The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Givin' It To The Homegirl: The Trouble With Kelis
Neil Kulkarni , June 10th, 2010 08:45

With Neil Kulkarni finding something rotten in the state of girl-pop, he turns up his nose at Kelis' curdled Milkshake and explains why Brit Envy has it right

Summer 2010. Why aren't you happy? We're being catered for.

Taste of headache.

We're being catered for.

Aluminium mouth-rape.

We're being catered for.

Nausea, dry heaving. We're being catered for.

I don't go looking for problems. They find me. In this numb age music must electrify every synapse, fill the space in my atoms with fire. A tight alternative to the sloppy seconds every other less-potentially-abstract/suggestive artform is offering. But all I'm getting is a migraine of mehness, a gobfull of slurry, grossed out, gagging on the hangover before it hits, the endlessly rotating self-pity of modern pop. For the first time since 85/86 I can wholly equate 'chart' music with 'shit' music.


I'm waiting for the chorus.

But all I'm getting is verses, bridges, build and no release state-of-the-art demo-settings and all that fucking whining whining whining.

We must be in the club.

We're always in the club these days.

We're club-friendly.

Y'know the place. Where the skinny people writhe. Where everyone aims to look like they're in an advert. Where the good-looking find each other: aka Hell on earth. The place where pop is now locked because to step out of the club is to lose the safehold, the sure purposelessness, the backdrop of insubstantiality that makes all this lack-of-substance seem right/apposite/enough. Because like love as subject, the club as locus shuts out the world, shuts down those dangerous parts of our day'n'nite that threaten to not get with the programme, join the step, the hotbeat-soundtracked on-the-spot march forward, the excess consumption, the forgetting, the proud self-love and inevitable self-pity and endless self-advertisement.

We're being catered for because for a decade we told the industry that we only want what it gives us i.e. more of this brain-dead fuckery, we tell them that we're incapable of imagination, thoughts dependent on a thumbs-up/peer-approval to exist, capable of only that tweaked delirium-on-ourselves, incapable of language beyond 2am wittering, drunk lols & posturing, musically and lyrically lashed to the triptych tethers of dancefloor and bar & the homes where we wallow, the rooms where we get ready for the endless party that calls us outside. We're in the club, and we can never leave, and though there's stairs to cry on and 50p pints to binge on and bouncers to argue with and toilets to take dirty photos in and cubicles to get those eyes widened we are always leaving but never making it out. All we do is drink, drug, give, give, splay, lose everything, snarfle scraps starting scraps, leaving behind an imprint of nothing.

This is where pop puts us now if we're single, if we can't mewl about him, or her - in the club where the music, no matter how thin, can marshal movement, make you forget your stasis, blank-out your slow depletion into time. Handy of course that your typical club-friendly backing track doesn't impose the need to find a hook on the singer/writers: Madonna's 'Ray Of Light' has a hell of a lot to answer for in bequeathing us a whole gen of pop writers who think vaguely 60s-style barbershop raga vocals around a technoid-thump will suffice, will in fact equal some sort of trippy 'exploration' of the self. Personally, were I a girl looking to be spoken for by the eternally-strobelit flash of modern girl-pop, I'd be scowling on the balcony, mentally flamethrowing you fucks, ducking out, hiding under the hill. But I'm too old for clubs, look like a narc, or simply an ageing pervert. And girl-pop itself, infuriatingly makes me feel like lecturing it, teach it something unmannered, get that strap back on its shoulder, learn it hard that its mistaking 'attitude' for style and assemblage for creativity. If I had a fanny I'd feel unspoken for. As unspoken for as I feel being a man.

Look at what pop's women are wearing. Even in Gaga's orbit of influence, it's so fucking dull out there. It's as if Girl pop looks at 30s Vogue, 70s Cosmo, 80s Face/ID, looks at the dress-up-games the high-street makes easy & search-free, throws shit on and waits for those old spirits to reinhabit the body beneath and the mind behind such carelessness. Ain't gonna happen. Those old moments of beauty, those looks so steely, timed and timeless were animated and arranged by folk who worshipped new gods, the camera and the motorcar and the mirrorball and the MDMA and that spirit cannot be conjured off-the-peg, cribbed from an idiot's guide or splattered on with a sequin gun.

