Monday, July 9th, 2018

Laura Jean – Girls on the TV

Melbourne singer goes back to high school, discovers synths…


Jonathan Bradley: Laura Jean’s self-titled album, her fourth — it is now four years old — is a skeletal folk record: it sounds like an Australia I don’t often hear in pop song or mass media. It drew wintry charcoal sketches of Melbourne city parks and lonely stretches of national highways. The gothic domesticity acted like blotting paper, pressing against the natural rhythms of life and recording them in irrupted detail. Against this backdrop, “Girls on the TV” is a new single awash with astonishing colour: pastel synth swirls and a disco bass pulse pushing through the mix. Removed from context, this pop impulse might not be so unexpected, but I hear in Jean’s airy, wavering tones an artist reinventing herself as the introspective rejoinder to the vivant throwback fervor of Betty Who or Catcall. And yet even in this new guise, Jean’s bleak folk endures, with an anecdotal lyric that carefully and precisely narrates the drawn-out process of a girlhood destroyed. Ricky, who can “dance like the girls on the TV,” is a childhood friend whose joy in the physical possibilities of her body is commodified and contaminated: by demanding teachers who ask her to perform feats she cannot, by cruel classmates who tease her for her weight, and by adult men who make sexual demands upon her. “Girls on the TV” is a sad song of youth that is made sadder by how keenly aware it is of the libertine and evanescent possibilities of the pop it embraces.

Rebecca A. Gowns: “Girls on the TV” falls into that tricky vein of narrative pop songs; telling a full story can be hard to pull off without coming across as maudlin or pretentious or just clunky, but Laura Jean executes it perfectly. It’s a story about a woman extending compassion to her sister — or friend, or possibly even an old lover/crush — but it tugs at me the most when I think of them as siblings. It’s got to be, right? This kind of bittersweet, constant reminiscing reminds me of the pangs I get when I think about my little brother. We grew up so close. We’re so different today. We keep reaching out to each other, grasping each other’s hands through gaps in a wall that keeps building then falling down then building up again. But every time I see him, no matter the year, no matter the occasion, I’ll think of the way we danced when we were kids, singing along to music videos, pulling faces, promising each other we’d be in a band together someday. “Someday” — and then time flies, and people change — but the memory remains. This is that feeling in a crystal bottle.

Will Adams: “Girls on the TV” plays like a memory you visit while idly passing the time. The vault you access in your mind safe and warm, bordered by storybook clouds and soundtracked by dreamy synthpop. But, as always, the details that pierce through the most are the ones you want to remember the least: authority figures pressuring you to overexert yourself; peers excavating your every flaw and parading them about; parents imposing their austere lifestyle on you; abusers reducing you to a vessel for their pleasure; the eventual realization that everyone around you has moved forward, gotten hitched, settled down, while you remain stuck in place, feet swamped with the mud of an unkind youth. But those dancing girls are still there, as is the lingering promise that, one day, you could be one of them too.

Katherine St Asaph: A tale of dashed female friendship akin to Who Will Run the Frog Hospital or Cat’s Eye; what it loses in prose it gains in a kaleidoscopic, wistful arrangement. It fills its six minutes well; like memory itself, it’s alternatingly immediate and almost photorealistic (that one deep synth around 0:30), then languid and ungraspable.

Alfred Soto: The rare single whose insistence on taking its time pays off, “Girls on the TV” sparkles like distant stars, its synthesizers a platform instead of hoping to get noticed. The pace and arrangement suits Laura Jean’s remarkable performance: a damaged meditation on loving someone you can see and hear but can’t touch and all the better for it — “Space Age Love Song” and “TVC 15” without the spritz. “She could always dance better than me,” Jean repeats: a statement of fact, mild complaint, and prayer. 

Vikram Joseph: A languorously paced, well-written coming-of-age story about female friendship and crushed dreams. The airy, breathy pre-chorus is a particularly good showcase for Laura Jean’s vocals. It’s unlikely to get the blood racing — sonically, it’s undeniably a bit adult contemporary — but it owns the middle of the road better than 95 per cent of the stuff you’d hear on drive-time radio. 

Julian Axelrod: An immersive, deeply felt meditation on ambition and destiny, sung with the resignation of a woman long since disillusioned with both. The longer I sit with it, the more its faults feel like strengths: Its leisurely runtime reflects time’s slow and relentless march, while its dourness finds balance in its faint glimmers of hope. After living within it for a week, it already feels like I’ve carried this story with me my entire life.

Peter Ryan: The languid quality is perfect misdirection, masking what’s going on until the chords break open at the chorus. What emerges is an unflinching sketch of a web connecting childhood pain, coping attempts, and “contemporary adult life.” There’s no glib gesturing toward resilience, and instead of pity or judgment I hear an indictment of actual and would-be tormentors. Laura Jean brings a sibling’s testimony, one that doesn’t seek to bridge the gulf between shared upbringing and shared experience, and is all the more potent for it. The wrapping is more chiffon than velvet, but underneath is still an iron fist.

Jonathan Bogart: A folkie’s idea of dance music, muted and unflustered, with warm electric bass and polyrhythms played by actual hands rather than programming. Sweet, certainly, and the lyrics’ sketch of childhood and adolescent friendship are well-observed and touching without being sentimental. Which is the trouble: the whole production is an exercise in keeping vulgarity, of which sentimentality is one expression, and actual dance music that makes you sweat another, at arm’s length.

Alex Clifton: Like if Belle & Sebastian’s “Expectations” was twice as long with more disco. Laura Jean has the same gifts for both character and melody Stuart Murdoch has. The dreamy backing helps it go by as quickly as my teenage years did, and her falsetto for the chorus haunts the rest of the song like a memory. It’s steeped in nostalgia, but is there any other way to write about adolescence?

William John: Like half the Internet, I’ve been preoccupied with Hannah Gadsby’s Nanette for the past few weeks: a subversive, quasi-TED Talk comedy special that blew my mind when I first saw it in a theatre late last year. Now on Netflix, Nanette is hard to distill succinctly, but central to its significance is its blunt presentation of the devastation rapacious men can effect on others. That devastation lingers in those victims and continues to humiliate them for years — decades, even — afterward. In “Girls on the TV,” fellow Australian woman Laura Jean presents an unvarnished picture of friend Ricky, a bullied, vulnerable, talented tap dancer, and reminisces wistfully upon the relationship they formed as members of the high school concert band. In the fourth verse, a new character is introduced — Jean’s mother’s boyfriend, a violent, young, and predatory 21 year old. In a line excised from the video edit of the song, Jean notes that after Ricky’s encounter with this man, she felt like she “didn’t know her, or how she got that way”; there is no explicit cause-and-effect drawn, but the implication for the listener is that this incident had extensive ramifications for Ricky that included cocaine addiction and relationships with married men. It’s a sad story that demonstrates the way the action of a third party can destabilise and dismantle a friendship, but it’s told with a compelling breathiness by Jean that seems to gather more and more momentum with each passing second. I’m unaccustomed to hearing such brusque, direct, and yet tender third-person storytelling in modern synth-pop. The importance of storytelling is central to Gadsby’s Nanette — stories “hold our cure,” she says, and have the power to forge connection. Jean’s memories of sitting in front of rage on a Saturday morning when young serve as an access point into an important story that deserved to be recounted.

Reader average: [7.14] (14 votes)

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One Response to “Laura Jean – Girls on the TV”

  1. So much absolutely gorgeous writing here which makes me want to go back and connect with this song more deeply than I have done