The Pretty Reckless

“Make Me Wanna Die:” Modernizing Gothic Tradition in the Music of The Pretty Reckless

In the introduction to his first short story collection, Night Shift, Stephen King wrote that “the great appeal of horror fiction through the ages is that it serves as a rehearsal for our own deaths.” I think that that is, by and large, fairly universal when talking about the genre. Certain kinds of writing, however, dwell on it much more explicitly, and gothic fiction is without a doubt chief among them. Gothic storytelling has always fixated on life’s impermanence, it’s one of the cornerstones of what makes a story gothic in the first place. They’re about the ever-looming shadow of death, about mourning, about confronting death, usually manifested in some ghastly literal form. But I think King’s quote isn’t limited to horror either, not by a long shot. To a degree, all stories, all films, all art, all music is an attempt to reconcile the fact that we are not here forever, that life is short and hopefully sweet and all too often terrifying. Rock, just as a style of music in particular, has always gone hand-in-hand with death. It goes much further than the tragic loss of so many musical icons. The whole attitude of rock is born out of fighting back, riding out or even celebrating the utter, unfair shortness of life. 

Enter Taylor Momsen and The Pretty Reckless: a singer and a band that have normalized the blunt discussion of death, celebrated impermanence in several different forms, and tackled grief openly and explicitly in their latest album Death by Rock and Roll. I’m not here to argue that The Pretty Reckless is a horror band—though they do exist—or even that everything I’m reading into their music is intentional. I can’t speak for the band, I can only speak to an interpretation of the work. But I am here to make the case for a longstanding tradition that is heavily evoked but superbly modernized across their entire musical catalogue, and to state that Momsen—in addition to being one of the most seminal rock artists of the current era—is one of the most prominent gothic writers of the present day.

Taylor Momsen shed many skins before finally getting the chance to present herself as a rock star. She went from being a childhood star, most prominently as little Cindy Lou Who in Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, then as a teen star in Gossip Girl, she was also one of the closest contenders to play Hannah Montana, and in 2010 burst onto the rock scene as the lead singer of The Pretty Reckless. They came out of the gate swinging with the hit single “Make Me Wanna Die” and debut album, Light Me Up. Still a teenager when the band took off, Momsen has continued to reinvent herself with every album, exploring many different styles along the way. The band has always had a distinct sound, but never fell into a sense of uniformity, to the point that you know exactly what you’re getting. You don’t. That’s been a key to the band’s strength all along, and the fact that Momsen was so conscious of that from the beginning is phenomenal. But it’s also not at all surprising, coming from someone who must have already had to fight against being typecast several times before she even turned sixteen. Still, while the sound and styles may differ, most of the major themes that present themselves in the band’s music have remained the same. As mentioned, this is a band that discusses death openly and frankly, in a way that other bands often don’t. It’s far from edgy for edginess’ sake. It feels fresh, in that respect, but it is also entirely classical in the band’s approach to death. That’s what I think is really fascinating, and why I mean it when I say Momsen is such a prominent gothic voice. But I should probably explain what I mean by gothic. 

Goth rock has been around forever in a ton of different forms, from the post-punk wave that emerged in the ‘70s with the likes of The Cure all the way back to “The Monster Mash.” It’s a style of music that often intermeshes with The Pretty Reckless, mostly because, as mentioned, the band has explored numerous styles, both past and present, but it’s not really what I’m talking about. The Pretty Reckless skirts around goth rock the way most mainstream rockers do, existing on the fringes of that genre, but not ever being totally immersed in it. On the spectrum of goth rock, Momsen has always had a bit more in common with Alice Cooper than with Bauhaus. Essentially: goth rock does not always equal gothic, and in this context, they’re mostly separate things. When I talk about The Pretty Reckless being gothic, about Momsen being a fundamental modern gothic voice, I’m truly talking in the classical sense. I’m going all the way back to the traditions of gothic literature. Established in the mid-18th century, gothic fiction and poetry dealt with the overwhelming reality of death, often dealing with it in surreal and shocking ways. Momsen’s music does all of these things. Even more than that, The Pretty Reckless modernizes these traditions, honoring and subverting them in equal measure, creating music that is more than stylistically goth in tone, but fundamentally gothic in context. And, true to ever-changing form, these themes are both counterbalanced and accentuated by Momsen’s singular musical style, which often marries the tones of hard rock, alternative, and blues.

