Marina Diamandis is the camp icon for the millennial set. It’s self-aware pop music for a generation that’s so self-aware and meta and ironic they can’t stop being self-conscious and just allow themselves to feel a natural emotion. Of course, vacuous idle youth have been the bogeybear that every receding generation shakes its stick at before reluctantly conceding that the kids are alright after all. It’s just the technology that keeps updating. Every generation gets the pop idols it deserves, supposedly. We certainly have enough of the kind who wholeheartedly and unironically represent the specifically modern tyranny of aspirational images. Some of them have a touch of the uncanny valley effect about the eyes that makes one wonder if they aren’t just digital sales bots. One suspects that Kendall and Kylie don’t actually exist; their eyes are glassy and they can barely speak in sentences, but their lives are impeccably well designed. Celebrity automatons may be easy targets for intellectual scorn – and may even be deserving of it – but who among us doesn’t spend time curating an ‘aspirational’ public image of ourselves as if we were of interest to anyone besides our 12 closest friends? What does that do to our souls? How does it affect our ability to be real people interacting with other real people? Are the self-regard and narcissism that social media so easily enables actually a satisfying substitute for the hard work of forming and maintaining relationships IRL? Why bother following the prescribed life path when you can just create the illusion that you’re following it? Sure, you’re a half-baked man-child or babygirl with no life- or interpersonal- skills and no interest in acquiring either, but you look like an interesting person on Instagram. And, really, when you think about it, aren’t you just a better-groomed version of the guy who leaves the club alone to go read books in the cemetery because solitary pursuits like reading and moping are so much easier and more fulfilling than the drudge and pain of trying to form meaningful connections with your fellow humans? It’s all the same miserablism played out on a different stage.
This is going out to all of my Russian readership. Here is Regina Spektor with a faithful and passionate reading of a classic by the Georgian bard Bulat Okudzhava. Right now, Regina Spektor’s best known piece of work is the theme song for Orange is the New Black. She may never be able to shake that particular brand of fame-by-association. Fans who got on board pre-Netflix know her as an incredibly smart, literate and poetic singer-songwriter with an eccentric streak. Her work has been refreshingly free of both the overly saccharine and the overly confessional tendencies that often plague female singer-songwriter-pianists. Spektor is, of course, a Russian emigre, and though it’s often very subtle, her writing and musical style is distinctly Russian. Russians are naturally wary of cheap sentiment and unnecessary intimacy, which helps account for the lack of the usual love song cliches and shrill emotionalism in Spektor’s work. Instead Spektor leans towards the literary, finding new ways to illuminate everyday emotions and experiences, using subtle metaphors and long-form narrative, all of which shows the unique influence of her background.
One of my favorite things about attending a Marina and the Diamonds concert is seeing kids in the audience wearing versions of Marina’s video looks. Marina Diamandis has adopted a distinct visual style for each one of her three albums, and fans show up to shows dressed to echo their favorites. That shows real connection between the artist and her fans. Clearly her message and her style are hitting home. That’s fantastic news for everyone, because she is one of the smartest singer-songwriters around, and what she has to say is enormously empowering. Electra Heart is a concept album exploring female archetypes and the way they affect our real life identities and our ability to function as human beings. Unsurprising conclusion; they’re mostly harmful. That may sound heavily cerebral, but it’s big ideas delivered in bubblegum packaging. It’s a master class in how consciousness raising can be fun, and pop music has the power to deliver lessons and inspiration. In the right hands.
Savoir Adore didn’t create the label dream pop, but their hit song Dreamers (which surely you’re familiar with if you listen to indie radio at all) is a towering masterpiece of that totally legit musical genre. Savoir Adore also don’t really exist anymore; a duo whose one-half leaves the group is now a solo artist. When that one-half happens to be the female vocalist, the remaining partner is now less than a solo artist – he’s a producer in search of talent. That’s what happened when singer Deidre Muro left Savoir Adore. It’s a shame, but their modern day one-hit wonder status is assured. Beyond the hit though, I think they were outstandingly representative of indie pop music in this decade; atmospheric, romantic, trippy, easily tuneful, beautifully sung, knowingly evocative of the past, and vaguely anonymous.