Frankly, all o'y'all folk below 30 aren't real clubbers. You can't take your medicine or your ale, you're lightweights & lemmings too scared to be alone in the crowd. Soundwise you're all too lamprey-like in your fixation on suckling from the industry, too dependent on the narcoticizing discharge you sup from its diseased perma-botoxed teats. Loneliness, joy and solidarity are what nightclubs are all about. Girl-pop right now, locked in the club, always in the club, club-friendly, can only be about loving it, losing your phone mebbe and dignity always but never ever your 'crazy', 'mixed-up' self. Life becoming a brochure, an advert, music becoming similarly deodorised, tooled for the brand it's promoting, the celeb PR strategy it's merely an adjunct to. For all the chatbout boys wanting to touch your junk, the inferences of wildness, club-friendly pop emerges as really only about belonging to the binge-drink hoipoloi, to safely derailing yourself in the knowledge that someone or some song will pick up your pieces and make them whole, take you home to the suburbs, tuck you up, hold your hair whilst you chunder, join you for coffee in the morning like the millions of consumers like you.

I hear no shattered women on the radio right now, no one swallowing men like air or devouring worlds or commanding the cosmos or even telling the truth. Only empty-headed little girls skweeming and squeaking about what rockstars they are. Well we get the pop we deserve, the pop Fearne Cotton likes, but even if I were white skinny and pretty I'd feel lagged behind, let down, and I'd be wondering why the fuck these drippy bitches like Flo & Ke$h think they deserve to be famous. Good taste? Where's the fucking bravery? Where's girls like I know, rather than the girls & guys I'd cross streets, change clubs, emigrate, to avoid. If pop is a club right now, I find myself walking past all the tables packed full of braying twats and simpering saps and desperate to recognise a friendly face, a real face, smart people who are a laugh, rather than all these desperately needy, charmless loudmouth ignoramuses and fucking students. Why would I be up in this club? It fucking sucks. The charts right now, and the 'club-friendly' pisspile that increasingly constitutes it, prove that half-knowledge is more annoying than dumbness, especially when it appeals to the proudly quarter-witted and smugly ill-informed experts known as the great brutish public. You are welcome to each other.

This is Kelis' most 'European', club-friendly album and it's been infected by the same mediocrity that's currently making most of that club-friendly pop feel like it's on a checkout-conveyor to hell. The look, as ever, is crucial - the outfits on Flesh Tone's sleeve fit Kelis' mix of the middling and modish perfectly. Half-decent, mainly bad, what happens when you let a model dress herself. Front cover – as ever with K great face. Po(i)sed, looking beyond your shoulder, righteous combo of Dietrich ice & Crawford heat. Fab over-cooked headdress, the rest a Primark mess of mis-match and over complication where a block of black'd be better. Within, a 'Diamond Dogs' half-hound half-popstar pastiche seemingly conceived and created without any connection to the songs/words, a filigree fancy without the suggestiveness required, a fake-jewel chainmail disco dress you know will get way too heavy come midnight coupled with a daffy looking head of tin bling. Again, always, good face. Back cover – a brilliantly understated feathered two-tone bird-death atop the dome, some embarrassingly awful flesh-beneath viscera-tattoos & gore-paint, partly bringing out neck-tendons and the heart beneath the breast, helpfully framed & pushed by K herself and some careful under wiring. I focus on the looks because Kelis has never given me any reason to focus on anything else, watching 'the event' that you could see this album as 'follow-up promo' for i.e. the 'Acapella' video, you're again waiting for that chorus that never comes, bored by those verses that never fly, never move the heart. Never move the heart.

My heart's not built like modern hearts see. Modern hearts move because of any idea that happens. Idea = they're trying = default praise earned. Enough to try, pitch up, audition and who cares there's no real magic, just the simulacra of daring. In the 'Acapella' video you're watching the dullest, most borrowed 'reimagining' of Kelis' identity imaginable. Because the sound is neither hers nor interesting enough to bully her out of things, and the looks are all thieved. Between the feathers and paint the eyes are dead, deadened, don't need to burn or bewitch, simply stare and be available and simply be. Po-faced tedium. We're being catered for.

