Music

As with her earlier work, Amy Shark’s new album, Cry Forever, trades on her struggles to succeed – but she’s no longer an underdog.

By Shaad D’Souza.

Amy Shark’s Cry Forever

Gold Coast native Amy Shark in her trademark tracksuit.
Credit: Max Doyle

Pop’s best moments tend to arise from a distinct, idiosyncratic aim. Beyoncé’s most striking records came from a drive to convey her experiences of marriage and Black motherhood; Ariana Grande’s are rooted in a need to reckon with tragedy and sudden fame at the same time. Justin Bieber’s commercial and creative peak succeeded due to his attempt to reconcile new-found faith with cutting-edge, bone-rattling electronic music trends. Some of these goals may have more obvious artistic merit than others, but the point stands: a purity of vision will often yield a product that’s unique and valuable.

Amy Shark, the Gold Coast native who rose to fame five years ago with her surprise hit “Adore”, projects the sense that the act of being a pop star is an end in itself. On “Amy Shark”, the final song from her sophomore album Cry Forever, the 34-year-old songwriter, vocalist and sometime-producer makes it clear just how much she was willing to give up to become Amy Shark:

I’ve sacrificed all my friends,

Birthdays, weddings, everything

And it’s heartbreaking, but this is my dream

And I did it all without a phone call

Or a Christmas card

To most people it probably wouldn’t seem worth it – but for Shark, hustle and sacrifice are both gospel and doctrine. The story of her ascent is tediously overplayed in nearly all available media about her, but it’s also undeniably romantic, a tale of overnight success that took a lifetime.

Shark languished for nearly a decade playing at singing competitions and open mic nights and releasing underheard records under names that included Amy Cushway, Amy Billings and Little Sleeper. She persisted with no discernible team around her, other than her husband, Shane, and no fanbase or following to speak of. In 2016 she adopted the Shark moniker – her favourite film is Jaws – and finally found vindication when the self-released single “Adore” was added to full rotation on Triple J.

From there, success flowed freely and easily. Shark signed to Sony; her first EP, Night Thinker, peaked at No.  2 on the ARIA charts; “Adore” was certified multiplatinum; her debut album, Love Monster, debuted atop the charts, and won Shark three ARIAs, including Album of the Year. In two years, Shark became one of Australia’s most bankable and visible pop stars. Even her self-consciously unfussy fashion sense – typified by an adidas tracksuit and a half-up, half-down hairstyle – became iconic in the wake of Love Monster’s success.

The story of Shark’s triumph over adversity is crucial, not incidental, to her music. Since the release of “Adore”, she has made sure you know what she’s been through to get to this point. “I Said Hi”, Love Monster’s lead single, is a rebuke to the friends and family who doubted her pop star aspirations, as well as the myriad talent managers and record labels who ignored her music pre-“Adore” only to jump on the bandwagon after its surprise success. As if the point wasn’t laboured enough in the song, its video was filmed in front of a public housing estate in Brunswick.

Tall poppy syndrome seems to dictate that Australia’s new generation of pop stars must telegraph their authenticity from a mile away – think Tash Sultana pulling a pained guitar-face as they dip into a solo, or Dean Lewis inserting the word “mate” into his music as much as possible – and this underdog tale is Shark’s crutch, a token of accessibility to flash even as she talks up her friendship with Ed Sheeran and jokes about losing two grand’s worth of sunglasses. Shark uses this backstory with all the subtlety of a Gatling gun; it crops up again in the video for “Amy Shark”, which is set to home videos of her performing to crowds of zero.

Still, given that she now has it all – not only her dream but a waterfront mansion, collaborations with two out of the three members of Blink-182, sellout arena shows, and eight ARIAs – one might think it safe to assume that Cry Forever might take a different tack. But no: as ever, resentment is an animating force in Shark’s world, a guiding light matched in its intensity only by her desire for stardom.

This particular kind of solipsism doesn’t have to be a death sentence – any number of pop-punk bands built entire careers on dour, adversarial narcissism – but in this case, it is. Although the platinum records are stacking up, Shark still has a seemingly endless supply of haters to rebuff. On Love Monster, at least her haters came in specific forms – the music industry type, the old friend, and so on. With Cry Forever, Shark’s adversaries are vague and ill defined. On “The Wolves”, she picks herself up in spite of the ravenous titular animals picking at her bones; “Amy Shark”, as with “I Said Hi”, evokes those who only came out of the woodwork upon discovering Shark’s success. On “All the Lies About Me”, about the gossip that plagues her, she attempts to make light of all the things she’s being called:

Yeah, that’s me so selfish

Jealous every minute of the day

She’s so passive aggressive

Yeah, whatever you say

These descriptors would be far more believable as name-calling by risible haters if the rest of Cry Forever didn’t happen to embody these character traits. Shark is jealousy incarnate on “That Girl”, slavishly obsessing over her ex’s new girlfriend – “My entire world, brought down by a girl” – while “C’mon”, featuring Blink-182’s Travis Barker, views success as suffocatingly as Love Monster viewed failure.

Any attempts to evoke pathos are comically thin. The line “Is it over? Are we empty? This is not good, this is heavy” is what passes for self-reflection in Shark’s world. Cry Forever’s greatest sin is that it is not just suffocatingly vague or profoundly unrelatable, it’s that it is somehow, impossibly, both. “You said I seem broken, well, maybe I was,” she sings on “I’ll Be Yours”, like a teenager writing a particularly tortured Tumblr post. Where Love Monster was at least rounded out by surprising, endearingly messy detail – I am thinking, specifically, of multiple songs that address Shark’s affair with a friend’s partner – Cry Forever is bloodless, poreless and gormless.

This archetype is not unique in the pop landscape – Bebe Rexha and Halsey, among others, have a similarly unfiltered personal outlook. The difference is that Shark is a negative void of charisma and almost impossible to empathise with. Where she may have been a genuine underdog on past releases, here she is simply rich and complaining, unwilling to offer any kind of olive branch to a listener.

The palette of Cry Forever is less flashy than that of Love Monster, a choice that doesn’t serve Shark well. Sameness abounds here: Shark’s long-time collaborators Dann Hume and M-Phazes dole out the same pitched-up vocal samples and rote beats on every track. Joel Little, who produced Lorde’s “Royals”, contributes one song, lead single “Everybody Rise”. Yet rather than break up the tedium, it just brings to mind Julia Michaels’ much better 2017 hit “Issues”, from which it borrows an alarming amount.

There is one bright spot on Cry Forever – the lovely, simple country ballad “Love Songs Ain’t for Us”, written with Sheeran and performed with Keith Urban. Here Shark’s endless stream of stale, predictable images work – country, as a genre, is built on well-worn cliché. But it also sounds nothing like Shark, and I suspect its success comes down to the reprieve its innate feeling of lightness provides in comparison with the rest of the album’s blinkered, near constant whinge.

Ahead of Cry Forever’s release, Shark talked up its emotional content. “These are some of the most personal and confronting songs I’ve ever written,” she said in a press statement. “I had some songs that I wasn’t even going to put on the album because they were so personal. But that’s what people turn to my music for, its honesty and realness.”

It’s a quote that strikes as shockingly oblivious, considering that Cry Forever is most notable for how far it’s removed from reality. But then again, perhaps that’s par for the course for a career less defined by a specific vision than by its complete lack.

Shark has certainly sacrificed a lot to become “Amy Shark”: friends, birthdays, weddings – and now, with Cry Forever, her self-awareness, too.

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This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 1, 2021 as "Jumping the shark".

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Shaad D’Souza is The Saturday Paper’s music critic.