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PWR to the PPL: The Guitar-Shredding, Gender-Fluid World of PWR BTTM

Everywhere Liv Bruce and Ben Hopkins take a step transforms into a scene. It’s a chilly spring day at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden in Prospect Park, and the two of them — the duo that is New York punk band PWR BTTM — are strutting and mugging in between the rows of cherry blossoms that bloom for only a couple of weeks each year. “Linda Evangelista!” Ben screams — a supermodel mantra projected to no one in particular — while jumping on a bed of pink petals that have fallen from the trees. A tall blonde fan, recognizing them, yells “Holy shit!” and, with a friend, asks for a hug. Liv, the daintier of the two, is straight-faced and serious, with deep-red lipstick and a knowing smirk; Ben, face swirled with glitter and blue and green makeup over an amber dusting of facial hair, is teasing the hem of a delicate blush-colored dress up both legs like some ruffian Claudette Colbert. “This happens more and more,” says Ben, of the fans who recognize them. “We’re getting used to it.”

They better be. Since forming in 2013, PWR BTTM have exploded into the public consciousness off of two EPs, an album from 2015 called Ugly Cherries, numerous fun and funny music videos that capitalize on their charisma, and live performances that jolt between the chaos of a punk show and the witty raunch of cabaret. This week they are releasing their second album, Pageant. Like the two artists who made it, Pageant is both bombastic and sincere, a weaving ride through plainspoken songs about what all the most powerful rock ‘n’ roll has ever been about — love, despair, excitement, depression, being young and weird — but updated for the 21st century with jangly guitar, beaming choruses, and a burst of slapstick humor.

Take “Answer My Text,” likely the most relatable song of 2017. It was written by Liv (the two of them split songwriting duties throughout the album, with Liv predominantly on drums and Ben on guitar) as a kind of therapy about a real-life boy who just wouldn’t respond to a series of flirty texts, a pain and simmering rage anyone who dates in the iPhone age knows intimately. But then you left again and I just felt confused and nerdy/My teenage angst will be with me well into my thirties, Liv sings. Answer my text, you dick. “When that boy doesn’t text me back now, I can freak out a little bit less because I have written a song about it,” Liv says, settling into a sunny part of the park in between the trees. “I think that although the medium through which that happens is contemporary — cellphones — the story is timeless.”

Pageant is quite contemporary in one way, though: The band has been open and honest about the gender journey they’ve been on over the past few years, and their songs reflect their evolving sense of self — Ben has, since after the band began, started to identify as queer, and Liv has grown into identifying as queer, nonbinary, and transfeminine, beginning to take hormones in August of last year, a process that shows up as a theme on the album. ” ‘Styrofoam’ is about when I started estrogen,” says Liv. “That’s, like, actually a really special time.” That, Liv says, is the entire point of being in a band to begin with: to express in visceral terms the things that can be difficult to talk about. “This is such a bratty way to answer, but everything I have to say about that that’s for public consumption is in the music.”

On Pageant, in between songs about crumbling relationships and crushes on boys, there are layered LGBTQ anthems like “Sissy,” about the struggles and excitements of veering from masculine norms, and “New Trick,” about the invasive questions well-meaning people ask of those they can’t immediately understand. There are moments of bittersweet insight about the strange trip that queer life can be, like a lyric on “LOL” that rings with an empathy and honesty that every not-straight-and-cis kid will understand: When you are queer/You are always nineteen. “When you’re an openly gender-nonconforming person, you’re just always under scrutiny in public,” says Liv. “I think writing these songs helped me process that.”

Liv, 24, and Ben, 25, live in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, about ten minutes apart. In truth, they’ve always lived close to each other. They both grew up in Massachusetts — Liv in the Boston area, Ben about an hour away in South Hamilton — but hadn’t met until they both wound up at Bard College in New York State’s bucolic Hudson Valley. Bard has a reputation as something of a liberal-arts petri dish for experimentation and creativity, and Ben, who studied theater, and Liv, who studied dance, pursued their passions with a feeling for freedom and discovery. “It’s a very open-ended kind of place,” says Ben.

They met when, as they told Out in 2015, Liv accidentally stepped into Ben’s dorm room, mistaking a small get-together for an open-invite party. “Not just walked in — beat the runway into my house. And I was like, ‘Who is this sissy?’ I was confused by her because I wished that I was more like her,” recounted Ben. They started futzing around and making songs together and eventually played their first show in 2013. “I was actively trying to get better because we’re both self-taught,” says Ben. “I started to practice a lot and really care about being in a band.” A shared sense of theatricality has bled its way into almost every single thing they’ve done since, partly from what they learned during their college years, but also because of their interest in pop culture and the art of gender play: They’ve noted RuPaul’s Drag Race as an influence, and Ben claims Justin Vivian Bond, the pioneering New York queer performer, as a drag mother.

PWR BTTM have an openness to unexpected sounds and strange flourishes, including the use of a French horn as a punctuation to their guitars and drums. “It’s unique to have a rock duo that doesn’t sound bare, and that occupies so much sonic space in recordings and onstage,” says Cameron West, who helped with the arrangements on the album and played the horn. “A lot of our discussions were about expanding the instrumentation. I thought it would be unique to have some instruments that are often underutilized in rock ‘n’ roll, so we used bass trombone and alto flute. I knew that the parts needed to be outgoing, maybe even be a little histrionic.” Ben asked his mother, Chris Hopkins, a trained opera singer, to perform backing vocals on a series of tracks, too, adding a pretty siren’s touch that sounds halfway between the great backing vocalists of the 1960s and ’70s and Kim Deal’s voice in the Breeders. “It’s refreshing to hear a kickass rock ‘n’ roll sound again,” she tells me through email of her kid’s music. Which is true: The underground scene in Brooklyn has come, in the laptop age, to be dominated by electronic music and bedroom pop — any music that can be made with just a synth and a computer, really — and there’s something thrilling about seeing a pair of young bohemians pick up instruments and make pure and simple punk.

Indeed, beneath the sparkles and the bluster, there is both a virtuosity and a real talent for songwriting. If sometimes the spectacle of PWR BTTM can suck up more of the attention than the music, there are a number of moments on the album, particularly on somber tracks “LOL” and “Won’t,” in which Liv and Ben sound more like weary country cowboys than glitzed-up rock stars. If their over-the-top appearance is what brings audiences into their world, the quality of songs like these — whatever the subject matter — is what’s going to keep people around. “We write songs about things that we believe in, but we also play our instruments really well and practice them a lot and really care about the craftsmanship of what we do,” says Ben. There is the noted influence of shredders like Weezer and the White Stripes. The two share an affection for James Taylor, and there is a sense throughout that, stripped bare to acoustic guitar and voice, these songs could appeal in any context, to almost any audience. “People see me in drag and that’s what they see. They see us as gender-nonconforming people and that’s [it],” says Ben. “[James Taylor’s music] is so simple and clean and perfect, and simple and clean are not two things that come to mind when you think of PWR BTTM. But I think that is kind of at the beating heart of what we do.”

