In the decade since its release, former Teen Mom star Farrah Abraham’s first and only album My Teenage Dream Ended has grown from a seemingly laughable cash-grab to a respected curioso in the landscape of contemporary pop. Labelled a precursor to the hyper-pop sound popularised today by the likes of AG Cook, Charli XCX, and SOPHIE, Abraham’s sole musical venture has been both denigrated as ‘the worst album ever’ and heralded for its so-called pioneering originality. Whether a deliberate provocation of musical taste or a happy accident, it cannot be argued that MTDE is a unique listening experience unrivalled by anything her influences can muster in terms of sheer oddity, individuality and challenge.
The cover of MTDE is so garish it could be mistaken for pastiche. The low-res, soft-focus image of Farrah and her daughter smiling saccharinely into the camera seems sarcastic, so confounding is it to our modern conceptions of good taste. The image encapsulates the project, a blurring of the lines between raw honesty and irony that destabilizes the listener in their attempt to find sense in the work. What should be a mess becomes an intrigue, curiosity birthed from Farrah’s refusal to curtail her own unfiltered sincerity. Who could ever release something so tuneless, so rhythmless, so unmusical – and yet, who else would dare to lay their emotional tribulations so bare? Most cash-in albums are exactly that; shallow, uninteresting cash-ins. Yet there is a unique artistry to MTDE. Abraham refuses to skim the surface, choosing instead to venture deep – deep into her pain, her doubts, her disappointments, her fears, and her naivety. She speaks to the anguish we all fear when this harsh world threatens to shatter our most personal aspirations.
Maturation is the key theme of the album; learning to leave behind the ideals of adolescence and coming to terms with the cruelty of adulthood. The music is both a celebration and a melancholic reminiscence of what it means to be young and naïve. ‘After Prom’ sees Farrah yearn, somewhat unconvincingly, for the carelessness of high school youth: “Life is about party, live, love / Don’t think about the choices you choose.” Unconvincing, because beneath the yelping, arhythmic certainty of her assertions there is a glimmer of something more doubtful, reflective, even wistful. Is she positioning herself at an ironic distance to her formerly naïve self? Or is this a heart-on-sleeve party song made for mindless playthroughs at every pre-prom-drinks ever? Over the shutter clicks you can just about hear her lamenting the unreality of what she professes. Almost. Farrah refuses us anything close to certitude.
‘Unplanned Parenthood’ also explores this dichotomy between wishful teenage desires and the messy slurp of real life. “Replace the formula and diapers with poppers and hearts / This bump doesn’t go away” is a telling couplet, teen pregnancy a rude interruption to Farrah’s ideations of what youth should look and feel like. The line “Love means permanent” reveals a childlike understanding of relationships, registering a disbelief that her baby’s father could be anything other than forever. Such naivety is the album’s heartrending strength. Autotune distorts Farrah’s voice, signalling her own distance from what she ‘sings’, the void between what she once believed and now knows to be true written less in the lyrics than in the strangled subtext of their delivery.
The album is founded upon feelings of fracture, uncertainty and displacement. There is a constant return to incompatible oppositions: “I can’t make mistakes, I need to make more mistakes,” she sings on ‘With Out This Ring…”, straddling immaturity and a solemn, world-wizened reflectiveness. On ‘Liar Liar’ she murmurs, mantra-like, “We’re fighting, we’re fighting not”, like a schoolgirl mournfully picking at the petals of a daisy. With guitar arpeggios dragging listlessly through the instrumental, the piece encompasses a state of absolute doubt. Abraham cannot understand the world she inhabits, cannot tell if her relationship is founded upon love or conflict. Hers is the heartbreak of the gaslit; she voices an inability to locate truth or certainty in her situation. “Your pants on fire” demonstrates her immaturity; a traumatic ordeal for one too young to comprehend or cope. Like reading the tear-stained ink on a private diary, you feel you should look away, that you shouldn’t invade such personal confessions. And yet, there’s something so entrancing – at times so horrifying – that makes it impossible to look away.
The (over)use of autotune reflects the deforming violence of Farrah’s grief, her voice akin to a face crying at the point of ugliness. Its use peaks when she is at her most delusional, as on the opener ‘The Phone Call That Changed My Life’. Abraham’s yelped adages point to her anguished situation: “My worst thoughts have won”. The warbling brostep bass lacks any depth, an indication of her emotional feebleness and the lack of grounding she experiences (“Cut off the oxygen to my brain”). But on subtler songs her voice returns to normal, making these all the more devastating. On ‘Searching for Closure’ Abraham sounds bare and defenceless as she admits, “This kills me”. Shed of its autotuned mask, a sad sobriety inflects Abraham’s voice. Her rhythmic grasp remains elusive, yet her tone carries a youthful sweetness that compliments the lyrical explorations. There is no musical genius at work here, only an intense emotional weight, a heart-wrenching sorrow that it is impossible not to empathise with. It’s too raw to be laughable, too real. Abraham sidesteps talent, but her work succeeds because, unlike most, she nails absolute honesty.
The nostalgia of the album is compounded by its overall sound. The brostep gurgles, the buzzing, gregarious EDM SAW hits, all refer back to a certain period in popular music, specifically around the turn of 2010. Abraham uses all of these markers – at the time of contemporaneity, now of outdatedness – to place the album squarely in a specific musical epoch. (At one point, she even references Soulja Boy). The result is a nostalgic reflexivity that increases as the album ages. Many of the markers mirror the current hyper-pop trend, but still it is impossible to fully delineate a clear trajectory from this to that. MTDE feels like its own work, something unduplicable, something nobody would attempt to recreate because it remains, ultimately, unworkable. At its most bizarre – take ‘The Sunshine State’ for example – there is such a clash of styles, such a barrage of sounds, than an almost dystopian collage of images is created, Abraham living a morphed, dreamlike celebrity existence, albeit one she secretly believes can never be fully realised.
For all its flaws, My Teenage Dream Ended speaks to a universal quest for understanding through maturation and moving forward. Farrah does eventually reconcile herself with her new position of responsibility. On ‘On My Own’ we hear a more attuned self-awareness as she recognizes her own projections: “I wanna blame it all on you / But isn’t that so easy to do?”. She now accepts her place as “the push behind the swing”, acknowledging her role as mother, caregiver and provider. This continues into the song’s final track, ‘Finally Getting Up From Rock Bottom’, an attempted-uplifting finale to what remains a fairly bleak album. And yet, there again is an undeniable sadness to the simplicity of her realisations: “Enjoy the moments while I’m in them / And no regrets, still let it flow” sounds like the command of a cheap marketing campaign. There is little of substance here for Abraham to cling to, her solution rudimentary, broad to the point of uselessness. We are left to wonder, is this really a turning point in Abraham’s life, or is she not still clutching to some teenage-style fantasy despite the disillusionment it brings her?
The conflict between ideation and reality is (whether Farrah is aware of it or not) the glue that just about holds My Teenage Dream Ended together. By the end, the listener cannot predict whether Farrah will ever free herself from her teenage dreams. But having left this album as a relic of her uncertainties, she lays down a personal excavation that everyone, in some form or another, can just about relate to.