You wouldn’t immediately imagine it, but this reminds me strongly of early 70’s Elton John. Or, more vaguely, early 70’s albums in general, where stripped down narrative ballads lay hidden in between the amped-up pop hits. Father John Misty is too clever an artists to just write a straightforward narrative ballad – you couldn’t even really call this a narrative, more of a wordy stream of conscious. But the structure and performance call to mind a time when it was possible to get yourself a radio hit singing twelve to thirteen verses about a boat going down on Lake Ontario. This kind of soulful verbosity doesn’t get rewarded nearly as much anymore. I would say that’s a shame, but times change, and you know what? A lot of those long narrative hit songs from the 70’s were crap anyway. I’m not suggesting that this should be a hit. I love it but I don’t want to hear it on the radio. Some songs are meant to be discovered only after you’ve bought the album. Some songs are meant to lie far between the hits, hidden away on the end of Side A, (as if that were still a thing.)
Light of my life, fire of my loins, be a good baby, do what I want...
Is it trashy to quote Lolita in a song? A song about being a gold-digging, coked-up sugar baby, no less? Well, that depends on how Lana Del Rey rubs you with her retrograde lounge hoochie Nancy Sinatra aesthetic. I know plenty of people hate Del Rey for…well, for a lot of things, from valid concerns about glamorizing suicide and adopting such a blatantly unliberated point of view, to vapid ones like speculating if she’s had her nose done. I think that the Del Rey persona has quite a strong element of camp in it, and you can enjoy her brand of sad sugar baby glamour without taking it too seriously. Her lyrical point of view is not exactly progressive; she plays the part of the seductive sugar baby, the eternal mistress who will never be a wife, the sad floozy, the casting-couch climbing wannabe fucking her way towards the top, the heartbroken girl who wants to die because she thinks she can’t live alone, the woman who is empty and void of purpose without a man to guide her rudder. And yes, she is the lady who publicly said that ‘feminism is not an interesting concept’. (BTW, I think that asking female celebrities about their position on feminism and then ripping them a new one regardless of what they say is a sexist booby trap in itself.) Yet that is exactly what makes her an interesting artist. All of those roles are ones we see secretly ourselves in, at one point or another, no matter how strong a stance we take in public. It’s essentially adolescent to think that any of those roles are valid identities, but even when we’re old enough to know better, we still find them romantic on some level. There is a powerful appeal to playing those parts, be it because it makes us feel better about the things that make us feel sad, or because sometimes those parts can serve as legitimate survival strategies. Exploring roles that are complicated and problematic is more interesting, and more important, and rings true in a way that taking a simplistic and insincere stance of ’empowerment’ does. The false empowerment of pop stars who offer vapid platitudes about ‘girl power’ and reassurances that ‘it’s ok to have curves because that’s what men like’, is truly threatening and insidiously anti-feminist because it’s nothing more than an inoffensive facade that puts a gloss of self-love over the same old sexist status quo. Lana Del Rey may not have the well articulated feminist consciousness that Beyonce does, but her understanding of and interest in playing with complex social roles makes her an important and thought-provoking artist, and inadvertently, a feminist ally.
This is precious! Jake Bugg is a precious little boy with fluffy hair. You may even decide it’s a mite too precious. A little bit too self-consciously retro. I mean, look at his adorable precious logo, it’s like he got himself signed to Deram Records. My opinion is, Jake Bugg can get away with pushing the homage towards parody for a couple of reasons. One, obviously, is he’s a seriously talented songwriter and musician, and that gives him a lot of leeway on how he wants to grow his image. And two, what he’s trying to evoke is not what anybody else would think of trying to evoke. He’s reminding me of a young folk-pop troubadour on a package tour in 1965, making an appearance on Ready, Steady, Go, or Thank Your Lucky Stars, or even TOTP. Who even remembers those things? When you might see a teenage David Robert Jones or Steven Georgiou sharing a bill with Billy Fury or Cilla Black on a shoddily produced variety show with a sarcastic host who hates rock’n’roll. That’s not a nostalgic vision many people share; it’s not the sixties kitsch that sells a million t-shirts, and if young Jake mimics those bygone figures a little too well, not many people would even notice.