The album's failure doesn't matter a jot of course, Kelis' career has been about big singles. Singles that are not classic, singles that are fundamentally novelty records. 'Milkshake' & 'Caught Out There' & 'Trick Me' were songs that stuck for a summer, that would be actually tiresome to hear now, and each serve as reminders that the albums they came from, Kaleidoscope & Tasty were over-rated by mighty whitey, unloved in the memory, and only sporadically salvaged from mediocrity by the right collaborators bullying their personas/production to the fore (Neptunes/Andre3000).

All Kelis has proven, time and time again, is that she has nothing to say, a middling voice to say it in, but she's sufficiently imaginative in her self-portrayal to hoodwink folk into thinking she's somehow some innovative 'spin' on the dead-end of modern r'n'b. On Flesh Tone her collaborators are David Guetta, the Benassi cousins, and a few other Mondrian Sky-Bar-friendly DJs and the hoax is over. For all her insistence that this album is about the birth of her son, becoming a mother etc what this album actually is is the sound of Kelis finding nothing to strike but borrowed poses, nothing to say but that she's here, nothing to sing bar her own strangulation/obliteration in the mix. A merciful 37 minutes long, mainly segues, and what a grisly, opportune yet unengaging mix it is – 'Intro's slo-mo Moroderlite backdrop coming on like a particularly weak Eurovision entry, '22nd Century's appalling zeitgeist-flailing vagueness masquerading as profundity (arserot like “religion, science-fiction, technology/There's no difference from you and me” couched in a nasty leathered hetero-house-interior).

Two tracks in and you can sense just how carefully pitched Kelis' 'dance' direction is – just pissweak enough to get the requisite kudos from numbnuts daft enough to see this desperate bid for quasi-anonymity as some kind of 'bold' deflection of identity, the subsumation of Kelis' essentially thin and empty musical persona in other peoples' off-cuts/semi-bangers. Club-friendly. We're being catered for. It'll probly work for her but don't let anyone con you this is bravery or ballsiness, this is nine cameos on mediocre chart-dance tracks turned into an album, given credence by sleevenotes that bleat about having “love and life in mind”, about it all “coming from my gut, not just in an annoying warm & fuzzy way, but in a triumphant women rock way”. Grammatical shoddiness aside those notes start reading like exploitative bullshit the further into Flesh Tone you prod, the fuck-awful '4th Of July' one of those songs about sons (like Clapton's suicide-cash in 'Tears In Heaven') that gives the child no identity beyond how it can repair/redeem the singer, the parent, the celeb for whom the child is a valuable marketing tool. Kelis seems less genuinely moved by the blood, sweat'n'tears of having a kid than she seems chuffed she's finally got something to write about, finally an 'identity' where previously lived nothing but attitude & accoutrement – she's wrong, she's still bereft of the essential identity a true artist needs to grab & fixate you, only now her emptiness has that extra grisly level of sanctimony that parenthood (or, seeing as she's a celeb, nanny-hiring-hood) gives the rich. The music that backs this stuff (incl. the barely b-side-worthy nowtness of 'Home' and the sub-Madonna/Orbit fishpaste of 'Acapella') is the kind of techno you imagine the boys from Justice thinking was great, the kind of mid-European Ibiza-friendly tedium that you really shouldn't have time for in your life. Listening, finger hovering on your speakers off-switch, to the boooooooring 'Scream' (lyrics that are pure 10-your-old emo) and nauseating 'Emancipation' (lyrics that are pure 40 year old hippy) you wonder quite why anyone would need their dance music so woefully polite as this, sentiments as cloyingly daffy as this.

