Sex, Lies and Scorpios: Revisiting Marina's Electra Heart
Words by Rebecca Liu
Image by Ruby Martin
There’s something in the water. Women pop stars, long used to promoting songs overwhelmingly written by adult men about being the perfect male-friendly sex object, are writing new narratives. Ariana Grande’s album thank u, next not only features the titular single about loving and moving on – and loving moving on – but also songs about needing space (“I’d rather be alone tonight”); jumping head-first into flings with men who are nevertheless too embarrassing to be viable husbands (“Don’t want you in my bloodline/Just want to have a good time”) and stealing your man (“Break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored”). Even Taylor Swift, Anthropologie-adorned patron saint of PG-13 heteronormativity, dipped her toe in the rebellious waters in her latest album Reputation: “I did something bad” she sings over Max Martin’s heavy beats; “but why does it feel so good?!” In the song in question, she also drops her first swear word. They have learned from the best; who could forget Beyoncé, dressed in an off-the-shoulder yellow dress, taking a baseball bat to her lover’s car in Lemonade, a masterful labour of love that sees the singer navigate her husband’s infidelity in acute personal detail.
“Man fucks woman; subject verb object”. This now-storied sentence, written by feminist legal scholar Catherine A. MacKinnon in 1989, has long framed mainstream pop, which has also long been hostile to queerness. Even straight women who dominate the pop charts struggle to break past their designated status as sex objects. Today, the new girls of pop – who remain overwhelming straight ( at least in their public personas) – are articulating a new chaotic mood in their songs, one that seems to be both all over the place and profoundly human. They’re needy; they don’t care; they do care; they’ve done something bad; they want your man; they don’t want men at all.
In the astrology-obsessed world that runs closely adjacent to young followers of contemporary pop, one finds a shorthand term for it: Scorpio energy. As Broadly puts it: “Scorpios Are Sex-Obsessed Instigators Who Live for Drama”: “Scorpios love to get so intense it can be scary—they’re obsessive when it comes to sex, death, and learning everyone’s deepest emotional problems, hang-ups, and secrets.” Break up with your girlfriend, I’m bored.
The problem with being ahead of your time is that you risk looking stupid . Critics, without a pre-existing conceptual architecture in which to neatly slot your work, can so easily flatten it, misunderstand you, write off the whole endeavor as a misguided, well-meaning passion project that is better swept away under the carpet. The risks are higher for women, particularly in an industry where they often arise as pre-determined archetypes, with less room for unconventional creativity than the men who overwhelmingly run it.
When Welsh singer Marina Diamandis, then known as Marina and the Diamonds, released her album Electra Heart in 2012, expectations were high. Her debut album, The Family Jewels (2010), quickly established her as an indie darling-to-watch. Idiosyncratic singles like Mowgli’s Road and I am not a Robot, fraught with existential angst, invited comparisons to Kate Nash – which Marina rejected in a since-deleted Myspace post: “Because OOPS! I have a vagina and a keyboard!!!! WE SO SIMILAR!”. And yet critics largely concluded that she had dropped with Electra Heart: her new album chose dancey electro-pop over her indie experimental roots; she collaborated with bog-standard industry producers Shellback, Diplo and Dr. Luke (which begs another conversation: how ‘feminist’ is the female-fronted pop industry if stars are still execpted to collaborate with alleged abusers?) She sold out, critics and former fans alike claimed.
The album was an unapologetically bubblegum affair which saw the brunette singer dye her hair blonde, dress herself in frilly pink gowns, and assume four different feminine “archetypes” (housewife, beauty queen, homewrecker and idle teen) through her songs, each suffused with their own degree of narcissism. The personas were inspired by Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, and Marie Antoinette – or, rather, the public brands of these women, who are now seen less as genuine human beings than static aspirational icons, over-romanticised and fetishized for their alleged love of dramatic excess. Electra Heart’s lead single, Primadonna, explored exactly that myth; the music video saw the singer in an empty mansion, set to lyrics satirising the archetype of the bratty diva: “All I ever wanted was the world… I wanna be adored.” The song, Marina confirmed in a later interview with Elle Girl, was about "not needing anybody when it comes to love—your raison d’etre is to live for adoration”; the album itself would be wrapped in “bubblegum psychodrama—lots of drama and dark humor.” It was psychodrama, neediness, and self-imploding narcissism taken to the highest degree; Scorpios, I once again remind you all, “are Sex-Obsessed Instigators Who Live for Drama.”
