In the 2001 film Josie and The Pussycats, teen pop and consumerism are close bedfellows. The story of a pop-punk band that gets involved in a nefarious scheme to control the minds of teenagers, the film’s central thesis is that much of the pop music of the day was simply a vehicle for advertising. The film’s villains are major-label execs, who are portrayed as nefarious emissaries of capitalism, vultures willing to take whatever upbeat pop music they can find and pump it with subliminal advertising.
In 2020, “genre” is not the key organising category of music so much as “mood”, a development that’s a result of music streaming giant Spotify’s hugely popular playlists – “Chill Hits”, “Good Vibes” and so on. A 2019 Baffler piece by Liz Pelly, “Big Mood Machine”, explains how mood playlists help Spotify target ads to its consumers, nudging listeners towards playlists that are “chill” or “happy” – moods conducive to marketing ploys. “Mood” is a more effective organising principle, according to Spotify, because Gen Z is more likely to consider labels arbitrary. Nineteen years on from Josie, life is imitating art.
If you need proof of concept, look no further than 20-year-old New Zealander Benee. Stylish, preternaturally talented and hailed as an alternative to more manicured pop stars, Benee – born Stella Bennett – makes music that is no genre and every genre. Her 2019 breakthrough, “Glitter”, is built on vaguely funky guitar and her soulful, sometimes indecipherable voice. “Supalonely” – which went viral on the social media app TikTok – features jangling indie rock guitars, autotune, programmed and live drums, and girl-group harmonies. Although she was signed in 2019 to the mega-label Republic Records – home of Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande and Drake – Benee is unique to its roster in just how unique she seems.
Being unique doesn’t preclude one from being streamable, the word on every major-label executive’s lips. In fact, Benee seems to be something of a holy grail: on Spotify alone, she has some 700 million streams. She’s highly placed on many of the service’s most popular playlists, including “Chill Hits”, “Good Vibes” and “Chill Vibes”, and has four songs on “Lorem”, a mixed-genre playlist marketed with a quirky, mannered video soundtracked by Benee’s single “Snail”.
This doesn’t preclude Benee’s music from genuine artistry or innovation. But Hey u x, the singer-songwriter’s debut album released yesterday, is not the record to pull her from the depths of Spotify-core.
Although sprightly and often extremely fun, from the first listen Hey u x is hampered by an unnerving familiarity. Whether or not it actually was, it feels focus-tested. That’s the thing about “genreless” music: more often than not, it’s a mixture of whatever 10 genres have been in vogue over the past couple of years.
The upbeat, autotune-slathered “Sheesh”, featuring the Canadian producer and vocalist Grimes, plays like a song from Grimes’ most recent record, Miss Anthropocene, scrubbed of any darkness. “Snail” rides the same kind of Neptunes-y bounce that was all over Ariana Grande’s 2018 record Sweetener, with the addition of some creative vocal modulations much like those that appeared on “Supalonely”. The problem is that the song is sequenced directly after “Supalonely”; forget to pay attention, and the songs swirl into a mega-mix of burbling synths and overwrought affectation.
Many of the songs on Hey u x fall prey to this sludgy middle ground. Despite its classically morose hook, “Same Effect” – “The others, they don’t have the same effect / Don’t wanna be someone who you forget” – still feels like bouncy, easy-listening playlist fodder, with the synthed arpeggios of “Snail” swapped out for guitars and live drums.
“Plain”, ostensibly another “sad” song, rides the same mid-tempo bounce, rubbery bass and squawking synths underscoring Benee’s complaint that “your girl’s so plain / She’s got nothing on me”. “Plain” features a guest verse from Flo Milli – arguably the most exciting breakout rapper of 2020 – but her feature sounds flat here, melting into the background alongside Lily Allen, the song’s other guest star. The H&M-friendly sheen of these songs does its vocalists immense disservice, sanding down their edges and forcing them to bow to a kind of sameness.
When the mood fits the lyrics, the result can be magic. On “Winter”, a collaboration with Brisbane musician Mallrat, the pair sing over a thick, shuddering guitar line that cuts through the song with a buzz like an exposed Tesla coil. The production here elevates Benee’s and Mallrat’s voices, the lyrics – “I crave the quiet / I love the silence / Wanna be told a bedtime story and not wake up in the morning” – in sync with their decaying surroundings. It’s a powerful song, not a marketable mood, but the real, raw thing.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 14, 2020 as "Middle-ground moods".
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