party girl writers
When she died last December, Eve Babitz was eulogized as the proto-Party Girl Writer. This is true, but also not really.
Reading those accused by critics of carrying on her legacy, it seems that in order to be a Party Girl Writer, you mostly just need to be a woman who writes fizzy prose about Going Out. More specifically, though, the Party Girl Writer is characterized by her affecting a sort of accidental intelligence. She stumbles into a library drunk off a few martinis and comes out having written a lucid, “biting” novel, just for fun. She strikes autofictive tableaus of cocktails paid for by other people. Sure, there can be bad times — bad dates, bad fights with bad friends, bad hangovers. But ultimately, the point of these stories usually seems to amount to little more than, isn’t it exciting to go to a party?
Babitz, on the other hand, was reporting the party postmortem. In Black Swans, after she’d already gotten sober, she famously remembered her days of drinking and drugging as “squalid overboogie.” It’s a perfect term, as glamorous and grotesque as she could, in equal measure, be. (She once blew an entire book advance on coke, had a meltdown, and then had to call Paul Ruscha — her boyfriend, and the brother of her ex-boyfriend, pop artist Ed Ruscha — to come clean up the piles of bloody Kleenex littering her filthy apartment.)
Even at her most romantic, her writing never feels frivolous. There is always some nagging itch beneath the surface. She often told stories with an implicit sense that she was the odd one out — a girl who had found herself in a happening situation, and mostly just felt too drunk (or too Californian, or too Jewish, or too not-speed-freak-thin, depending on the room). She was a fish telling us she was out of water.
In Ways of Seeing, John Berger claims that “the happiness of being envied is glamor.” I think the essential thesis of Babitz’s work is that this happiness is ultimately a farce. Glamor is seen, not felt. She was glamorous, but she also recognized the dirty work that being beautiful required. She could acknowledge that beauty was utilitarian — that it was, usually, the reason she’d been invited to all these places to begin with — and still revel in it. Because ultimately, she knew that cultivating an image was not the same thing as cultivating a personality. One could, in that sense, be both authentic and a creature of her own making.
In her essay “Honky Tonk Nights,” Babitz wrote, “I was a groupie. I posed as an album-cover designer and photographer… That today I have some album covers and photographs to show for myself is a monument to the attention-to-detail of my disguise.” The sentiment was echoed 30-odd years later by another glamor illusionist, Lana Del Rey: “Like a groupie incognito posing as a real singer, life imitates art,” she sang in “Gods and Monsters.” Though she refutes claims that she has a “persona,” Lana, better than anyone, toys with the paradoxical nature of authenticity. The conversation that plagued the beginning of her career — whether she was “real” or not — was not the point. It’s a testament to her conceptual brilliance that a decade later, no one seems to care anymore whether her lips are fake or if she ever really lived in a trailer park.
Lana’s deftness with this sleight of hand is what leads me to believe she’s Babitz’s only successor. They seem to be of the same cultural genus: women whose main direction in life is towards wherever the next high might be. They’re both women whose hedonism steamrolls beyond an aesthetic choice, Party Girls for whom the party has decidedly had to end.
Lizzy Grant has claimed to be sober since before Lana even existed, despite when her lyrics suggested otherwise. (When paparazzi photos of Lana with the man we now know was her cop-boyfriend first surfaced, I remember an optimistic rumor that he was actually just her NA sponsor.) But it wasn’t until Norman Fucking Rockwell! that Lizzy’s sobriety was officially integrated into Lana’s narrative. “Baby, remember, I’m not drinking wine,” she tells her bartender boyfriend, “but that cherry Coke you serve is fine.” The album was her official declaration of overboogie, a postcard from the edge of personal and environmental catastrophe. In its centerpiece, “The Greatest,” she places her sobriety alongside myriad disasters of climate and culture — “LA’s in flames;” “Kanye West is blond and gone” — not totally as metaphor, but more so as just another item in a list of great losses.
The kind of mid-century glamor that Babitz lived and the Party Girl Writers emulate, Lana upends. She’s located the itch, and found no precocious frivolity, no faux humility (a “bimbo” is the last thing she’d ever deign to call herself); only a Waterford Crystal clear sense of despair. Since the beginning, Lana, like Babitz, has had all the things everyone is supposed to want: beauty, boys, parties, money, etc. And still, she is so unhappy. It verges on cliche — that maybe by the end of the song, she’ll realize all that wasn’t really what she wanted — but she never does. What else could there be left to want? It’s like she’s just doomed to never be sated. She’s the femme fatale as an open wound, fatal ultimately only to herself. She’s got her arm caught in the glamor machine.
“She knew she was doomed if she didn’t change her idea of glamor,” Babitz narrates in Sex and Rage, just after her surrogate, Jacaranda, has decided to quit drinking. What compels both Babitz and Lana seems to be a kind of cosmic paranoia that they are each the last girl left at the party. It’s the psychic squalor of knowing that you’ve had too much, and still feeling like none of it was enough. Such a void cannot be filled by any one exciting night out — but all a girl can do is try, and in their attempts, Babitz and Lana wound up the obituarists of their own good times.
Annie Fell is a New York-based writer and the editor-in-chief of Talkhouse Music.