composers. Their work with producer Ariel Rechtshaid is confident and balanced. They motivate the varied sonic elements and flourishes on this record by giving them a sense of space. Koenig continues to improve as a songwriter as well, shading his stories and monologues with rich character detail and incessant melody.
I stopped short of using “mature” to describe the album. What does that word mean in this context? Is a quartet of Columbia alum older and therefore wiser simply because they started meditating on God, mortgages, and mortality in their late 20s? Or was it that they became better at editing themselves in the studio? So often, “maturity” seems bound up in discourses of refinement and respectability. If that’s the case, what do we do with a track like “Diane Young,” a short, kaleidoscopic freakout about being cut down in the prime of life that sounds a bit like George Michael’s “Faith”?
How is maturity gendered? Last year, I kept returning to Fiona Apple’s excellent 2012 album The Idler Wheel… I love a lot of things about that record. Since female vocals were my transitional object, I focus on her voice. Apple’s lower register was always a sign of her maturity. When she started her recording career as a teenager, some dismissed it as precocious or pathologized it as a remnant of the sexual violence she survived as a child. But as Apple has gotten older, there’s such variety to her low notes. Sometimes they fray out of fatigue or boredom. Sometimes they land like bullets. Sometimes they curl up from anxiety or erotic anticipation. Her upper register is beautifully elastic and without vanity. Her ear for phrasing continues to sharpen, gracefully making conversation and inner monologue swerve, dip, and pivot like a choreographer.
But what I identify with most about Idler is how evocatively Apple’s lyrics capture the uncertainty that comes from getting older. You may accumulate experience as you age. People may perceive you as wise when they look upon the gray streaks in your hair and the drawn lines upon your face. But you may not feel wise when you’re crying over dinner, losing yourself in a person, or sitting alone in your apartment. In those moments, you don’t always feel mature. And if maturity is bound up in certain rites of passage and markers of fiscal responsibility—marriage, parenthood, property acquisition—that you haven’t achieved or can’t meet, you might feel pretty childish.
Yet you may also know yourself more. You may have a better sense of your preferences, behavioral cues, bad habits, or scripts. You may know better what you look for in companionship. You may better understand who you can trust with multiple dimensions of yourself and who you can’t. You may stop trying to impress people or compare yourself to your perception of others’ successes. You may get better at listening and articulating need and learning from past mistakes. That might mean the wrinkles and streaks that line and shade your face represent a wisdom that comes from ambivalence.
Being young and famous seems like the worst. It seems like such a fleeting, exhaustive, uncertain thing to hang your identity upon. It plays chicken with failure. The tonal shift between Justin Bieber’s two mug shots illustrates this nicely, as well as the wrecked complexion and bewildered gaze in both photographs. It’s why Miley Cyrus’ “We Can’t Stop” sounds like a funeral dirge.
I’m currently researching female pop star fragrance collections. At the moment, I’m exploring how Jennifer Lopez and Britney Spears’ respective licensing arrangements with Coty, Inc. and Elizabeth Arden influenced this paratextual extension of postfeminist celebrity labor. As I’ve been digging through the trades, I’ve been most struck by how Spears’ partnership with Elizabeth Arden served as a way to allay industrial and cultural anxiety surrounding her declining musical career and mental health in the mid- to late 2000s. At the same time, sustaining a fragrance collection puts pressure on pop stars to reinvent and fragment themselves with each campaign. One fragrance is not enough. The market relies upon turning pop stars into brands that are supported by fractured, regenerative sexiness and discursively invisible manufacturing practices.
In American Hustle, Jennifer Lawrence’s character professes to love the smell of top coat, which is “perfume-y but there’s also something rotten.” Cosmetics promise us youth and newness, but their properties change as we wear them on our skin. My wrists smell differently at the end of the day from when I apply an invigorating spritz to them as part of my morning routine.
Fiona Apple doesn’t have her own fragrance collection. When she kissed off the VMAs in 1997, she revoked her chances for such licensing ventures. I feel guilty that this was the moment when I started to like Apple. I was skeptical of Apple when her debut album, Tidal, came out in 1996. Though I was happy to see a wave of angry young women seize the air, I was concerned about how this might get co-opted and homogenized. I was also incredulous of her age, perhaps for similar reasons why people take issue with Lorde. What if people latched onto her, only to drain her resources and cast her aside before she turned 25?
If “respectability” is hegemonic, then how do we understand immaturity? I want to resist constructing a simple binary that casts it as maturity’s opposite, particularly because the demarcations between childhood, adolescence, and adulthood aren’t so neatly delineated. I keep replaying another VMA moment over in my head. Miley Cyrus’ performance late last summer upset me. I carried it with me into the classroom the following fall, often referring to it or to her trajectory and confronting the performance directly in a lecture I gave on intersectionality. Many critics objected to her lewd behavior. I didn’t really care about Cyrus cavorting in a beige bikini and waving a foam finger. Much of her performance felt like a rite of passage. Spears stripped down to a rhinestone-studded beige bodysuit in 2000. At least there was something agentic and humorous about Cyrus’ display, like she was making fun of sexy.
What made my stomach turn was Cyrus’ racial appropriation. This was why I asked students what it meant for her to take up visual signifiers of ratchet culture as a white woman and how it means differently when black female pop stars like Beyoncé take them up. How would we feel if Rihanna performed this song, since writer-producer Mike WiLL Made It originally pitched it to her? What surprised me was that this wasn’t the issue about Cyrus’ performance for many people. What did it mean for Cyrus to hire the LA Bakers as her back-up dancers for the video and VMA performance for “We Can’t Stop”? What did Amazon Ashley’s presence—her height, her size—mean? What did it mean for Cyrus to slap her ass? What do we do with their labor? What does their participation mean to them? What does it mean to Cyrus?
Madonna’s performance of “Like a Virgin” at the 1984 VMAs may have created the template for young female pop stars with designs on integrating sexual maturity into their brand. But Cyrus’ performance of “We Can’t Stop” brought to mind Madonna’s performance of “Vogue” at the 1990 ceremony, which heavily referenced Marie Antoinette. I thought about the presence of black and Latin bodies as servants and members of the court. On the one hand, it was interesting to see these subjects get written into such Eurocentric histories. On the other hand, their presence doesn’t challenge Madonna’s ability to rule from the center. I thought about the dancers. What did their work mean for Madonna? What did it mean to them? For example, in one interview, back-up dancer Niki Harris recalled hearing the concept for the performance. She reminded Madonna that white powder didn’t look good on black skin.
What bothers me about Cyrus is that she’s consistently defended, excused, or explained away her VMA performance. Sometimes it seems like she’s trolling us. At least Cyrus hasn’t covered Lou Reed’s “I Wanna Be Black.” Perhaps taking time out of an interview to entertain the other side of the debate would keep her from staying on message, but I worry that Cyrus’ dismissal of such critique suggests that pop means never having to say you’re sorry. But some great music came out of apologies and reappraisals. In the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of hearing women like Apple, Beyoncé, Janelle Monaé, Cat Power, Erykah Badu, and Neko Case challenge maturity. Perhaps Cyrus will change her tune as she gets older and more ambivalent.