(Because if you want good club music you could/should be liznin to Soul Of Man's Breaking In The House vol.2, Meat Katie Live from the Opel vol.8., Mantelo's Matadero Mix 2010, Peepshow Ownerz Spring Joke mix, Ado's Wax On podcast, Opulent Temple's Deep Underground Gough Street sessions, Reid Speed's Inside The Ride mix, Disturbed Beats 14, ID's This Is Breaks mix, Vandals' The Street Is Watching mix, Resistance Lowdown & Dirty mix 2010, L Vis & Bok Bok, Robosonic's Berlin Kreuzberg Insitut mix 2010, Grand Hotel 30min Promo mix, Inquisitive's OMGITM 2010 set, Rossco's Jakked On Smakk & Crakk mix , LHF's Pipedown mixes, all findable w'a quick search on beatport, soundcloud, noiseporn, techfunk-manifesto or links contained therein and nary a Guetto touch, ethnodelic vocal or bad lyric between em)

I couldn't imagine a reason beyond laziness to let Flesh Tone's major-label US-idea-of-Eurodance deodorise your space, bland-out your day. In summary and feeling summery - Flesh Tone is perfick for the racks in Asda, great for the same dumb girls who dig Florence and the new shit retooled Kelly Rowland, great for people who know fuck all about music but think they know it all. You could do so much better for yourself, but if you've got tenners to spare on your next trip out go on ahead and squander them on Flesh Tone's half-hour of dullness. Final word to my 11 your old, trying to concentrate on her sewing while I'm playing this. 'Just turn it OFF dad. She's pointless'.

Which does beg the question – what real female figureheads are there for girls to idolise, aspire to, learn from in music right now? In a pop world in which female 'presence' is in glut/spreadthin, it's startling how little of femme-import is being given, how so many of the supposed 'divas' in modern pop have nowt to offer young minds bar money-hunger, man-dependence and just-dumped aggravation. Leaf through Mizz, watch Flaunt for an hour, make the colossal strategic error of listening to the charts, and you'll see girls talk about themselves, sure, but always ONLY in relation to their relationships, only in relation to how near/far they are from love, only in relation to how much they can lose/claw back of themselves in the permanent night-out that is pop's sole focus and context in 2010. Crucially, whilst you'll see lots of girls, you won't hear a single word that dares to antagonise you, that really addresses how scarily fast and furious with innovative invective girls can be. Obvious why girls are so ill-served at the moment, why none of pop's chat and cattiness (exceptions: Gaga, Britney & Beyonce on their good days; Shakira – all of whom crucially don't try and talk to/for their young fans, just luxuriate in their own supra-identities) actually matches up to the way girls talk/live/think - somewhere along the line middle-aged fanboys started whispering to pop that if it wants to cut deep it must only thieve from the past the fanboys curate, that it can't do politics, that being a poetess is less important than simply being a witty conduit for the babble of what's contemporary, a simpering squeaker of lad-mag-friendly spunkiness. “I really like your beard.” Jesus. They're being catered for.

In this world where real girls turn to pop only to find themselves unmirrored, absent, Envy's Set Your Self On Fire (Stopstart) isn't just the greatest British teenage debut since Disco Inferno's 'DI Go Pop', it's a rare righteous document, a necessary UK counterblast to the Americanisation of emotion & speech, my debut-album of the year so far by several country miles. Kicking off with the title track you find a microcosm of the whole: a spontaneous human combustion insisted upon by young Nicola Varley of Manchester, an insistence that an immolation in your/her own labyrinth of language is the only redemption available, matched perfectly by Medasyn's spaced-out dub-grime beats & synth drama (a feat he manages throughout). 'Nadine' follows, a rescue-bid for a friend lost to a dickhead man, the emotion taut and torsioned by a heartbreaking melody, the words never less than totally believable, totally real, totally compelling – it's a trick Varley's smart enough to pull whenever the subject matter threatens to get traditional, 'On The Horizon' exists in a stunning space for a song about relationships, love, environment, sky, sun, intimacy and the infinite woven together in one devastating poetic moment.

The brilliant lyricism throughout Set Yourself On Fire is something lazy crits would tend to say is beyond Varley's years – how defeatist, how condescending, how utterly stereotypical and plain wrong in the face of Envy's huge huge command and control and alchemy with English, her fearless explorations of its limits and launchpads. 'Normal' is Envy's admission of how language has bent her out of shape with the world, ranges her against the state of things by dint of a mind that works too fast, a tongue too twisted to talk just common sense, & the single 'Tongue Twista' that first hipped some of us to Varley's young genius still blows your mind as wide as when you first heard it. There's a track here that eclipses it though, 'Sometimes I Think Deep' is a stunning rush of words that flashes with searing insight, lines that dazzle yet almost derail Varley's voice in a heartfelt tremble of self-revelation that damn well skewers your heart. Through the chucklesome 'Chips In My Dip' & 'Friday Night' what you're hearing is all of those Ke$has & Cilmis & Allens plain OBLITERATED musically, lyrically, stylishly.