There’s long been queer swagger and spandex in rock music, from Jobriath and Freddie Mercury to the feminist punk of Nineties riot grrrl bands like Huggy Bear, but PWR BTTM’s friskiness, joy, and defiance feels profound for a moment in time in which gender and identity are excitingly — if tenuously — exploding right in front of us. There is, perhaps, more freedom for LGBTQ people than ever in some senses, but visibility has brought its own dangers: The Advocate reported in March that there has been a spike in murders of trans people around the country in 2017. “When I just look at, like, the queer world, I see this really important moment when the people who have benefited most from the gay rights movement” — meaning white gay men — “could turn their backs on all other marginalized people. They can have a life that is pretty much completely unhindered by their gayness now if they want,” says Ben. “Are you just going to take that and enjoy it and forget about everyone else?” It’s hard to look at last November’s election and a victory for Mike Pence, a character who feels pulled right out of The Handmaid’s Tale, and not wonder if every step forward is met with a terrifying lurch backward. Liv tells me that their way of dealing with that is ensuring that when people do encounter queerness in pop culture, there will be a healthy dose of radical spirit to what they see. “I see people learning what it means to fight back for the first time — people going to their first protests, people calling their senators regularly for the first time,” says Liv.

Barring whatever positive influence their success has had on the world, PWR BTTM has, at the very least, had the effect of making Liv and Ben more relaxed with themselves. “We just bring out the best in each other,” says Ben. “It would have taken a lot longer to get to an understanding of where I stand on the gender spectrum without PWR BTTM,” says Liv.

As the temperature and sun start to drop, before heading off — Ben to buy a plant, Liv to an anti-Trump rally in the city — they both express to me that, for all their bravado onstage, the best part about performing as PWR BTTM might just be that it forces them to figure out how to perform as themselves. “I came out of the closet through the band — I was sort of not publicly identifying as anything,” says Ben. “And PWR BTTM was the first place that I made public queer art. I never had [a] ‘Hey, I’m coming out’ moment — I just started writing punk songs about it.”

By now, Ben has changed into a plaid shirt and a pair of jeans, something of an everyday uniform, and wiped off the glitter and paint with cold cream and a towel, but Liv has remained in the same yellow floral dress from the shoot, telling me that while wearing dresses and skirts used to be just an onstage thing, in the past year or so it’s become increasingly comfortable to wear things from the women’s side of the aisle day to day. “I think that’s the job of being a performing artist — seeming confident when you’re not. I can’t think of a single performer who I really enjoy who ever looks scared onstage,” says Liv. “When you’re onstage, and you have instruments, that’s a very safe place to experiment.” Which is to say: Sometimes you gotta fake it before you make it, and if PWR BTTM have been playing the part of Brooklyn’s most famously fearless rock star queers, that fiction is starting to become reality.

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Maggie Rogers: The Making of a 21st-Century Pop Heroine

Recently, on one of the many, many flights 22-year-old singer-songwriter Maggie Rogers has taken since the February release of her debut EP, Now That the Light Is Fading, she watched the film La La Land. “Did you see that movie?” she asks from the comfort of her San Francisco hotel room, back on the road after a dizzying week at South by Southwest that solidified her Next Big Thing status. “Basically — spoiler alert — the girl becomes a star,” Rogers says. “At the end she runs into the boy who she was seeing before all this happened, and there’s like a recap of the life she would have had as a mediumly successful actor. Then it flashes back to her walking out of the bar and her face is on a billboard. And I just super related. It really makes me want to cry, thinking about it.”

On the one hand, the last year of Rogers’s life has felt like a dream so rapturous as to seem almost like bad writing, a plotline Riverdale might reject as a bit too much. One day last spring, Rogers showed up for her production seminar at NYU’s Clive Davis School of Music, where she was then a senior. The young singer rushed to class a little bleary-eyed from staying up late the previous night to finish a track she’d just written and was presenting that day, a serene electrofolk jam called “Alaska” inspired by a month-long hiking trip she took the summer after her freshman year. Rogers was proud of the song, but it was also just another day at school. Another deadline to meet. And yet, by June, “Alaska” would be the number one global viral track on Spotify and Rogers would be fielding dozens of offers for record deals (she eventually signed to Capitol); by the fall she would be interviewing stylists and business managers, shooting for Vogue, and planning her first European and American tours. “Everyone was trying to sign her,” says Nate Albert, head of a&r at Capitol, who had previously signed the Weeknd in the wake of a similar bidding war. “It was actually really similar to the Weeknd situation, because she’s critically great — it’s great art — but she also has some commercial thing going on, so [she] had major labels and indie labels wanting to be involved. It was pretty intense.”

White cord top, black overcoat, and bolo necklace, all by Rachel Comey.
White cord top, black overcoat, and bolo necklace, all by Rachel Comey.

But back to that spring day at NYU: That afternoon’s “masterclass,” as it’s called, featured an honored guest, Pharrell Williams. This in and of itself was not unusual. In her years at Clive, Rogers had played her stuff for Rob Thomas and Benny Blanco, to cite a couple of other bold-name classroom visitors. What was unusual was Williams’s response to Rogers’s song. “I have zero, zero, zero notes,” he said after hearing “Alaska.” “And I’ll tell you why: It’s because you’re doing your own thing. It’s singular.” He went on to compare her to the Wu-Tang Clan, as when they emerged, “no one could really judge it,” he said. “You either liked it or you didn’t, but you couldn’t compare it to anything else.” Also somewhat unusually, this encounter was filmed. Meaning that, a few weeks later, when the clip was posted online, anyone with an internet connection could see Rogers propped somewhat awkwardly on a studio stool in her jeans, nervously introducing her song, then trying to keep it together while one of the most decorated producers in the business displayed first casual approval then disbelief and then awe as he listened. We, the 2.5 million people (and counting) who’ve viewed the clip, got to witness, almost at the same time she did, the birth of Maggie Rogers’s career.

“I just feel so stupid-lucky,” the singer says today. “What the Pharrell video did was deliver me an incredible situation and opportunity where there was no mask. People heard me speak before they heard my music for the first time, so now the only real responsibility that I have is to be myself.”

Rogers and her most authentic self have a big year ahead of them. After a relentless winter tour schedule, including stops at the Late Shows of both James Corden and Jimmy Fallon, she’ll spend much of the spring indulging in “time off,” which is code, at this stage of a young artist’s career, for trying to be still long enough to finish a full album. “The hardest thing about all of this has been the lack of time for creativity,” Rogers says. “I’m learning to write on the road, but I’m not somebody who just writes all the time.” Then comes the summer festival circuit, with stops at Firefly and Outside Lands, plus a slew of dates in Europe, Canada, Australia, and Japan crammed in between. This is all before Rogers’s debut is even out, meaning that every single day over that span she will be asked when we can expect it.

