Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Zombies in Wonderland: The Curious Case of Natalia Kills

The music industry is not an especially kind one. It offers a forbiddingly low probability for success, due in part to the vast pool of interested applicants, but exacerbated by its winner-take-all operating structure that artificially limits the available spots in the winner's circle, hedging bets on tried-and-true acts and notoriously resistant to new, untested talent. In such a brutal environment, an artist is exceedingly fortunate to get even one shot at the Mainstream airwaves in a lifetime, much less a second or third chance after being unsuccessful. The rare exceptions to this rule tend to be one of two things: extraordinarily talented, or extraordinarily persistent (talent optional). Natalia Kills is certainly of the latter breed, although the talent question is still subject to ongoing critical debate.

Natalia Kills is the newest nom du pop of the 24-year-old British performer born Natalia Keery-Fisher, one she adopted not long after signing with the great “indie pop” (or as I call it, “hipster pop”) label Cherrytree Records, which specializes in experimental and cutting-edge (and usually great) pop acts including Robyn, La Roux, and a partial share of the early Lady Gaga releases. Though the name is undeniably superior to her previous alias, "Verbalicious" (and less ethnically misleading than "Natalia Cappuccini," as she was before that), as a stage name I'd say this one ranks somewhere between Marina and the Diamonds and I Blame Coco among the Most Awkward Stage Names for Female Solo Acts - Ever. Is “Kills” supposed to be a verb or a surname, or the least subtle nominal double entendre since Alicia Keys? (If Natalia Kills, then perhaps Britney Spears?)

It seems Natalia is attempting to create not just music, but a character as well. Not that this is an especially unusual thing, as most major pop music icons perform in some sort of character. Some do it pointedly (Beyoncé's Sasha Fierce bit) while others go for broke and incorporate their character into their entire public persona (see Kesha Sebert's successful irreverent garbage-chic brat act under the stylized mononym Ke$ha) although it’s often a temporary or transitional persona. Then there are those who perform fantastically unbelievable characters, only with such commitment that it's hard NOT to believe in their veracity (Lady Gaga, following in the footsteps of Freddie Mercury).

Any questions?
How difficult the job is depends on how big a character one creates and how thoroughly one intends to play the role…and the bigger the character, the bigger the musical and/or cultural statement has to be to make the whole exercise seem worthwhile. Sasha Fierce (see below) is a useful, simple tool, allowing the publicly demure Beyoncé Knowles to unleash the urban hip-hop diva those of us who've paid attention since her days with Destiny's Child know lies in fact in her very core without losing the sense of classiness that gets her invited to presidential inaugurations. The bratty Ke$ha of Animal (below), a character that shifted over two million copies of Kesha Sebert's debut album last year, is already being phased out in favor of a kind of tribal dance goddess archetype, introduced on  Cannibal EP, the recent I Am the Dance Commander remix set, and the current “Get $leazy” tour guide and disguise the transition into the (likely more subtle and representative) persona of her eventual sophomore LP. Gaga, on the other hand, has remained so dedicated to the role of Lady Gaga that the only options are extremely deft character evolution over time or a continuous progression of outdoing her own outrageousness, although I expect a master of performance artistry like Gaga will probably end up doing both.

                      Beyoncé as Sasha Fierce           Kesha Sebert as "Ke$ha," grunge-chic brat turned tribal dance commander
But Lady Gaga is an extreme outlier, an exceptional piece of performance art by Stefani Germanotta and various artistic collaborators that transcends, redefines and deeply influences pop music, often in brilliant and exciting ways; but it only works because it has a musically and physically indestructible and probably somewhat crazy idiot-savant to pull it off. There aren't a ton of people like Stefani Germanotta out there; that's a good thing, too, because the entire Lady Gaga deal is light years beyond even the highest expectations for the genre, and though that in itself does not make her superior, it does make her unique - in a way that's sold a ton of records. She backs it up with protests and music videos about major topical issues and her worshipful devotion to high fashion, not to mention some of the most solidly crafted electronic dance-pop tunes of anyone working today. In other words, it's a mammoth task only a fully devoted semi-lunatic with musical expertise and excessive passion of purpose and philosophy could possibly perform, which is really okay because there's really no reason or need for more Lady Gagas - the world barely fits the one.

Did Natalia Kills maybe miss this memo? Admirable as it is to aspire to emulate an erudite, worldly, and talented musical and cultural steamroller like Lady Gaga, as an actual battle plan it's something like  setting out to be Meryl Streep or Michael Jordon or other freaks of nature whose greatness is so tied to individual, inborn abilities that it cannot be equaled by another through effort alone. The character of Natalia Kills, granted, remains to be more clearly defined, but this in itself is already an issue: from the evidence I've gathered, which is more than the average consumer will have done, I don't yet get what the whole Natalia Kills thing is up to, but I get the feeling that the undefined character here is trying to be something sweeping and avant-garde a la Lady Gaga. For what reason I can't guess, nor to what purpose, and all of this vague uncertainty has had on me, at least, an effect that is both unfortunate and probably the complete opposite of what Natalia Kills aims to achieve with this muddle of metafictional identity. Plus, there's kind of a Lady Gaga/Madonna thing going on with Natalia Kills and...Lady Gaga.... Observe:

Eh eh, there's nothing else I can say...
I'm your biggest fan, I'll follow you until you love me...
I'm a freak bitch, baby...
    I see dead people.                    I hump dead people.
Natalia Kills, you may remember, is at core a pop music act, meaning underneath all this philosophical mumbo-jumbo, at the end of the day she's creating songs to bring home the bacon. From what I've heard of the early promotional releases, the music of Natalia Kills is rather good. Some of it might even be better than good. Now, better-than-good music is exciting when it comes from a huge veteran star of the genre, much less a newcomer in advance of her debut, and as we've seen with artists like Alicia Keys, Kelly Clarkson, and more recently Nicki Minaj and Bruno Mars, this type of precocious talent generally sells itself without the need for extravagant pageantry. It annoys me that the confusion I encounter over the Natalia Kills persona allows or forces me to forget the strength right there in the music, and how much I have come to enjoy a number of the promotional singles that have dropped since 2009's "Zombie."

