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Petite Meller
Lil Empire Avi Pitchon , November 1st, 2016 15:44

Finally, following a trickling of singles stretching over two years, Petite Meller's full length's out. The journey she started more than a decade ago is nothing short of breathtaking, one is almost tempted to take a bow. Tel-Aviv's club-goers can recall the days when she was a member of Terry Poison, mostly an all-female band, which started as a resident of sorts in the magical, fondly-remembered Kosmonaut Club, operating in the city's south in the mid '00s. Terry Poison went through turmoil in 2011 and Meller left, and shortly after moved to NYC. Following a period of attempts in collaboration, it seems that she concluded that she's better off realising her vision on her own, or at least under her full command: it's simply too singular, therefore sometimes instead of banging one's head against the wall trying to mediate concepts, one much rather give out orders. Eventually she did find like-minded talent, from directors Napoleon Habeica and A.T. Mann, to stylist Nao Koyabu and choreographer Hagar Ophir – but they're around because they get her.

That vision, now majestically manifested on debut album Lil Empire and tagged 'nouveau jazz pop', blends a childhood in Paris laced with jazz and chanson influences, teens in Tel-Aviv marked by club culture, a forceful entry into the arena of fashion, an everlasting love for Paul Simon's 'Graceland', and, as it happens, philosophy studies. Meller, currently residing in London, is completing her master's degree dissertation on "Kant and Lacan, psychosis as means to attain the sublime".

Petite Meller's approach is a gesamtkunstwerk within which sound and vision stand equal: she testifies to write note-by-note and storyboard frame-by-frame, simultaneously. Her second single, 'Backpack', came out the same year as her first, ‘NYC Time’, picking up musically from where its predecessor left off but also beginning to jot out that which was to come with brushes of 'ethnic' sounds that are never committed to any one concrete geo-cultural identity, and a catchier, poppier caress of a chorus.

The music video opens with Meller sat in a rowing boat, reading out loud in French from a book about art collector Heinrich Thyssen Bornemisza. However, what she actually utters is her paraphrase to a monologue off Godard's 'Pierrot le Fou', thus immediately echoing any of his early films in which he places a philosophical or political monologue in the mouth of a young protagonist, like Anna Karina in 'My Life to Live'. She appropriates the monologue – a passage about dancing to jazz with a backpack full of passions, desires, impressions and fears - to become her own manifesto, fortified more recently with the call to “wear your trauma proudly. Find your tribes.” The earliest single included on the album, in interviews Meller has explained that the song is about the way past baggage one carries can be harnessed toward the creation of something new. Which, in turn, transforms burden to liberation.

'Lil Empire' jumps from one continent to another – Europe, America, Africa and Asia - like some borderline NSFW version of 'It's a Small World After All'. What for many others constitutes an obligatory jargon exchange of 'Little' with 'Lil' clarifies so much and encapsulates, with uplifting originality, notions and discourses that simmer in fashion, music, philosophy and politics of recent years.

Firstly, Meller's empire – a petite empire if you will – being 'lil', allows her to demonstrate, through the prism of contemporary Western urban street culture lingo, that there's actually something 'lil' to be found in every culture, all around the globe: Meller takes what previously belonged to the culturally derided desert of the tourist souvenir shop, or to one-dimensional, patronising exoticism, or indeed the nationalistic longing for false facades of 'roots', and pushes it all – overnight – to the forefront of contemporary pop and its dalliance with meaning. She forcefully rubs in our faces in the assertion that 'cutting edge' is a world citizen, and that a tradition that has endured for centuries can be more radical than some transient whim of a stylist in New York. And she does that by joining in as equal, not as coloniser. Her gesture holds Attenborough's nobility, as opposed to Columbus' trample, may his name be tarnished forever.

Meller freely meshes actually existing ethnicities (in sound, instrumentation, dress, landscape, filming locations, dance styles and other gestures) with her own personal baggage which she recruits in order to play and invent, to resonate her own imaginary empire as one that flickers, parallel-dimension like, over that which is familiar – or that which we think we know. In other words, she is probably confusing the fuck out of denizens of identity politics. On the one hand, she transgresses paradigmatic dictates by irresponsibly mingling with the locals as if it was just another fashion week. On the other hand, Petite doesn't steal feathers off the heads of Native Americans in order to endow a borrowed feral authenticity to something which has nothing whatsoever to do with that which had been stolen. She blends herself in and everything she conjures on her own forces a refreshed gaze towards the sheer inventiveness of the cultures with which she dances (literally – in Kenya and Mongolia, for example, in the music videos for the album's best tunes, 'Baby Love' and 'The Flute').