But before any of that, Rogers will make her way back from the West Coast to round out her first proper U.S. tour with two celebratory sold-out shows in her adoptive hometown, playing April 11 at the Bowery Ballroom and the following evening at the Music Hall of Williamsburg. She might even sleep in her own bed those nights, which would be a thrilling change. “I haven’t been in my apartment for more than six weeks!” she says of the place she rented right after graduation. “I got a six-week chunk in September, a four-week chunk in December, and now I have another chunk coming in April and May, and that’s it. Then I move out. It’s like, do I just go home? Maybe. Maybe I just don’t have a place for a second.” She likes the sound of that, actually. “That feels more like a normal college-grad dilemma. It’s super age-appropriate.”

This week, Maggie Rogers plays her first New York City shows. They sold out in minutes.
This week, Maggie Rogers plays her first New York City shows. They sold out in minutes.

On the other hand, there’s something about Rogers’s story that seems less serendipitous and more fated, less wide-eyed talented kid seizing the opportunity of a lifetime and more cosmically ordained. “My entire life I have felt this incredible sense of predestination,” says Rogers, who is from Maryland’s bucolic Eastern Shore and has been writing songs since she was in middle school. She didn’t grow up in a musical family — Rogers’s father owns a car dealership and her mother works in healthcare — but growing up she dabbled in harp, piano, and guitar. In high school she fell hard for the banjo; when she arrived at Clive, she played in a folk band. It wasn’t until Rogers studied abroad in Paris and made her way (as one does) to European clubs that she came to understand the appeal of electronic music. “She’s doing something really new — she’s taking almost transcendentalism, this idea of nature as spiritual reawakening, and merging it with pop culture,” says Albert. “The urban stuff that I had been working on, like Phantogram and the Weeknd, had this dystopian Blade Runner aspect to it, and Maggie was flipping that. It’s modern, but it’s a return to nature and light in the world. And I think that’s why so many people are having such an impassioned response to her. Because they’re hearing something that they desperately need.”

In channeling her sunny woodland maiden side through this cold synthetic world, Rogers located what has quickly become her signature sound. “I’ve always wanted this. I’ve always pictured my life as some version of this,” she says of how it feels to have finally arrived at this point. “I really feel like I’ve been trying to do this for two hundred lifetimes, and this is just the one where it lines up. Because look at the circumstances — even the fact that I’m talking to you right now” — Rogers and I know each other — “or that I was at South-by with Eva and she fucking killed and we talked about the book. And those are just the coincidences with you.”

I first met Maggie at French Roast on Sixth Avenue in the early fall of 2013, just after she’d moved back to the city to begin her sophomore year. I was looking for interns for a book now titled Meet Me in the Bathroom, an exhaustive oral history of music in New York from 2001–2011, which it was only just beginning to dawn on me would require an inhuman amount of work. Maggie and her classmate Eva Hendricks, now of the ecstatic grunge-pop outfit Charly Bliss (who I hear did indeed fucking kill at South by Southwest this year), were among those who answered the ad I posted on the Clive message board. “Dear Ms. Goodman,” began Maggie’s email, a perfect letter written by a perfectly composed young woman eager to put her good manners and cum laude brain to work in the grown-up world. Under “Work History,” her attached résumé simply said, “2010–2013, Camp Counselor, Director of Music, Wohelo, Raymond, ME.”

White cord top and pants, Rachel Comey. Bolo necklace, Rachel Comey. Boots Newbark.
White cord top and pants, Rachel Comey. Bolo necklace, Rachel Comey. Boots Newbark.

What I remember most about buying Maggie a cappuccino that day in the Village was the almost visible force of her enthusiasm, which gave her a kind of iridescence when she talked about her eagerness to work on the book but also when she spoke of her life growing up in Maryland, her siblings, the wonders of the East Village and the banjo. She glowed, this nineteen-year-old former music editor for her high school newspaper. And she was beyond psyched to get started transcribing what would become literally hundreds of hours of interviews with mostly drunk rock boys in loud bars. These were the people who would tell the stories necessary to bringing to literary life the wildness and possibility of the city I had lived in when I was her age. Maggie was exactly who I was writing this book for. And there she was, all fresh-scrubbed and stoked, sitting across from me at a charmingly bad French restaurant talking about Beck and hiking. I hired her immediately.

Looking back on it, the three years we worked together on Meet Me coincided with a period of dislocation for Maggie, creatively. She’d all but given up songwriting. “Sophomore, junior, and beginning of senior year, I wasn’t making music at all,” she recalls. “She was taking time to figure out what she wanted for herself, to fuse together her folky, banjo-playing past with this new identity she was creating for herself in New York,” Eva remembers. In place of making music, Maggie was interning at Elle and at Spin and for Robert Christgau and pitching ideas for the 33 1/3 book series. “One was Jagged Little Pill — that was going to be a sort of song-by-song memoir of my relationship with my mother,” Maggie recalls. “Because I listened to that record with her a lot.” The other involved framing Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago “as like a catalog of literature and narrative of the guy in the woods,” she remembers. “I was going to write about Wordsworth and Thoreau and Bon Iver and that narrative through history.” But something was off. As graduation loomed, something in Maggie started to reject the path she was on. ” ‘Primal repudiation’ is a good way to put it,” she says when I use those words to describe how it looked from the outside. “I think I got scared to tell my own story for a while, so I wanted to tell other people’s.” Until one day, she wasn’t scared anymore. The creative channel she then tapped into is what led to “Alaska” and everything that’s followed.

Denim top and jeans, Levi’s. Necklace, Maggie’s own.
Denim top and jeans, Levi’s. Necklace, Maggie’s own.

And yet, all those hours spent listening to the Strokes talk about the perils of overnight success, or record execs detail the behind-the-scenes melodrama of corporate music culture, gave Maggie an advantage as she found herself cast as the New York–music heir apparent. She already knew what it was like to be plied with expensive dinners and pawed at by manic British fans, if only vicariously. “I imagine it must be a lot to process, and we briefly discussed the feeling of ‘holy shit, this happened so quickly, is this all going to suddenly disappear?’ ” says Eva. “But pop-star Maggie hasn’t swallowed up Maggie from Maryland. I can see Maggie in every video, photo shoot, performance that she’s done. She’s managed to handle her success with so much integrity.”

