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Pop Divas vs. The Pandemic: Carly Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift, and Rina Sawayama

By Alberto Cox Délano | Music | November 17, 2022 |

By Alberto Cox Délano | Music | November 17, 2022 |


One of the first things the Very Online People said at the beginning of the Pandemic was that it led to an epic wave of works of art because “great suffering leads to great art* (conditions might apply/conditions apply only to Europeans). To quote one of the best … lyricists of all time, “I don’t subscribe to that point of view.” I rather not have had a Great Global Suffering in the first place. Also, I never wrote that novel during those two years of time singularity.

Nevertheless, I have to admit, I am loving the recent crop of albums that were influenced and produced in the midst of the pandemic. There’s something about music that, when faced with this kind of historical event, allows it to provide a better early response than many other art forms. In general, humanity is still reeling over the aftermath of “We Are the World.” Let’s not forget that, in terms of music and the pandemic, the whole thing started with one of the most horrific things we’ve ever seen: The “Imagine” celebrity sing-a-long.

So let’s check out this brand new batch of Great pandemic albums.

Rina Sawama’s Hold the Girl

Ms. Sawayama is well on her way to becoming one of our perennial Pajiba 10s, and the fact that she is still a “cult favorite” and not one of the biggest stars on the planet is proof, once again, that the Recording Industry is still queerphobic, misogynistic and whatever you call the ageism that is aimed at women who are barely 30 and look like Rina. You need a stronger word than ageist. Rina is a unicorn endowed with a gorgeous powerhouse voice, a musical brain that is in Brian Wilson territory, a sense of fashion and aesthetic that has already “inspired” some more popular artists, and towering over everything, she is one of the best songwriters in the game right now. Girl graduated from Cambridge after all.

Hold the Girl has some of her best songs so far, particularly the third single “Hold the Girl”, “Your Age” and what I think is one of the best and most important songs of the year: “Catch me in the Air,” an ode to Rina’s mum and single mums everywhere.

Hold the Girl must be her most personal and darkest release so far (two LPs and one EP), which is saying something for that once-in-a-generation artist who pulled a miracle, namely, turning the sound and charisma of the Pop Star into something with its own idiosyncratic voice. Namely, this is an album about Queerness, the trials and tribulations of being out and being rejected (“Send My Love to John,” “This Hell,” “Forgiveness”) and in this regard, she remains as strong as ever. More so with those tracks infused by her rock sensibilities (“Your Age,” “Frankenstein”).

Nevertheless, I think this is her first release where some tracks are weaker in relation to their standouts, in particular, “Holy (Til You let Me Go)” and “This Hell” (a very rare… lyrical misstep for me. Hey! even Leonard Cohen had them), which breaks a bit with the solid cohesion that has been Rina’s trademark. If I could sum up the lowlights, I would say this album is a little bit more toned down in execution, though it had been devised for a more operatic tone. This is still an energetic album, further confirmation that Rina is a force of nature, but I would call it a late-night roar more than the explosion of self-assertion that was her first album. But then again, if this solid 4.2-stars of an album is what Rina offers to the world after five years of exhausting touring and career progress, with a pandemic and a movie in between, then it means she is in for Pop GOAT contention.

Taylor Swift’s Midnights

This is the part where Dustin and all my fellow Pajiba coworkers say: FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE TREAD LIGHTLY. DON’T YOU DARE PISS OFF THE SWIFTIES OR WE ARE GOING TO GET DDOS’ed TO DEATH. Rest easy my friends, I really liked Midnights. As a matter of fact, I liked it slightly more than Hold the Girl at times. But I think we need to have an honest and nuanced discussion about it.

