Saturday, August 31, 2013

Anjulie Has Finally Released "White Lights" And Now We Need To Talk About Her Career

Look, I don't really know what's going on with Anjulie's career right now, but it's not like talented artists making excellent music have never wallowed in label purgatory before. It could almost be seen as a badge of honor if not for the pesky issue of "money," as in "not making any," and I'm sure that attempt at looking on the bright side is much more soothing to those of us fans, critics, and other wagon passengers than it is to the artist.

Anjulie took a pretty big risk by deciding to explore the popular dance genre as the followup project to her acclaimed and indie-embraced pop/R&B/soul debut, in 2009; fans of the two musical styles tend to be mutually exclusive, meaning the Canadian singer would be plowing ahead without a good chunk of her fan base at her back and all but starting from scratch presenting herself to a new crowd of listeners to whom she was all but unknown.

There's also the issue of how Anjulie has been approaching this new music style, a project with more philosophical focus and artistic specificity than generally characteristic of dance music - which is kind of the point. Just as Vertigo Shtick is a project with the intent of applying a certain kind of music criticism and analysis to a genre to which it hasn't much been applied, Anjulie's current project is an experiment in infusing dance music, a genre built more around rhythm and repetitive sound than melody or lyrics,.with the sort of lyrical storytelling on which rock music is grounded. It's really not that wild a concept...we've been doing that since the dawn of time: husband and wife, peanut butter and jelly, shave and a haircut, Pitbull and Jennifer Lopez, and many other masterful pairings of seemingly antithetical elements. Sure, sometimes it doesn't work (clam and tomato juice, Israel and Palestine, Jennifer Lopez and Puff Daddy, Jennifer Lopez and Chris Judd, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony), but even then it's usually interesting.

While any attempt at creating something new tends to make some folks uncomfortable (I mean, look at how apocalyptic people get when Facebook changes its layout), combining elements from high and low culture can be especially fraught (as I know full well). High cult fans are often unwilling to touch anything below them (unless they can be tricked, which is why I love the public feature on Shazaam that lets you see when one of your indie music snob friends unwittingly tags a Ke$ha song), and low cult fans tend to be intimidated or simply disinterested by high cult; high cult folks are also quick to renounce anything of theirs they feel has been diluted by low cult elements (including popularity). That means anyone setting out to bridge the high/low cult divide will be going it alone and facing particularly skeptical crowds.

Anjulie's project, it has become clear, requires a lot of balls. Virtually every move she has made since releasing the single "Brand New Bitch," the unequivocal introduction to a new musical phase that would be miles away from the slinky exoticism of her breakout single "Boom," has been met with any variety of backlash. Very little of it having anything legitimately to do with the music itself, excepting the reaction to her initial wide left turn from indie darling to possibly bandwagon-jumping sellout with "Brand New Bitch" (this was about midway into the pop-EDM explosion, and it was not until later that she began to explain her intentions for the project, so these were admittedly understandable concerns at the time).

Though "Stand Behind the Music" did placate fears of total EDM pandering by just another once intriguing musician desperately abandoning artistry to obtain fame (*cough* Jessie J *cough*), both in its sound and its explicitly rebellious lyrics decrying just that sort of fakery in the music business, it was later sold to Cher Lloyd for her debut album Sticks + Stones, which really turned it into such a depressingly ironic mess that I was glad Anjulie at least got some good cash out of it in the end.

Then came the one-two punch of "Headphones," which had a music video but no official release, and the Benny Benassi-produced "You And I," which hit the top 25 in Canada and #27 on the US dance charts and has probably been her most successful release so far in terms of sales and general acclaim. "Headphones," my personal favorite of the new era and one of the few songs I've played on replay over a dozen times in a row, drew a good amount of criticism (if you can call it that) on YouTube as a ripoff of M.I.A., which fortunately the occasional astute commenter would point out was probably just because she has the nerve to be a brown female pop singer when we already have one of those in the world, as if!

Anjulie's greatest contribution to popular music of the past few years is essentially incognito, which normally might rankle an artist denied the exposure of being attributed to a piece of work taken on by a major artist and made into a major US hit. "The Boys" is one of Nicki Minaj's best and most inventive singles so far in her career (so good that after writing that last phrase I took a break to listen to it once more and rewatch the equally awesome music video). It's a postmodernist hybrid of pop and rap that effectively takes the first and second acts of Minaj's controversial half-rap, half-pop Pink Friday: Roman Reloaded and stuffs them into one track, finally driving home the point Minaj set out to make with the album - that hip hop and pop could work together in ways besides the all too standard construct of a male rapper paired with a female pop singer in order to sell a male rapper's single with a catchy pop hook or a female singer's pop song with a verse by a male rapper who might attract straight male buyers. If you were good enough, Minaj argued, you could just do it all yourself, and enjoy the best of both worlds and not have to split the royalties with some bimbo you may never even have met (usually Rihanna) who put in an hour's work in the studio.*

"The Boys" is revolutionary in its egalitarian treatment of pop and hip hop: both Minaj and the singer Cassie, who handles the sung parts, get to perform a full song (three full rap verses for Minaj, two verses and chorus for Cassie as well as a bridge shared with Minaj), not just disjointed pop hooks without context or one-verse raps that may or may not have anything to do with the song or even suggest the rapper has heard it in the first place. Also, significantly, Minaj has chosen a song just as interesting as her characteristically clever, inventive rhymes; no "Starships" this, indeed. Cassie's singing is blithe yet haunting, the lyrics cutting in their honesty, profanity that shocks not because it's gratuitous but because it's on the money, and emotion so vivid in its ambivalence between smugness and defeat. That's the kind of song Anjulie can write the hell out of, so it came as little surprise when I discovered she'd written the sung portion performed by Cassie (especially with that bridge so eerily familiar from my own past just like "Headphones" had that I really did question my joking idea that Anjulie must have been reading my journals, just for a split second).