She thus blurs, at times annihilates, what arbitrarily separates 'primitive' and 'modern', 'traditional' and 'contemporary', showing us in the process that some tundra-bound Mongolian outfit could've probably been deliriously and playfully conjured by some ancient Petite. She operates as a feminine, pacifist negative to the historic hordes of white male explorers who bestowed upon their hosts nothing but pestilence, conquest, robbery, deprivation, exploitation and genocide. She lands like an alien Marco Polo, equal among equals by merit of her own otherness (that Lynchian rouge on her cheeks is seriously unsettling and works against her self-objectification), spreading joy that fills hearts with light wherever she goes, transcending folklore and fashion as well as her own sexuality, permanently bracketed in the ease with which she conducts herself in her own bizarre presentation, her own skin; thus acquiring new friends of all places and ages, reindeers and giraffes included, like some futuristic Pippi Longstocking. The best bit is that she's writing this exciting new chapter in the history of identity politics not in the shape of a tiresome thesis in an obscure academic journal, but rather through an album irresistible in its erupting vitality.

None of the above assertions about Meller are reached by empirical comparative research, and therefore could be disputed; all based on the way her world feels and communicates through the smallest of details. Take the music video to 'The Flute': it opens with Meller engaging in a tug-of-war scuffle over a flute with a Mongolian lady who I can estimate is at least 70-year-old. Eventually she loses grip and falls and the song itself begins with a little girl playing the lead motif in a field, Meller playing it back in call-and-response. A camera pans over giggling local teen girls, and just as one starts to feel airline advert uncomfortable, the sweep ends on Meller herself – dressed up like a Mongolian acid flashback – sulking. Later, medieval stocks lock her head and she is hunted by bow and arrow – but following some song and dance, the hunted and her captors engage in a group hug and she's sent on her way.

While all of this forms potential fodder for endless (yet welcome) analysis, the importance seems to like in overall feel and effect: while some of the imagery is charged, it is delivered with an overriding sense of playfully not giving a fuck – the polar opposite of what you get when guilt-ridden, hand-wringing white folk try (and fail) to engage with what they undoubtedly perceive as ethnic others. When that happens, the strain of inner-dissonance pulls so strongly by the seams you can hear them stretching, bulking, creaking from miles away. No well-meaning Westerner would be caught dead trying to kick a Mongolian old lady about, and – while on the face of it that seems generally positive – it is precisely because they exoticise her, put her on a pedestal, or don't see her at all. Meller is so comfortable inside her alien paleness and individual otherness that she nullifies the abstraction of post-colonial division upon first contact.

Having six out of the twelve tracks on the album previously released as singles does not weaken it, as the way they're positioned alongside those not previously heard creates new narrative continuity and context. And, just as some singles were better than others ('Baby Love' remains Meller's crowning achievement, a perfect dance-pop gem subtly ornamented with 'world' sounds, rhythms and instrumentation; 'Milk Bath' and 'Lil Love' are superior to 'Barbaric' and 'Backpack'), it is the same with album tracks. 'Hawaii', isn't particularly revelatory, settling for nicely bridging between flutes and baths. In contrast, 'America' melts all toxins in the body and alchemically transforms them into shiny fluid gold. It might not embark on a new chapter in Petite's story, but it doesn't need to; we're still busy enjoying the current one.

By the time 'Argentina' arrives towards the end of the album, this name-dropping of places begins to bring to mind an older incarnation of Mongolian lore in pop culture: Eurovision-shocking schlagger-disco Germans Dschinghis Khan. (Sadly, after draining the chart potential provided by championing ancient horseback marauders, the band gradually deteriorated to increasingly moronic displays of folklore, basically raiding every possible historic or ethnic cliché and adapting it to suit Teutonic beer fests - Russians, Romans, Mexicans, and, with their back against the wall, a retreat to their very own lederhosen, with the actual songs turning all the more cringe-worthy.)

The album signs off with 'Grace', a tender Shamir-penned ditty, and 'Geez' which for the most part sounds like a reprise of the entire album, its concluding 20 seconds taking a gear down, spooning us, dropping us back home at the end of the journey.