Drama and the adolescent girl: a combo upon which entire industries are built. If the success of Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, Carly Rae Jepsen, Katy Perry and Rihanna tells us anything, it's that high drama equals high impact. Swift has built her fortune by speaking to the confusion of youth, first crushes and desire, Bieber by manifesting the same.
"Music for Sleeping Children," a recent online project that its creators, Charlie White and musician Bryan Hollon, describe as "an artwork, an archive, and an album," visits similar terrain (http://musicforsleepingchildren.com/). But it addresses the emotional landscape through very different means: via the true voices of teenage girls openly discussing matters of the heart and the pressures of high school life, all seamlessly arranged as magnetic pop songs.
"Sabrina" begins as a funky, slow house track, with a big beat and synthetic hand claps, and introduces the namesake girl as an overachiever whose biggest fear is "not realizing my dreams, kind of." We learn about "Georgia" through an '80s-style dance pop jam, which opens with Georgia explaining that "a lot of people say that I'm really popular, and it makes me happy, I guess." "Baylee" is introduced as a seventh-grader anticipating eighth; Hollon has given her a joyful beat and looped her singing "shimmy-shimmy cocoa pop" while she gazes into the future.
Combined, the work is not only a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings of girls today but on a bigger scale is an examination of what White describes as "both types and archetypes" of the American teen. What's best, these fascinating confessions have been arranged as pop songs perfect for slumber parties.
White is a professor at the USC Roski School of Fine Arts, known in music circles for his remarkable 2004 video for Interpol's "Evil," which featured a freaky puppet dealing with the consequences of a car crash. As an artist, White has long examined teen life, most recently as part of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art's exhibit, "The Sun and Other Stars." His animated pieces, "A life inBTween" and "OMG BFF LOL," employ cheap 1970s-style animation suggestive of Saturday morning cartoons and feature teen girls as cartoon characters in service of short pieces that are both tributes to and satires of the desires of mall culture.
"Sleeping Children" is the product of what he describes as "a building desire to create a teen pop album. That was an abstract concept to start with, because there was no notion of what that would sound like, or what that would be."
Rather than write songs and search for a particular voice, he contacted Hollon, who, under the moniker Boom Bip, is a well regarded musician and producer. As half of the group Neon Neon (with Welsh songwriter Gruff Rhys), Hollon was nominated in 2008 for Britain's prestigious Mercury Prize, which honors the best album of the year. Hollon and White first worked together in 2009 for a remix related to "OMG BFF LOL."
"Sleeping Children" required real teens from across Southern California, so White hired a casting agent, who booked individuals to sit down with White — and on a few occasions, Hollon too — in a recording studio (along with parents/guardians). With microphones running, White's goal was to create a "comfortable, safe space to talk about things." As such, White didn't photograph the girls and doesn't identify their last names.
In the best cases, says Hollon, sitting with White in the dining room of Hollon's South Pasadena home, ideas gelled while the microphones were on. "You could hear them working out how they felt about these subjects for the first time." The less successful sessions lacked similar honesty or overlapped thematically with more effective ones. When they were finished, each girl had unloaded a few hours' worth of information, a tiny portion of which became the lyrics and voices of the songs.
White later explained in an email the reasons for calling the project "Music for Sleeping Children." The title, he wrote, "came from my thinking about the contemporary American teenager as a child (secondary consumer) transitioning into adulthood (consumer) within the 'haze' or 'dream' state that is both biological and social. I see the liminal (from child to adult) state of adolescence in contemporary consumer culture as a sleep state, and like sleep, it is a period of dreams and nightmares."
This idea pushed White and Hollon to find tidbits that illustrated one, the other or both. "We had to grab maybe 30 seconds of dialogue out of that to create this girl's personality and to tell an interesting story," says Hollon. "And also to have it fit into a pop format, to where it's not just her rambling. It's got to be rhythmic — something that people can listen to over and over again." Video clips commissioned by White followed; each transforms the music into a visual work.
White cites "Georgia" as an example. "There was a candor, a realness to look for, but there's also just a tone. 'Georgia' was a perfect marriage of her narrative, if you will — 'I'm a popular girl who's well off in a good place and feel good about myself' — but qualitatively, she also sounded like that." By removing any visual cues, the voices take on a seriousness.
"Isabelle" is the darkest of the five songs on "Sleeping," and if we're making filmic comparisons, she's the Ally Sheedy in John Hughes' classic "The Breakfast Club": the dark, mature-beyond-her-years girl who has a storm cloud in her voice. The song is built around an interview in which the namesake teen speaks about a dating experience earlier in the semester as "really weird, I admit." The boy was younger than her, which was "kinda awkward, because there's that thing where girls mature faster than boys."
As a Depeche Mode-ish rhythm jumps in, Isabella turns her attentions to an older 11th- grader. But that, she says, "turned into this big drama," as an analog synth falls into a slow pattern. So she broke up with him. The song reaches peak momentum, and Isabella's story does too, when she describes what happened with the 11th-grader: "He called me while I was at school and said, 'Oh, I just wanted to tell you, you know, I'm in a psych ward.'" He wasn't suicidal, but his therapist said he needed to let his feelings out. "'And I wanted to tell you that I'm madly in love with you.'"
Taken in total, the five pieces offer snapshots that, though not detailed portraits, are vivid glimpses of each girl from a particular angle. To say that they captured "true selves" is a stretch; no two-hour interview could. But what's most striking is the way in which the works act as Trojan horses, delivering intimate nonfiction information within a medium, pop music, that most often thrives when conveying bold-faced fictions.
The joy, for example, of the two best friends in "Mik & Mel," who over a catchy dance beat address the intensity of adolescent friendship, is as powerful a lyrical turn as a great pop song: "Like, whenever I need to talk to someone," says either Mel or Mik, "it's always, like: best friend, right there." The other then jumps in to add, "Aw, and then in, like, 20 years we can be those cute old ladies with a wraparound porch and those rocking chairs, and we can talk about our lives."
Taylor Swift couldn't have said it better.