I’m writing this letter to thank you. I’ll be the first to admit it’s a strange reaction to your new album, Nobody’s Daughter, but it’s also a sincere one. With even critics who enjoyed the new songs tearing apart your “destroyed” voice and Billy Corgan responding to your public apology with a Twitter rant accusing “u” of, among other things, “having no honor,” I want to acknowledge what it is you’ve given us — the former, current, and future dark, awkward teen girls of the world.
Recently, I wrote something about your name change (which may or may not have been a misunderstanding) as just the most recent and literal move in a biography characterized by failed transformations. Some readers saw this as yet another takedown, but it was just the opposite: It was an observation that, in a world where so many musicians are pure surface, you are always yourself — even if that self can be raw, disordered, insecure, broken. Even when you set out to lie to us, you end up being remarkably honest.
That, I think, is what has finally endeared me to Nobody’s Daughter. On first listen, I admit, the album seemed shrugworthy. “Better than America’s Sweetheart; worse than Celebrity Skin; nowhere near Live Through This,” I thought. But then, mostly because I knew I was going to have to write about it, I made myself live with it for a while.
The imagery is the same, for the most part, as it has been since Pretty on the Inside, two decades ago: whores, drug addicts, ambition, underwear, sin, redemption, that horrible certainty of being marked for a lifetime of hurt. What’s different, I’ve come to realize, is how much clearer and more concrete Nobody’s Daughter is than anything that came before it. Celebrity Skin was a moment of sobriety, but it was also drenched in images of Hollywood stardom and escape, so saturated with the glamor of high-end self-destruction that it was hard to see beyond its beautiful decay. This new album, by contrast, is full of unmitigated ugliness (“Loser Dust’s” stark “in you lays a gutter”) and emotional exhaustion (“Are you down to your bones?” you demand, on “Someone Else’s Bed”). It is full of uncomfortable revelations, from “Pacific Coat Highway’s” humiliating “I’m overwhelmed and undersexed” to “Letter to God,” a song whose unflinchingly confessional lyrics include the heartbreaking, “I’ve been tortured and scorned/Since the day I was born/But I don’t know who I am” and “I never wanted to be/Some kind of comic relief.” Even “Skinny Little Bitch,” which has been widely misunderstood as a swaggering warning to young pretenders to your rock anti-heroine throne, turns painful when we realize you’re actually addressing a weakened, emaciated version of yourself. The title Nobody’s Daughter exudes the loneliness of a woman who actually is estranged from both of her parents. Never let it be said that you’re insufficiently self-aware. Clearly, you understand your personal failings, troubled history, and public image perfectly.
I guess that’s why I don’t mind how worn out and cigarette-burned your voice sounds on Nobody’s Daughter. Just as latter-day Dylan sounds wheezy and weathered and wise, you sing like someone who’s been to hell and back a few dozen times and has the scars to prove it. At a moment when digital wizardry could make Marilyn Manson sound like Justin Bieber, going au naturel with your beat-up yowl is a further statement of honesty. You could have hid behind slick production, but you chose to be real with us instead. When your voice reaches and breaks at the end of the song’s somewhat hopeful closer, “Never Go Hungry Again,” you might as well be singing “Amazing Grace.” You often come off sounding tired and beaten, but in the end, the message is that where others have burned out or faded away, you’ve gritted your teeth and survived. And for all of us who have always rooted for you, against our better judgment, that’s nothing short of inspiring.
So, what I guess I wanted to say was: Thanks for not lying. Thanks for being honest about your vulnerability. Thanks for being one of the only wildly popular, massively famous musicians-cum-tabloid targets who has stayed true to herself. Your anthems of desolation and loneliness and killer ambition and feeling like everyone’s pointing at you and laughing got us through our adolescence and understood us in ways our friends and family rarely could. You taught us that there was something to our anger and isolation. And now, even though we may no longer need you the way we did in junior high, we owe our hard-won confidence and outsider pride, at least in part, to you. You may be nobody’s daughter, but you’re everybody’s sister.