The Anniversary

Electra Heart Turns 10

679/Atlantic
2012
679/Atlantic
2012

In 2012, I was navigating my way through a labyrinth of aesthetic photographs on Tumblr. There were American Apparel tennis skirts, cigarettes dangling from faded lips, pink sunsets with a somber texture, neon signs glowing in the dark — all pieces making up a mosaic of glorified adolescence. As I got closer to the end of middle school, I grew out of Taylor Swift, got hormonal and depressed, longed for something more edgy. Mixed in with these dark, cohesive visuals were gifs of a woman in a platinum wig with a heart drawn in eyeliner on her cheek and sparkling lyric edits of comfortingly disturbed lines: “Feeling super, super, super suicidal!” I would soon have no choice but to find out that this woman was a Welsh pop singer named Marina Diamandis, and those lyrics were from “Teen Idle” off Electra Heart. The album, released 10 years ago today under the banner of Marina And The Diamonds, quickly became lodged into my personality.

I was, like a lot of other Tumblr users at that time, drawn toward the idea of suicide as an escape from my depression and the overwhelming monotony of high school. The internet was the closest I had to this. It provided a new dimension where I could exist differently. I could not only surround myself with whatever I wanted, I could become whatever I wanted. On “Bubblegum Bitch,” the opening track of Electra Heart, Diamandis sings, “Dear diary, I met a boy/ He made my doll heart light up with joy/ Dear diary, we fell apart/ Welcome to the life of Electra Heart.” Contextually, that last line isn’t really phrased as an invitation, yet I interpreted it as one. Electra Heart, Marina explained in an interview with Pop Justice, was a character — not specifically an alter ego but instead “a vehicle to portray part of the American dream, with elements of Greek tragedy.” It may have started that way, but Electra Heart was something weirder and more specific; it became a symbol of womanhood in late-stage capitalism and in the age of the internet.

The mood board associated with Electra Heart was a simple look: dull pink, silver tiaras, lace bras, platinum hair, ripped fishnets. It was about being palpably unhealthy — depressed, anxious, anorexic, addicted to drugs — but still beautiful in a disorderly kind of way, like a dystopian pageant winner. A thin layer of glamor is painted over depths of disgust; “I guess you could say that my life’s a mess/ But I’m still looking pretty in this dress/ I’m the image of deception,” she announces on “Homewrecker.” There’s a simultaneous lethargy and thrill, like being sleep-deprived yet spending hours on doing makeup and picking an outfit. There’s a Tumblr post of a screenshot of a TikTok that reads: “electra heart is kinda like the joker but for teenage girls.”

This was true in the sense that Electra Heart inspired us to explore the most unhinged paths within our womanhood, leading us to repressed desires, or what we figured were our repressed desires. Did we want to be the Homewrecker? The Heartbreaker? The Teen Idle? The Bubblegum Bitch? We played these roles, imagining more complicated lives for ourselves. “My life is a play, is a play, is a play,” Diamandis croons on “The State Of Dreaming,” a soaring song basking in its own artifice. So was ours online.

Electra Heart was a sharp pivot from the alternative-leaning synth-pop sound of Marina’s 2010 debut Family Jewels. A lot of critics at the time, especially women, were almost offended by the sophomore album — partially due to the perceived creative regression of working with leading pop producers like Stargate, Greg Kurstin, and Dr. Luke, but maybe even more so due to the Electra Heart persona. “‘Housewife. Beauty Queen. Homewrecker. Idle Teen.’ Um, speak for yourself? I mean, fucking hell, seriously?” wrote Emily Mackay for The Quietus. Laura Snapes’ Pitchfork review was littered with words like “lazy,” “horrible,” and “unbearable.” Priya Elan wrote that it was “an expensive-sounding failure” for NME.

