An Open Letter to Penn Bagley, Badgley, Baddley. Whatever.

May 14, 2014 • Music

Dear Penn,

Can I call you Penn? Is that your real name? If I sound incredulous over its authenticity it comes only from the purest place of jealousy-induced doubt. You see, I was born in the ‘80s and Jennifer (that’s me, BTW, hi!) was quite popular. My parents, inspired by the masses, forwent the opportunity to name me something clever, like Mackenzie or Autumn or Jo, I don’t know, Penn. As a result, I have always hated the utterly generic nature of my name. But Penn… Penn sets someone up for greatness, so much so that I refuse to believe it’s real.

But I digress. I’m not here to talk about your stage name. (PS: Holy shit. Okay, I’ll admit I was wrong and hastily judgmental. I just looked up your bio on Wikipedia and your real name is Penn Dayton Badgley. I envy you, Penn, and your parents’ wonderfully WASPy taste. I, Jennifer Lee Bahn—yes, not “Leigh” like the more delicate girls, but “Lee” like Confederate army generals—am but your humble servant in lesser nomenclature.) No, Penn Dayton Badgley, I’m here to talk about your band, MOTHER, which sucks.

The other night, I arrived at Westways, a former strip club that has not yet managed to adequately rid itself of the decades of crotch grease and tramp wax off of its every surface, despite having reopened as a stripper-free bar three years ago. It is a foul place, this Westways, and one that should mandate a two-drink minimum, not for the sake of the bar numbers, but for the sake of tamping down your not-so-vague suspicion you are in the slow process of contracting Hepatitis. Of course, I wasn’t here for the vodka sodas or the VD; I was here for Sylvan Esso, a truly fantastic band. Have you heard of them? They make music. Do you know what music is?

And so I was confused when around 10 p.m., typically the time that a headliner goes on, a bearded young man with grisly chops and lean biceps dangling from a tank top began to set up onstage. This wasn’t Amelia Randall, the lead singer of Sylvan Esso (and my elfin, dancing, septum-pierced hero). This was something else… this was… a dude who looked like every dude I wanted to sleep with when I was 17 years old. Yes, it was you, Penn. It was you.

“Is that… is that…” my friend started, “Penn Badgley?” I squinted through the dark, partially because of my failing LASIK and partially because of me not really knowing who you are.

I have to admit, on account of taste that eschews the intellectually bankrupt, I am largely unfamiliar with that show you were once on… The O.C. or Gossip Girl or some shit. Whichever it was, my only experience with you as an actor consists of viciously ironic viewings, when I was invited (and swiftly de-invited) to my friend’s TV parties, where I used to heckle and yell things at the screen. No, not even those fantastic cheekbones of yours could save that show. The one with the boobs and the flip phones.

I realized that I was perhaps alone in my feelings when I looked around the room, which was filled with a peculiar mix of chubby girls who never outgrew their fondness for your acting career, the boyfriends they dragged along actively regretting having settled, and a Santa-looking motherfucker who kept bobbing his head throughout your set with his eyes closed. Gramps had stalker written all over him, just a heads up. No, from the squealing and Instagramming and all things –ing that people should generally give up the second they receive their high school diploma, it was clear you have supporters. At least as many that could fit in an old strip club along the Westside Highway, which might not be enough for you to make rent, but just enough for you to keep going with this project.

And here’s the funny thing about encouragement.

Encouragement is a horrible thing when it comes from a place of bad judgment. I, for example, loved singing and acting in my younger years. I even tried ballet. My enthusiasm in all fields was admirable. My execution, regrettable. It’s not that I was total garb; it’s just that not every single cell in my being was wired for the task at hand. What support and encouragement I got was of the “just enough” variety, where my parents applauded my efforts so that I wouldn’t end up in a therapy session later on, sobbing about their viscous criticisms and lack of support, but not enough that I was convinced that I would one day become a super star (read: delusional). No, the expectations for my creative abilities were kept at a just low enough threshold that I would not pursue a career in the arts, setting myself up for a lifetime of shame, failure, and all around sucking. No, my parents set me up for a career in accounting, administrative assisting, or something else that takes place in a windowless cubicle. You know, life.

