If everyone you know is making an album, is it really a vanity project when you make one, too, or is it just peer pressure? Such is the taxonomic problem with which we’re faced when it comes to Speak, Lindsay Lohan’s 2004 Casablanca Records debut LP. While previous entrants in this series may have made their albums at the behest of savvy record labels, as with Ian McShane and Milla Jovovich, or to satisfy their own artistic ambition, as with Corey Feldman and Crispin Glover, the years surrounding Lohan’s album would see releases—some very good ones, it should be said—from peers like Paris Hilton,
Mandy Moore, Ashlee Simpson, and Hilary Duff. Releasing a teenpop album was simply what you did as an up-and-coming starlet in the mid-aughts. Some of these artists have gone on to sustained careers, but others’ efforts have stood alone as the one- or two-off cash-ins that have characterized teen stars since time immemorial (i.e., the 50s). Of course, cash-ins like Speak have as much of a chance of being a high-quality album as anything else. But does Lindsay’s album rise to the occasion?
THE SONGS: As was the style at the time, all are fresh originals either peeled from the stack of producer demos floating through the laptops of A&Rs worldwide, or written specifically for the album. Lohan receives co-writing credit on five of the twelve tracks, including the big one, “Rumors,” which is, sad to say, not a cover of the entire Fleetwood Mac album compressed into three minutes and sixteen seconds.
THE PACKAGING: God, that cover—it’s just awful, isn’t it? Seen from a distance Lindsay appears to be staring upward and biting her finger like someone pretending to be an airhead; once you get in close the full eyelock emerges, but then you notice everything around the picture. It’s like the designer was trying to win an award for sub-Avrilisms, or was rushed for time and used Blingee instead of Photoshop. And what is that written on the fake notebook paper? “Passion,” OK, that makes sense, “peace,” “religion,” “sex,” gotcha loud and clear. But “plug”? And all the random French words, some next to their English equivalent? Or is “politics / politique” meant to refer to the seventeenth-century wars between the Huguenots and Catholics? Inside, the rest of it’s fairly standard-issue stuff if you’re familiar with Lohan’s moving-beyond-Disney-but-still-kinda-Disney media image in 2004 (Lindsay slings a guitar, Lindsay looks provocative in a white shirt, Lindsay wears a tan golf cap for some reason), but taken with the cover the whole thing is baffling. It’s like someone who’s never met a teenage girl was locked in a room and told he couldn’t come out until he’d designed something that would appeal to teenage girls.
DID IT SELL?: Yep: #4 on the US charts and platinum domestically, plus another million and a half worldwide.
CURRENT AVAILABILITY: Still in print.
SKETCHINESS OF LABEL: So-so. Casablanca released albums by Kiss and Donna Summer in the 70s, but was shuttered from the mid-80s until 2000, when it was relaunched by Universal honcho Tommy Mottola to some fanfare. Aside from Lohan and a couple of other artists, though, it failed to find an audience and went quiet again in 2009.
MOST HILARIOUS QUOTE FROM AN AMAZON REVIEW OF THE ALBUM: “Jennifer Lopez is without question a below-average vocalist, but miraculously managed to sell millions of albums. She succeeded during a time where sex appeal was everything, and talent was not a necessity – which also explains the stunning success of lip-syncing flunkies like Spears.” (This is a quote from a review of the Lindsay Lohan album.)
WHO MADE IT: The songs come from some of the bigger producers of the day, like Andreas Carlsson of “I Want It That Way” fame, but almost every track on the album was produced by Kara DioGuardi and John Shanks. (Lohan’s original idea for her debut album was to work with Gloria Estefan’s husband, but sadly, that didn’t pan out; she’d also briefly considered working with Randy Jackson and Diane Warren.) Before DioGuardi was a judge on “American Idol,” she and Shanks produced a remarkable number of The Albums That Sound Like That From The Mid-00s. They were the power behind the throne of the guitar-heavy flavor of teenpop. The sound is a sort of amalgamation of everyone on MTV’s “Total Request Live,” the Rosetta Stone of pop music from 1999 to 2006, and while the sound is most widely known from production team The Matrix’s work with Avril Lavigne, DioGuardi and Shanks were the ones who made it work everywhere. If you take the Swedish electro-pop of Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys, add in both Blink-182’s pop-punk and KoRN’s pop-metal, and throw in the occasional bit of Shania Twain or Sheryl Crow’s pop-country, you get the DioGuardi/Shanks formula. It was versatile enough to work for both Ashlee Simpson and Bon Jovi, and briefly brought guitar music back into the mainstream. The songwriting scene of the mid-aughts was mobile and versatile (the Matrix made their own album as artists, which Katy Perry was a co-writer on pre-“I Kissed a Girl”; Lady Gaga co-wrote with production team RedOne of “Starships” fame before she made The Fame; DioGuardi got another reality show on top of Idol, “Platinum Hit”), and was part of what made being a pop fan during that era so much fun.
