Emotional numbness seems to have become the default setting for male popstars, but a new generation of underground artists are creating a vision of radical vulnerability
When exactly did chart-music get so chilly? Could we pinpoint the emotional froideur in pop music to The Weeknd’s 2011 release, the hyped, creepy mixtape House of Balloons? The nine-track release seemed to make the uncomfortably numb state endured by Bret Easton Ellis protagonists the default setting for male musicians of a certain age. Or was it earlier? After all, Drake’s 2010 debut album Thank Me Later also depicted an artist going through a lot while feeling relatively little, responding to childhood drama, high-octane partying, and a dizzying ascent to fame with the same reserved emotional response. Either way, just six years later, the zero fucks/zero feels aesthetic seems like it’s here to stay.
At least with House of Balloons, the cynical, last-guy-at-the-house-party mood wasn’t one that we were intended to aspire to. Now chart-topping male musicians compete for the title of who’s numbest. If the Cool Girl aesthetic was about being chill, circa 2016, its male counterpart is about being downright cold. In Justin Bieber’s “Love Yourself,” the singer protests “I didn’t want anyone thinking I still care, I don’t… I’m better sleeping on my own.” Later he charts his journey from fully-functioning human being to freedom from emotions: “For all the times that you made me feel small… Now I feel nothin’ at all.” Meanwhile, Drake’s reached new heights of meta-emotionlessness on Views, explaining on “Redemption,” that he misses “the feeling of you missing me”. Even sweet former Disney child-star Nick Jonas is channelling The Weeknd and has started masking emotions with stimulants: “We got champagne problems / Only one way to solve ‘em… Just keep on, keep on drinking.”
So what should we listen to in order to stave off our inevitable evolution into party-hearty cyborgs who experience sex, relations and break ups, minus the feels? An antidote to mainstream music’s allergy to emotions can be found in London’s underground electronic music scene, with artists like Palmistry, Uli K, Organ Tapes, and Triad God creating a vision of radical new vulnerability.
Songs like Organ Tapes’ “Besitos” are made up of almost-words crooned by vocalist/producer Tim Zha – the lyrics themselves are too indistinct to make out. As far as Zha is concerned, this is supposed to be intentional. “I'm not interested in the words I’m singing being clear,” he explains over email, “I want people to make their own meanings. The lack of clarity makes the songs a place/mood/feeling the listener can inhabit without having a determined or clear or total ‘meaning’ laid out to them through direct language. Obviously certain lines/words are going to be clearly discernable and might go some way to laying a groundwork for a loose mood or atmosphere or thematic concern, but I want the song to function as something that approaches being outside language.” This makes sense. After all, the times you feel something the most intensely are also the same moments you’re the most verbally incoherent, positioning Zha’s music in the same raw guttural territory beyond language as the noises you make when overcome by a crying fit.
This feels borderline revolutionary after a record like Drake’s Views. Although the record is thin on concrete details, Drake was keen to present it as autobiographical, telling Zane Lowe on Apple’s Beats 1 Radio on the day the record dropped that he “can't write fiction”, explaining “There’s some harsh truth on this album, but at least it’s truth. People have to respect that, right?” While Drake has that horoscope-writer knack of crafting lyrics that manage to be both incredibly vague and universally relatable, lines like “Erica sued me and opened a business” give a shoutout to corresponding events in his life (in this case, Erica Lee, who sued him for not crediting her as a co-writer for her drunken voicemails in his song “Marvin’s Room”). Just hours after the record debuted, all the lyrics were available on Genius with just enough juice implied to inspire a whole host of articles dissecting the relevance of Views to Drake’s own life. This is hardly surprising since Drake’s own crisp delivery means you can’t miss a word.
“(Uli K’s) lyrics genuinely do sound like diary entries; emotion unfiltered by any sense of irony”
Palmistry’s new album Pagan (a “minimal emo pop record”, as he describes it to me) delivers a similarly emotional audio experience to Organ Tapes’ work. The record showcases just over half an hour of pure yearning, juxtaposing occasional humorous, down-to-earth one liners (“Wine’s on me if it’s duty free”) with til-death-do-us-parts like “miss you forever, still hear your voice in the breeze every weather” or “You make me want to die, die for you”. Like Drake circa Take Care, Palmistry (real name Benjy Keating) is a master of repetition, but whereas Drake’s repetition of key phrases creates a sense of ‘numbness and fatigue’ (as observed in Frank Guan’s excellent n+1 essay), with Keating the repetition acts as a form of erotic and obsessive worship of the object of his desire.
