Last week I made a mix of Lana Del Rey’s newest CD and a few of her singles from Born To Die. June gloom had long long since faded but I was still feeling the summertime sadness and as I took a Sunday drive on Laurel Canyon, “Video Games” began to play. My friend and I basked in the setting sun and the moody tunes, and about halfway through the song, my friend turned to me and said, “Everyone remembers when they first heard ‘Video Games.’’
And it’s true, I do remember. I remember exactly. I was in the kitchen, in my house in Indianapolis, I’d just downloaded Spotify and was testing it out by playing Ms. Del Rey’s breakthrough single. I always cleaned with background music, but from the first sound of the bell, the song commanded my full attention. At the time, I was in a loveless relationship, stuck in a house where neither my partner nor I wanted to live, and playing parts we were both far too young to play. When I first heard “Video Games,” I listened so intently that a dish cracked in my hands. Ms. Del Rey had created a sound that I’d never imagined, but more than that, her lyrics exposed an experience that was devastatingly relatable to me.
Little did I know back then, that she would usher in a new wave of pop priestess. A new pop goddess that isn’t always “happy.” She isn’t trying to hit the club every night. Her music is not the label’s property, it’s hers. She is a creator. Her sound harkens back to midnight blues and ’90s grunge and ’70s acid rock. From the wispy-wistful torch songs of Lana Del Rey, to the space-time continuum of Grimes, to the punk-synth of Sky Ferriera, there is a new chick in town, The Melancholic Pop Phenoms are upon us.
Starting with Lana, what fascinates me so about Ms. Del Rey in particular is the artistry of her songs—musically, yes, but mostly lyrically. Del Rey has been called out for glamorizing violence, and being anti-feminist and though she has yet to speak fully on these claims, I find myself in total disagreement (you can read my thoughts about the “F” word in Hollywood here.)
When I was in film school, we watched a movie directed by actress and model Barbra Loden called, Wanda. The movie starred Loden as a marginalized housewife who, after giving up her kids because she’s, “just no good,” sets out with a bank robber for a series of heists until he gets shot, whereupon she returns back to her coal mining town trying to find a husband again. Wanda doesn’t learn anything, Wanda doesn’t change, Wanda doesn’t grow, Wanda is right where she started at the end of the movie. So what was writer/director Loden’s point? Her point was the lack of opportunity for women. Her point was that, at the time, women could be a housewife or nothing. She didn’t need to spell it out. She showed you how bleak things could be. Ms. Del Rey has also showed us how bleak things can be, has she not? Throughout her short, but pivotal career, Lana has written songs that truly show the melancholic nature of certain female experiences. Off her latest album, Ultraviolence:
At first glance you can say she’s glamorizing violence (and many have), but I see something else: I see the direness of the Del Rey’s point of view and the fact that (at least for the purposes of this song) she believes she cannot do better than this situation. To bash Del Rey for revealing an experience that is overwhelmingly common among women (just how common is gut-wrenching) seems beside the point. Del Rey is using her sad torch songs to give us insight into women’s experiences that we may not often get to see, especially in pop music and shedding light on abuse is always better than having it hidden, critics be damned.
In a galaxy far, far away from Lana Del Rey and the west coast, lives the fascinating Claire Boucher, more commonly known to us as Grimes. Her space age sound and ethereal voice have taken pop to the future. In spite of her fun technological mix mash and faultless soprano, her songs have a surprisingly political slant. Her most famous single “Oblivion,” despite its playful musicality, is, sadly, written about her personal experience with sexual assault. In an interview with Spin, she described the origin:
The predatory imagery of the song is in such strong contrast to the actual sound. But, that’s the beauty of the piece, and the video–which shows Grimes hanging out in hyper-masculine areas (gyms, sport arenas, etc.). It shows us that Ms. Boucher’s song isn’t about fear, but about overcoming it. It’s startling to see such a young woman have so much to teach us about growing from pain, but through pop music, she’s not only busted the game open musically, but also expanded what pop music may be about.
Sky Ferreira thought she was a failure at 17. The constant bickering between her and her label propelled her to leave music and pursue modeling. It was only after the success of her collaboration with Dev Hynes on “Everything is Embarrassing” that she was finally given the creative power to do the album that she wanted to do. That album, Night Time, My Time, is an album with grit, vision, and something to say..
Many tracks on Night Time, My Time delve into feeling voiceless, fighting for the right to say something, and disappointment in adults who surround you. In “Nobody Asked Me” Sky sings:
Ferreira makes perfect angst-ridden teen pop but with superior artistic skill and craft learned from having an adult life in a teen’s body. She’s been famous since she was 15, she’s had to deal with more than most teenagers, and this album perfectly showcases all that living and all that melancholia
Sky, Claire, and Lana are the next wave of great creators. With their unique views of the world, and their massive talents, they are shaking up everything about what it means to be a female pop star.. Already I feel a change in the air. I felt a touch of Lana in the honesty and fear displayed in Beyoncé’s “Jealous.” I saw a tinge of Grimes in the costumes and visuals of the Miley Cyrus tour, and I heard just a bit of Sky in the “Boom Clap” of Charli XCX. Their reach grows everyday. Maybe these women, these singers, these pop artists can’t simply be reduced to “Sad Girls” or Melancholic Pop Phenoms, but instead as complex individuals eager to use their craft to express and interpret real insights into the world around them. They may not yet be as big as the Katy Perrys, the Rihannas, the Mariah Careys, but they’re changing the foundations of pop music both large and small. Sometimes this happens in big ways, like Lana’s Ultraviolence hitting number one on the Billboard Charts. Sometimes it’s in small ways, like the breaking of a kitchen dish. Either way, as summer actually comes to an end, I look forward to feeling their infinite summertime sadness.
Your Gay Best Friend