The thing about The Family Jewels is that nothing is subtle, nothing is hidden. Every one of its themes is displayed like a chip on its shoulder. Family Jewels is muscular, guttural, too much organic pushing through the plastic surface. That is the beauty of this album, honestly, the thing that makes it kind of enthralling and incandescent. The thing about The Family Jewels is it opens with a thesis song, a song that is so overtly a thesis that it seems almost laughable, ought to loop back around on itself and be reflexively unimportant. That is something to be considered about this album, the brash overtness of it, the way it seems to spit all of your own worst fears back at you.
Family Jewels opens with “Are You Satisfied?” which I almost can’t listen to anymore. It’s too much, this rapid-fire litany of the things I used to be and still am afraid of. They say I’m a control freak, driven by a need to succeed. I mean, as a lyric it’s almost laughable, right? Who even rhymes “need” with “succeed”? People read this as smugness a lot, as some sort of tongue-in-cheek reversible truth-telling, but I don’t know. There is something fundamentally true here, about the conversation between “I’m a control freak” and “They say I’m a control freak”, not mutually exclusive but words and worlds apart. “Are You Satisfied?” is like that, too much for me then and still too much for me now. It’s my problem if I have no friends and feel I want to die. I used to be infinitely more lonely and suicidal than I am now and there is something about this, implacably clear about its intention, that comforts me. There is something in that plainness, god, it’s like being punched in the gut. I have no friends and feel I want to die. The chorus of this song is like being endlessly goaded. Are you satisfied with an average life? Do I need to lie to make my way in life? Are you, are you, are you? Better not say yes. Better not ever be satisfied. It drags you along, doesn’t pretend not to.
It is hard to explain how I used to hold this song particularly close. It was on my “getting into college” mix, would you believe that, sixteen year old me bullying herself into wanting things properly, correctly, with the right amount of desperation. (I have never needed encouragement to want things desperately.) It is so easy to breeze right through the pronoun switch here, from “you” to “I” without a second thought. There is a beautiful, horrifying elasticity to this, either someone goading you and then suddenly turning thoughtful or you yourself becoming the vocalizer of all these doubts. There’s truth in that, too, the voice coming from inside: “it’s my problem that I never am happy”, too self-aware, too much.
“Oh No!” is, probably, the album’s clearest pair with “Are You Satisfied?”, equally interested in the shiny skin that ambition drags over all of our insides. “Oh No!” is such a good pop song, is the thing. It is so aggressively punchy, nearly comical in how exaggerated the beat is, how much she twists her voice so that it becomes percussive and throaty. Don’t do love, don’t do friends, I’m only after success. Don’t need a re-llllay-shun-ship, I’ll never soften my grip. It’s a litany, a thing repeated enough times to make it true.
One track mind, one track heart
If I fail, I’ll fall apart
Maybe it is all a test
Cause I feel like I’m the worst
So I always act like I’m the best
Listen, it’s very easy to know things about myself if they’re always couched in metaphor. It’s comfortable that way, personality test results, you know. Nice things, only vaguely tangible, applicable if I tilt my head and squint. I’ve taken so many personality tests in my life and then there is this. ONE TRACK MIND, ONE TRACK HEART. IF I FAIL, I’LL FALL APART. There is no room to hide here. I feel like I’m the worst / So I always act like I’m the best: the way that this album talks about performativity is strange to me, so purposefully unperformative, the clearest conceit of sincerity I’ve ever seen. That sincerity, in and of itself, is a challenge.
It is strangely affirmative, to sing along with this song. I feel like I’m the worst so I always act like I’m the best!!!! at the top of my lungs. Isn’t it embarrassing, to be told these things about someone else, without even a little sense that it’s all an ironic joke? I feel like I’m the worst. The album seems to grin, seems to dare you to be embarassed. These songs are produced to an ultra-shine gloss and there is still something naked about them. “Oh No!” has the words I just want a change / I just wanna change over and over again. It’s not clear which it is, if you’re the one that’s changing or just the stuff around you. It doesn’t matter. I just want a change drags the importance of change, any kind of change, throughout the entire album. This album hurls the worst things about yourself back at you, reflexively hyper-honest in its performativity, the sincerity that could seem ironic reflected back as not ironic at all. That’s good, though. It reminds you to be a person. It reminds you that things can still hurt you.
If “Are You Satisfied?” is this album’s initial thesis, then “I Am Not A Robot” is the clearest resolution of that thesis. Listen: when I was thirteen and fourteen and fifteen, I liked to pretend I was a robot, just a cool gaze and a bundle of wires where my guts ought to be. A terrifying apparition, this dimpled frizzy-haired scion-minded child, her eyes set only upwards and forwards. I pictured myself: my skin enameled, the inside of me cool and gleaming. I was a frantic mess and being human was very complicated and so at some point I just decided not, not to be, not to feel anything. I was good at it, for a while: I’m now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy (oh no!) But people aren’t meant to do that for too long. You’re vulnerable, so vulnerable, you are not a robot. I am not a robot and “Are You Satisfied?” doesn’t become reflexively unimportant, exactly, just reflexively kind. It is not particularly tender but its brutality transforms into a kind of triage. Its ruthless dissection of my flaws is the logical extension of “you’re vulnerable” – here, look, she’ll prove it.
Without “I Am Not A Robot” this might just be an album full of things I am still trying to unlearn, figuring out how to accept being a person, being both soft and made of brambles. With this song, though, every other self-fulfilled prophecy becomes a kindness, a reminder. “I Am Not A Robot” opens “you’ve been acting awful tough lately” and is so laughably warm and fond, ought to be patronizing but isn’t. Once you listen to “I Am Not A Robot”, “it’s my problem if I have no friends and feel I want to die”, is, at the very least, a confession of vulnerability. I used to believe very secretly but very firmly that if you cut me open all that ought to come out would be wires, every failure a simply malfunction, the only necessary remedy a simple rewiring. (Thinking of my insides as flowers instead of circuitry is not more true but it is better, I think.) If I fail I’ll fall apart directly refutes that, is so desperately uncomfortable because it forces the idea of vulnerability. Vulnerability is not inherently a good thing but it is a true thing, a human thing. Robots do not fall apart. Robots are rebooted, robots are rewired. You are not a robot, I am not a robot.
The chorus of “Oh No!” comes back again, still far too close:
I know exactly what I want and who I want to be
I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine
I’m now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy
I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine, not as a machine. This is the album’s triumphant proposal: you know you’re a person because you try so hard not to be. I know exactly why I walk and talk like a machine. God, it is so human to pretend you’re not a person. It’s such a silly, person-thing to do. The “I know exactly” falls away in the face of “I Am Not A Robot”‘s you’ve been acting awful tough lately, but what remains is the desperation. The Family Jewels throws your own vulnerability back into your face and it also grants you this: I’m now becoming my own self-fulfilled prophecy. This line still scares me, this song still scares me. It doesn’t seem like a kindness at first, but it is. The empathy of process: you’re becoming. It doesn’t matter what, not really; what matters is the becoming itself. I just want a change, I just want to change. You are allowed to be desperate and amorphous, always just short of that gleaming iconography. You are meant to fail. We are all becoming. We are all terrified.
The Family Jewels ends on “Numb”: The lower I get the higher I’ll climb / And I will wonder why I got dark only to shine.