THIS is the pop our daughters deserve, not just feisty but furious, not just witty but mind-blowing, not just realistic or dreamy but real and fantastical. The pop we done got lags laboriously behind Envy, lags behind how far we've come, how far we can go. Damn straight you should be angry about that, about how true Brit genius is getting marginalised by corporations unwilling to let us speak to ourselves and each other, corporations anxious to confine British pop music to that which can most successfully ape US models, confine British identity down to the same narrow class-base everyone chased in the election. Where Flesh Tone drowns female presence under old men's music, Set Yourself On Fire liberates a hidden voice and lets it speak, and if you ever listened to Slits, Raincoats, Huggy Bear, Lioness why the fuck ain't you listening to Envy's astonishing role-call statement of femme-intent 'Get Your Game Face On'? Blast it loud, tuck it under your arm and get out there evangelising – this is new necessary music saying new necessary things, Varley's concepts and flows finding perfect heavily suggestive backdrops in Medasyn's dark, dubbed-out, head-wreckage. Like I say, album of the year thus far, 60 minutes from here and now that will blast you to everywhere.

Because we have to come down to our own moment of national realisation here: yes, Britain's got “talent”. Oozing out the streets, up from the underground, roaring out the corners and places and spaces where seemingly no-one is looking, the forgotten avenues where poets stride in seven-league boots with a confidence and focus unmatched by the cowardice and vagueness of those who should be dragging these supernovae through to us, to the stardom they deserve. Like seeks like, so inevitable that the giggling Jocastas and Jeremy's currently keen to write about pop, ( & also keen/able to work for the beast that is the schmindustry) are pointing us in the direction of bands, artists, bad backpacking rappers and britschool alumni from their same narrow middle class-base. As it has been for too long now, the WRONG people runnin' things from A&R to PR to the cheerleaders hired to 'write' about them - hence the WRONG people shoved our way as if we're meant to be satisfied/entertained. We're being catered for? As fucking if. It's what's most mad upsetting – Varley should be a star, should be bigger than God, should be stalked by paps and bothered by the 3am Girls, should be given the solid basis to develop what might be a long fascinating career from. But she says a little too much, a little too deeply, a little too quick, looks not right (and therefore entirely right). Varley herself hints at the struggle and depression her fearless self-exploration has earned her in 'Fire's darker passages (the scabrous 'Cocktails At Selfridges' and dread-filled 'Think Deep Pt.II').

I pray that in this sewn-up biz of women purely fulfilling laddish fantasy & girly-stereotypes Varley can battle through, because our real girls, our daughters, our young people deserve better than what they're being given, deserve better than what this shitty blokeish industry thinks about women and the music they should make. And beyond gender, we should also be wondering why the mealy-mouthed semi-profundity of middle class indie-rock and club-friendly pop is getting our airwaves and telly-time and double-spreads when the voices from the estates, the voices from off the beaten and down the wrong streets is getting forced out into the edges (as they are politically as well).

We've got the govt, the newspapers, the media we're told we deserve and for now there's fuck all we can do about it bar load the shitapult and keep an eye on their movements. But we deserve the music that none of those fucking chuckleheads even know exist. It's time for class, as a battleground, as a concept rather than a cheap joke, to re-enter pop as some kind of line in the sand, some kind of position of resistance – beyond that the realisation that for too long the press & industry have been sewn up by a bunch of posh boys and slightly-less-posh wannabe-lads. These motherfuckers cannot be allowed to let British pop rot on the vine, to let it fester into the insignificance of only appealing to that bunch of utter wankers known as music fans. All of us need to investigate those less-than-official channels, those non-sanctioned spaces of rapture where word & sound are really getting forged into new infinities.