Pete Beat is an old. Pete Beat published an IRL electro punk zine called backklash from 2001-2011. Pete Beat is a failed Twitter comic, a recovering Real Housewives troll, election of 2016 survivor and Ersa’s new pop columnist.
In late November 2016, the enigmatic pop group Terror Jr released a song called “Heartbreaks,” which was the first piece of musical art I heard in those dark days that explicitly addressed the nightmarish new era that America had found itself in. I found myself listening to it on repeat as frontwoman Lisa Terror spit lyrics that were both heartfelt and witty. She was directly referencing Trump era, and the shellshocked state of the nation (“Nick Cannon in a room with Steve Bannon/This wasn’t a crash landing/Each other, we can’t abandon”), something that to this day so many pop songwriters (or their corporate gatekeepers) seem reluctant to do.
“Heartbreaks” itself is funky and loose. It doesn’t adhere to pop convention. Instead, it flows from verse to verse in a dreamlike fashion over a chilly vintage-sounding breakbeat, with a single chorus sprinkled somewhere around the middle just for good measure. The clever wordplay of “Heartbreaks” meanders through a myriad of thoughts, but the overarching message is clear: if we are going to survive in the age of Trump, we will need to rely on a strength from deep within, and one another. It suddenly elevated my opinion of Terror Jr and very much interested me in what else they had to say.
Fortunately, the group would go on to release a trilogy of mini-albums called Bop City in just under a year, giving fans plenty of of material to obsess over. Terror Jr has been shrouded in secrecy from the beginning. The group began as a trio with Lisa alongside David Singer-Vine (The Cataracs) as well as producer Felix Snow (who quietly left the group last year). Bursting on the scene after a feature in a Kylie Jenner lip kit promo, they claimed to be a “social experiment,” featuring a sphinxlike frontwoman (her identity wasn’t even fully revealed until Bop City 3–many thought it was Kylie but not I, for there were far too many lyrical references to cocaine for that to be true). They arrived with their own custom mythology. The album art depicts Bop City as a menacing version of Sweet Valley High. The group’s social media presence teased out information in a most cryptic fashion, all the while promoting the idea of “grapes,” which are the sort of official currency in the Terror Jr universe. A dedicated fan base emerged, and I began to consider myself something of an aficionado (or perhaps a deranged official from the Bop City Chamber of Commerce).
Terror Jr’s signature sound unfolds with each release and reveals a confluence of styles: sub-tropical basslines, chopped vocals that are autotuned to the nines, hip-hop influenced swagger and flow, and a moody, underlying atmosphere of foreboding. All of this reminds me of a modernized take on the trip-hop genre–sort of like The Weeknd meets Sneaker Pimps, if I’m gonna be a lazy critic about it.
Lisa Terror sings about love and relationship, although when she does, often she is downright morose. Mortality seems inextricably linked with love (see: “Death Wish,” “Dead Girl Walking, “Do Or Die”). In fact, I coined the phrase “goth-bops” to describe the overall Terror Jr vibe. Along with romantic lyrics, Lisa Terror often is willing to address her personal feelings on various socio-political issues: the hypocrisy of religious dogma (“Caramel,” “Heaven Wasn’t Made For Me”), addiction (“Little White Bars,” “Sad Sad Girl”), and more.
Perhaps these broad lyrical ambitions are the result of her musical past. Before she began a career as a professional pop songwriter, Lisa Terror (f/k/a Lisa Vitale) fronted rock groups and appeared to be something of an emo-loving Scene Kid (based on a high school photo of her shared by a fan, which I once saw but for the life of me cannot track down). Indeed, her lyricism alternates between the literal and the impressionistic, and like her talent for rapid-fire verbosity, it may subtly suggest a possible 2000s pop-punk influence (this is pure speculation on my part).
I appreciate this group’s willingness to branch out beyond the well-trodden tropes that litter the landscape of contemporary pop lyricism. Terror Jr frequently reminds us that the personal is political, perhaps more now than ever in this age where our identities are increasingly tied to an existence we perform online for others. The band’s own name implicitly invokes this–these are the children that grew up under the War on Terror; they are quite literally its progeny.
The latest Terror Jr single, “A-OK (Everything’s Perfect)” quietly dropped this week. “Last night I had a vision/That I could live without permission,” sings Lisa softly as she opens the track. The lyric sounds refreshing as hell after the traumatic weeklong shitstorm surrounding the Kavanaugh hearings; so fraught as they are with issues surrounding the bodily autonomy of women. Lisa continues along a lyrical stream of consciousness, hinting at both her personal anxieties and weariness with the world at large (“These days got me in a slump/white women voted for Trump”). The sound is initially classic Terror Jr–plunky basslines, cooing vocals, a haunted atmosphere.
Ninety seconds in, just after the first chorus, a strange thing suddenly happens: the song’s structure gradually dissipates, as if it the recording studio was suddenly submerged in a fish tank illuminated by a flickering blacklight bulb. Gloomy piano chords fill the empty space as the track pivots toward a quiet bridge. “There’s nothing wrong with anyone/everything is perfect,” sings Lisa, not quite believing it herself. She continues to repeat this mantra while the mood gradually intensifies, as if repeating it over and over enough times will make it come true. This happens over a sudden, stark beat, and squelching bassline that recalls the grim march of daily life for so many Americans in the Trump years.
I don’t want to believe that she is being ironic, or even cynical during the bridge or extended post-chorus outro which follows, despite the obvious pain in her voice. As she had sung on “Heartbreaks,” her heart may be broken, but she isn’t. I take this all to mean that Lisa Terror is owning that society is completely fucked up, especially at the moment, but determined to push through that pain in order to channel a resilient force from deep within the soul.
“A-OK” is a strange little bird, but also emblematic of Terror Jr’s overall aesthetic. In that sense, it makes for the perfect introduction for newcomers to Bop City. While the group has demonstrated they are more than capable of writing concise bops in the traditional verse/chorus/verse format (again, they dropped 30 songs over the course of a year, all of which I enjoy immensely), it is their willingness to stray from convention that makes them so compelling. Like its spiritual predecessor “Heartbreaks” before it, “A-OK” snakes its way through your ears and your mind because it feels almost formless. You can enter this song from any point, as long it is on repeat.
In this particular sense, it reminds me of another major release from this week, Robyn’s “Honey.” Both of these songs abandon traditional pop architecture, serving the listener something that feels boundless, seemingly lacking a beginning, middle, and end. These are not simply songs, rather they are miniature aural ecosystems in which imagination is permitted to run free. It is interesting to note that Robyn herself is also following up on her own mini-album trilogy of lean, “proper” pop songs, albeit after a longer hiatus. This puts both Robyn and Terror Jr in a league other “post-pop” artists, like Dev Hynes, Charli XCX, and SOPHIE, who are attempting to find new, deconstructive techniques to invigorate the sound of 21st century pop. Bopular mechanics, if you will.
“Heaven Wasn’t Meant For Me” (which is certainly a more straightforward pop record songwise, but also distinctly Terror Juniorian), was the lead single from Terror Jr’s debut LP (the Bop City series being more akin to mixtapes). Based on these album cuts, I think it is safe to assume that we can expect great things from this duo. This is a group continually mastering their sound, which is somehow as familiar as it is mysterious. Terror Jr are pushing the science of bops toward an advanced evolutionary model. They are an annihilating force of the future, poised to vanquish all who are not ready to adapt to that next level. I simply cannot wait to hear what comes next.