“Weirdly,” Albert agrees, “she’s brand-new but also an expert at everything, because she’s been through the Clive Davis school, so she knows everything to be careful of and has many mentors and people who can help her through the process.” The other day, Maggie remembers, Albert told her she was having a healthy reaction to an unhealthy situation, which sounded about right to her. “Obviously there’s this incredible story, right?” Maggie says, laughing. “I did, for a little while, feel the pressure to play the role of the girl in awe living her dream. And honestly, those were real feelings for me for a long time. They still very much are.” But she also knows that kind of thinking — becoming a slave to the narrative you invented — is a snake-eating-its-own-head kind of trap. “It gets tricky when you start to interview like your brand,” she explains. “I get to align myself with my favorite artists, like Beck or Björk or even Kim Gordon, who consistently are defined by their creative practice, but not by a genre or a brand. Their brand is their creative mind. And then they express themselves in multiple mediums and multiple genres. So you buy into their voice and not their statement of the week. If you interview just as an artist and a person, then you have the agency to feel however you’re feeling, because there is no mask to hold up.”

 

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Omnivorous Pop Machine Charli XCX Scores Again

For those of us intermittently confused by March Madness, Billboard is running a Should-Be-Bigger Bracket right now for pop stars who are not as famous as their talents merit. By the time you read this, Billboard‘s five judges will have weighed in on the Final Four: Charli XCX versus Tinashe and Vince Staples versus Hey Violet. Even if Charli XCX isn’t the ultimate winner, it’s not difficult to assert that she should be bigger. Charlotte Aitchison could easily be the world’s biggest twenty-four-year-old pop star, but does her job get any more fun if she is? Would she want to be?

Though she was playing raves in Hackney at sixteen (your 2008), the single that connected her to the larger world, before she was signed in the U.K., was “Stay Away,” from 2011. Produced by Ariel Rechtshaid, it is a blocky, agile song, pairing the light sulk of the Nineties with the heavy glow of the Eighties. Charli’s asking her lover to “stay away” because she’s “never needed anyone,” which doesn’t seem to have worked. Or maybe it did — she’s ended up in “prison” on her “hands and knees,” and the song’s ecstatic synths and slow lope suggest more “electric blue,” her lover’s color, than pain. Charli was laying out themes she has hung on to right up to her current mixtape, Number 1 Angel, which no matter what it’s called or how it’s promoted plays no different than a short album. Her lovers are gender blind, bad experiences and good experiences are not necessarily categorically different, all genres of pop are available, and hedonism is more real than realism.

The money, and the mission statement, came in 2012 with “I Love It,” which she co-wrote, which became a global smash for Icona Pop, and which sounds no different than a Charli XCX track. The production, by Patrik Berger and Style of Eye, is pure turn-of-the-century Eurostomp, two chords turned from rock to disco with a change of timbre. Form and function are both revving up; after a four-bar intro — short by current pop standards — we hit the verse, which leaps into the chorus without pause: “I got this feeling on the summer day when you were gone/I crashed my car into the bridge, I watched, I let it burn/I threw your shit into a bag and pushed it down the stairs/I crashed my car into the bridge.” This is Charli’s sweet spot, yelling and singing at the same time, happy when it burns, happier still when she’s leaving. There is little room in her songs for consequences. Partying is fun. Pretty is fine, but tacky is better.

This would be minor stuff, at best, if Charli XCX weren’t a pop closer of the highest order. When Buckcherry, Blondie, Selena Gomez, James Blunt, and Yasutaka Nakata are all asking for hooks, you’re writing open-source code. For Number 1 Angel, she’s paired up with producers Sophie and AG Cook and Danny L Harle of the PC Music collective, which is a little distracting. PC Music has spent a fair amount of time chopping up the constituent elements of pop and making them shiver in isolation. So: making pop about pop. Except: pop is already about pop, so Number 1 Angel sounds no stranger or more heterodox than anything Charli XCX has already done. It’s just her third rock-solid full-length, depending on your tabulations. In fact, if we’re counting hard, this ten-track collection is perfect. It’s hard to imagine how any forthcoming “official” album is going to be any better.

The first track, “Dreamer,” is fabulous mulch, pulled off with the help of rapping singers Raye and Starrah. The bass oofs and boofs along, while all three channel the warbling triplets of Atlanta. The studio communal dictionary seems to have been printed in 1993 and updated every year since: “Beamer,” “whip,” “skrrt,” “dip,” “Lambo,” “baggy.” “Babygirl” re-creates the Nu Shooz feeling sparkle for sparkle, with Uffie adding a hologram of Mel C’s rapping. “Drugs” is about drugs, and the track suggests reduced motor function simply by introducing something minimal and dark into Charli’s bright-red maximalism. On “Lipgloss,” Charli’s universe is less heteronormative than ever. Says? CupcakKe in a guest verse: “Call again when you need somethin’ to eat/So I could open my legs, bon appétit, let’s get it.”

What makes Charli’s work such good pop is what makes her a hard sell as a pop star. She is omnivorous at every turn. When she is singing, someone is close to hand with a rap, which turns on a West Indian dance phrase, but not the one currently on the charts. When she advocates blitzkrieg partying, she doesn’t complain about being done wrong. She is a stoic hedonist, a strange combination, and low on persona. She is a doer. Stars need to do a great deal of explicit reflection to pull in the obsessive types who need pronouns to hash out. Charli XCX is enjoying herself too much to provide a surface for ideation. When others are strategizing their squad goals, Charli’s either writing or at the club. She’s not worried about who is number 2, 3, or 4. That’s for others to sort out.

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When Michael Jackson Needed A Guitar Solo, He Called The First Lady Of Shred

She is the hellraiser whirling around the King of Pop in the climax of Moonwalker — the cat-suited punk sporting a pointy guitar and an explosion of peroxide blonde. She prowls the stage with Michael Jackson in concert footage from 1987, wearing a three-foot mohawk and a light-up fiber-optic suit, topped only by the guitar solo she unfurls in “Beat It.” She is Jennifer Batten, a guitarist who spent a decade touring the planet with Jackson in support of albums like Bad and Dangerous. Twenty years after their last concert, Batten is still in awe of the energy he brought to the stage. “Every drum hit, Michael did something with his body,” she says. “Most people, if they did that for one song, they would have to take a nap.”

Batten’s affiliation with Jackson, and subsequent work with Jeff Beck, have made her into something like the first lady of shred guitar, an iconic female virtuoso in a world with surprisingly few of them. Despite a younger generation of formidable players like Carrie Brownstein, St. Vincent, Marnie Stern, Mary Halvorson, and Screaming Females’ Marissa Paternoster, the culture around electric guitars still bulges with an unbecoming bro-y-ness — a boys’ club attitude that Batten says is finally starting to change.

In 1978, she entered the Guitar Institute of Technology — now Musicians Institute — in Los Angeles. She had never performed live and never jammed much with other musicians. (“My mother,” she says, “didn’t want me to go play with strangers at night.”) Shortly Batten discovered something for which her limited experience had not prepared her. Of the entire student body, about 70 players, she was the lone female. “That’s when it really hit me that, ‘Hmm, maybe this isn’t such a normal choice,’” she says, chuckling. “It was a real shock. I don’t know that it even crossed my mind that it would be off-balance at all.”

