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Allison Ponthier, on “Harshest Critic” of her 2021 debut EP Faking My Own Death, sings “What if all my fears were on display right in front of all the world under a spotlight. Would they still be on my side?” Ponthier’s most recent EP Shaking Hands with Elvis, released on June 10, 2022 essentially tests this question and the overwhelmingly positive reception answers it with a resounding “yes.”
Ponthier’s work is intimately personal; listening to her music feels like reading each and every crevice of her diary amongst the sci-fi clay figurines and art concept sketches of a haunted Hollywood, a purple fluffy Elvis, and a robin's egg blue vintage sports car in her room. In all of her work, she molds a cinematic world for herself, however she has finally reached a point in her life where she is far from playing a character.
In a press conference with Ponthier she says, “I really thought life started and ended with the opinions of my home town [Dallas, TX], and to know that there are so many different ways you can live and be happy is really important. As a queer person, I think that’s a thing a lot of people can relate to.” Ponthier came out only recently, marked near the time of her debut record Cowboy, and understands “performing” all too well. Navigating her queerness in the Bible Belt, I imagine could be likened to a feeling of hiding alone on a stage, behind a thick red curtain as the audience waits for you to “come out.” In “Harshest Critic” she writes, “I’m terrified of the way I look in strangers' eyes,” which is a reflection she seeks to understand in much of her music. In her Shaking Hands with Elvis era, however, Ponthier says that her recent concert in Dallas, “essentially was performing as myself for the first time in more ways than one.”
Placing her identity on center stage in front of an audience is one that runs through many of her campy music videos; In “Faking My Own Death” she lowers into her grave surrounded by a crowd of flashing cameras before appearing in a news headline, while “Hollywood Forever Cemetery” reduces her to “hat girl” in newspapers. “Hollywood Forever Cemetery” is a particularly beautiful track that centers around what someone becomes when their identity is subject to the perceptions of others. The song is partially about the objectification of Norma Jeane, or Marilyn Monroe, as she “puts on a show” even in death, as an icon rather than a person. Ponthier tells us, “I think a lot about the line between someone who is an icon and someone who is objectified. I think that now that I’m doing this job and it’s so early in my career it’s weird to see how I also have been objectified by people who were once close to me and I think that’s why I’m so attracted to the idea of the line between celebrity and person.” Ponthier is both sentimental and existential and in processing her own emotions she invites listeners to do the same.
"Hollywood Forever Cemetery"
Put your stage name on your tombstone
Did Norma Jean die long ago?
Even in death, you put on a show
At Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Long ago, you sold your soul
To get played on the radio
They left your body down below
At Hollywood Forever Cemetery
Shaking Hands with Elvis is a technicolored catharsis flowing like an intricately detailed kaleidoscope from the pages of her diary. Ponthier says, “The best songs come from true feelings. When I collected all of these songs to represent a time in my life I realized the through line was overcoming your own shortcomings or perceived weaknesses. I want people to take away that there’s something really fulfilling about talking about your own weaknesses and faults. To me, the most cathartic thing is talking about yourself.” The EP’s titular track, “Shaking Hands with Elvis” quite literally came from a diary etching that served as an appropriate euphemism for coping with the death of her friend. Ponthier tells us, “the track imagines an afterlife that resembles rhinestoned Graceland. I talk a lot about my friend because he was a piano player- he played a lot of music so it’s about him being in a band in the afterlife.” The EP’s cover art is as campy as it is sentimental as Ponthier poses under a harsh street light creating blue-tinted shadows. This track and art describes Ponthier well- her visuals are often playful and exaggerated while her lyrics are as honest and organic as a hand-written secret.
"Shaking Hands with Elvis"
You may not be in Memphis but you're shaking hands with Elvis
Living at his theme park where it's always spring
I'm gonna be selfish, say you're with the man in velvet
Know he may not be God but he's sure as hell The King
And his rhinestone angels sing
Her EP is meant to be listened to in order, and tells a story of her journey to self-discovery. Starting with “Autopilot,” she writes, “I can’t grow up if I’m not ready to die” as she is stuck in the same habits and thought process before she learns to grow. In “Chasing a Feeling” she is still living in the eyes of others as she sings, “I imagine my own funeral and how people would react, I'm just chasing a feeling and it's chasing me right back.” At the tail end of the EP, she sings, “Late, late bloomer, I'm not afraid of you anymore, Late bloomer, Now that I'm awake, it was worth the wait” as she transitions into the final track “Shaking Hands with Elvis,”a brave expression of growth. The full EP is like a claymation of her most authentic self as each track molds a piece of her identity. Ponthier tells us “sometimes celebrities are such icons that they lose their features,” and Ponthier is determined to keep her features intact as she wishes her imagined newspaper headline to read as an artist who doesn’t compromise on the truth or authenticity.
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