Sometimes I wonder if my love life would be a bigger success if I made a bigger effort to be a toxic bitch. People like that, right? Men would flock to me? It’s a trope that mentally unstable people are more desirable, and romance isn’t really worth it unless it’s full of explosive drama and mutual bad behaviour. Most of us learn otherwise pretty quickly in life, but the trope shows no sign of losing its appeal. It’s the Manic Pixie Dream Girl’s rehab-failing older sister. The Toxic Bitch may smash your windshield and ruin your life, but nobody ever made you feel more alive. The male equivalent is the guy who breaks your nose on Valentine’s Day then takes you to brunch the next morning, and he is only marginally less easy to glamorize. Toxic people are shit and you should run away from them when you see them coming, but don’t you secretly want to be that out of control?
Lana Del Rey is releasing her fifth album tomorrow. Del Rey has shown surprising longevity, and she’s grown considerably as an artist. That’s not easy in an industry that throws It-Girls into the stratosphere and then forgets them overnight. Six years of fame is an eon in the Instagram era, and in the age of widespread piracy artists often spend most their time generating #sponcon and designing capsule collections instead of making art. So we should tip our hats to Lana for managing to stay focused on her music; she’s released an album almost every year and each one has been a step forward for her. She’s also managed not to embarrass herself with drunken escapades, ill-advised love affairs, bad makeovers, or forays into fields where she has no talents. She suffered enough negative publicity when she first came into the spotlight, for her looks, for her aesthetic, for her amateurishness on stage. And she soldiered on and she earned her credibility. Needless to say, I’m pretty excited for the new record. But I think I’ll always love Born to Die the best.
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.
Gary Clark Jr. has been a leader in the recent soul music revival, and his album Blak and Blu is a prime example of how roots rock, funk and R’n’B are still fresh and modern, despite harking back to decades before the artist was born. Clark is also a native of my own adopted hometown of Austin TX, and residents have had the pleasure of discovering his music long before the rest of the world did. Clark is known for coming home to play the kind of small, intimate shows where young siblings and cousins jump onstage to sing backup and audience members can reach out touch the star’s shoes. I’ve seen Clark play on a few occasions, and his aw-shucks attitude belies his musicianship. I also have to say that hearing his songs on the radio when I first moved to Austin is one of my warmest musical memories. So my affection for this particular record is very much tied into my own place and time. But I’m pretty confident that it’s also objectively one of the finest pieces of what the Grammy Awards refer to as “traditional R’n’B” in recent memory. Definitely one of the records of the decade, if you’re about ready to compiling that list.
This is a new reworking of a very forgotten gem. Suzanne Vega has been steadily rerecording acoustic versions of old material, arranging the results by theme; love, family, states of being. Coming from most artists, such a project would be presumed to be an easy cash grab. And I think Vega has said that straightening out some byzantine copyright arrangements was, indeed, part of the motivation. Nobody’s motives are ever quite pure, and that shouldn’t sully the final product. Vega was interested in dusting off various obscure songs from her back catalog so she could explore them in a new context. Her new arrangements shine a fresh perspective on songs both familiar and never released. It’s ambitious and interesting, and it does justice to some great songs. Days of Open Hand, the album this track was plucked from, is Vega’s most underrated, and deserves to be lifted from obscurity.