In 1989, a guitar magazine that interviewed Batten revealed its subscribership as 98 percent male — a higher percentage than that of Playboy or Penthouse. The link between masculinity and electric guitar culture can seem, from one angle, obvious: An academic study by Steve Waksman called Instruments of Desire defines the instrument as a kind of gadget-dick hybrid: a “technophallus.” But anatomy, of course, is not destiny. Batten believes the divide around her instrument instead reflects the persistence of oppressive ideas about gender. “Even now, it’s not okay for women to be aggressive,” she says. “For many generations, if not thousands of years, women were [told to] make the babies and make the food and stay out of the limelight. In a lot of cultures, whether it’s recognized or subtle, women picked that up. And a lot of rock ’n’ roll is really aggressive.”

Batten was playing in five different bands when she got the call, in 1987, to audition for Jackson. She showed up to find no band, just a video camera. She played funky rhythms, followed by her solo arrangement of John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” a product of her years of jazz training. Then she tapped out the monstrous solo for “Beat It,” originally recorded by Eddie Van Halen.

A few days went by. Batten was asked to rehearse again, this time with a band. It seemed to go well, but still she heard no final verdict. After even more rehearsals, she was given a passport, a plane ticket to Tokyo, and a makeover that traded her brown hair and glasses for an electric mohawk and heavy makeup. After her arrival, as a gesture of goodwill, Jackson closed Tokyo Disneyland to the public and let his 100-person entourage enjoy themselves without crowds or nagging fans.

Batten was frolicking in the Disneyland gift shop with Sheryl Crow, then a background singer on the tour, when she felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned around to find the King of Pop standing there. “He said, ‘I like how you’re playing the “Beat It” solo,’” she remembers. “And I thought, ‘Wow, what a great surprise and a validation.’ That was when I knew I had the gig.”

Jennifer Batten performs Wednesday and Thursday, March 8 and 9, at Iridium as part of Her Story, Her Voice, a month-long series of concerts celebrating female musicians.

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Bad Boys Bell Biv DeVoe Return Smoother Than Ever

It’s been sixteen years since we’ve heard new music from Bell Biv DeVoe, so it makes sense for the r&b trio to reiterate their mission statement on the cover of the new Three Stripes: “Our music is mentally hip-hop smoothed out on the r&b tip with a pop feel to it.” That’s the credo BBD have used since they spun off from New Edition in 1990 to release tougher, sexier songs, led by the spiteful (yet irresistible) “Poison” and the horned-up “Do Me!” Back then, the group’s slogan was as much boast as branding — “Poison” talked about sex in ways that were more direct and ugly than seductive — but what it means now is something different.

In 1990, the three genres Bell Biv DeVoe name-checked were mingling on radio playlists to varying degrees, depending on which market you checked. The year-end Billboard Hot 100 had “Poison” at No. 4 (followed by Madonna) and was led by Wilson Phillips, Roxette, and Sinéad O’Connor, while singles by hip-hop crossover stars Vanilla Ice and MC Hammer lingered in the 40s.

In 2017, hip-hop has become its own world, and the “pop feel” that was once so crucial to BBD’s success has shifted. The two hip-hop songs that went to No. 1 in recent months — Rae Sremmurd’s spaced-out “Black Beatles” and Migos’ minimalist “Bad and Boujee” — did so without the support of pop radio, which has dealt with Top 40 radio’s gradual whitening in a quixotic way that often involves rap being part of the mix, but shoved off to the side (e.g., Kendrick Lamar’s verse on Maroon 5’s limp-noodle “Don’t Wanna Know”). R&b, meanwhile, is full of vital albums but light on the pop appeal, with few artists who don’t have celebrity on their side (à la Rihanna and Drake) experiencing the sort of crossover that was the norm in 2001, when the trio’s last album, BBD, came out.

Initially, BBD’s 2017 pop quotient seems to be all-out retroism. “Run,” the Erick Sermon–produced first single, rides the groove of Herb Alpert’s 1979 disco hit “Rise,” the same beat that formed the backbone for the Notorious B.I.G.’s twenty-year-old smash “Hypnotize.” A sample of Soul Train conductor Don Cornelius introducing BBD leads into the lush “One More Try,” where the trio’s vocals are rounded out by the strong harmonies of Michael Bivins protégés Boyz II Men. “Finally,” a besotted collaboration with fellow New Jack Swing lifers SWV, is a backstage flirtation turned into a call-and-response duet, with a chorus that recalls the romantic peaks of Nineties r&b.

But Three Stripes ably shows off the trio’s modern-day charm. “I’m Betta,” a valentine to a woman who’s taken by another man, percolates in a way that splits the difference between DJ Mustard’s slithering beats and the uptempo Nineties Eurodance songs Mustard uses as source material, with Ricky Bell’s lovelorn vocal serving as an excellent fulcrum to his bandmates’ boasts. “Find a Way” struts confidently, its promises of bedroom prowess given extra conviction by a sinewy pulse. “Hot Damn” sounds like a Jam & Lewis–helmed update of “One Dance,” turning that song’s jittery beat up all the way. “All Dat There” is the most contemporary-sounding offering, a chronicle of being brought to the edge of glory over a slow-moving minimalist backing track.

Three Stripes came out at the end of January, a couple of months after the trio performed at the Obama White House and the day after the wrap-up of The New Edition Story, a three-night B.E.T. miniseries that lightly fictionalized the story of Bell Biv DeVoe’s parent group. The detail-rich filmed version of New Edition’s backstory is a fun ride, with re-creations of photo shoots and videos as well as re-recordings of various songs from the group and its offshoots by its cast; it wound up being a ratings hit for B.E.T. (Its fleshing-out of the members’ personalities includes a focus on the business acumen of Bivins, played by Empire star Bryshere Yazuan Gray; the release of Three Stripes off the back of the miniseries furthers that case.) The conditions that allowed “Poison” to become a bring-down-the-house staple don’t exist today, and the alchemy of Bell Biv DeVoe’s sound has changed as a result. But that helps make Three Stripes something more than a nostalgia exercise. Think of it as a lesson: how bad boys can grow into smoothed-out men.

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Foxygen’s Hang is a Technicolor Ode to La La Land (The Town, not the Movie)

Foxygen’s Jonathan Rado and Sam France like the “fishy” smell of Manhattan’s Chinatown. They once lived in Astoria, Queens. They have a song called “Brooklyn Police Station,” and lyrics in another tune that proclaim,“There’s no need to be an asshole, you’re not in Brooklyn anymore.” And at present, the duo are perched on stools in the kitchen of a light-filled Airbnb in rapidly gentrifying Bushwick.

