NIAGARA FALLS — The words were silkscreened on a $30 T-shirt at the merch table. They came out of Taylor Momsen’s mouth, too, before the penultimate song of The Pretty Reckless’ Nov. 19 set inside Rapids Theatre.
Those words are this: “All I wanna do is rock.”
The message is simple, true, and nearly unnecessary. By the time Momsen said it, her hand-horn-pumping crowd already got it. The intent was imprinted on the Reckless’ performance — a once-stripping spectacle stripped bare of anything but the music.
No shock. Just rock.
Momsen formed The Pretty Reckless nearly a decade ago. At 23, she’s deeply established as a musician. But in the pop-culture conversation, Momsen has long been tagged as something more: As a little girl, she was Cindy Lou Who in the 2000 Jim Carrey movie “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas.”
Later, she was one of three finalists for the title role in Disney Channel’s “Hannah Montana.” (If you like to lollygag in the world of what-if, imagine how Momsen as Montana over Miley Cyrus would have altered the zeitgeist.)
Momsen gained TV teen fame as a star on the CW drama “Gossip Girl.” That provided a celebrity status that helped get attention for the nascent version of the Reckless, which today includes Momsen and the three guys she told me in a recent interview are “my family, my best friends” — guitarist Ben Phillips, bassist Mark Damon and drummer Jamie Perkins.
It wasn’t just Momsen’s celebrity status that seized people’s attention back then. Nor was it the music alone, though the Reckless’ work quickly established Momsen as one of the leading young women in the world of edgier rock.
It was also what she wore. Or didn’t. In those early days, Momsen would sometimes take the stage in lingerie or less. On occasion she enticed her audience to follow suit by de-suiting themselves.
“When we first started out, I was a little young and stupid,” Momsen said in a recent interview with Cosmopolitan.
She continued: “The music was never a phase, but the wardrobe was certainly a phase, so I think that may have overshadowed the music in the beginning, for sure. I was so outrageous.”
That was shock and rock — and it’s gone.
True to her “all I wanna do is rock” message, Momsen and the Reckless are playing their music on a nondescript slate.
She wore a dark jacket over a black sleeveless T-shirt, and spent much of the show whipping and tipping her shoulder-length blond hair around her face, obscuring her expression in a way that made the only vivid aspect of the performance the music itself.
For the audience – mostly men and women in their 20s to 40s, with a smattering of teens – that worked. They locked into the music, from openers through the headliners.
After sets by the hard-thrashing Them Evils and slightly whimsical Holy White Hounds, Momsen and the Reckless emerged against a simple black backdrop. She offered virtually no chatter as the band pounded through more than a dozen songs, from their first single, “Make Me Wanna Die,” to their most recent, “Take Me Down.”
Momsen’s music – especially her new album, “Who You Selling For,” co-written with Phillips – can be dark. Consider the opening lines of “Take Me Down:”
Been waitin' at these crossroads
Forever and a day
On a guy to buy my soul
I spend all night and day
How much harder can I play
You know I gave my life to rock n’ roll
What’s the meaning? Momsen leaves that to you, the listener.
In our interview, she demurred on explaining her lyrics, noting that the meaning of a song changes for each listener and, for her as the writer, evolves over the years.
“This record will mean something different to me five years from now than it does right now,” she said.
Right now, we can solidly guess this: Momsen is giving her “life to rock n’ roll” in the most undistracted way. It’s her, her band, her music, her crowd. It’s deep and shadowy, pure but not purified; it's loud and pounding, but without any noise.