The Power and Glory of Juliette Lewis

Lenny Recommends the star's stage presence.

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In which Lenny writers recommend a cultural phenomenon they hold dear.

Once, I was the lead singer in a rock band. There were three guys and me. We weren't very good and literally only played in the guitarist's basement. The basement walls were covered in paneling, and because of squealing feedback from the mic's proximity to the amp, I had to stand in an adjacent room with the door halfway open, staring at a large portrait of President John F. Kennedy. I should have seen it as foreshadowing that my only audience was a dead president, but I kept on going, because it was 1992 and I was 21 and it seemed that every woman was in a rock band except me. So I churned breakup poems into songs because I had real shit to say and flung my head and body around behind that door. We practiced for about two weeks until my bandmates told me that I was no Eddie Vedder. "No one wants to see a girl thrashing onstage," my guitarist said.

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I wasn't trying to be Eddie, I explained. I was Janis Joplin in "Cry Baby." I was Patti Smith doing "Gloria." I was Pat Benatar in "Promises in the Dark." I was Wendy O. Williams without the chainsaw. I was Kim Gordon. If I had known about Kathleen Hanna in 1992, I would have wanted to be her too. They were women with agency. My band members wanted me to whisper into the mic like a light, airy flower. My guitarist even suggested I fake an English accent. I was young. I was intimidated. I didn't know how to say that rock, and the sexuality of rock, isn't owned by men. So I left.

But recently I came across a video of Juliette Lewis performing with her band the Licks. It was a performance at the El Rey Theater in Los Angeles in 2015. She's in a tight white suit with fuchsia eye makeup running down her cheeks; her torso contorts, and during a guitar solo, she springs up and down on her knees like a pogo stick. In another song, the jacket has come off, and, covered in sweat, she swipes her hair forward and back, twisting and gyrating and kicking until it's time to sing again. The woman does not stop. Though I'm 45 years old now (and Juliette herself is 43), the 21-year-old inside of me wishes that I could have performed with that kind kinetic energy all those years ago. She's the kind of rock star I would have wanted to be.

I've never seen Juliette and the Licks live, but, watching videos on YouTube and following her on Instagram, I feel inspired by her madness. At the Reeperbahn Festival, she bounced around the stage with sexual ferocity, wearing jeans and a bikini top, egging on the ladies to shake their hips, or if they were too shy, their chests, or if they were too shy, their tongues. In Cologne, she propelled her body through a wild performance of "Proud Mary," jumping up and down like a kid on a trampoline.

There are no backup singers — it's all Lewis. Her lungs, her voice. She drags you, kicking and screaming, into another musical dimension that's part Spinal Tap, part daredevil, part marathon. In an interview, Lewis said she "approaches music like an athlete," which is no surprise. Song after song, her performances are an exhausting feat, her head, hair, and body contorting with (dare I say it?) the stamina of Beyoncé in concert.

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Women of a certain age are not meant to work the stage as if they've swallowed the spirit of Mick Jagger in tight football pants circa 1981, as Juliette Lewis does. Aging rock stars are expected to cover up. Yet Lewis started her rock-music career when most male and female rockers are retiring. She is playing a reversal of fortune with her body. I want to prop her up like a statue and bow down to her wardrobe of hot pants. Really, she's got a pair of tight gold ones, some American-flag bike shorts, and a white pair with a thick, black, exposed zipper that runs the length of her pelvis. This woman moves her ass without inhibition, free of arrangement and control, and her pants go along with it.

My favorite of her outfits, though, is her Evel Knievel–inspired jumpsuit. It's a white cat suit with a blue V down her torso, lined in red ribbon and decked out with white stars that run from her shoulders to her navel and then down the sides of her legs. When I was a kid, Evel Knievel was a star, someone I idolized because he jumped fourteen buses with his dirt bike. Now I'm 45 and Juliette Lewis is someone I idolize because at 43, she jumps raging into a mosh pit, swings her microphone around like a big dick, and holds hands with her fans, seeming like she never wants to let go.

Now when I'm in the car singing, I imagine myself playing guitar once again, but this time I'm on a small stage. I'm a manic performer with hair swinging in my face, sweat dripping down my cheeks. I bounce up and down to the music in this imaginary performance, tearing across the stage, sharing the mic with my female guitarist, all because of Juliette Lewis.

Hayley Krischer is a freelance writer living in New Jersey. She has written for the New York Times, Marie Claire, Talking Points Memo, Salon, the Hairpin, and more.

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