I tried really hard to like Edie Sedgwick’s debut album Her Love Is Real… But She Is Not. The concept remains very promising: an indie-rocker (Justin Moyer of El Guapo and Antelope) performing as a drag queen and singing songs about celebrity culture while naming himself after a member of the Warhol circle. Sedgwick’s idea—to “be the place where cynicism and sincerity meet”—could lead to interesting takes on gender, politics, performance, and contemporary media culture.
Like I said, I tried, but I couldn’t really do it. The biggest problem: the music. Sedgwick’s backing consists of watered-down electroclash, rarely exciting enough to cause rump-shaking or inventive enough to make you pause (except for the simultaneously straightforward and parodic opening of “Sally Field”). In a sense, she’s chosen her style perfectly—the steady beats and vapid synth work express her conceit. The music’s as flat as the message, which is supposed to be flat to make the other message, which is about the flatness of media-sent messages.
As art, I appreciate it, but in the same way I appreciate some of Gina Pane’s conceptual art: it might have something to say, but I don’t want to return to it. If Pane teeters too often toward shock and Farleyesque gross-out, Sedgwick doesn’t go there often enough. In continuing to stay superficial to make her audience reflect on the surface-level reality of the fake in media, she falls into the common trap of trying to match form to content. At times, such a technique creates a stylistical unity, but in this case it just bores.
Sedgwick does fare better lyrically. “Lucy Liu” sums up the paradoxes nicely: “Girl Power! Fight fight! Just kidding! Not kidding! Bullshit!” Reality becomes lost in a culture of celebrity. Actors become their characters in the public consciousness (Sedgwick returns to this theme repeatedly) and it doesn’t really matter, because that reality has its own form and power.
Reality takes the form of fantasy on the opening track, “Martin Sheen”. Sedgwick sings “He was a Kurtz-killer, pig-destroyer / but now a no-fake President / He is the nation!” Drawing an imaginary line from Apocalypse Now to The West Wing, Sedgwick sets up Sheen’s fictional president as a war hero turned president, mocking the public ability to discern reality. In doing so, though, she anticipates the glory of this moment, cheering for Sheen/Bartlett’s presidency and declaring, “I love living in the USA when Martin Sheen is president.” This closing line returns us to Sedgwick’s delight in celebrity culture: in a land of media-worshippers, a TV star is the nation, and mass media does rule the land. As a character reveling in/exalting/examining that condition (be it, narrator, Sedgwick, or Moyer), the election of Bartlett presents a perfect moment upon which to focus.
While Sedgwick focuses on the idea of celebrity-as-celebrity, she also does critical analysis for application in other readings. “Tom Hanks II” provides a reading of Cast Away that reveals the life-supporting nature of the corporation in a capitalist society. “Fed Ex keeps hope alive!” she sings, reminding us that Hanks’s character left one package unopened while stranded, which he later delivered. If his love and personal urge for survival wouldn’t see him through, his job would. “The company has a soul / The company is the sun.” It’s a cynical idea, but one not out of place in the vacuous surface world that Sedgwick treads.
Sedgwick’s construction of the album deserves a certain degree of admiration. She has things to say, and says them smartly in a po-mo way (even if, as a drag queen, she has little truck with gender issues). The problem is just the deadness of the music. Sedgwick toys with ideas of dead/living among the breathing and closes with images from The Sixth Sense and A.I., but she doesn’t invite us to live. She poses the questions, and in the asking acknowledges the answers, but it’s a performance statement rather than a musical one. As art, it’s interesting enough for an installation (and I still wish I had seen either of the two shows I tried to get to and missed), but as a music album, it just doesn’t sustain itself in its levels of play.