Music

Not Just One of the Guys: The Enduring Power of Jenny Lewis

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You probably wouldn’t be surprised to see the strawberry-haired, indie rock songstress Jenny Lewis headlining Lilith Fair, but you also wouldn’t expect it.

Lewis could easily be miscast as female-driven festival fare. That’s because Lewis’ music usually colors in many feminist themes, showcasing her own feminist character: a woman who is both weary and unafraid of men, having done wrong to them and been wronged by them. Her latest release, and first record in six years, The Voyager is probably the biggest testament to her unique brand of feminism. It’s brimming with feminist ideas, but with a subtlety and finesse that saves it from only being labeled as such. Lewis is a tightrope walker, and her unique, breathy body of work takes up a space that is itself incredibly ideal. It’s that important feminist distinction — that art, people, or anything really that can be identified as “feminist” doesn’t have to be exclusively defined that way. The question is — how did Jenny Lewis achieve such an elusive feat?

The first place to start is with Lewis herself. Lewis has been able to effortlessly craft a persona that is universally lovable — at least within the realm of the demographic to which she appeals. She’s managed to maintain a constant and steady coolness over the course of her over 16 years as an artist, both sonically and aesthetically. She strikes a balance between the precious and the seductive — qualities that polarize most female indie musicians from Regina Spektor to Karen O. — and instead occupies a space that evades categorization and is thus much more relatable. She’s allowed for her own personal dramas to unfold somewhat publicaly, mainly with long time boyfriend Jonathan Rice, while also remaining reticent in demeanor. Her capacity to take on new sounds, while still always being centered in what seems to be her true artistic intent, lends her both mystery and credibility. It’s given Lewis a celebrity that is powerful without being obtrusive.

Working off of that respect, the crux of Lewis’ quiet yet strong feminism is its honesty. The Voyager is also not an anomaly, as she’s been curating that carefully-worded voice for years. All it takes is one listen to 2005’s Rilo Kiley hit “Portions For Foxes” — with lyrics that dance around the idea of sleeping with someone even when you know it’s a bad idea – to know that she’s willing to voice something that goes beyond sexual prowess or female independence. But with Rilo Kiley officially separating, along with what seems to have been a sabbatical, it looks as if Lewis has finally surpassed what was already perceived as her defining ethos, to take on a much more pointed and fearless question: what it means to be a woman in rock.

In today’s age of incredibly divisive internet feminism laden with commenter wars, it’s hard to differentiate between factions. Even though we all need a power anthem every now and then to get us through Zumba, songs like Katy Perry’s “Roar” and Rihanna’s “S&M” are mere cardio-friendly nods to a world that doesn’t exist outside manifesto. That kind of assertive feminism suggests that women overcoming oppression requires we enhance a male idea of power and sexuality, rather than embrace whatever it is one identifies as female. Queue The Voyager.

The album comes out of the gate with “Head Underwater,” a song that takes the abhorred concept of gaslighting and kicks it to the moon. Lewis converts the ill-conceived and prolifically perpetuated female “crazy” into a strength. With anthemic drums, choral backup vocals, and synth, she reinvigorates the idea of a woman losing her shit as a life-affirming tool. She sings “I’m not the same woman you are used to,” with a confident confessional that is simultaneously crushing and empowering. In the song she shamelessly takes a blanket into the bath, wakes up in the grass and contemplates death, while coming to the ultimate conclusion that “there’s a little bit of magic, everybody has it.”

The album’s first single, “Just One Of The Guys,” is probably the album’s most overtly feminist, but also its most tongue-in-cheek. The song addresses the ever increasing dilemma for women to have a career or children. The question is tired, but Lewis modernizes the debate by describing the kind of woman who is “just one of the guys,” but is still influenced by both a societal and instinctual urge to have children. Lewis gives the argument life beyond the 80s-movie, sensible shoes in a tote bag archetype, to embrace a modern woman who has surpassed boundaries but is still distracted by a societal norm. Regardless, the song is probably the most playful on the album, complete with a music video featuring Kristen Stewart, Brie Larson, and Anne Hathaway in drag, which speaks to Lewis’ ability to make tough topics digestible.

The crown feminist jewel of the album, though, is probably “She’s Not Me,” in that the song cops to all of the realities of womanhood that aren’t so glossy. From cheating on the love of her life, to negotiating the insecurity of being alone, to asserting that her replacement is “just easy,” the song goes to all of the real human places that often get women categorized as “crazy,” while taking accountability for them. It’s often implied by men that women have no control over their emotions, and this song shatters that concept. Lewis makes these qualities human, rather than female.

Ultimately it’s obvious that Lewis didn’t set out to make feminist album, and why would we have wanted her to? What does shine through is that she is a feminist who makes art, who is both not ruled by that feminism, and is also alright with those ideals . She told the National Post, “For me personally, I just try and prove myself in my work. I’m just trying to get better at what I do, and hopefully that will impact women in music, and hopefully the girls in the crowd will see me up there as a bandleader and think, ‘Wow, maybe I can do that one day.'”