KID SISTER ULTRAVIOLET (DOWNTOWN)
American radio pop right now is arguably at its most materialistic—an ugly nadir reflecting the end-times capitalism of our recent past. Because the major-label machine has to chug away for a year or more to shuttle a carefully crafted hit from its inception to your hard drive, pop songs created during the post-Obama paradigm shift—or during the real slog of the recession—mostly haven’t even hit the airwaves yet. We’re still getting the fantasy as we knew it back when.
For the past half decade at least, it’s been understood that pop speaks in the idiom of capital. Sure, there are still plenty of songs about sex and love and breakups, but artists from barely pubescent crooner Justin Bieber on up express their desire to hump or partner for life via a rhetorical willingness to part with their immodest fortunes. Bieber puts it in the same terms many of his chart brethren have:for his “shawty” he’ll go down to his “last dime.” Even if you’re 15, you best be puttin’ on ends.
Kid Sister (MySpace) just released her long-delayed debut, Ultraviolet (on Downtown, a corporate indie distributed by Universal and Atlantic), and throughout the album she engages this idiom but also undermines it—she puts it on and takes it off like a costume. Like Lily Allen’s recent It’s Not Me, It’s You, it’s an album that’s in part about her newfound fame and fabulousness, but Kid Sister hasn’t bought in all the way. On several tracks she peels back a corner of pop’s fantasy act. In the outro to “Let Me Bang 2009,” she hollers, “Famous in a Hyundai!” in an off-the-cuff stream of keeping-it-real-isms, including another about hoarding quarters for laundry. The only clothing label she name-drops is Stacy Adams, a favored brand of black men who do church dapper.
In short, she’s self-aware, and though she’s clearly constructed the fundamentals of her music and her persona to succeed in the pop world, she refutes the unreality of the capital idiom even as she embraces it. She may be a diva, but she’s the people’s diva.
The paradox of Ultraviolet is that despite Kid Sister’s realness, her music is built from the same indestructible neon-pop stuff as Kanye West’s or Lady Gaga’s. Her luminescent club bangers have plenty of polished surfaces. She’s got distinguished cameos—Kanye, Estelle, Cee-Lo—on several cuts, any one of which could be a hit. The entire album is pure pop craftsmanship, straddling the line between credible club rap and hypertweaked million-dollar radio fare. There’s even a little R & B-mo (“Daydreaming”) and, for the locals, a manic juke anthem (“Switch Board”). She’ll take any fan base that’ll have her.
By combining pop savvy and shine with a nod to the parts of life that pop usually conceals, Ultraviolet transmits a new kind of glam earnestness from the pleasure center of the dance floor. Kid Sister, like anyone raised on the radio, knows that pop is meant to be escapist, even decadent, but what ferments over the course of Ultraviolet is the idea that this attendance to excess is untenable—or even, as Lily Allen’s “Everyone’s At It” also suggests, dishonest.
If that’s the case, what’s pop music going to be good for now? What kind of fantasy do we need now that we know the real results of maxed-out American greed? Will de rigueur signifiers of opulence like Louis V and Hennessy—whose meaning we all know, regardless of whether we’ve shouldered or sipped their products—affect us the same way when we’re slouching toward acceptance of capitalist apocalypse, collectively further from even basic financial stability than we have been in generations? Ultraviolet operates on the assumption that those drugs don’t work anymore—that the economic ruin wrought by bankers has corrupted the transcendent glow of the idea of wealth.
On “Let Me Bang 2009” Kid Sister says she’s trying to change the game by rapping about “some normal girly shit.” She goes on to mention her love of clearance sales, and what she’s wholesaling herself is nothing but real-girlness: “A fresh box a’ donuts and a sundae / Start my diet Monday / I’ma get around to it one day.” On “Life on TV” she tells the story of her first encounter with an A and R guy, reminding us of her proximity to her old day jobs: “For what it’s worth, Bath & Body Works tomorrow,” she tells him. “From eight to three, drop by, can’t hurt.”
“Life on TV” also outlines her understanding of pop’s capitalist frame: “First rule in showbiz if ya wanna maintain / Big thangs / Big chains / Big pay / Peep game, peep game / OK!” The song is about attaining and maintaining the unreal—keeping up appearances. “Smile to the camera / Don’t tap ya weave / Or it’s back to the factory / ‘Cause this is life on TV.”
That chorus is a sort of self-admonition. She can pass, but her success in this vocation depends on her facility with the forms she must take on. Ultraviolet is Kid Sister showing she’s fluent both in pop’s lingua franca and in the language of real life. She’s using her illusion.