It stresses me out when people ask me what kind of music I listen to. If it’s a guy I always want them to leave me alone and if it’s a woman I always feel this strange need to justify myself, to say “pop music” and then quantify that “pop music” with a million descriptors. No, you don’t understand, I care about this. Listen, pop is something that it’s weird to try and define. So much of the way we think of it is inextricably linked not just with the way pop sounds, with the things pop talks about, but with the people who make it—Pop Stars, right? To figure out what elementary particles are made of physicists hurl them at each other at astronomically high speeds until they break apart, and that seems inelegant to me. Sometimes to define something you have to make your way around the edges of it. It means something when artists aspire to pop stardom without the audience that is necessary to be a Pop Star. They’re important of themselves but they help us find the edges of this thing, this pop thing, mythology and ravenous intimacy colliding in the shining intersection point between closeness and farness.
There is a kind of mythic scale that comes with all good pop music, right, the knowledge that even tiny things can seem important and therefore be important. Lana Del Rey is good at this, at the casual mythologization of experience: “now my life is sweet like cinnamon / like a fucking dream I’m living in / baby love me cause I’m singing on the radio” (“Radio”, 2012). Life sweet like cinnamon, intimacy almost embarrassing, but then immediately turned outward again. All good Lana songs are like that: you can’t tell where she ends and the iconography begins. That’s kind of the point.
Zella Day is also like that. Zella Day has blonde mermaid hair and a crooning honey-lark voice and songs that are almost laughable in their metaphors and then, suddenly, not. She has seven whole songs and all of them are devastating to me, honestly, truly, I am overwhelmed by her. She sounds either like she’s dying or praying half the time and it is so beautiful. She released a six-song EP just called Zella Day in 2014 and isn’t that how all good pop stars begin and end, with their names? There is an aspect of introduction but the naming of self is also inherently definitional: you should know who Zella Day is and she’s going to assume you do until you actually do—the act of Being Pop Star before it’s a safe bet, before there’s any scope to it. The best song on Zella Day is called “East of Eden,” and it is entirely made of myth, it makes no sense, it’s about aesthetic and scale and the immensity of a near-divine landscape mixed with the microscopic texture of a life.
The title invokes the Bible and the chorus invokes the Bible too but there is intimacy pushed right up against this myth like you push a voice to breaking—the verse “pink toes pressed against the carpet / show your face, finish what you started” against the chorus “keep me from the cages under the control / running in the dark to find East of Eden.” Like, that doesn’t even mean anything. The verse is unremarkable without the chorus and the chorus is nonsensical without the verse but in the mixing of them, like the dissonance between two unsuited notes, there is some kind of truth. What is “running through the cages” without “the record spins down the alley late night”? I think a lot about the immensity of very small things, of knowing the feel of someone’s carpet better than you know the feel of your own, of laughing with someone in the street at night, of the things that drive people to write stories about cages and tigers and gardens. This is the thing about pop, right, that pop is a place where these two things coexist. In this song they barely brush against each other, the distinction is clear; nearness opens up into legend and stays that way. This is the difference, ultimately, between the myth of Zella Day and the myth of Lana Del Rey, between almost pop star and Pop Star. For Lana, the dissonance between scope and microcosm narrows and narrows until its one and the same thing, reflexively. The audience is listening to an epic, the audience is an interloper into an intimate moment, it’s all the same, it doesn’t matter. Baby love me ’cause I’m singing on the radio. Maybe that’s what it means, to be a Pop Star, that the stuff you show and the stuff you hide are the same thing. My other favorite Zella Day song is called “1965” and my favorite line is “You had me spinnin’ in the midnight summer grass / I never had nobody touch me like I’m glass.” Her voice feels like it’s going to snap in half and so do I.
We in the nuclear seasons, summer lovin’ in the backseat gone
Now I’m facing this on my own ’cause you tasted the blast
and it shook your bones
I’m a warrior all alone, in the field of lies, I won’t go home
–”Nuclear Seasons“, Charli XCX
We found love in a hopeless place
We found love in a hopeless place
Shine a light through an open door
– “We Found Love”, Rihanna
The flip-side of myth is viscera, and with viscera comes hunger: let’s talk about Allie X.