Electra Heart did not impress critics, who saw it as an unfortunate case of a promising indie queen-in-training drowning herself in concepts that were both messy, overwrought, and mutually contradictory. How could you be *pretend* to be a bottle-blonde pop star, with a wink and nod, whilst also producing an unapologetically pop album? Besides, The Observer noted, not just once, but twice: Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die had just come out. It was another album that grappled with the Hollywoodised notion of destructive womanhood, it was commonly argued, but better. Looking back now, the logic is fairly troubling: another woman did something similar, thus rendering this woman’s endeavor irrelevant. The tokenisation of minorities made clear: there can be only One! (“I have a vagina and a keyboard!!!! WE SO SIMILAR!”)
This wasn’t only the problem with this fast comparison to Lana Del Rey. The difference was painfully obvious to teenage me, and I suspect to many other young girls at the time. Lana was your achingly sophisticated older cousin, who strung her million-dollar men about with an effortless guile. She probably wore La Perla and smoked Marlboro Reds. Electra Heart, however, seemed attainable. She had a tongue-in-check self-awareness that her entire endeavor to be a self-possessed ice queen was probably doomed. You could probably, in some way or another, be her! The album as a whole, after all, was a letter to what Marina described as “the Tumblr generation”, young teenagers who over-identified with glamorised images of Sofia Coppola films, who luxuriated in over-egged dramatic clichés in their heads to make up for the sobering reality of our very boring youths.
Electra Heart was an anti-relationship guide of sorts, offering advice on how to date around, self-destruct, while losing your dignity in the process. Keep your feelings to yourself to survive, she advises in How to Be a Heartbreaker; steal someone’s man, says Homewrecker; jump into and thrive in relationships based on mutual deceit instructs Lies. Sound familiar? “Scorpios Are Sex-Obsessed Instigators Who Live for Drama.” While Born to Die was a seasoned seafarer in the unequal waters of heterosexuality, hardened against its truths, the sophomoric Electra Heart would tweet “men are trash!” before accepting in a heartbeat to go on a Tinder date with the next sentient beanie and pair of Vans that came her way. She would also cry about him a week later, before posting an “I’m doing FINE” thirst trap on Instagram the next day. Again, to an outsider, the difference between the woman that was Born to Die and Electra Heart may have been easily trivial. To a teen girl, starved of other avenues to understand how the world would hurt you, make you bitter, and worst of all, make you come crawling back, the difference was basically the world.
I listened to Electra Heart first as an incredibly awkward teenager: I had never dated anyone but reveled in the drama of the album anyway. Who doesn’t remember being incredibly young and emotively belting out songs you had no right to claim? I then rediscovered the album again, heartbroken in New York, years later. By that time, I knew all the twisted wisdom it offered by heart – keep your feelings to yourself, don’t be the one who loves more, every love is essentially disposable (“every boyfriend is the one/until otherwise proven”). It didn’t save me from getting hurt (what does?) But it did provide good material to cry to when it happened, and a way to feel momentarily powerful when I was so out of my own head.
What are the uses of Scorpio energy? In the absence of any actual self-command of one’s feelings, chaos is an easy way to imprint yourself onto the world, and the men in it. You resist tidy, neat identification with any digestible linear narrative; your unapologetic messiness, and many misdirected desires make a claim to a humanity that the world is too ready to deny. While Electra Heart was denounced as a failed meta-album, a weak commentary on clichés that then fell into cliché, its critics missed a key point. Its target audience, teenage girls, were themselves conversant in the art of cliché, it being often the only recourse they had to digest complicated feelings, express ugly emotions, and communicate decidedly “unfeminine” desires for bloodlust and power. Tell the world that you want everything, and they will laugh at you; tell them you want everything through the persona of the bratty primadonna, and they will still laugh at you, but they will get what you are trying to say. You just have to be cute about it.
After all, the cultural objects of teen girls can be embarrassing in their predictability: introduce a stunningly attractive model steeped in an emotionless world-weariness, add in some distinctive, quasi-vintage looks, and you have a fandom. But this cliché hides another, arguably even more important truth: that our over-identification with the most beautiful, most aspirational iterations of our young female forms stems from a collective trauma about being seen in the world as an object, never subject – that our icons are never quite happy, moreover, signals that we, too, knew how fake the entire game is. Reflecting on Electra Heart to the Guardian in 2015, Marina noted “when I was promoting it I realised, OK, this is why I don’t like being a pop star because people assume you don’t know anything and you don’t make your own music”. She then metaphorically “killed” the proverbial character in a final video that sees her go back to brunette, chop her hair off into a messy bob, and wipe away her makeup. Finding yourself through reinvention is such a cliché. Then again, so is being a young woman.