Pop Propriety: La Roux and Sylvan Esso Own It

An Everything Ecstatic guest feature from Ronald Metellus.
A few weeks ago, I was on a wedding dance floor and the DJ played a 2013 medley of “Worst Behavior,” “UOENO,” “Bugatti,” and “Shabba.” There was nearly a riot: bridesmaids, groomsmen, aunties, and uncles couldn’t turn down. When the DJ got around to playing Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy”—our song of the summer—I asked myself, why was I still on the floor? On the flip side of Iggy Azalea, Ariana Grande and (who knew?) Beckie G’s chart domination are some ugly, popular songs about women who depend on men, songs likes “Loyal,” “Cut Her Off,” and “Main Chick.” This summer, listening to the radio meant hearing successful women occupying rap alongside the men who hate them. It hasn’t been fun (although the “Loyal” choreography is pretty fresh.)

This is why I wanted to talk about some music I liked this summer, music made by women and look at what they said about success, objectification, and money. The records are La Roux’s Trouble in Paradise and Sylvan Esso, the self-titled debut from the North Carolina based synthpop duo. Sylvan Esso makes music that’s almost too ethereal to be considered social justice. Some of their songs are about street harassment, masculinity in the 21st century and smartphones. Other songs are too lyrical to pin down. “Play It Right,” one of the singles, balances the modern and metaphor. Right before the chorus kicks in for the last time, vocalist Amelia Meath sings, “And we are like the people we came from/ We are dancing and advancing.” That’s a pretty good description of what Sylvan Esso is aiming for: dancing and advancing.

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“Wolf,” the best Sylvan Esso deep cut, is about a young man inheriting womanizing from his dad. He isn’t a Wolf of Wall Street himself (“Don’t wear no suits/ we’re talking t-shirts”), but he’s still his father’s son (“Been bending notes/ just like his father”). “Wolf” is one of two songs on the LP that peer into the male psyche—i’ll delve into the other one later.

La Roux’s Trouble in Paradise is a new wave that sounds like it could’ve been released anytime in the last thirty years. It doesn’t belong to a particular decade but it sounds familiar, like a random access memory. All ten songs are about love and/or relationships. The album’s operating word is “trouble.” The relationships singer Elly Jackson describe are troubled by money, among many other things.

On “Tropical Chancer” money is both the jumpstart and the death knell of a relationship. We’re tipped off from the track title, which is a reference to Henry Miller’s autobiographical novel, Tropic of Cancer. At age 42, Tropic of Cancer was Miller’s first published book. Over the course of those 42 years, a combination of two wives and one lover, financially supported Miller. “Tropical Chancer” is about a woman who gets involved with a guy who sounds a lot like Miller. I ain’t saying he’s a gold digger, but the first verse starts, “He’ll take the money and the food that’s in your hand/ But you have to understand that he’s a dreamer.” The second verse drives the point home:

He’ll trade your loving for the things he’s never seen
The places he has never been
Oh but remember he is just a good pretender
And he doesn’t give his love away for free

“Sexotheque” finds another a couple at odds, but not over money—“He’s got the money, but no it’s not enough”—this time its about infidelity. Still, it’s the money that makes “Sexotheque” the most festival-ready chorus on the album; Jackson launches into it : “She wants to know why he’s not home/ I’ll bet money, money, money I bet/ He’s at the Sexotheque.”

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Jackson told The Guardian that “Cruel Sexuality” is about “10 different subjects linked together.” Some of those subjects, I’d guess, are “abusive relationships,” “sexual orientation,” “unrequited love,” “casual sex,” and “dishonesty.” It’s not about wealth or status, but it is about propriety in relationships: “It’s a dangerous scene/ When passion turns to greed.”

“Hey Mami,” Sylvan Esso’s opening track, is a song about catcalling. The song’s narrative is told from a few perspectives, but we never spend time with the woman who’s being harassed, as far we know she’s unaware of the situation, “she don’t know the gravity she owns.” Like she did on “Wolf,” Meath sings from the perspective of a guy. Unlike “Wolf,” “Hey Mami” is incredibly sexy. “Hey Mami” is kind of like “Sexotheque” in that they’re both smart songs that let you revel in indiscretions. It’s fun to say “money, money, money I bet” even though its about man cheating on his wife; it’s compelling to listen to Meath as she coos her way through “She walking so fast, she walking so fast, she walk like a babe, hey/ Look at that ass.”

Last year, I went to a panel organized by Columbia University Society of Hip Hop (CUSH). Though the panel was about business, the question and answer section invariably turned to the eternal question: Is hip-hop doomed? After the panel, I approached a woman who asked about the future of commercial rap that was, for a lack of a better word, conscious. I asked if she’d heard of Kendrick Lamar. She had.

“What does his song say? Drink?”

“Yeah, but it’s about alcoholism,” I replied

“How does it go?”

“Sit down, drink.”

“Right.”

The “Swimming Pools Effect” is present throughout Sylvan Esso’s self-titled debut. These songs have points to make about objectification and they have a way of making the object appealing. “Dress” has a pulsing synth and lyrics that will make you feel some type of way: “You look good in the south, see how you use your mouth/You look good in the east, on elbows and knees/…You look good in the west, you look good in a dress.”

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“H.S.K.T.” is about media addiction and there’s a chirpy repetition that makes you want to nod your head or maybe check your phone. “Coffee,” their most popular song, isn’t as explicit with its meaning. It’s probably about the way that we go from lover to lover like cups of coffee. It’s where producer Nick Sanborn gets busy—the weaker songs on the record suffer; feel under-produced. “Uncatena” is rudderless and “Come Down” has just a feint hum that sounds like feedback. The explicit lyrics might be the whole point: they make you think twice about why you enjoy them. When the perspective shifts on “Hey Mami,” we hear a third person perspective—maybe from Sylvan Esso themselves—tell us “Sooner or later the dudes at bodegas will hold their lips and own their shit.” “Sooner or later” makes for a good rhyme but, I don’t know, does it inspire confidence?

My friend Adrian Spinelli—the everything person here at Everything Ecstatic—recommended the Sylvan Esso record to me and I told him about Trouble in Paradise. Since then, I’ve been pushing Trouble on friends and I’ve felt some resistance from fans of La Roux’s first album. There isn’t a “Bulletproof” and there are fewer bleep bloops. La Roux is an albums artist now and I welcome it. Her name might appear in a smaller font size on festival posters, but she’s got a long future ahead of her. And, as Rihanna put it, she’s still got her money.

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