I like The Pretty Reckless’s “Way Down Below.” It balances the metallic and the melodic. It’s got a call and response to it that makes a girl want to join in.
But then I saw the band’s “My Medicine” video I got a bit confused. What’s going on with the cigarette at the start of the song?
Cigarettes admittedly boast a cultural history of rebellion. But today, we understand that they’re more offensive to the individuals smoking them than they are to any particular social mores.
I get the James Dean thing. The iconic rebel’s cigarette signaled an alternative to popular expectation. In his hand at that particular moment, a cigarette said “Look at me. I’m my own man. And I can take you somewhere other than suburbia.”
But in this cultural moment, what is Taylor Momsen saying when she lights up? Cigarette smoking isn’t much of a middle finger to the world. Unless you intend the gesture as a reminder to everyone else who buys into healthcare that they will pay for yours when you reap the maladies associated with tobacco use.
I have to wonder if lighting up is Momsen’s allusion to James Dean’s Rebel Without A Cause or to Brittany Spears’s anthem “I’m Not A Girl, Not Yet A Woman,” in which the singer explains, “all I need is time/ a moment that is mine.” In this still from the video, Spears exhibits an angst (and eyeliner) not unlike Momsen’s. But I don’t think “Brittany Spears, pop star virgin” is the image Momsen’s going for.
Like Momsen’s cigarette, Spears’s ballad speaks to fitting in or not. But the moment in which a cigarette helped a person fit in or stand out has passed.
If not Brittany’s, what image is Momsen going for, then? For years, Kentucky and West Virgina have had the highest smoking rates. But I don’t think Momsen’s trying to crossover into country. 42 million Americans smoke. Smoking a cigarette hardly increases Momsen’s alternativeness. The rebellion cigarettes once signified has been lost today in the popular crowd.
Even if you discount my perhaps thinly stretched comparison to Brittany Spears, Momsen in a cigarette and leather jacket looks about as rebellious as a similarly posed (and similarly James Dean hopeful) Justin Bieber:
The cigarette’s moment has passed. For both Bieber and Momsen, there are alternatives to suburbia. There are, as both artists explore, other social norms to challenge. So why the cigarette?
The rebellion is lost on me. At least, the smoking part. Momsen’s eyeliner and blasé I get. Challenging expectation can be brave and creative and good for more than yourself. I’m all for rebellion against complacently followed ideas and ideals. But rebelling against your own body seems, worse than without a cause, an ill-fated cause. If you want to change social constructs, perhaps carpentry tools would make for more fitting props than cigarettes.
But if you must have smoke, then how about a smoke machine? You get smoke in all its mystery and allusion to destruction, but without the pat self-destruction.