It Ain’t That Deep Either Way: A New Pop Column With Anna Cafolla

Cardi B is on top, Kelela is industrial, Nadine Coyle is meme-able, and Anna Cafolla is here with her first, fabulous tQ pop column

Rina Sawayama photo by Megan Eagles

“When they wanted me to be sexy, when they wanted me to be pop, I always put some absurd spin on it to make me feel like I was still in control,” Lady Gaga says in new documentary Gaga: Five Foot Two. “If I’m gonna be sexy on the VMAs singing about the paparazzi, I’m gonna do it while bleeding to death, reminding you of what fame did to Marilyn Monroe.”

Pop is part of the machine, and it also pushes what our idea of the ‘machine’ is: the spectrum is vast, genre-hopping and mutating, allowing the underdogs and the unexpected into the mainstream airwaves. Just this week, Bronx rapper Cardi B’s brash and brazen ‘Bodak Yellow’ ousted Taylor Swift’s Right Said Fred-interpolating ‘Look What You Made Me Do’ from the top of the Billboard Hot 100 – making Cardi B the first female rapper to top the charts since Lauryn Hill in 1998 (with ‘Doo-Wop (That Thing)’).

Pop is this effervescent membrane cloaking modern music, and artists are peering at it in a petri dish, often having more control over sound and direction than ever. This is illustrated in Kelela’s hybrid avant-pop and dark R&B, teased in the singles leading up to her debut full-length Take Me Apart. It’s in Lorde’s playful but powerful live cover of Phil Collins, Miley Cyrus’ fallback into country music, Haim’s Paul Thomas Anderson-directed video for’Valentine’, breaking down their classic rock process and pop output. It’s in Lady Gaga’s exploration of her own pull and place as a pop artist in her soul-baring documentary, and Tegan & Sara’s wonderful journey back to their album The Con on its 10th anniversary, inviting a range of artists (including Mykki Blanco and Shamir) to cover the whole album, and raise money for women and girls in the LGBTQ community. The language of pop is universal, but its etymology moves at lightning speed.

This column will explore the cornerstones and skirting board edges of the month’s pop releases, the underground and the unchallenged. As autumn begins, artists are shedding their skins, trying out new silhouettes.

Rae Morris – ‘Do It’

With a career kickstarted in a Blackpool fish-and-chip shop, Rae Morris has pulled off a banger: it’s a sensual, throw-caution-to-the-wind launch into the unknown. “Let’s do something that we might regret,” she sings with a full-bodied, playful soprano, “Let your guard down / I can see through it / Do it, do it, do it.”

The second track from her upcoming, unnamed album, ‘Do It’ builds with a wonderful, melodic tenacity that’s found in the spur of the moment New York adventure, jumping up for karaoke, a split-second decision to board a random train to god knows where, a startling burst of fireworks captured in a music video. It retains that ethereal, up in the clouds electro-pop sound Morris does so well on her previous single ‘Reborn’, but there’s a glorious strength behind it that’s pushing you up onto that bar table with her.

Rina Sawayama – ‘Alterlife’

Cyberpop queen Rina Sawayama first flickered onto our bluish screens with the wistful ‘Where U Are’ last year, an ode to insecurities and hang-ups in the internet age. Now the Japan-born, London-based artist is delving deeper into these personal truths and the space we make for ourselves with ‘Alterlife’. With production “inspired by the intense, guitar-heavy music from racing games like Gran Turismo and Need For Speed”, it’s a record that takes a turn in the brooding spotlight of Sunny Dale’s Bronze in Buffy via roads worn by early 2000s candy-pop princesses and the journey to self-acceptance made by 90s R&B. It’s an exciting fragment of Sawayama’s glittering, fascinating DIY output and should earn its place on her upcoming debut album.

Kelela – ‘Frontline’

The first tune from Kelela’s debut album, ‘LMK’, was her most accessible pop record to date. Now her second track, ‘Frontline’, glides further into an industrial Aaliyah vibe, taking her alt-R&B and avant-pop sound to a new level. It premiered on Issa Rae’s series Insecure (where Solange is a music consultant). “Hold on, wait / You’re fucking with my groove,” Kelela sings. She outlines a major breakup and is moving on and acknowledging the power in herself, pouring this out over pulsating light and dark beats. “Whyyyy are you testing me!?” is a line to sing straight into your laptop screen or the face of a friend on a sticky basement dancefloor.


