The figure of the hellhound enters the realm of pop via a 1937 recording by Robert Johnson. Within the strict confines of “Hellhound on My Trail” it is a potently ambiguous symbol, evoking not only impending doom and the wages of sin but also whatever self-destructive compulsion invited that doom in the first place. By its nature, though, pop does not limit itself to strict confines, and what Johnson’s hellhound evokes outside the song is specific and clear: the legend that the bluesman struck a deal with Satan for his mastery of the guitar. This sinister myth succeeded so completely as to rearrange every other scant biographical detail; today, even people who know little else about the blues know that Johnson sold his soul to play like no one who came before him. Scholars who have attempted to trace the devil story’s origins find it sufficiently widespread among Johnson’s surviving acquaintances to conclude that he very likely told it about himself.
The hellhound—with all the concerns it signals about deals and debts and mythmaking—reappears in “I Blame Myself,” a recent single from the debut album by twenty-one-year-old singer, songwriter, actress, and model Sky Ferreira. Despite her relative youth, Ferreira has long been fidgeting in the metaphorical green room of pop stardom: she began her recording career in her early teens, spurred by an active online presence and a family connection to Michael Jackson. Her first singles positioned her as a synth-pop act with a strong alto voice and a gift for anthemic shout-alongs. After those initial efforts failed to hit big, label support faltered, and her album was repeatedly announced, delayed, scrapped, and begun anew with a host of prominent collaborators. Two EPs released in the meantime suggested an artist ill at ease with how she’d been branded, and who had broader and darker tastes than her early output indicated. Night Time, My Time finally emerged in 2013 as an urgent, sullen, troublesome thing, a harsh panoply of post-punk and industrial textures bolted to a sturdy pop frame. Among the many traces of its difficult birth, none is more conspicuous than “I Blame Myself.”
Almost all pop songs work by couching their sentiments in general terms and avoiding narrative and biographical particulars, encouraging the audience to identify with the singer’s ostensible circumstances. This one doesn’t. “Is it because you know my name,” go the opening lines, “or is it because you saw my face on the cover?” Instead of appealing to our fantasies, “I Blame Myself” asks us to consider what we’re actually doing while we’re doing it: listening to a pop song. The usual scrim of fiction is absent; the singer is addressing us directly, and the effect is unsettling, like a safety barrier has come down. While this device has plenty of precedents—from Sinatra telling us he did it his way to the announcement that it’s Britney, bitch—the artists who employ it are usually icons already. Ferreira is at the beginning of her career, holding the star-maker machinery up for examination before it has actually made her a star.
“Either way it’s all the same,” she continues, introducing the first of the song’s two major tropes. “It’s like talking to a friend who’s trying to be your lover.” As context accrues, it becomes clear that Ferreira’s use of “lover” is euphemistic. (Significantly, “get in your pants” does not rhyme with “on the cover.”) The comparison of song-craft to seduction is well worn, to be sure, but here, too, something is new: the proposition that, despite its rewards, the pop transaction diminishes everyone who participates in it. Both singer and audience choose to forego the chance for genuine, enduring personal rapport in favor of more immediate and finite gratification—the audience because it’s easy and fun, the singer because it’s efficient and lucrative. It’s one of the many inherent costs of becoming famous.
Established mid-career pop acts can take all this for granted. For Ferreira, though, it’s still new, and still uncomfortable: she can’t help but evince distaste for the flat caricature of herself she’s obliged to perform, can’t help but sense the lost potential for connection with listeners who might have been friends instead of customers. The fact that no one expects differently of her just makes it worse: we can’t be held responsible for regarding her as a purely functional product, a throwaway, since she’s given us no cause to think otherwise. “Underneath it all,” she sings, “I know it’s not your fault / that you don’t understand / I blame myself.” In this seduction, the come-ons are all hers: her hype-propagated name, her face on the album cover.
Which brings us to the song’s other major trope. “How could you know what it feels like / to fight the hounds of hell?” Ferreira sings at the top of the chorus. “You think you know me so well.” This is Johnson’s hellhound come to collect debts, to mete out the downside of compromises made for fame. The cost of everyone knowing who you are is, of course, ceasing to be who you are. “How could you know what it feels like / to be outside yourself?” she asks, before finishing the thought she began earlier: “I just want you to realize / I blame myself / for my reputation.”
In a cultural marketplace where attention is the coin of the realm, a reputation of any kind is a peculiar thing for an ascendant star to blame herself for having. Ferreira’s complaint earns its weight and force by coming from entirely within the realm of commercial pop and not pretending otherwise. While her song indicts pop music’s intrinsic dishonesty, no one is more deeply implicated by it than she is. Embracing a public persona as an up-and-coming wild child, Ferreira has concluded, beats being ignored, just as being remembered as a hell-haunted lingerer at the crossroads beats being forgotten. Like Johnson, Ferreira owns her choices.
About that album cover, since Ferreira brought it up: it does indeed depict her face, peering wetly from inside a shower stall. (The photo’s bottom edge will be cropped according to the intended retailer’s tolerance for nudity.) On it Ferreira is very literally exposed, but her expression is difficult to read: irritated, wary, or simply weary, ready to be off the stage. We view her through the shower’s glass door, at the top of which a few drops of water are beaded; the rest have been wiped away from the inside. Ferreira looks out at us and we look back at her, both of us awkwardly balanced on the semi-visible fulcrum of whatever it is we think we want.