"Mirrors," the second U.S. single, is a dark, pounding, engrossing thumper about all sorts of delicious little kinks that can occur in the bedrooms of the more adventurous sexual athletes, with a chorus of "And the mirrors gonna fog tonight." While it sounds like it could have been pulled from Rihanna's Rated R, the singer gives it just as appealing and convincing a delivery as the "S&M" queen (see my review of said video) might have done. Her sex appeal oozes through her rich alto voice, in which she delivers a string of deliciously evocative commands to a partner that titillate the knowing listener but could pass by the innocent pre-pubescent without leaving a scratch.

The follow-up, "Activate My Heart," is even more dramatic, the first of Natalia Kills' singles containing the surprising emotional punch that peppers her subsequent work; one that elevates the track to something that sticks around a while after the music stops. There is the same deep richness to the production and layering of sound here as in "Mirrors," but with a far more somber pace, tone and lyrical theme, which recalls Robyn's "Fembot" in its use of robot metaphors to represent the limitations of the unstirred female heart (sample lyric: "I came equipped with all the same parts/ I'm not just megabytes/ So hold me close while I push restart").

Natalia Kills in her sexy video for "Mirrors"
"Wonderland," the newest single, is Natalia Kills' best record to date. It's as though she took everything that worked on the previous three singles and applied it to a song that already benefits from especially effective songwriting. Using numerous references to commonly familiar fairy tales (or really, Disney fairy tales whose iconography is so familiar that it passes as authoritative) to deliver a rather poignant declaration of love, desire and devotion without coming off the least bit sappy or even sentimental. Only Natalia Kills could deliver a line like "I don't believe in fairy tales, but I believe in you and me" without a molecule of treacle, and I mean that as a compliment, being the type who secretly loves sentiments like the above but can't abide the sappiness inherent when they’re expressed aloud. I first heard an earlier edit than the official single or radio edit released this week, but the differences were slight and mainly involved polishing the edges of some of the crashing beat and accompaniment on the chorus (and the fittingly melodramatic synthesized male chorus whose "ahhs" punctuate the verses). The tune wasn't an immediate inductee to my standard daily playlists upon first exposure several months ago, but I've been pleased to find I’ve warmed to it on second meeting, and it's well worth the spot it now holds in my current Britney-heavy rotation.

There's a video, as well, the third from Natalia Kills (following the steamy video for “Mirrors” that would make Rihanna blush, and an abbreviated, minimalist conceptual clip for "Activate My Heart" that one should not watch if prone to seizures or ocular migraines), and while the previous two were already better than most newcomers' early videos, "Wonderland" is clearly the first project on which the artist gets to explore the self-consciously artistic, high concept, metaphor-stuffed visual style and ideas she's apparently wanted to tackle, as well as clearly having a heftier budget than on the others (basically it's her "Poker Face"). Observe below.

The result of this new “Money + Freedom” equation, unsurprisingly, is a minor mess, at least to the new or casual fan unfamiliar with the darkness that plays a major part in the Natalia Kills credo, but it’s an interesting one nevertheless, and is gorgeously designed and shot. I hope potential new listeners won't be put off by the clip and mentally file Natalia Kills in with M.I.A. and her assaultive "Born Free" video and general "irritating provocateur who can't sing" thing; even I, with my moderate background knowledge of the artist and her work, lost interest once the dinner party - with its threatening masquerade-like costuming and a meal of internal cardiovascular organs - ended and the screaming began (nothing puts a damper on an appealingly deep female voice, at least for this alto fetishist, and a generally badass female style and attitude like a whole lot of high-pitched screaming). The aim, I'm sure, was for something dramatic and powerful, and no doubt that will be the impact for many viewers; I felt it was trying too hard for dramatic effect, like a high school play. She'd lost me for the remainder of the video once things started getting shrill. On the whole, it kind of felt to me like a Lady Gaga wannabe who got lost on the set of Lily Allen’s “The Fear.”

I want to like Natalia Kills, the character/concept/project, the way I like her music thus far, and I don't want to have to make the effort to ignore the superfluous distractions keeping me from simply enjoying the noise. I want to listen to the upcoming debut album, Perfectionist, with a mind open to the excellent and perhaps experimental music I expect it to contain, without it being hampered by the messiness that makes it hard to remember that, to paraphrase President Clinton, it's the music, stupid. Natalia Kills has so far made some decidedly respectable music leading up to her debut LP release, and at the end of the day, that's what I'd much rather be consuming and experiencing than some unnecessary, artificial and hifalutin character that's being created to deliver it. I've already been sold, Natalia... perhaps you should just be yourself.

Perfectionist will be released July in the UK. A US release date has not been made official. "Zombie," "Mirrors," "Activate My Heart," and "Wonderland" are available in the US on iTunes and/or Amazon.

Visit Natalia Kills at
@NataliaKills on Twitter; Facebook

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