But make no mistake: The shaggy California natives have decidedly West Coast musical (and lyrical) sensibilities, as the eight buoyant cuts on Hang, Foxygen’s new album and their fourth for Jagjaguwar Records, make clear. Opener “Follow the Leader” is a quietly joyful ‘70s-am radio-influenced infectious confection, perfect convertible-driving music… which Foxygen actually do in the video “On Lankershim.” Taking its title from an unremarkable boulevard that bisects L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, the clip is a travelogue around the city, while the jazzy, bouncy, even Abba-esque“Avalon” might be better be titled “Babylon,” given its lyrics, the duo’s interest in the 1959 sordid history book Hollywood Babylon, and L.A.’s own notoriety as a Babylonian-style fallen kingdom.

Keyboardist Rado, 26, and frontman France, 27, have a deep fascination for decadent history, L.A. style. But it doesn’t manifest in a dark Manson (Marilyn or Charles) gruesomeness. Hang actually shares more than a little of the Technicolor cinematic grandiosity and sense of place redolent of the current hit musical La La Land. Hang’s eight-song cycle is dramatic, lofty and often charming, managing to be referential and reverential (musically and lyrically), and (mostly) non-schmaltzy. Much, perhaps, like Rado (Ray-dough) and France themselves. The high school friends’ teenage turn in ComedySportz improv at Agoura High in LA.’s eastern Conejo Valley set the stage for a musical collaboration, that, over 11 years, has seen the pair create layered, flamboyant, psychedelic pop that’s often transcendent, sometimes indulgent, but always deliberately and meticulously crafted.

Indeed, the duo’s work exudes a studied insouciance that led one YouTube fan to accurately observe of the “On Lankershim” video, “The effort gone into this to make it look like no effort was put into this is what Foxygen is all about?.”

Hang is big-screen indie pop-rock, with its shades of Bowie, Beck, Todd Rundgren and Brian Wilson—an aural La La Land for discerning, left-of-center ears. Like guests on the album—neo-glam brothers The Lemon Twigs and Steven Drozd of the Flaming Lips, Foxygen are often delightfully outre. “I think we exist in a completely different universe than most people,” says frontman France, who, at once goofy and slightly snarky, comes off like a West Coast version of Bryan Ferry in his tie-less black suit and shoulder-length dirty-blond hair.

Hang, recorded and mixed entirely on 2″ tape (i.e., edits done with razor blades), was tracked at the L.A.’s storied Electro-Vox studios, operating since 1936 directly across the street from Paramount Studios. “They did a lot of radio plays there, and demos of songs for movies, like they cut ‘Moon River’ there,” says Rado, the tech-geekier member. “A lot of the things in there were used, as cliché as this is, on Pet Sounds. The floor tiles were from Gold Star, Phil Spector’s studio, and a lot of stuff was from Capitol.” There’s a 40-plus-piece symphony orchestra on every track, who were recorded in another, larger studio. So to achieve the sonic vibe they were after, France and Rado offered the musicians semi-subliminal inspiration.

“We had Hollywood Babylon, the Kenneth Anger book, in the studio, and we’d get disturbing images of Marilyn Monroe dead and prop up the book for the orchestra players,” explains France.

“It’s not like we told them, ‘Oh, by the way, this is a picture of a dead Marilyn Monroe,” Rado says. “We’d just put it in the corner and maybe they’d see it and be, ‘Oh, what’s that?’ To have Jayne Mansfield’s arm hanging out of a car in the corner, it just brought a little bit of that dark Hollywood energy for the studio players.”

Foxygen’s sense of noir stems from both personal research—they stayed at the legendary Chateau Marmont and Beverly Hills Hotels in making 2014’s ...And Star Power—and cultural media touchstones. As millennials, the duo couldn’t possibly have every old-school reference down pat, but if they don’t know Day of the Locust, they do know Sunset Boulevard.

Their own ultra-cinematic song “America,” with its hints of Busby Berkeley pomp and circumstance, is emblematic of the duo’s aural goals: “We wanted the intro to be like the Bernard Hermann theme from Psycho. We wanted Disney, and a little Big Band Jazz, like Star Wars cantina music at the end. We wanted it to be pretty all over the place.”

“I think it’s a fully realized record,” says France. “We’re pretty good at achieving the sounds that we hear in our heads. It’s pretty easy for us.”

“When we go into albums, we know exactly how it’s gonna turn out in the end before we press ‘record.’ We know the track list, we know what the songs are called, the parts, how everything is going to go. It’s just executing it. Maybe we’ll add a ‘the’ in a title,” says Rado says.

Which begs the question, is Hang Foxygen’s magnum opus?

Slight pause. “What’s that again?”

Like, a crowning achievement.

“In the eyes of many people I think it will be like that. I hope so,” says France. “For us, it’s just another concept. Maybe for other people, it looks like some sort of climax of our talents and skills, everything coalescing.”

Foxygen may have come a long way since Jurassic Exxplosion Phillipic, a “30-track space opera” made when Rado and France were 15, but the friends’ prolific creativity is undiminished, and 2017 touring finds them keeping good company on the road with Dinosaur Jr and Bon Iver. As for the difficulty of an exceptionally creative duo on tour and in the studio? In the last few years, there were Internet rumblings that France dismissed as “people writing things about us for their own motives,” and certainly no Oasis-style fisticuffs.

As Rado notes, “We really don’t have too many disagreements that are actually meaningful at all,” as his compatriot concurs:

“They’re all productive. And constructive.”

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Rick Astley’s Comeback Is No Joke

Say the name Rick Astley in 2016 and you’ll probably get a reply involving his 1987 smash “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a brightly spangled devotional transformed into an internet punchline somewhere in the late 2000s. Its overwhelming sincerity helped make it a perfect “got your nose”–type fake-out — its beamed-in drums, high-gloss synths, and Astley’s rich burr combined to make a love song that summed up writing/producing team Stock Aitken Waterman’s vision of the Eighties, when bright emotions didn’t need to come with a wink in order to register on the pop culture radar.

In Astley’s biggest hits — “Never Gonna Give You Up” and his debut album Whenever You Need Somebody’s other number one hit, “Together Forever” — the lush production and fantasias into various keyboard sounds were grounded by his seemingly impossible voice. It was an anticipation of Eddie Vedder’s similarly low-register vocals via Bill Withers, shot through with muscular brio and all-in enthusiasm. Lost in the shuffle of Rickrolls was the fact that the second single released from Astley’s debut was a cover of the soul standard “When I Fall In Love,” his version a sincere proclamation of lifetime fealty nestled amid syrupy strings and harp arpeggios. Sure, the Stock Aitken Waterman sheen was key to his popularity, but close listeners knew where his musical heart lay.

Astley’s transformation into the internet’s favorite diversionary tactic came as he was renegotiating his relationship with the music business, which he’d left in 1993. (“I was a young guy and I was like, ‘I don’t want to be doing that every single day of my life. I want to hang out with my friends. I’ve made a lot of money. I want to spend some of it. I want to do the things I want to do,’ ” he told Rolling Stone in August.) In 2001, he came back with Keep It Turned On, which wasn’t released in the States. A 2005 covers collection called Portrait came and went, and a 2013 full-length, My Red Book, was announced then scrapped. 50, which comes out tomorrow, is Astley’s first release of original material in 15 years. (He’ll play his first New York show in more than 25 years tonight, at Town Hall.)

