Alessia Cara at Sound Control, March 24 2016
After the gig, we went to a bar. I was worried about how I’d write about what’d just happened. My friend Zoe was worried about the state of the world, about the youth of today, about being out of touch and over the hill. She was worried about clichés. We both were. After the gig, we went to a bar and thought about our lives.
This gig made me wonder about adjectives. Can an experience, a person, be tl;dr*? (I think so, yes.) Is the difference between sincere and earnest really so big? (Spoiler: yes, yes it is.) What does it mean to be authentic when we all talk like TV characters/the internet anyway?
This gig made me think about what’s normal – as in, is it normal to have quite this much rage at people at gigs pretending to know the lyrics, at their dumb goldfishing mouths? No, you say? Is it normal to edit your photos of the gig while still at the gig, while your phone is still held up for the people behind you to try to see around? Is that a thing people do now? Is it normal to be this much of a cliché/curmudgeon/douche at just (hah) 31? Honestly, who can say?
It made me think about the poetry I wrote as a teenager, its over-reliance on words like staunch, altar and hummingbird, the drama and urgency of being young and feeling sure that you have something to say in a way it’s never been said before. The certainty that comes with not yet having read enough, listened enough, lived enough.
About who’s to say what’s enough.
This gig made me grateful for and to Alanis Morissette; it made me think about meaning, projected versus inherent. For fuck’s sake, this gig made me think about Gertrude Stein’s “there is no there there”.
It was not a normal gig.
I hadn’t expected it to be, but for different reasons. Cara came second in the BBC Sound of 2016 poll – a rare venture into Wikipediable territory here, not something I like to do because you know how to use Google – and, well, I like Haim and Frank Ocean and James Blake. So, it seemed promising. And I should say that Alessia Cara really does have a great voice – soulful, striking – and can do interesting, humanising things with other people’s songs. She is a confident performer. You wouldn’t think she was only 19. She is note-perfect live. The audience seemed to love the show. The material sounded much the same live as it does on the album.
But the material, it turns out, is the problem: after all, it doesn’t matter how good a copy something is if it’s a copy of a copy of a copy. (And you know something’s gone very wrong when you’re misquoting Chuck Palahniuk.)
The album contains all the standards. There’s the “things were better when we were younger” song, the “my ambition and talent is bigger than you know” song. There’s the love song: ‘Cause I’ve had my heart / broken before / and I promised I would never let me hurt anymore / but I tore down my walls and opened my doors / and made room for one / so, baby, I’m yours. There’s the heartbreak song: Go ‘head and wish me well / I’ll cry a wishing well / I’ll fly before I fail / I’ll set sail and drift away / so I won’t need you here / Love sinks and hope floats / in a river of tears. There’s the “you are beautiful in every single way (except not exactly like that because that’s how Christina said it in her version)” song: But there’s a hope that’s waiting for you in the dark / You should know you’re beautiful just the way you are / And you don’t have to change a thing / The world could change its heart. There’s the “lovers as partners in crime” song: We’ll be outlaws / partners in crime / we’ll take on the world together. Zoe’s thoughts: “Bonnie & Clyde exists. This is boring and unnecessary.”
She’s right. It’s all been done before, and done better. The only thing about the music that sets it apart is Cara’s voice, which is certainly no small thing to recommend it, but it’s not enough (for me anyway). The lyrics are so generic as to seem purposefully blank, convenient placeholders for listeners’ own experiences and feelings (although I think feelings is overstating it). The lyrics are so generic, so centred on worn-out tropes, they almost function as empty signifiers, absorbing rather than emitting meaning: quite a savvy marketing strategy, come to think about it, appealing to everyone by being about nothing. Listening to them in a space that seemed ideal for featuring in the constructed reality of Made in Chelsea – Zoe again: “which in any other context would be a compliment” – was disquieting, like we were there as market segments, like we were in a William Gibson novel where the most popular art is literally just a blank space, like we were so incapable of thinking about anything other than ourselves that even the lyrics in a song someone else wrote had to be about us and our dramatically urgent lives.
I know what this sounds like: another one of those “millennials are terrible” pieces. They’re narcissists. They don’t know what real art or working hard or trying is. They think they should be congratulated for everything they ever do. They never grow up. Lena Dunham!! SELFIES ARE HARBINGERS OF THE END TIMES. But I promise you, it’s not. It’s because I know we’re better than all these thinkpieces make us out to be that I’m disappointed. (There are young artists doing work that is personal, that is specific and true, that people can connect to rather than just connecting to themselves, ouroboros-style. Lorde, Kendrick Lamar, Julien Baker, fka twigs etc.) And it’s because of the faux-outsider posture of a number of Cara’s songs, especially the breakout hit Here, because of the slippery and baseless tribalism it invokes, that I’m kinda mad.
Really, to be fair, I’m not angry at Cara. (Zoe is less sure: “That speech about we’re all wonderful and we’re all going to be OK? There’ll be people in the room going through divorce, people with cancer. Plus, it’s Manchester: there’s probably three murderers in the room! We’re not all wonderful and OK!”) Cara is a really talented singer and I admire her ambition and confidence. What bugs me is the way this is being presented or talked about. This is authentic, folks, it’s deep. The music has all the self-righteousness and earnestness of The OC – remember Marissa taking all those pills in Tijuana? Man, she was the worst – but none of the hi-jinks. And without a sense of humour, without any specificity whatsoever, we might as well be listening to songs made up of clichés and bumper-sticker/friendship-bracelet/ office-poster slogans that have been put through a rhyming dictionary.
What bugs me is the way people responded to all this nothingness, to all this genericism, at the gig – phones up or clutched over hearts(!), heads thrown back to sing – and elsewhere. Shades of “wake up, sheeple” perhaps, but I think our head-holes deserve better than the us-versus-them posturing of Wild Things – Don’t wanna hang around the in crowd / the cool kids aren’t cool to me / they’re not cooler than we are – which is offensive, really, when the us and the them both are written so blankly, so badly, that all that’s celebrated in the end is the act of negation (not even definition through negation). That we deserve better even than judgemental introvert anthem Here, by far the stand-out track on the album and her closer on the night: And I know you mean only the best and / Your intentions aren’t to bother me / But honestly I’d rather be / Somewhere with my people we can kick it and just listen / To some music with a message (like we usually do).
Zoe’s thoughts, and mine: “You and me both, mate.”
*tl;dr: too long; didn’t read