Niki orbits the same universe as Kehlani, SZA and Tinashe, with a pretty but biting flow that pays a really lovely tribute to heart-heavy 90s R&B, via TLC and Brandy. Jakarta-born and US-based, Niki’s on the same roster as Rich Chigga, who’s had a hand in some of her productions (please, please collab). It’s impossible not to swoon over her dreamy vibrato.

BTS – Love Yourself: Her

Marking one of the most major breakthroughs for K-pop, boyband BTS have unleashed the expansive Love Yourself: Her. The album moves fluidly through songs that showcase their vocal prowess, with arena bro-house, sunny electropop and trap-inspired beats honed by themselves alongside K-pop peers BIGBANG. It feels like they’ve laid all their cards out on the table here – Rap Monster, V, Suga, J-Hope, Jimin, Jungkook and Jin each bring their A Game. ‘DNA’, the lead single, is a major club bop, but ‘Pied Piper’ is the standout track, a smooth disco tune that lovingly roasts their devoted fanbase.

Miley Cyrus – Younger Now

Perhaps we’ve finally cracked the Miley Cyrus veneer, peeling away Bangerz, Dead Petz, latex outfits and phallic props to reveal her breezy country-pop roots with this new album. ‘Rainbowland’, featuring a touching voicemail from her godmother Dolly Parton, is a sun-dappled collaboration; ‘Miss You So Much’ is determined and driving emotionally, and ‘She’s Not Him’ is pretty, but the confessional tone turns a bit spindly elsewhere. “Change is a thing you can count on,” she sings on her fun fever-dream of a title track, but when that change seems to dim her brilliant personality and swaps smart songwriting for bland ballads and Elvis quiffs, I don’t know if I want it.

Shamir – ‘90’s Kids’

“We talk with vocal fry / We watch our futures die,” Shamir sing-songs in a glistening falsetto over a stark guitar line. The wonder of Shamir Bailey is his innate ability to oscillate within the complex emotional psyche of our generation: we laugh and love and make obscure pop culture references into the abyss of shitty adversity. The James Thomas Marsh-directed video for ‘90’s Kids’ sees the singer challenge the critics of our youth (fraught with internet anxiety and overpriced matchbox flatshares) while superimposed onto memes of the moment and those past: Salt Bae, Dat Boi, Hipster Ariel. It’s a glimpse at his second major label venture with the LP Revelations that will bare his struggle with mental health and a journey into a fresh new sound.

Nadine Coyle – ‘Go To Work’

Finally, a song worthy of Derry’s greatest export (besides Irish linen) Nadine Coyle: campy, disco-y and, in her words, “meme-able”. It’s one of those fill-the-floor-with-gals-clutching-glasses-of-prosecco numbers – never a bad thing – and it’s loads of fun, with a housey piano beat accompanying the former Girls Aloud member’s vocal gymnastics. The video’s a laugh too, casting Nadine as an office boss who does loads of dance sequences involving multiple photocopiers. It’s up there with my favourite video of all time: a 16-year-old Nadine fluffing her fake date of birth on Popstars.

Fergie – ‘Save It Til Morning’

‘Save It Til Morning’ feels like a tired-of-this-shit, sultry continuation of her ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ – it’s been 11 years since The Duchess, that perfect pocket of 2006/7 pop, where we danced to ‘Clumsy’ and ‘London Bridge’ on a Playboy bunny rug through a haze of Britney’s Curious perfume. This song is a big, sparkly break-up ballad, with those smokey Fergie breakdowns and soaring notes she does so well.

Björk – ‘The Gate’

Straight off what she calls her “Tinder album”, ‘The Gate’ is very, very Björk. She continues her search for utopia and paradise that first blossomed on the wondrous Vulnicura, adding to an experimental, spiritual manifesto. A surreal video, directed by frequent collaborator Andrew Thomas Huang, sees her dressed in a bespoke look by Gucci’s Alessandro Michele, playing the flute to a moving otherworld. It’s a haunting birdsong from an extraterrestrial creature that’s made its nest on earth in 2097. Don’t try to understand it, just let her creation engulf you.

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