Just like Organ Tapes, Palmistry traffics in incoherence – both lyrically (Kevin Lozano of Pitchfork has dismissed Pagan’s lyrics as “throwaway statements about the modern condition” and “generalized hot nonsense”) and in terms of his style of singing. While Lozano’s not wrong in places, I can’t help but feel that Palmistry is playing a similar game to Organ Tapes – he’s using incoherence in his lyrics quite deliberately to foreground emotion. When listening to The Weeknd’s songs, no matter how tragic, you’re often more fixated on the bait-and-switch of Abel Tesfaye’s two-liners (“So you’re somebody now / But what’s a somebody in a nobody town?”) than the gloominess of the song’s narrative. Keating’s playful knack with lyrics indicates that he can write skilfully, but ultimately he seems more interested in establishing a mood than writing lyrics that can be neatly quoted.
In “Lifted,” he uses ambiguity to play with a nursery-rhyme simple line. When he sings about his love that “There’s no remedy / It’s true, true, true, true, true, true, true, true, true” his repetition nudges the listener to fill in the gap with the implied second meaning of “true”. He’s not just attesting to the truth of the statement but sketching in an unspoken “love” at the end of the second line. The collective buildup of such lines results in a record celebrating near-skinless vulnerability. And it isn’t just on Keating’s own records that we can see this – Palmistry pulled the same minimal backing/maximal emotion trick when producing Triad God’s “Babe Don’t Go”, on which the simple refrain of the title is repeated to a building sense of emotion.
Keating’s partially-obscured vocal delivery has meant much of the media have described his style as “patois”, but Keating argues his mumbled take on singing is a reflection of London and the way the city has influenced his speech (Keating has lived in London for over half his life and the city is a big influence on the record), rather than a reflection of dancehall. “I’m singing in more generic London slang,” he says when we meet in Berlin, “A lot of it can be derived from Jamaican patois but it’s obviously very diluted and has become its own London thing.”
Keating’s not the only London-centric artist who delivers obsessive depictions of love – he cites Uli K as one of the musicians he believes he’s musically influenced. I’d argue that this seems fair lyrically more than musically, with Uli K stressing the importance emotion plays in their 2016 release Elusivo. “The purpose of singing these songs is to say the things I can’t say but always feel,” Uli tells me, explaining that their process of writing lyrics is almost as intimate as the words themselves. “The words are taken from notes I make on my phone. It works almost like a diary – when I have a piece of music to sing on, I'll apply those words to it.” Uli’s not fronting: their lyrics genuinely do sound like diary entries; emotion unfiltered by any sense of irony. They don’t complicate their feelings, but just intone them over mournful electro backing, as in their track “Wish”: “But I know you’re gonna kill the pain / I just need your heart next to mine.” These are anthems for codependents wallowing in their bedrooms over their broken hearts.
Perhaps in a post-internet age, where irony’s so present that we’re often forced to filter our own emotions, funnelling rage or sorrow into deadpan one-liners for Twitter, maybe we can’t expect our pop stars to fulfil the same function they once did: creating music we could all go ahead and have feeling-tsunamis to. And maybe that’s okay. Feigned emotion and feelings-to-order a la boy band ballads gets old pretty fast. In an era where mainstream artists seem under pressure to present their work as autobiographical (see Justin Bieber’s Purpose being feted pre-release for being his ‘most personal’ album), Palmistry et al.’s anonymous, distilled serving of emotional is exciting and new. These vocalists’ work tells us almost nothing about themselves, which is exactly what makes it so genuinely personal. After all, we’re all so much more than where we live or what trainers we wear or what our distinctive personal brand is on Instagram or who we’re dating (or, hell, what popular chain restaurant we hate having fights with our other half in). Ultimately we’re all just human beings hoping to swerve the twin threats of our dumb hearts and lizard brains and trying to make it through the day without fucking up too much — this music is our dopamine-soaked soundtrack.