These reactions occurred while the album thrived on Tumblr, becoming a crucial foundation for communities in which teenage girls, like me, navigated their identities. It remains a staple of mid-2010s chronically online alt-pop, alongside albums like Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die and Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time. Fans — especially stans — who are now in their early 20s reminisce on it and rave about it in the same way rock fans do with Nirvana’s Nevermind. To us, it was groundbreaking and forever changed the arc of music and culture. The likes of Marina And The Diamonds and Sky Ferreira never became household names, necessarily — Lana Del Rey is another, more complicated story — but that didn’t stop them from becoming ubiquitous within internet spheres.

In The Day Of The Locust, a massively influential 1939 novel satirizing the vapidity of Hollywood, Nathanael West writes, “It is hard to laugh at the need for beauty and romance, no matter how tasteless, even horrible, the results of that need are. But it is easy to sigh. Few things are sadder than the truly monstrous.” It is easy to be mad and upset about the realities of being a woman in this era — of spending money on products to make ourselves more desirable, of being told that we’re less desirable by using said products, of being told we’re ugly if we don’t use said products, of losing our value and worth for acting on our own desire, of being a prude if we do not, of being told that we are not supposed to desire but only be desired, of being told that our desirability is the only thing we have to offer. But it is hard to laugh. It’s hard to mock this absurd reality and make light of it when it has been a source of exasperation for so long. Yet that’s what Electra Heart does. It is a space of solidarity for women because there was nothing I or my fellow teenage girls on Tumblr could do but laugh and revel in our own mess and madness, shedding the inherent shame, guilt, insecurity, and negativity that comes with being a young woman.

Perhaps what gives the moments of bombast and artificiality merit are the contrasting spurts of sincerity. Diamandis’ mask slips off in a select few songs, which capture female heartbreak exceptionally well: “Sometimes, I ignore you, so I feel in control/ ‘Cause really, I adore you, and I can’t leave you alone,” she sings on “Starring Role.” Her understanding of the power dynamics within gendered interpersonal relationships confirms her painful self-awareness, especially when she is open about her frustrating inability to gain a sense of agency despite her desire to be a ruthless Bubblegum Bitch or Homewrecker. Even on “Sex Yeah,” a bass-driven pop anthem that grapples with the way society’s historical suppression of women’s sexuality only exacerbates their urge to be promiscuous, she sheds light on the hidden depth and complexity of the stereotypical superficial bimbo.

Along with her desire to represent the American Dream, Diamandis told The Irish Times that she aimed to “make a gimmick out of love,” and she “wanted to almost personify heartbreak, and make it into a character that was devoid of it.” It’s almost comforting that she failed with the latter task; no matter how grandiose she built this persona up to be, it still succumbed to the inherent sadness in love — especially love as a woman, because so often it is ephemeral, or it is weaponized, or it is oppressive. There is no way to escape the lows that come with the highs. Toward the end of the blistering hit “How To Be A Heartbreaker,” the club beats pause and the sound slows down into a vulnerable space, where Diamandis lulls: “Girls don’t want/ We don’t want our hearts to break in two/ So it’s better to be fake.”

It makes sense that critics didn’t like it. Diamandis mentioned that “the blueprint was a goth Britney Spears,” a star who was notoriously treated poorly by the media; Spears was dismissed, underestimated, and publicly trashed for her open sexuality. Electra Heart is aware of those consequences, so it is unsparing. The album is indulgently grotesque and desperate to provoke: “I want blood, guts, and angel cake/ I’m gonna puke it anyway,” she intones on “Teen Idle.” It’s also unapologetic: “I know I’ve got a big ego/ I really don’t know why it’s such a big deal, though,” she drawls on the buzzy “Primadonna.” It mixes artifice with earnestness; it gives in to female stereotypes while also breaking free of them. When telling NME about the concept of the album, she prefaced it by saying, “It’s a bit cringe.” But that’s the best part.

The memory of Electra Heart lives on, especially on Tumblr. “I blame this song for the way I turned out,” one post reads with “Lies” underneath it. Another has a screenshot of the album’s release date with the caption: “HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO THE MOST INFLUENTIAL ALBUM OF THE MODERN AGE.” Its imperfections and reckonings continue to resonate even though we’re adults now; it gives us a space to cringe at ourselves and laugh at the world.

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