In addition to the online prank that bears his name, there’s been another relevant development since Keep It Turned On: the rise of Adele, whose emotional kaffeeklatsch brand of blue-eyed soul has been one of the few feel-good stories to emerge from the music business’s woeful 21st century. That explains the title of 50, and it also explains the album’s sonic themes. Gone are the synth zaps and drum-pad beats of yore; instead Astley, who produced and played all the instruments on 50, really leans into the pop-r&b aesthetic, bracketing his voice with piano whomps and choir whoops over tracks that have a lived-in familiarity.

The themes of 50, however, do surprise at times. There are lots of references to religion, from the saints spotted on “Coming Home Tonight” to the revivalist-preacher pose he takes on the vampy “Pray With Me.” And then there’s “God Says,” which turns out to be a feather-light shuffle about how dance can give even the devil the power to be a good person. But it’s probably not surprising that he’s getting reflective; for all the talk about fifty being the new forty or thirty or eighteen, getting older in a world that fetishizes the young can have odd effects on the conscience.

The flip side to that spiritual yearning is that Astley’s maturity has also allowed him to take control and bring back the memory of that “When I Fall In Love” cover from all those years ago — his voice is a little rounder on the bottom and somewhat weathered sounding, but his embrace of time’s inevitable passage is no joke.

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Wye Oak’s Jenn Wasner Takes Her Electropop Seriously

As the singer and multi-instrumentalist for Baltimore duo Wye Oak, Jenn Wasner crafts beautiful, unpretentious songs about the small moments of joy and ruin familiar to anyone entangled in a romance. The music is arresting, existing somewhere between the murky rock of Joy Division and the slowcore work of Low. Over the past ten years, she’s put out five such records with her bandmate, Andy Stack; her sixth is a solo effort under the name Flock of Dimes. If You See Me, Say Yes is a meditation on her current station in life, chronicled (as one might expect, given the Flock of Seagulls reference) in unironic electropop.

The album is both a product of its time and an homage to its forebears. “Everything Is Happening Today,” with its spare jungle drums, sounds like the Cocteau Twins meeting up with Phil Collins. “Semaphore,” a kindred spirit
to Eurythmics’ “Here Comes the Rain Again,” sees the barest rhythmic pulse eked out from Wasner’s gossamer melody. Occasionally she dives into unfettered fun: “Ida Glow” opts out of lyrical poignancy in favor of a late-Seventies dance feel, complete with a gurgling “OO-OO-oo-oo” synth effect that wouldn’t be out of place on a Blue Swede or Village People track. Thanks to Wasner’s clear understanding of these pop precepts, the album is flexible enough to support pragmatic reflections on adulthood (“And forgive me for my silence/I forget the follow-through/And any lie I ever told you was to seek a better truth”) while remaining sweetly nostalgic.

If You See Me also owes much of its success to Wasner’s voice, which Mickey Freeland’s production treats as both part of the arrangements and the conduit through which everything flows. Her measured alto, which has just the slightest hint of grit, sounds like the voice of someone you love as they sing absentmindedly around the house. It gives power and grace to vastly different tracks: by pairing the aching vocals with clicky cymbals and staccato haunted-house synthesizers, “Flight” becomes moving in the manner of the best Nineties pop radio, taking on stray instrumental passages as it heads toward its climax. Later, on “…To Have No Answer,” a choir of reverbed melodies blends with dreamy keyboards and radio news snippets that crackle in the background, with Wasner’s succinct lyrics dipping into and out of the chaos.

While this project overlaps somewhat with Wasner’s other music — besides Wye Oak, she’s been part of dancepop act Dungeonesse — Flock of Dimes lacks the combustion or ratcheted-up drama of both those groups. In letting the songs
be less dynamic, or rather, by letting the dynamics come from the natural direction of the songs, Wasner manages to be engaging without massive choral hooks, dialed-up drum parts, or any of the other typical ingredients of a pop song. Here, on her own, she revels in her ability not to take herself too seriously, to be unapologetic about wanting to create joy. If You See Me, Say Yes isn’t good because it’s innovative or edgy, but because it’s an unfussy love letter to Eighties and Nineties electropop, filtered through the sly emotional lens of a genuine and perceptive fan.

 

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Pop Star Wars: Britney Spears vs. Carly Rae Jepsen

Britney Spears has released a new album, Glory, her ninth, in a tricky climate. It’s not just that she’s been a stilted, shy presence in recent years, locked in a defensive crouch since her public breakdown in 2007. It’s also that she’s had trouble finding her place in a musical landscape that has, in many ways, evolved past her. It didn’t have to end up this way. Though she gets little credit as an innovator, Spears pretty much established the pop formula that’s now foundational almost twenty years later (think Miley, Selena, even Bieber) with her first single and video, 1998’s “Baby One More Time”: a commitment to crunching electronic sounds; a reliance on huge hooks; a winking sexuality; a fluency with Auto-Tune; an instinct for spectacle and choreography. Even in-demand producer Max Martin, the mastermind behind Taylor Swift’s blockbuster 1989, essentially got his start with Spears. Looking at a Billboard chart now dominated by divas, it’s fitting to think of Spears, though only 34, as a spiritual mother to the moment.

And yet, not since 2007 has she made game-changing music: the futuristic masterpiece Blackout, an ambitious album full of icy beats and manipulated cyborg-like vocals that went mostly unnoticed at the time due to the tabloid mania around her. Blackout was weirdly prescient, though, its influence visible in the underground electronica of FKA twigs and the loucheness of Rihanna. It was something of a swan song, too: After Blackout‘s dismal reception, and a stint in a psychiatric hospital, Spears seemingly chose security over innovation, releasing two respectable albums (Femme Fatale and Circus) and one listless one (Britney Jean, made under the misguided stewardship of will.i.am).

Glory doesn’t entirely correct the imbalance or capture the stark charisma of Blackout, but it’s a similarly hedonistic, if much more slow-moving and sensual, collection of songs. Like Blackout, Glory is uninterested in lyrical introspection; most of its tracks document straightforward, if non-monogamous, hookups. The list of collaborators is an under-the-radar bevy of respectable producers, and Spears has largely stayed away from trendy auteurs, a smart nod toward timelessness (minus a guest rap verse by G-Eazy on “Make Me…” that already feels dated). Record highlights “Man on the Moon,” “Slumber Party,” “Hard to Forget Ya,” and the particularly fresh “Better” — a track found on the album’s deluxe version, which snaps, cracks, and then mudslides into a mess of melting synths — are slinky and stuttering, with subtle interpretations of the Caribbean and EDM influences that have been all over radio. And maybe in deference to the demographic that has stuck by her in good times and bad, the album is exceedingly dance-friendly, perfect for drunken singalongs at West Hollywood gay bars.