We can even look back to the icons of the genre to see how easily Momsen would have fit in. After all, look at Mary Shelley. Aside from having written one of the most seminal pieces of gothic literature in history, Frankenstein, Shelley was essentially the living embodiment of the phrase “none more goth.” Truly, no one does it like she did it. After the death of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Mary carried his calcified heart with her wherever she went until the end of her life. Mary even lost her virginity on her own mother’s grave. And there’s huge “lost my virginity on my mother’s grave” energy to Momsen’s entire stage persona. That gothic attitude has been a part of The Pretty Reckless from the beginning, though it has developed over time. It’s easy, in that regard, to dismiss the first album, Light Me Up, as dramatic teenage musings, but those are not by any means mutually exclusive to classical gothic attitudes. And it’s important to remember that Shelley wrote Frankenstein when she was 18. But what’s really stunning about the way The Pretty Reckless embodies so many gothic movements and echoes and parallels some of the greatest authors is that, as the band progresses, it mostly does them in order. 

Take a listen to the first album, Light Me Up. In addition to an energy best described as gleeful rage—and perfect for a rock debut, as such—the album spins a few yarns of scorned young women taking incredibly violent revenge, like a 21st century Tales from the Crypt. There’s plenty of shock value, none of it without merit, but there’s still something delightfully pulpy in the two-fisted tales Momsen sings of here. Take “Going Down,” for example, a song in which a girl confesses to a priest that she’s murdered her boyfriend, which has left her sexually unsatisfied, so she’s coming onto the priest as she’s telling the tale. There’s no subtext here, this is the story. In that blunt, unpolished, tongue-in-cheek expression of gruesome tales, Light Me Up is best defined as the Penny Dreadful era of The Pretty Reckless. 

That’s not to say that the album is all one thing, though, because it’s not. One of the best things about this band’s music is that it has always explored death as an ideal, outside of the obvious beginning and end of human life. Death is something that comes about at a lot of different times in a lot of different ways and forms. In “Nothing Left to Lose,” death is defined as the end of a relationship. The band’s hit single “Make Me Wanna Die,” can potentially be read as a mission statement, firstly in its obvious “go f—k yourself” attitude, but also in the way the song depicts pressure. Having been a young movie and TV star, it’s easy to read this song (and Pretty Reckless’ beginning) as a death. A version of Momsen, certainly the public image that people had in their head, is being burned away with the release of that song and something new, something more interesting and more personal is taking its place.

The second album, Going to Hell, is so interesting and drastically different compared to the first. You get all of the sarcastic, introspective, hard-edged rock that made the first so successful, but the album as a whole has a totally distinct sound unto itself. There’s a Deep South flavor to the whole thing, which is unexpected, because Momsen’s own Missouri background wouldn’t typically qualify as southern, yet it works so well. Much of that, I think, has to do with the way it deconstructs the singer’s Catholic upbringing. It’s a turn toward Southern Gothic, in some respects. But the way death is described in this second album also changes. It’s more intimate, much less at arm’s length, and altogether more embracive. This is the album that you could comfortably place next to your lover’s calcified heart. This is the Mary Shelley era. “Going to Hell,” “Heaven Knows” and “Absolution” all embody this incredibly well. 

Even still, the idea of death being about more than mortality, the notion of celebrating impermanence, is still an ever-present thing. And it is perfected in “House on a Hill.” This song is perfectly representative of all of these concepts so prominent in the band’s work because it is fully gothic. The lyrics speak for themselves. “In this house on a hill, the dead are living still,” on the surface it evokes obvious imagery of ruined abbeys, isolated manors, musty crypts, and yet it is barely talking about mortality at all. There are a lot of different ways to read it, but I think the fact that the song builds to the lines “I am not afraid, I won’t burn out in this place, my intention is to fade and I will, I will,” speaks much more to not having a career planned out ahead of you, not doing whatever you’re supposed to do forever, and why that’s a good and relieving thing.  