Anjulie's fans have responded supportively to her involvement in the single, though many have expressed disappointment she was not given the chance to perform the feature herself, as it would have been a huge boost to her profile in the US. I too would have enjoyed seeing her have such a major opportunity, but the single worked so perfectly as it was that it's hard to complain.

After riding the success of "You and I" like any smart emerging singer whose song catches any sort of fire, Anjulie released a music video for the song "Allison," a cunningly addictive song whose noticeable departure from the sound of her previous dance releases disguises the fact that it still uses most of the same sounds and operates on the same musical principles as her other dance music.** Later came "Give It To Me," a reworking of The Pretenders' "Brass in My Pocket (I'm Special)," around which point I'm sure I can't have been the only one thinking we were getting closer to having heard an album's worth of music - legitimately good music, for that matter - without any sign of an actual album anywhere on the horizon.

Although it's fun and easy for us at home to make presumptions about things we know nothing about (gosh darn no good label execs keeping her down...okay that's pretty much the only one), for those of us who are digging the work Anjulie has been up to the past few years it would be nice to be able to pay for some of this music to support a talented small time artist making good shit without resorting to Rihanna rejects or one of Dr. Luke's carbon copied inanities.

Take, for instance, Anjulie's most recent release, the LONG-awaited full version of "White Lights," which she teased in a tantalizing minute-and-a-half long dance concept video way back in March of 2012 then sat on firmly before finally giving it up earlier this month, on Soundcloud.

The final version clearly is unchanged from the clip in the 2012 video, which probably means the only reason it was held back for so long was that it was being reserved for official release (an August EP was rumored at one point, but it hasn't materialized) or shopped around to other artists with more ability to get shit released (and, ideally, sold), so while it's great to be able to finally enjoy what is clearly one of the real gems of Anjulie's current era, it's a bit disappointing to assume its arrival after such a long time indicates efforts toward official release were ultimately unsuccessful.

Okay, technically the track on Soundcloud still isn't a full version. It cuts out mid-phrase at 3:18, a moment that couldn't possibly be the intended end of the track unless Anjulie decided to mix a moment of dadaist abstraction into her otherwise sleek piece of dazzling, humming machinery, which seems unlikely. I remain torn between the addict's frustration at a long-awaited carrot being once again snatched away before it could be finished and the hope that this might be some sort of loophole allowing "White Lights" to remain in contention for official release. (UPDATE: "White Lights" and "Give It To Me" producer J.O.B. has posted a complete version of the song on his Soundcloud, calling it "The three year old song her label is scared to release." 9/2/13) 

"White Lights" is about as "dance"-y as the techno-flavored "You and I," especially at its apex at the chorus. But instead of the two-movement, long-swell verse/chorus/long-swell verse/chorus of the Bennassi production, it progresses like a shiny electric bullet train through three distinct production themes. Each one builds subtly but steadily into the next so that by the time you reach the first chorus at the 1:00 mark you've been properly amped for the big drop, as in any decent dance track, but because you've also been warmed up not on high heat but more medium-low (by contrast, the supposed wisdom on ideally crafted pop songs generally holds that the first chorus should arrive within thirty seconds), the elevated energy and depth of sound of the chorus doesn't clash with or seem separate from the chill-out groove of the verses.

One of my main complaints about some of Benassi's work for pop singers has been the lack of variety and, more importantly, movement in the sound, something that can be appropriate in techno or house music but is less suited to a fully lyrical pop song. "White Lights" is a dance song that moves, and it's pretty easy to get swept up in the forward energy as you listen. I can only imagine how electric it would be on a dance floor.

Hopefully, with this talented young artist and her fresh take on a genre we think we know (and many of us feel a bit sick of), I'll be able to find out sometime soon.

* The secondary point of the album is that pop hits have grown so homogeneous and by-the-numbers, and consumers so blindly willing to buy whatever Clear Channel tells them to buy, that anyone, even a rapper with an unremarkable voice, AutoTune, and the right material, could make a hit pop single; ergo "Starships". It's rather the same idea of "Stand Behind the Music," expressed through subterfuge rather than protestation.

**In case you missed it, a current trend is indie/hipster acts taking exactly the sort of music they'd spent the last few years lambasting and shunning and otherwise reviving the grand tradition of "Disco Sucks," now that it's no longer all over the radio thanks in part to their efforts to shame it away,  putting in a few tweaks to make it hipster-friendly, and riding it to the top ten without a hint of shame, embraced heartily by alternative radio stations that wouldn't be caught dead playing Robyn or Lady Gaga because it's totally okay as long as it's done by two white guys).

More Anjulie on Vertigo Shtick:

Boom! She's a Brand New Bitch: An Interview with Anjulie

"You and I" and "The Boys" reviewed on the Popologist Panel

Anjulie - 'Brand New Bitch' (Single Review)

Anjulie - "Boom" (Single Review)

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