Album Retrospective: “Speak” Speaks to Me

Hannah Donahue

I will be the first to admit how hard it can be to objectively analyze so-called “guilty pleasures.” Believe me, I’m writing about one right now, because in terms of early to mid-2000s pop albums, Lindsay Lohan’s 2004 debut “Speak” is truly an anomaly.  

It’s an anomaly in that, for one thing, it’s an album that – through its inclusion of numerous musical stylings, genres, topics and instrumentals – tries to cover all the bases at once but fails to reach any one of them on a consistent basis: one moment I’m listening to teen rock reminiscent of Avril Lavigne or Hilary Duff, but one song later and I find myself suddenly engulfed in electronica and digital soundscapes that wouldn’t sound out of place in an *NSYNC or Britney Spears project. It encompasses nearly every hallmark of the early 2000s that came before it in such a copycat manner but in a way that, thanks to its original lyrical compositions, places it one step above “tribute” level. 

It’s an anomaly in that it is somehow ludicrously overproduced yet feels undoubtably rushed at the same time. Despite being three years in development (thanks in part to a fallout between Lohan’s team and Cuban-American producer Emilio Estefan, Jr., the husband of singer Gloria Estefan), Lohan’s first half of 2004 – thanks to Cady Heron – turned out to be much more successful and eventful than Casablanca Records expected, resulting in them turning the rest of her 2004 into nonstop bedlam. From July 2004 until the album’s release on Dec. 7 of that year, Lohan faced so much pressure to complete the album by November on top of various photoshoots, events and the filming of 2005’s “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” she was left with no choice but to write and record half of the LP’s 12 tracks (as well as songs for her 2005 follow-up, “A Little More Personal (RAW)”) in her “Herbie” trailer. The result: Lohan’s overworked self – coupled with a 103-degree fever and overall enervation – was sent to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center by September, delaying the album’s release to the following month. 

It’s even an anomaly in that it was both successful and unsuccessful at the same time. Technically, “Speak” spoke to fans and the general public enough to go platinum, or sell one million units, in its first year while reaching No. 4 on Billboard’s 200 list; two of its singles – “Rumors” and “Over” – led Billboard’s Bubbling Under Hot 100 chart (peaking at No. 6 and No. 1, respectively) during their runs. Despite these gains, however, it received a less-than-enthusiastic response from the press; IGN described it as “sugar coated, prefab pop that is easily digested, but just as easily forgotten,” while Entertainment Weekly promised that “Avril Lavigne…is rolling her eyes.” Worse, Slant labelled it as “one giant market researched disaster,” and AllMusic went as far as to call the LP a “slick, ugly nadir of 2000s pop culture — the kind of thing that makes Blue Staters think that, gee, maybe the Red Staters were right when they said the U.S. is going to hell.” 

Well, if that’s the case, then I have no qualms about going to hell, because “Speak” is an anomaly that, somehow, despite its “nadir” qualities, I thoroughly enjoy from beginning to end.  

I honestly don’t know whether it’s my recently acquired adoration for Lindsay Lohan and her talents – having only discovered them less than two years ago thanks to “Mean Girls” – or my long-time love of early-2000s female pop-rock stuff that drives this feeling, but there’s honestly not a song on this LP that I would omit or not recommend. There’s something earnest about each cut that makes it worth the listen, ranging from a feel-good quality that makes me forget to press “skip” and forces me to memorize every lyric by heart, to an immersive and entrancing bop-vibe that makes any interruption to the experience embittering. It’s an enigmatic sentiment that I only obtain from three other albums – Toshiki Kadomatsu’s “Sea Is A Lady” for its outstanding and enjoyably vaporwave-esque instrumentals, The Outfield’s “Voices of Babylon” for its high production values and variety, and Michelle Branch’s “Hotel Paper” for its relatable themes of hope and self-reflection  – and my love for those is just as outlandish as my love for this one. 

