tremble clef

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Mika, "Lollipop" (2007)

Although he's only now breaking in the UK -- his excellent download-only first single "Relax, Take It Easy" failed to trouble the charts last year, but the second, "Grace Kelly," is currently top of the pops even before physical copies hit the stores -- Mika has already attracted a standard criticism. He is, many people have remarked, derivative. ("People" meaning posters on the Popjustice boards and the nowadays-unreadable ILM.) Indeed, the "lack-of-originality" charge is oftentimes not even a charge, but more a fact that's casually stated for the record -- even a positive review, for example, will generously recast those presumed originals as Mika's "influences." Scissor Sisters. Elton John. Rufus Wainwright. Queen. Cutting Crew (heh. Only in the sense that "Relax" does sound an awful lot like "(I Just) Died In Your Arms").

Mika himself hasn't hid these influences in his press, but, more interestingly, his album Life In Cartoon Motion itself confronts the issue. (Perhaps it's a sign of how fast music and the discourse it generates move nowadays, but it feels like Mika is heading off and/or embracing the criticism even before it fully takes root. I remember, back in the old days, artists used to respond their critics months or years later; that's what sophomore albums are for, after all.)

Confronts the issue from track one, in fact. "Grace Kelly" begins, all Sally Field-like, with a series of questions about just how much we like Mika: "Do I attract you?/Do I repulse you?/With my queasy smile?/Am I too dirty?/Am I too flirty?/Do I like what you like?" The most obvious interpretation is to treat the narrator as speaking to a potential lover -- perhaps one whom he is meeting through a personal ad -- and subsequent sexual references reinforce this impression ("Should I bend over?/Should I look older, just to be put on the shelf?" [the allusion to ageism places the song firmly, I think, in the context of gay life]).

But the song could just as well be addressed to Mika's potential pop audience, to whom he ends up declaring his willingness to be anything we like. "I try to be like Grace Kelly/But all her looks were too sad," Mika sings in the playful chorus, which is built around a kind of free association between the words "princess" and "Queen." "So I try a little Freddie/I've gone identity mad!" It's presumably a parodic lyric: it's as if Mika understands, even when he wrote and recorded the song, that we will be comparing him to Freddie Mercury, and so he, acting like a cheap whore willing to play to our every fantasy, tells us that, yes, not only can he be a Freddie if that's what we want, but he can be anyone else we might desire too. (For, say, $50.) In so doing, Mika slyly turns the track into a song that's at least partly about our fantasies and desires -- our fantasies and desires of what we might want in our popstars -- as much as his own "influences." If we see Mika imitating Scissor Sisters, perhaps it is as much because we are ready, even eager nowadays to see Scissor Sisters as something to imitate. Of course, like many parodies, this one might be half-serious: Mika's not ultimately blind to the fact that his ability to receive our projections and desires is what will earn him success. And thus, the song ends, jokingly but with just a whiff of truth: "Kerching!"

If in "Grace Kelly" Mika therefore anticipates the accusations of derivativeness and turns them into the very subject of the song, the second track of the album tries a related but different tack: here, the imitation partly serves to bring out certain denied or even repressed aspects of the original(s). A naggingly infectious song, "Lollipop" might, if unleashed as a single, become one of the year's most hooky tracks. But it's not novel: it jumps on the schoolyard chanting bandwagon that we could see Kelis's "Milkshake" as having started, which Gwen Stefani continued in "Hollaback Girl," and Fergie then ripped off in as unimaginative a way as possible. But, listening to Mika's attempt, it also becomes clear that those earlier songs essentially used a form without acknowledging its effects -- without acknowledging, that is, that generations of schoolkids are now likely shrieking faintly inappropriate slogans about London bridges (not to mention misspelling "duchess"). Rather than similarly sweeping this fact under the rug, Mika's "Lollipop" daringly goes ahead and uses actual kids to help chant the suggestive chorus: "Sucking too hard on your lollipop/Say love's gonna get you down." To some extent, there is something slightly squicky about hearing youngsters mouth such a risque line; but then again, if "Lollipop" becomes a hit, it's not like actual kids won't be singing this in the playground. In a sense, Mika might be once again launching a kind of preemptive strike, or, if you will, "outing" the "inappropriateness" of songs like "Milkshake" -- and thereby rendering them, as well as his own "Lollipop," as really not that inappropriate. If he is going to be taken as "imitating" Kelis or Gwen or Fergie, Mika might as well take the opportunity to also point out, meta-critically, something about the predecessors he is supposedly emulating. It is, after all, one way to one-up your "sources."


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