Because, the thing is, you can hear Lorde’s imprint everywhere on Midnights, especially in tracks like “Question…?”, “Midnight Rain” and one of my favorite cuts, “You’re On Your Own Kid” (DUSTIN: DUDE, ARE YOU TRYING TO GET YOURSELF INTERNET-KILLED?). But this has nothing to do with the fact that, as many of you might know, producer Jack Antonoff was involved in every track. Because saying that Lorde’s sound and creative choices can be chalked up to Antonoff’s production is a disservice to both of them, and similarly, it’s a disservice to say Swift is simply aping Lorde’s style. Antonoff’s greatest strength as a producer is that, while he has some very defined sensibilities, he is a master at getting the artist to find their own voice, whether exploring new sounds (like in Lorde’s Solar Power) or reinforcing and reinvigorating their defined styles (like in Florence + The Machine’s Dance Fever). He accomplishes the same here, because once again, for the Swifties in the back, this is not Taylor copying Lorde … this is Taylor tributing Lorde. This is Taylor embracing a distinctive sound with all the love and respect a true fan, not unlike Robbie Williams’s great covers of Rat-Pack Standards or Pablo Milanés whenever he does classic Boleros (for reference). Or when an acclaimed Literary writer has a whole pseudonym dedicated to his favorite Genre (no OF COURSE NOT JOANNE, I’m talking about Banville). But she goes beyond the cover, because she turns the “Lorde Sound” into something wholly hers, both in the lyrics and in how she uses her vocals.

Midnights is infused with Pandemic anxiety, but it is also a tribute to Joe Alwyn. In doing so, Taylor Swift has managed to channel a thing she doesn’t usually show: Vulnerability. Look, I hate it when vulnerability is demanded from female characters or stars, mostly because it is demanded as a way to assure manboys that this or that woman is still feminine enough. But in songwriting, vulnerability is as important as the endocrine system. Taylor usually struggles with it because, well, she usually turns everything that comes with the “v” word (self-doubt, anger, anxiety, resentment) into petty vindictiveness. She is at her worst, as a singer, when she tries the vindictive route. Like, it kept her from making 1989 wholly perfect because of that one song about Katy Perry. But when she lets her vulnerability through and uses it in her favor, well, it leads to things like her greatest song ever, “Style.” Midnights is an entire album about her vulnerability, and it goes from strength to strength. Nothing else to say. “Anti-Hero” is an all-timer.

The Loneliest Time by Carly Rae Jepsen

And we finish with my absolute favorite from this batch, and probably one of my favorites of the year. As the title makes transparent, this album is about the Pandemic, and true to Carly Rae Jepsen talent, she makes it personal and relatable to just about everyone. Carly, as it has been traditional since Emotion, tends to open her albums with one of the best tracks. This time is no different, this whole album is outstanding, but “Surrender My Heart” (an upcoming single) is at the same time moving, a bop, a vibe, and a banger. Pure Classicist Catharsis for shitshow of the last two years and spare.

The Loneliest Time is her best album so far, inching above Emotion, an album that transformed the Pop Genre by making us snobs realize that, oh, yeah, it is a legitimate, artful genre. But The Loneliest Time towers above it (shout out to Dedicated, also a Great Album, in the wake of a Classic. Very much like Rina’s Hold the Girl) as it is everything that makes Pop great and life-saving. Unlike Taylor, Carly Rae Jepsen’s songs have always been about her vulnerability and transparent earnestness, and with every album, her lyrics have only become more assertive, wittier, layered and sexier (especially “Sideways”, “Bad Thing Twice” and “Bends”). Carly’s dulcet voice is deceptively sweet because in this record she transitions effortlessly from being sultry (“Far Away”), despondent and cynical (“Talking to Yourself” and the hilarious “Beach House”, about the perils of online dating) to heartbreaking. Like, punch-in-the-sternum heartbreaking. As in “Find Yourself or Whatever” is going to be right there with “I Can’t Make You Love Me” as the kind of songs that will break you, even if you are in a solid relationship:

What a still-underrated talent. What a voice. It’s almost like she has a background in musical theater or something.

The Loneliest Time is a collection of thirteen perfect tracks, usually under three minutes, that compel you to hit the replay button over and over again because she deserves every fraction of a cent until it turns into full dollars. This is another sign of her genius: Unlike a certain fellow Canadian, she doesn’t bother with gaming streaming with endless albums with 30 tracks or more. She just makes a dozen or so perfect ones.

Also, the Deluxe Edition is worth a buy because those three “bonus-tracks” are as great as the rest of the album. Can’t wait for the B-Sides.

Alberto Cox would like to ask Swifties to have mercy in his DMs, and to remember he is a staunch supporter of the first Swifty Head of State.

Image sources (in order of posting): Interscope, Republic, Dirty Hit