Wednesday, May 14, 2014

9 Reasons Why Iggy Azalea is a Hit

To the casual US pop music consumer, the rise of Iggy Azalea seems to have been a pretty swift operation. In reality, Azalea has been navigating a lengthy label battlefield since signing with Interscope in early 2012; her debut album, The New Classic, suffered numerous delays, an executive producer switch, change of labels, and more. Since her initial pre-release work was focused on the UK market (including three official singles, all of which went top 20), workaday Americans wouldn't have gotten much of a whiff of her until she released her fourth single, "Fancy," in early March. "Fancy" made an immediate impact, and The New Classic finally dropped on April 23, selling 52,000 copies in its first week and debuting at #3 on the Billboard 200; it remains in the top five after its second sales week.

Iggy Azalea, living "Fancy"

The New Classic's long schlep through label development hell is neither extraordinary nor terribly interesting, lacking any of the sort of artistically square label execs, icky capitalist villain soundbites, or sheer magnitude that make for interesting storytelling. What interests me is the way it stuck the landing. Whatever the backstage fuckery that went on, from the moment they decided "Ok, yes. this is happening," they managed the roll-out, and it was a success. So can it really be all that hard, if you do it right, to get at least a decent showing out of a new release? I haven't even listened to the album yet, and I still have a pretty good idea why it sold (I've heard from numerous sources that "Fancy" and "Problem" are outliers). Here are our guesses as to what's behind the rapper's recent success: you decide for yourself.

1. A Hit Single

Who cares if they went through three others before finding one that works in the US? We didn't know about it. And "Fancy" has a few things going for it itself: a feature from Charli XCX (singer of Icona Pop's "I Love It" a big, slow-burn sleeper hit here), a killer beat, and the girl-power vibe that recalls Eve and Gwen Stefani's Song of the Summer 2001 "Let Me Blow Ya Mind." (Azalea also sounds a lot like Eve.) Also the video (more on that later).

2. A Feature on an Even Bigger Hit Single

Ariana Grande is the perfect foil for Iggy Azalea, mostly because she's a unique act in a very specific way: musically adept, critically admired, commercially adored, stylistically specific, and benignly boring. "Problem" roared onto the Hot 100 last week with a whopping 430,000 downloads and is a strong contender for Song of the Summer 2014.

3. Good Visual Advertising

If you live in a major city, you probably saw street posters for Iggy Azalea's album all over the place a few weeks before the release. The posters use the colorful album cover art, which shows Azalea looking sexy but not showing a lot of skin or amplifying any part of the anatomy, avoiding the cliche of emphasizing sex appeal to make up for lack of talent.

Iggy Azalea
Posters for The New Classic went up on streets all over the US.

4. Opening for Beyoncé

Azalea opened for fucking Beyoncé on the Australia leg of The Mrs. Carter Show World Tour. Okay, so she pulled out of three of the four Sydney dates (due to "an earlier commitment we made to Vevo") and of course US audiences didn't see her, but she met some useful people and having Queen Bey at her back helped her cred.

5. Effective TV Presence

Azalea performed at the mtvU Woodie Awards at SXSW, Late Night with Seth Myers, and Good Morning America prior to the album release date (GMA on the day of); she is also in the midst of a brief North American promo tour.

6. 90s Nostalgia

We all know 90s nostalgia is the new 80s nostalgia, and Azalea (who was born in 1990) tapped it bigtime with her expensive, brilliant looking homage to the 1995 film Clueless in the video for "Fancy." Not only are many music-buying folks 80s-born children of the '90s and hungry for memories of that more pleasant time as they push (or breach) 30, so are many of the bloggers and critics writing about music videos.

7. Immediate Cultural Referencing

Billboard Hot 100 veteran Anna Kendrick ("Cups") covered "Fancy" on Saturday Night Live on April 5, while The Tonight Show's Jimmy Fallon used it for one of his lip synch battles (against Emma Stone) on April 28.

8. Ideal Release Date

Not only did The New Classic drop during a light sales week, its 52,000 copies sold outranked only by chart behemoth Frozen (115,000) and, just barely, rapper Future (53,000) for a solid #3 debut (the highest rap album for a woman since Nicki Minaj in early 2012), it benefited from a light second week as well. Its 23,000 copies sold was enough to keep The New Classic in the top five. That's much more eye-catching than selling more copies but landing in the lower half of the top ten, and it helps an album's longevity to have the notion floating around that it's a hit (or, at least, not a flop).

9. Circumventing the Race Question

Considering our history of finding (and, I think, sometimes creating) racism in just about any white pop song or act, a white blonde Australian girl appropriating Southern hip-hop verbal style is going to spur discussion (minstrelsy!!!). And it should, but that debate is rarely delicate, nor particularly equally represented, since it's hard to express disagreement or incredulity without seeming not to get it. I can completely imagine it hurting a new act to be saddled with the accusation of racism coming out the gate, and it's lucky that those conversations often don't arise until the subject is more known, and, in theory, has more and broader potential impact. But I am assuming the firestorm is coming later on, although others have suggested it has already been considered and consciously passed on, which I feel is naive (see?).

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