I love Allie X a lot. I’m going to come right out and say it—I wouldn’t be talking about these songs if I didn’t sing them in the shower, hum them obsessively, chew on them almost violently. She has three songs and all of them are good, and Katy Perry called “Catch” a “spring jam” which is true but is, frankly, a dismissal of its overwhelming knife-edged keenness. Allie X makes nasty hungry pop music reminiscent of early Charli XCX, only meaner, which is frankly a miracle. “Prime” is my favorite, an almost eerily optimistic beat and her voice bubblegum-textured stretching over top.
Why not give it a try? Be a beautiful monstrosity
When you’re just getting by / and happily terminal
Yeah, breathe it in ‘til we’re high / Healthy isn’t fun or amusing
Forget what I need / Give me what I want
And I should be fine
Look, what I am trying to say is this: “Healthy isn’t fun or amusing” is not the same thing as “I don’t want to be healthy,” is in fact the clearest crystallization of an inability to find yourself healthy, and happy. “Healthy isn’t fun or amusing” is hunger and then swallowing whole of that hunger, devouring/being devoured as the ultimate precursor to what being a Pop Star means: seeing and being seen. In a kind of reverse-viscera, the Allie-articulated hunger of “Prime” becomes a kind of precursor for the audience’s involuntary hunger in Pop, capital P. In 2009 Lady Gaga released The Fame Monster and there is a song on The Fame Monster called “Teeth” and the chorus is all hunger, turned outward at the audience: “Don’t be scared / I’ve done this before / show me your teeth” and then “take a bite of my bad girl meat.” That hunger is externalized, pushed onto the sung-about and not the singer. You are hungry, take a bite of me. The hunger of Lady Gaga herself seems reflexive, even though the song comes from her: anyone who is that obsessed with teeth must be starving. The hunger is all in the frame of the vocal, in the staccato gasps backing it.
“Forget what I need / Give me what I want” is not the same as “SHOW ME YOUR TEETH” but they are both ravenous, ravenous, ravenous. Before you can veil yourself in being-seen the hunger has to be there and again we find the edges of something. Before you build your fame from hunger you have to create that hunger, need to create the meat. “Bad girl meat” is just the bad girl, made of badness and made of teeth. Why not give it a try: be a beautiful monstrosity. FORGET WHAT I NEED GIVE ME WHAT I WANT AND I SHOULD BE FINE. There is a nakedness in existing in a space before fame but there is also an urge to carve the shape of yourself out of a void, I suppose. Ke$ha wrote “Cannibal” but even there, god, even in a song literally about eating someone there is a man’s voice in the background saying “I’ll eat you up” as she screams “I am CANNIBAL!” , the boundaries of devourer and devoured melding with the boundaries between watcher and watched.
Feels like the crowd is saying
Gimme gimme more
– “Gimme More“, Britney Spears
I’m all strung out, my heart is fried
I just can’t get you off my mind!
Because your love, your love, your love is my drug
– “Your Love Is My Drug“, Ke$ha
Trying to define the boundaries, those edges, of pop music is boring and futile but maybe we can walk along its bones for a little while, the ribs of it before it gets wrapped in the implicit understanding between very large audience and very, very famous artist. Zella Day and Allie X make good music and interesting music and also its good, I think, to try and figure out what it means to be a pop musician without being a pop star, even an aspirational one. Those are the bones of externalization that is actually internalization, of saying something that’s yours without giving part of it over to the audience. Britney says GIMME GIMME MORE and it’s an amorphous statement, audience and speaker as one. Lana says “tell me I’m your national anthem” and it means both “I am as huge as the sky” and “make me as huge as the sky.” Zella Day and Allie X don’t exist inside of that paradigm yet but they still have plenty of things to say, music that burrows inside of you. Listen to it, listen to it, listen to it. Be a beautiful monstrosity.