Madilyn Bailey is a pop chronicler of the vicious tendencies of the music industry and the mythology of Los Angeles. On the opening track, “Doomsday in LA”, of her debut album, Hollywood Dead, she uses an apocalyptic scenario to assert her skill at crafting a pop song with a compelling narrative while providing an overview of the album’s themes. The panoramic doomsday scene mirrors the total devastation that the entertainment industry can wreak on the internal lives of its participants while also symbolizing the debauchery that exists externally on a wide scale. “Half the world is on fire; the other half lost its minds,” Bailey proclaims, grounding her assessment of her peers in an image reflecting Southern California’s genuine natural devastation and capturing the contagious air of moral corruption.
Bailey’s depiction of an apocalyptic Los Angeles becomes a parody of the interrogation of the vices Hollywood Dead explores. The fantasy of “Doomsday in LA” grounds the record, although it may seem to bait listeners into thinking the album is as aspirational as the lifestyle it criticizes. However, the absurdity of the apocalypse that Bailey portrays frames Hollywood Dead as a social criticism that is not immune to its own examination. By using fantasy to symbolize the all-or-nothing stakes of success in the entertainment industry, Bailey allows herself to pick apart the details of life in LA throughout the rest of the album without coming across as self-pitying. Although Bailey spends this album picking apart the superficial nature of Hollywood, all pop stars use oversized personas to convey their message.
Pop music lends itself to superficiality as a genre built on the expectation that it should be consumed by the most people possible. This tenant of the genre means it gravitates towards broad themes: falling in love, domestic bliss, or heartbreak, which are sung about without detail. In pop music, the mentally stimulating part of the song isn’t necessarily the lyrics but their ability to channel a feeling of universality that creates community. In recent years, the demands of adhering to this genre’s weighty expectations have also become one of its chief subjects.
In Hollywood Dead, Bailey becomes a chronicler of these expectations, using the title to reflect that stars are considered worthless at a young age in the entertainment industry. The title track is filled with canny protests of relentless beauty standards. (“I’ve got 15 seconds to make a mark / Tomorrow they won’t remember who you are.”) However, to ensure Hollywood Dead succeeds in the industry it impugns, Bailey anchors it with universal tales of empowerment.
In “Wake Up, Juliet”, Bailey tells the story of a downtrodden wife “bored of that white picket life” who almost doesn’t make it out of her small town. Inserting a universally familiar name in the title allows the song to achieve its goal as a pop song: become a recognizable story, while its themes remain consistent with the album’s goal of illuminating the similarities in demands for conformity from homogeneous small towns and the entertainment industry, which was initially a means for escape from those towns.
In “True Crime”, Bailey spins a tale of a night out in LA, combining absurdity with realistic details to create a puzzle that asks listeners to disentangle fantasy from reality. This impossible task illuminates the album’s purpose: to show that, in the entertainment industry, where everything is about image, fantasy and reality are interchangeable. Bailey adds, “Prince Charming… gets a lot of botox and memorizes his lines,” inserting a jab at a familiar Hollywood archetype into a song that doubles as her personal downfall, as she talks about caution tape, white lines drawn in chalk, and flashing lights. The track continues the album’s motif of absurd circumstances that symbolize the moral crimes of the music industry.
Bailey doesn’t shy away from examining her interactions with debauchery either. In “Tattoos and Therapy”, Bailey flirts with healthy alternatives to partying but ultimately gives way to her devilish alter ego, admitting, “I’ll do it all again tomorrow.” Hollywood Dead not only criticizes the machinery that churns out corporate pop but completes a meaningful character analysis of its narrator, who indulges both her tendency to seek out the positive aspects of the music industry, such as its ability to tell stories of empowerment, and who revels in the dark parts of it as well (“I’m going into a spiral, checkin’ my vitals” on “Tattoos and Therapy”). But that duality not only gives the album a sense of dramatic tension but also gives Bailey’s persona its weight.
For pop stars to function as the beacons of inaccessible beauty and youth they often appear to be, the dark side of the entertainment business must always exist as a foil. Doomsday will always be ongoing in Los Angeles and the small towns that Bailey sings about leaving. The threat of doom gives pop stars the power to sell a glamorous fantasy. The ability of Bailey to channel both the glamorousness and the debauchery of Hollywood without her persona becoming torn apart by two opposite poles, in fact, her persona is built on the struggle of these opposing forces, shows that Hollywood Dead might ensure Bailey a long life in the music industry.