But you, Penn, have managed to avoid all that, skating by on the aforementioned cheekbones and those Brandon Boyd-like arms, bolstered by swooning vaginas and applauding parents. And so, here we are, the two of us, standing in Westways. You with your mic, and me with my ears. All in the name of MOTHER.

While your MP3 files might lead one to believe that you are possibly onto something, I can assure that your live set is truly offensive—a mishmash of confused musical styles, an affected stage presence, and disloyal vocals that fly wildly between ranges for no apparent reason whatsoever. A voice is meant to show the inside of someone’s raw, red soul. It appears your soul, however, is schizophrenic.

Initially it was hard to pinpoint what exactly about the set was so bad we had to go sit in the adjacent room, shielding our ears from the blunt trauma of your sound and our eyes from the train wreck before us. It was like being an extra in the filming of a Lifetime original movie, only we weren’t getting paid and there was no craft service table. Hell, in other words. Hell.

I want to be a supporter of the arts—and, when I can, people. I (usually) pay the full recommended donation at the MET. I often tip subway musicians with true talent. I applaud the finger paintings of small children, even though their dogs look like birds and their flowers like heaps of sad, sorrowful weeds. But this, Penn, I can just not get behind, so much so that it trumps the fact that this is awkward letter to send, being that I know people who know people who know people. But it would be cruel to keep pushing you forward in this musical direction, even despite your recent mention to Vanity Fair about your intention of continuing and your affinity for pens:

“I actually write with a pen as much as I can. I write e-mails electronically, everything else I do with a pen. And that’s actually no bullsh-t. I write in a journal, I guess you could call it. Well, it’s not, like, a diary, it’s just, I don’t know, thoughts and musings, songs, whatever. It’s somewhere in between. Sometimes it can be beautiful, depending on my mood.”

Still, I stand by my plea, even though one day I might have to sit across from you at a bar and pretend I didn’t just share with the world that your band makes my ears bleed. Hopefully, you’ll have never read this, and, even if you do, my name will escape you. Just one more bitch named Jennifer in a sea of other Jennifers.

Photo courtesy of Vulture.

  • Love the site, like your writing, noooooooooot so into this line: “which was filled with a peculiar mix of chubby girls who never outgrew their fondness for your acting career, the boyfriends they dragged along actively regretting having settled,”

    • Jenny Bahn

      Hey Tyler, probably could have omitted the “chubby” bit as a descriptor but the “settling” part about the boyfriends is, to clarify, about dating girls with horrible taste in music. Thanks for reading and sorry to have offended on the line! JB

      • Thanks for clarifying Jenny! I figured it was a weird mis-read of the sentence.

      • Ally

        I am a little surprised that you were surprised by Penn being there, given that “mother” and “elizabeth rose” joined the line up for the night loooong before sylvan esso did. Didn’t you look at the event description or your ticket? Plus the band uploaded “easy” and got over a 100,000 hits and rave reviews by all the blogs even before people even knew Penn was the lead singer. So it’s not like this is just some self- indulgence by a CW actor. It looks like in your hurry to dismiss anyone who likes the music as a GG fan with no taste, you yourself have become someone who is judging an act purely based on what you think the singer is, i.e. an ex CW actor. A little bit of research wouldn’t have hurt. now you just look too ill qualified to be doing any kind of music journalism.

  • Ally

    Hey Jenny, I appreciate your article, but you should remember that this was only Penn’s third show ever. And if you are in actual doubt of his talent, check out his live performances of “Lilac wine” and “Once I was” on youtube. I am no Gossip girl fan, but I saw Penn play Jeff Buckley in “Greetings from Tim Buckley” and not only did he sing every note live, he was incredible. I saw the film at the toronto film Festival and at one point the entire theater clapped. From what I can make of the band, this is not Penn’s usual style so it may be different, but don’t dismiss someone based on a lack of knowledge. If you watch his other live performances and still honestly feel like he cannot sing, your opinion will hold more value. Here is a link to one

    • Ally

      P.S. I don’t mean to sound accusatory, I would genuinely like to know what you think of this performance (Lilac Wine) because I am curious as to whether the band was bad or you just don’t think he is a good singer 🙂 Do watch and comment if you have the time.

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