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.
Much like the first few years of the Reagan and Bush II eras, the sudden national pivot toward right-wing extremism has left many of us with a sense of whiplash and despair. Perhaps one of the few silver linings of living through such a dark and seemingly hopeless time is that these eras tend to produce an explosion of spontaneous creativity, especially in popular music. I am just as disappointed now as I was in the early 2000s by the serious lack of anything on a mainstream level that blatantly protests the ultra-nationalist ideologies currently sweeping our nation. I suppose many artists still remember what happened to the Dixie Chicks. And perhaps more haunted still by what continues to happen to members of Pussy Riot.
Even though most mainstream artists are by and large political cowards when it comes to making a bold statement in their music, there is nonetheless a lot of interesting music–a lot of it pretty gloomy and sad–coming from both the mainstream as well as the vast sea of independent artists, which has never seemed so wide as it does today. I wanted to do a quick round-up of some of my favorite current tracks to give my fellow olds something fresh for their summer playlists. But there is just so much out there, I didn’t know where to start!
So, I decided to start at the beginning: today’s column is brought to you by the letter A. At first I was just gonna do artists that begin with the letter A, but eventually I decided if the song started with an A. Later, I decided it wasn’t cheating if the artist in question happened to have a long-A vowel sound in their
Ariana Grande – No Tears Left to Cry
This one divided the stans, but as an old, I dig it. This song is structured like a ride at Disneyland: we board and are immediately plunged into a dreamlike crystalline pleasure dome full of pure airy Ari breathiness and synth pads, and then just as quickly, the tension builds and we sense we are being pulled toward something, like the Space Mountain tractor beam. Within ten seconds, we are plunged into an entirely different soundscape entirely.
The feel is very 90s UK, diva-driven rave-pop–perhaps a nod of the ponytail in solidarity to the city of Manchester and their colorful history of dance music. There is something about the throbbing, bare chords that anchor the rhythm track that reminds me of producer Max Martin’s earliest 90s records. The raw white funkiness of his original work with Robyn comes to mind. I also admire the recent dance-pop flirtation with breakbeats–tracks like this, as well Dua Lipa’s “New Rules” and Superorganism’s “Night Time” seem to signal a shift from strict 4/4 rhythms. Could a full scale 90s breakbeat resurgence be imminent? As someone who never threw out their Chemical Brothers graphic tees, one can only hope.
zealia Banks – Anna Wintour
I really can’t get into the entire Azealia Banks controversy (and why I defend her as an artist in spite of her sharp tongue and caustic antics in the press) because I just don’t have the space. But my basic position is that there are many male rappers who are still taken seriously as artists despite their problematic statements and actions, including some who boast criminal allegations of violence against women (XXXTentacion, Tekashi69). And I truly believe Azealia Banks, despite what you think of her thoughtcrimes, is unquestionably an artist. Not to mention that a slew of feminist pop icons whom I deeply respect and admire–Shirley Manson, Grimes, Kali Uchis to name a few–seem to be fans as well (at least according to their insta-likes and follows), so at least I am in good company with this seemingly controversial opinion of accepting Azealia Banks as an artist.
“Anna Wintour” is a celebration not just of Azealia’s diverse talents (vocalist, rapper, songwriter & all-around punk), but to me, it is a celebration of NYC dance music culture. In “Anna Wintour” I don’t just hear a house beat, I hear the pulse of a city’s underground over the course of many decades, from the 70s proto-disco loft parties and Larry Levan’s Paradise Garage to the sweaty Brooklyn dance-punk raves of the 00s. In her voice, I hear a liberating, gloriously rich tone when she sings, and the artsy no wave attitude of the Mudd Club or the sneering glee of Michael Alig’s Limelight club kid superstars when she raps. Much like the period of NYC underground hip-hop/electro culture of the very early 1980s was about an uptown/downtown cultural exchange, I find that Azealia’s music contains a similarly explosive energy–a talented rapper/singer/writer from Harlem submerged in the downtown arts scene via her background at LaGuardia High School, a siren broadcasting her colorful seapunk pastiche through a megaphone each time she surfaces for air.
This is a soaring gem of a dance record is presented in three acts. Azealia doesn’t so much snatch Anna Wintour’s wig so much as she scalps her completely. She then straps it to her own head and struts it down a catwalk in the middle of a rave in an abandoned slaughterhouse in the Meatpacking District, a party to which everyone was invited but almost nobody came–but it doesn’t really matter who wasn’t there because those of us who were will remember it forever. The great thing about an iconic but obscure dance record is that it contains a boundless, secret magical universe to the dancers and fans that inhabit its world. Remember, it is the music that matters, not the charts. And I am just so connected to Azealia’s lil house banger, and to her as an artist. I just hope that someday she and her angriest critics can someday meet halfway, so she can finally get some of the credit that is heaped on some of her male counterparts.
