The Lolita Complex
It seems fitting that Vladimir Nabokov's now iconic Lolita (1955) was first published in Paris, and then in New York in 1958 and in London in 1959. More than half a century later, the French are still generally known to have a more laissez-faire attitude towards sexuality, as compared to their counterparts in the Anglosphere. (Consider, as a musical case study, how differently French chanteuse Alizée appropriates Lolita from her Anglophone counterparts in 'Moi ... Lolita' (2000)).
Two Hollywood film adaptations later, and the controversial and complicated story of precocious sexuality, adult obsession, irrepressible lust and danger still holds influence over contemporary pop stars, with Katy Perry's explicit reference ('And I study Lolita religiously') in 'One of the Boys', her rather bizarre attempt to channel the literary icon in a bedroom selfie and Lana Del Rey's titular track, presumably sung from the standpoint of a modern-day reincarnation of Dolores Haze: 'Hey, Lolita, hey/ I know what the boys want, I'm not gonna play ...Hey, Lolita, hey/ Whistle all you want but I'm not gonna say'.
How did they ever make a movie of Lolita?
(Side-note: think of how many American pop-stars you've seen in red heart-shaped sunglasses)
There's also April March (who spent time in France and also sings in French), who released 'Chick Habit' in 1995. While this track makes no explicit reference to a female character being too young, its exploration of the unequal power dynamic between a 'daddy' and a 'chick/girl' echoes the ethical problems that surround any relationship where one partner is significantly older than the other. Unlike Katy Perry and Lana Del Rey, who foreground Lolita's precocious sexuality and her questionable self-awareness about her effect on older men, March's version is something that first-wave feminists might love, with its blatant challenge to male sexual privilege and entitlement:
'hang up the chick habit hang it up, daddy, a girl's not a tonic or a pill hang up the chick habit hang it up, daddy, you're just jonesing for a spill'.
Sue Lyon as Dolores Haze in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita (1962)
New Zealand indie-pop outfit Princess Chelsea offers a different take on the Lolita complex in 'Yulia', a track from her debut album Lil' Golden Book (2012). Her very name seems to be an echo of Lolita ("Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo. Lee. Ta." (Nabokov, 1955)); Nikkel takes the time to draw out all three syllables: 'You-lee-ah'. As many reviewers have noted, the overarching theme of the album is a subversion of the typical morality tale one expects in a children's book:
"Nikkel subverts the artwork with her ironic humor and a psychedelic production style that gives the tunes a larger-than-life atmosphere. Her vocals may be girlish at times, but her sensibility is anything but ...Nikkel's dreamy pop is marked by innovative melodies, an immense keyboard sound, and reverb-drenched vocals that balance on the cusp between daydreams and nightmares, making her music a dizzying experience." (Allmusic.com).
This aesthetic of 'subversive cuteness' is perhaps best exemplified by 'Yulia', with Nikkel singing, with echoes of cutesy squeaks, from the perspective of a young girl who ponders on the incomprehensibility of her friend Yulia's romantic entanglement with an older man:
'Yulia what do you see in him?Yulia what could you want from him?You're the same age as meand there's nothing that I can seeNo unified theoryThat will convince me'
Richard J. Anderson argues that the track is the 'heart of the album' noting that "it’s a departure from the cold organ-drenched tracks that make up the majority of the album, with an organic, sparsely mixed piano, upright bass, and drums. “Yulia” ... touches on a universal nerve of abandonment. The sparse(r) backing music drives the message home" (Kittysneezes.com, 2011).
Dominique Swain as Dolores Haze in Adrian Lyne's Lolita (1997)
The large, menacing questions about the corruption of innocence, the seduction of minors and the integrity of individual agency in the face of possibly sophisticated manipulation by an adult with questionable motives are crystallized in an eloquent, honest and fresh manner when addressed in the guise of a thoughful and nameless peer. The lyrical persona oscillates from the philosophical realm ('No unified theory') to the language of childhood ('Painting lines on the back of a cookie tin'), before arriving at the self-satisfying (and possibly simplistic) conclusion that 'there's nothing that I can see/ No unified theory/ That will convince me/ That you are happy'. The track seems to be aware of the limitations of its final conclusion, leaving a definite, resolute answer to this age-old conundrum just beyond the mind's grasp.
Image credits: ; ; . reelinsights.co.uk