Every summer, there’s that song — the song that defines those sunny days and balmy nights, the one you’ll forever associate with a specific time and place. This week, Talkhouse writers talk their song of the summer of 2014.
— the editors of the Talkhouse
It’s tempting to say that Jenny Lewis’ song “Just One of the Guys” is to outdoor festival sing-alongs as Friday the 13th is to horny summer camp movies. The most striking thing about the song is the mounting disconnect between the sound and the words: it starts with big open chords, an ambling beat and Lewis leaning on the major third from low in her range; the chorus exerts a swaying, arm-waving force that approaches Dolly Parton’s “Here You Come Again.” But against this lovely backdrop, Lewis sets an increasingly conspicuous series of dark and decidedly un-summery lines. The hockey mask guy is waiting in the woods.
You can drift along on the sunny vibes for the first half of the song, not sweating any particular interpretation of the refrain — “No matter how hard I try/to be just one of the guys/There’s a little something inside that won’t let me” — but then the second chorus ends like this: “There’s a little clock inside that keeps ticking.” Suddenly, it sounds less like Lewis (or the character she’s playing) is defying whatever it is to be one of the guys, and more like she’s fighting off a different stereotype, one much closer to home. I can imagine the festivals, the hundreds of eyes briefly going shifty behind their sunglasses.
Then there’s the breakdown, when most of the instruments drop out and Lewis’ voice gets high and brittle:
There’s only one difference between you and me
When I look at myself all I can see
I’m just another…
[Pauses long enough for listener to think, “Another what?”]
…lady without a baby
Clearly she’s dealing with some very private demons, but before you can begin to decide if the song is actually about surrendering to the spinster stereotype, the chorus kicks up again, Lewis is back in full voice and the festival crowd returns to swaying and singing along.
Why this formal friction? Shouldn’t Lewis have taken a cue from the second verse and recorded the song as if she really were “locked in this bathroom, full of tears”?
This is where “Just One of the Guys” stops resembling a sleepaway camp slashfest. The sound does more than throw the lyrics into sharp relief: it gives those dark feelings an undercurrent of hope, and maybe even triumph — the triumph of dragging your demons into the light. Lewis takes on aging, casual sexism and loneliness using the clear-eyed storytelling instincts that drive her best stuff (e.g., “Does He Love You?” from Rilo Kiley’s More Adventurous and the title song off Rabbit Fur Coat). Leaving those thorny themes unresolved only makes the song cut deeper.
Its last two lines — “I’m not gonna pay for you/That’s not what ladies do” — remind me not of Lewis’ Nashville or Laurel Canyon forebears, but of Kanye West’s “New Slaves”: “Y’all throwing contracts at me/You know that niggers can’t read.” Both songs jab their fingers into open wounds of identity. Is Lewis mocking a stereotype — trophy woman expecting chivalrous man to pick up the check — or embodying it? Couldn’t say; all we know is that after those lines the song bursts into a final chorus, the words replaced with da-da-das. If you’re not singing along by then, I can only assume you’re passed out in a Porta-Potty.
The result of those contradictions is a song, the first single from her upcoming album The Voyager, that’s joyful where it could have been cynical or despairing; its steady velocity speaks as loud as the words. “Just One of the Guys” is a summer jam that also speaks for the depressing parties, the hangovers and the helplessness against days and years flying past. They should all be smart enough to contain those “lady without a baby” moments: something to snap us out of the beery groupthink, just for a second, and bring us back to ourselves.