photos + story/ Maeghan Donohue
Five years ago a friend invited me downtown to New York City’s now defunct Santos Party House to see The Pretty Reckless promote their first full-length album on their Light Me Up tour. Frontwoman Taylor Momsen was still a fan-favorite actress on the hit primetime teenage soap opera, Gossip Girl, and so it came as no surprise that even as the band was in its infancy, they were playing to packed rooms. A few weeks before the show I listened to the song “Zombie”, and I was amazed to find that at a time when alternative music was basically pop in style and production, Momsen was releasing dark, sultry, undeniably rock tracks that both lyrically and vocally transcended her then-17 years. Momsen came to the stage that night with a presence and a style reminiscent of Cherie Currie à la The Runaways, in nothing but heavy eye makeup, lingerie, and a leather jacket. This crowd seemed unprepared for what they saw—although Momsen was on a popular television show, unlike many actresses who release a record during the height of their fame, she was no Pop princess. Her vocal chops and heavy lyrics denoted a serious commitment to music, and specifically, to the rock genre.
This past week I saw The Pretty Reckless live for the second time and it was clear that Momsen has only deepened this commitment. Last month The Pretty Reckless broke Billboard’s Mainstream Rock Songs chart record with four straight No.1 singles and also broke the record for the most No. 1’s by a female-fronted group. Momsen has evolved as an artist and performer, shedding lingerie for a more sophisticated look, and she’s written lyrics to match. In a recent interview with Nylon, Momsen discussed the track listing of her latest studio album, Who You Selling For, stressing the importance of listening to the songs in their given order so as to grasp the greater narrative of the album. Upon first listen, this is, indeed, a heavily narrative driven record, a refreshing change in an industry that increasingly values autonomous singles more than it does albums that are cohesive, monolithic works of art.
There was an intangible authenticity to Momsen’s performance last week, more than the first time I saw her live. Even after being so ill that she had to cancel a performance in Boston the evening before, Momsen took the stage with fiery energy as she belted what seemed to be deeply personal songs. There was less vamping and performativity this time around–her stage presence was impassioned, yet unembellished and honest. It was immediately clear to me that her fans have evolved, too. No longer was the audience filled with teenagers craning their necks for a glimpse into the VIP section hoping to spot her TV costars like was the case at Santos Party House. These were diehard rock fans of all ages, donning old school metal t-shirts and debating in the bathroom about what 70s rock bands Momsen is channeling on her most recent record.
If I was impressed with her five years ago, I was blown away last week, as she inspired the hope that mainstream rock might actually sound like rock music once more. I would wager The Pretty Reckless will continue to break records in the coming years.