While it’s not the breakout song from the Going to Hell, I think “House on a Hill” had the most impact on—or at least has the most in common with—the next Pretty Reckless album, Who You Selling For. Much more methodically paced and contemplative, it’s the band’s most experimental album to date. It also feels genuinely haunting, in a literal sense. Most of the songs, once again, sing about death very explicitly. In both that sense, as well as emotional numbness central to so many of the songs, Who You Selling For could honestly be described as a collection of ghost stories, in one form or another. As such, with these emotional ghosts as well as the sense of displacement found in so many of the songs, I’d consider Who You Selling For to be the Henry James era of The Pretty Reckless. 

Then we get to the most recent album, Death by Rock and Roll. Unlike the others, this album is about mortality, through and through. This is fundamentally an album about grief, and that grief impacts every single song. In an interview with Apple Music, Momsen explained that the creation of the album was inspired by two personal losses. The first of them was Momsen’s friend and mentor and Soundgarden frontman Chris Cornell in 2017. Then in April of 2018, the band’s producer Kato Khandwala died in a motorcycle accident. Keeping that in mind, Death by Rock and Roll is a fantastic album that’s not only full of processing grief but also celebrating those people and their inspiration both on Momsen personally and on music as a whole. The very first sound you hear on the very first song is a Khandwala’s footsteps walking through the studio where the band recorded their very first album. Grief and celebrating, even immortalizing, the life of a lost loved one walk hand in hand, they’re not mutually exclusive, as both are always born out of raw, personal, immediate feelings of love. This album exemplifies that perfectly.

That love is felt clearly across the entire album, from the rock ballad “Death by Rock and Roll” to the much calmer “Rock and Roll Heaven,” to even those songs that aren’t as overtly about these losses, like the “burn the patriarchy” anthem, “Witches Burn.” The album is still gothic. In fact, it’s the band’s most explicitly gothic album to date, because it explores grief in the same way that all of the great gothic authors did. You can feel the same questioning of mortality explored by Shelley’s Frankenstein, the content loneliness of James’ The Turn of the Screw. Yet in how much grief defines the album, in how many ways it’s depicted, I think that Death by Rock and Roll is without a doubt the band’s Edgar Allan Poe era. At the same time, it is of course imbued with all of the “shit happens” attitude that makes The Pretty Reckless what it is. 

Death by Rock and Roll is bubbling over with Big Poe Energy in the best way possible. While Momsen’s work is ultimately more hopeful than Edgar ever was, the album is just as explicitly defined by loss as so much of Poe’s work. Take “Harley Darling,” an explicit ode to a lost loved one, which heavily parallels Poe’s classic poem “Annabel Lee.” In both the poem and the song, the cause of the loved one’s death is made clear and is repeated throughout. Annabel Lee is largely believed to be based on Poe’s wife, Virginia Clemm Poe, who had died two years before the poem was published. In the poem Annabel falls ill and dies, similar to Virginia’s long struggle with tuberculosis. Meanwhile, “Harley Darling” is an incredibly clear reflection—even in the title alone—on friend and producer Kato Khandwala and the motorcycle accident that claimed his life. Both works are heavily centered on the loneliness of grief, yet both also acknowledge the perseverance of love.

Each of The Pretty Reckless’ albums is infused with gothic themes, some implicit, some explicit, but all easily found in the music itself. Momsen has written or co-written (usually with Ben Phillips or Khandwala) every song in the band’s discography. I wouldn’t leap to say it’s all intentional—though some of it clearly is—but the gothic themes are there to easily be read and interpreted all the same. There is almost no chance that Momsen intentionally planned the band’s overarching discography to sound like a rock opera on the history of gothic traditions, but I love it even more for accidentally being that. Momsen embodies so many of these classical tropes across each album, yet infuses them and re-energizes them with such a modern, anarchistic, “world’s gonna burn and we might as well just watch” attitude. With that in mind, while it should sound ridiculous to declare Momsen as one of the most prominent modern gothic voices, it honestly feels perfectly natural. And with the release of the new album, it’s a declaration that should be cemented forevermore.