Pop music red flag #1 starts waving before Lindsay Lohan’s tepid new album even begins, as soon as one sees its cover art. Suffice it to say, the commodification of the artist’s body may or may not be integral to this genre, but if it’s going to be done, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Shakira’s latest album, for instance, does it the right way. The cover of A Little More Personal (Raw), which seems to be an essay on the dangers of streaking past glowstick factories when they happen to explode, does not, unless its goal was to evoke memories of Susan Dey receiving a full-body laser scan in the 1981 movie Looker.
The red flags run rampant in this album, which has all the personality of HAL 9000. On the topic of covers, it delivers not one but two mangled atrocities. Cheap Trick’s “I Want You to Want Me” has been covered by everyone from Dwight Yoakam to Propagandhi, and if it’s been done worse, I haven’t heard it. Over the dullest beats this side of the pre-programmed polka button on my grandmother’s keyboard, Lohan chirps out the lyrics with a nearly avant-(disre)garde take on the notion of melody. She also thoroughly sanitizes Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen”, blasting the song’s cavernous emotional topography into flatlands that could give North Dakota a run for its money. Where longing, manipulation and regret once flowed, synthetic-sounding strings now join Lohan’s synthetic voice, which conveys none of the resonance in Nicks’ own. Lohan’s website calls the two covers “alluring and gutsy”. Which they are, compared to, say, Muzak’s latest take on “Yesterday”. To find anything less “raw” would require a powerful grill.
When it comes to originals the album fares about as poorly. Its first track and lead single, “Confessions of a Broken Heart (Daughter to Father)”, immediately commences with a line about “wait[ing] for the postman to bring me a letter”, which suggests songwriters dipping into the well of cliché without worrying about freshness. The world might not need another version of Britney Spears’ “E-Mail My Heart”, but good lord, that song came out in 1999. Perhaps a text-message might arrive faster than snail-mail in late 2005, should Lohan’s song-persona deign to enter the 21st century. From its insipid beginning the song goes on to strive for the bombastic balladry of Celine Dion, which it fails to achieve on the basis of its maudlin lyrics (in which our singer wears her father’s polo sweaters and bleats out questions such as “did u ever love me”, as the lyric sheet has it) and Lohan’s extremely limited, practically tinny voice.
This yearning for a connection with an absent father serves as the album’s central conceit. As a theme it can be devastatingly effective; witness Everclear’s “Father of Mine”. But A Little More Personal profoundly misconceives the emotional parameters of factory-produced, chart-oriented pop songs. Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” this is not, though the lyrics of “My Innocence”, with nuggets like “you broke me in with your mistakes” and “you took my innocence away”, certainly invite disquieting, albeit certainly uninvited, readings. Family dysfunction may well be the archetypal American narrative, running from the aristocratic Byrds of colonial Virginia to the somewhat more plebian folks on Trading Spouses, but Lohan’s narrative of paternal emotional distance, intertwined as it is with bad cover songs and tunes about boyfriends and “living in the fastlane”, comes off as contrived and Culkinesque. When Lohan purrs, “nobody gets me off the way that you do” to an unnamed boyfriend (“JL” pops up repeatedly in the acknowledgments, for those who pursue such data), it somehow mitigates her angst. That track, “Who Loves You”, provides rare hooks in a largely toothless album, but it also gives Lohan a chance to return to one of the worst double-entendres in recent pop history. Having already informed potential suitors that “I wanna come first” on “First”, Lohan now applauds her man for “com[ing] everywhere”. Before conservatives can get upset, though, she makes sure to begin and end the album with songs that reference God.
“Who Loves You” offers Kylie-Minogue-worthy “oohs” and brings a few moments of relief from the turgid parade of dross. But for the most part A Little More Personal oscillates between dull ballads, bad covers, and interchangeable guitar-driven stabs at emulating Kelly Clarkson’s acclaimed “Since U Been Gone”. “Black Hole” and “I Live for the Day” sound nearly identical, which makes their placement as tracks two and three a questionable decision. The equally uninteresting title track offers a rare sonic surprise when it stops abruptly in the middle of a verse, but the only real effect is to spare us another go at the lackluster chorus.
What can one expect from an album that promises to get more personal but includes lyrics declaring, “no one knows how I feel inside/And I’m keeping it that way” (from “Fastlane”)? Mandy Moore has shown how a pop star can reinvent herself as a classy chauntese with sophisticated cover songs. Ashlee Simpson has shown how even fairly vapid pop born in the manufactured shadows of someone else’s dream can turn surprisingly engaging with some personality. Even t.A.T.u. has proven that a heterofied remake of a queer debut can grow on listeners, provided the formula was strong to begin with. With A Little More Personal, Lindsay Lohan reminds us that, despite such blossoms, pop still has the potential to climb the charts while combining blandness, banality and vapidity.