Glory reminds me of another post-Britney star, Carly Rae Jepsen, who filtered the momentum of her own one-hit-wonder status (2012’s goofy, kitschy “Call Me Maybe”) into a career predicated on the simple pleasures of light, compact pop. Jepsen has earned herself an un-ironic hipster fan base by making earnest, nostalgic music, first on 2015’s Emotion, and now on its epilogue, Emotion: Side B (out the same day as Glory). On Side B she sings classic ballads that remind you of high school love (the opening song, “First Time,” sounds like Phil Collins playing backup for Janet Jackson). This approach has yielded a mixed bag of results: Jepsen has yet to replicate the success of her first hit, but her technical prowess at making crystalline pop and her quasi-corny lyrics, which speak to amorous indecision and starry-eyed, suburban optimism, have made her a favorite among the love-don’t-hate set. On “Fever,” she charmingly sings of riding her bike to her paramour’s home and prays that her heart won’t be broken. There is, to her fans, a romance-dork authenticity to these aerodynamic tracks.

In the end, Emotion: Side B has something that’s sadly missing from Glory: relatability. And whether it’s calculated or the real thing, that’s an important quality to possess in 2016: Take Miley Cyrus, a known Britney acolyte, who has absorbed the titillating tactics she learned from the latter’s playbook into her persona as a pansexual hippie. Or, Meghan Trainor, who mimics Britney’s early synth-pop, but also promotes healthy body image in her lyrics, music videos, and interviews — a far cry from the alienating, aspirational perfection of Britney’s initial image. It explains why Spears floundered at the MTV Video Music Awards, where she was starkly overshadowed on a night that was billed as her comeback. Rihanna made the stage seem like a natural, fashionable West Indian bashment across her four performances throughout the evening, while Britney, once as at home on the VMAs stage as anyone, shook around in a passé sparkly yellow costume and lip-synched her way (badly) through “Make Me…”

That’s okay; Britney gave her entire young adulthood to us, and she can do what she wants. Glory debuted at number three on the Billboard charts, evidence, perhaps, that she maintains goodwill among her loyal fans. In recent interviews, she has sounded entirely content. And, in a rare moment on Glory in which Britney speaks directly to the audience — at the end of the high-speed “What You Need” — she whispers into the mic in that famously coquette-ish, chipmunk-pitched voice, and says something so plain and clear it almost sounds like a mistake: “That was fun.” And she’s right: Glory is fun. The question for us, then, is whether fun is enough.

 

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Glitter and Gender Theory Help Kevin Barnes and Of Montreal Grow Up

“Am I on the verge of a really big breakthrough or just another meltdown?” Of Montreal leader Kevin Barnes wonders on “Gratuitous Abysses,” a song from the band’s new album, Innocence Reaches. It’s hardly the first time he’s reached this crisis point, and it could be the defining question of his career: For over a decade, Barnes has been releasing painfully personal music, traipsing through genres on a journey of torturous self-discovery.

By 2005, Of Montreal were already a standout psych-pop band, their reputation built on a decade of concept records full of bizarre character studies. Then Barnes released The Sunlandic Twins, thirteen mostly self-recorded songs that confessed the ecstasy and terror of fusing your life with someone else’s — in this case, his then-wife, Nina’s. The seven albums since have all paired a new, high-concept aesthetic with lyrics that burrow deep into their creator’s conflicted psyche. Barnes’s restlessness has become a constant, hijacking genres and molding them into a language for describing his fluctuating emotional state. Now in his forties, he seems to grow more frank with each passing year.

Innocence follows two solid, if not especially challenging, site-specific nostalgia trips: 2013’s Lousy With Sylvianbriar, a Sixties folk-rock effort written amid the hippie detritus of San Francisco, and Aureate Gloom, last year’s tribute to CBGB-era New York. Now he’s tackling EDM, though as with the prior genre studies, Innocence doesn’t represent a complete transformation: Its synthesizers are still shot through with the beguiling melodic sense and dictionary-begging lyrics always characteristic of Barnes’s writing.

So the club beats on “Let’s Relate” and “A Sport and a Pastime” might put a new digital distance between the music and the words, but they don’t prevent Barnes from getting, as is his wont, messily personal. Indeed, at a solo show in New York this spring, he played stripped-down versions of a few Innocence tracks and confirmed they were about a suicidal ex-girlfriend. His portraits of her are withering: On “My Fair Lady,” he sings, “My lady’s back at home, cutting herself and sending me photographs…dismantling our love, killing it to please other people.”

Unafraid to needle others’ shortcomings, Barnes has also never cast himself as anyone’s savior. “You should call me sometime. I won’t answer, but at least I’ll know you care,” he mumbled on “Triphallus, to Punctuate!” from 2008’s fragmented Skeletal Lamping. Eight years later, further into “My Fair Lady,” he taunts his ex: “Because you’ve been so damaged, I have to give all the love that was meant for you to somebody else.”

This willingness to expose his own cruelty and debasement recalls French writers like Jean Genet, Georges Bataille, and Arthur Rimbaud — all of whom Barnes has referenced in song. Such openness is a form of transgression that Barnes also displays in the subversive gender politics that suffuse his work. Throughout his career, he’s reveled in burlesquing prescribed gender roles onstage by performing in various states of drag. On Hissing Fauna, Are You the Destroyer?, his 2007 masterpiece, and Skeletal Lamping, he channeled an alter ego named Georgie Fruit, a black, transgender funk musician whose voice helped Barnes escape his own crises. Now, in an era too sensitive to appropriation for Georgie Fruit to fly, Barnes is cannily pointing out the absurdity of seeking liberation through rigid categorization. Innocence‘s “Let’s Relate” highlights the thin line between supporting nonbinary identities and fetishizing them: “Amalgam, I think that you’re great, let’s relate,” Barnes drones. The record’s lead single, “It’s Different for Girls,” commingles the essentialist sentiments suggested by the title with oversimplified feminist critiques until both dissolve into nonsense. It’s a bold stance for a cisgender man, but one that Barnes has been refining — in public — since today’s fluid college students were in elementary school.

Between this gender-theory provocation and the dance-music filter, Innocence is the most contemporary album Of Montreal have ever made. Previous records unfolded in a bygone idyll where psychedelics, glam-rock spectacle, and European intellectualism met, a vacation from the 21st century. The new aesthetic isn’t random: Barnes split with Nina for the last time, it seems, a few years ago, so the album coincides with his throwing himself into new relationships rather than clinging to an old (and, if the previous records are any indication, troubled) one. The vintage synthesizers still sound retro, but what we’re witnessing is Barnes finally waking up to the present. It makes the question of where he’ll go next more exciting — and more difficult — than ever before.

Of Montreal play Webster Hall on September 9 at 7 p.m.