Pale Waves – Television Romance
Pale Waves were brought to my attention by my trusted secret weapon, the YouTube “Recommended For You” algorithm. As a band, they epitomize everything that I fetishize about the best of British pop: deliberately weirdo fashions, catchy guitar-based songs that you can dance to, and riding high upon a wave of blinding, unmitigated hype. They only have about 8 songs–and really they only have like 3 because they all tend to sound alike–but each one is rolled out by the British music press with the kind of fervor that tends to be reserved for royal babies rather than emerging indie darlings. The drummer reminds me of Linda from my favorite Britcom of all time, Nighty Night. The boys are medium cute and are never interviewed or literally allowed to ever speak so we don’t even know if they are gay or just British. Again, these are all things I like about the band, probably because I am an old and I cynically cling to the familiarity of a good old-fashioned marketing blitz for prefab British alternative pop exports.
Their newest single is called “Kiss,” and I would say it’s good but not great. It’s better than “My Obsession,” but not as good as “Heavenly,” which are the other two Pale Waves songs it sounds like. If you are just getting into Pale Waves, I recommend you start with the iconic “Television Romance” music video, which introduces us to many important Pale Waves tropes. There’s singer Heather Baron-Gracie’s uncomfortably ironic deadpan expression that she maintains even as she passively motions through contortionist rock moves. Or the off-putting sensation of how the band looks one way (like Very Serious goth rockers) but completely sound like another (jangly, upbeat but vaguely melancholy, like music for upscale supermarkets). The band’s music is frequently described as gloomy, but that’s really just what they look like. The whole contrast between their sound and image is some serious foggy England in the summertime bullshit. I know it sounds like I am slagging Pale Waves, but I actually am a huge fan. The fact that this band seems like they were completely engineered in a British pop marketing think tank is precisely why I think they are so great.
Alma – Dye My Hair
Everyone go and check out ALMA. I really want to be raving to you about to you about my all-time favorite brand new Nordic pop singer: Norway’s Sigrid. But the theme of this column is A’s, and A-sounds, and Sigrid is simply not lettered A adjacent enough for this column. But I am just as pleased to recommend you check out my #2 fav Nordic pop singer, ALMA. She has a soulful tone to her voice and a strikingly individual style–with her shock neon yellow hair and studded leather jackets and tough girl swagger, she looks like the rave punk priestess of my dreams. ALMA has been a Charli XCX collaborator which puts her within the emerging vanguard of very cool, international alt-pop artists. The Heavy Rules mixtape was released earlier this spring, and contains a number of Day-Glo bops–my favs include “Legend,” and “Fake Gucci.” But I recommend you go for a full dip into her discography-her 2017 hits like “Chasing Highs” and “Dye My Hair” are true gems, and she just popped up on a remix of the new Years & Years single, “Sanctify,” which is an excellent track itself.
Janelle Monae – Dirty Computer LP
So much has already been written about Janelle Monae, but simply enough could never be said about her importance at this moment. We NEEDED her right now, we needed her message, and we needed this album. The sonic textures are both organic and electronic, the styles so diverse, the lyrics both pointed but so poetic, the influence of the giants who came before her so pleasantly channeled. Prince was the most frequently cited influence–I myself felt many parallels to his Controversy LP, one of my personal favorites. But Prince is just one musical touchstone–there is SO much happening here stylistically. But remember Prince IS Royalty, and because He has abdicated His earthly throne, it is only right that a Q.U.E.E.N. like Janelle Monae should inherit the chair. Just promise us it won’t take another half decade for her to record a follow-up.
Emma Blackery – Agenda
We are told that Emma Blackery is a minor youtube star in the UK who is attempting to make the transition into pop music. She has released a few singles, “Agenda” is the first to really strike me as worthwhile. “Agenda” is heavy on that sun-drenched, vaguely rock-influenced synthpop sound that propelled peak 2010 Katy Perry’s career–without having actually been produced by Dr. Luke (looking at you, Kimmy Petras!) The delivery is peppy (at least by British standards) and the message relatively upbeat in the face of hateration. It’s truly one of those great “fuck-off to people who don’t get me” type of songs, with a fun chant-along post-chorus where she spells out the title, letter by letter (I am basically a sucker for any song with a fun chant-along where words are spelled out letter by letter). I already care more about Emma Blackery than I ever did about Cher Lloyd, another relatively anonymous but pleasantly peppy British songstress who I cared for rather deeply for about 5 minutes in 2012.