However, if I were forced to point to one tangible reason why Lohan’s debut “speaks” to me like it does (pun intended), it would be her voice and the forces driving it. While some frequently refer to it as “hoarse” or compare it to that of a smoker’s (perhaps more understandably so these days), I feel it is better labelled here as heartfelt. Compared to the squeaky-clean and feigned highs of peers like Spears and Duff – and knowing the stress and development hell this album and its artist went through – Lohan, armed with consistently authentic vocals ranging from smoky to downright raspy at times, sounds desperate to project her story of love, lust and loss of innocence to the world. Although I feel for her passionate singing throughout the album’s peaks and valleys, she is unfortunately powerless to drown out the chaotic narrative of tabloids and controversy engulfing her persona, a struggle reflected in an overwhelming production and an apathetic public LP response that mingle to form an end result exhibiting vivacity at the expense of focus or direction. 

In other words, “Speak” is a mess. Objectively, the album is not very good or inspired compared to Lavigne or Spears, lacks the commercial presence of Duff’s 2003 debut that preceded it, and would not have made the impact it did had its lead star not been a mean girl just half-a-year prior. If I ever dared to play it out loud, I would receive anything from eye-rolls to hands quickly reaching for the off button. 

And yet…I undeniably adore it, simply because it, and Lindsay’s heartening voice, makes me feel good. I may be guilty of enjoying this “giant market researched disaster,” but at least there’s a star at the center of it all whose performance rarely strays from its frank – and occasionally sensual – assertiveness found in nearly all of her works, regardless of the medium. All of this gives me hope for next month, when Lohan is set to (hopefully) release her first LP in 15 years; if it can measure the energy of “Speak” while meeting the demands of modern pop (should it avoid the fate of “Spirit in the Dark” all the while), it just might be her best yet. 

Until then, I cannot help but throw out some recommendations from this album, if only to help readers like you understand where I’m coming from and why you should hear her out: 

First: Created to promote “Herbie: Fully Loaded,” this is a hard-rock kickoff number that merges the thrill of racing from the aforementioned film with the ecstasy of dating, topped off with an overtly-obvious sexually-inspired double-entendre (“’cause when I see you something inside me burns/And then I realize/I want to come first”). Enjoyable if you don’t get too hung up on the purposely provocative chorus. 

Nobody ‘Til You: A personal favorite of mine if only because of its second verse (“And the more I talk the less I fear/No matter what you say/We’re still on the same hemisphere/And there’s comfort in just knowing that/Wherever I go a part of me is staying here with you”), so much so that I once listed it as my favorite lyric for a “newsroom noise” poll in The New Hampshire

Over: The album’s most successful single, “Over” is often compared to the works of Michelle Branch; being a fan of her work, it’s easy to see why. Lohan’s heartbroken intoning mixes well with the rough and downtrodden guitars and drums – as well as lyrics from Kara DioGuardi, John Shanks and Lohan herself – to generate a genuine sense of loss and sympathy following her breakup with Wilmer Valderrama. Lines like, “My tears are turning into time/I’ve wasted trying to find a reason for goodbye,” tug at the heartstrings and drives the point home well. 

Very Last Moment In Time: A generic cut, yes, but also just a flat-out worthy demonstration of Lohan’s singing capabilities; if you compare this to her real life at the time, it’s a depressing juxtaposition, especially when she wants to “stay here soaking up the rain/Falling all around me [and] wash the world away.” 

Rumors: This bop is Lohan in song form: a hard-hitting, unapologetic attack on the media as she yearns for her desired yet unobtainable solitude from the flashes and tabloids (“But I can tell that you’re watching me/And you’re probably gonna write what you didn’t see/Well I just need a little space to breathe/Can you please respect my privacy!”). As a journalist myself, it depresses me how little respect those reporters had for their topic back then, and only motivates me more today to fulfill my mission as an objective reporter. That aside, the song and its Matrix-inspired music video proves that she, and “Speak” overall, had something worthwhile to say after all.