WHEN SHE MADE IT: Let’s put it this way: Mean Girls came out in 2004. If you know Lindsay, you know that was about the peak, after which things started to go downhill. Speak, in many ways, is a better marker of her high point: this is where all the rumors start. During production of the album Lohan had her first hospitalization, for a kidney infection supposedly brought on by stress. She had been working in her trailer to finish the album, which was overdue, at the same time as shooting Herbie: Fully Loaded in 110-degree heat; she was also dating Wilmer Valderrama, which eventually got her cut out of the marketing of the movie due to her un-Disney-like private life. (Imagine if no one who dated Wilmer Valderrama was allowed to make movies! What would our movies look like?)
“Ah, la Belle Epoque!” my wife exclaimed when I asked her to help me reconstruct Lindsay’s 2004. In the period between the crashes of 2001 and 2008, it was an era when clubs would let in 17-year-olds because they were stars, and that seemed exciting to us; an era before we’d seen the same pattern repeat itself again and again for several of Paris Hilton’s ex-friends, before avoiding such a fate became obvious. A 2006 Vanity Fair article about Lohan (the “it’s like, yeah, motherfucker, I’m fine” one) describes her extracurricular activities in the period:
She started shopping like a Trump wife. (She confesses that she dropped $100,000 in a single day.) With Paris, Nicole, or an Olsen twin in tow, she started hitting the clubs-Mood, Concorde, and Marquee-the sort that lavish free drinks on celebrities. She became a staple of the tabloids, which was how some family members were now getting their information about her. “I remember my sister called me up: ‘I heard you got Pamela Anderson boobs.'” And she now admits she began using drugs “a little,” but quickly says, “I’ve gotten that out of my system.”
She also got into a feud with Hilary Duff because she was dating her ex-boyfriend, Aaron Carter. It was a weird time. Eventually she would piss off Paris Hilton, and Paris’ then-boyfriend Brandon Davis would call her “firecrotch,” but that was 2006, still a ways off. Her father was essentially stalking her. By 2005, Lohan’s eating disorder was evident enough that Amy Poehler sat her down for a talk. Lindsay grew up as a middle-class kid on Long Island with a troubled family, got some money all of a sudden, and moved to LA to live the good life, only to run into a group of rich kids who were only too happy to help her ruin her life, apparently because they had nothing better to do. We’ve all been there, now.
THE MUSIC: Has it been long enough since the teenpop boom that we can avoid damning it for its celebrity associations? Do we now realize, finally, that the problem wasn’t really Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears? If so: the album is only OK. There are far better ones in the genre; try Dave Moore’s epic teenpop overview for pointers on which, if you’re so inclined. The standout “Symptoms of You” is a ballad that slips between waltz time and a straight-beat guitar crunch. That crunch sounds pretty familiar, but Lohan’s voice works great for the energetic melody and the lyrics about romantic self-destruction. Her voice, much-mocked since it began roughening into a Leonard Cohen rasp, is perfect for music about being sad, and it’s a pity there’s not more of this. The country tunes here work the best by far. She’d make another album, 2006’s Raw (A Little Personal), but she was a little too unhappy then. If her movie career has been less than exemplary of late (she’s starring in a Liz Taylor biopic, sure, but it’s for Lifetime), I don’t think we’d be unhappy for Lindsay to re-launch her musical efforts, maybe with a collaborator better able to capture her ragged edges. Until then, though, Speak doesn’t speak very well for itself.
Note: Article’s been corrected to reflect that Mandy Moore started her career as a singer before transitioning to acting, not the other way around.
Previously: Ian McShane’s From Both Sides Now, Corey Feldman’s Former Child Actor, Milla Jovovich’s Divine Comedy, Cornel West’s Sketches of My Culture and Crispin Glover’s The Big Problem ≠ The Solution
Mike Barthel has a Tumblr.