We’re in the middle of a pretty robust moment in pop music, wherein every category and sub-category of star seems to be occupied by acts as diverse as Rihanna and Adele and Bruno Mars and Lady Gaga and Janelle Monáe. But Jessie J, a 23-year-old singer-songwriter who is almost certainly the next big thing out of the UK, has identified a significant gap in the current pop landscape and nudged herself right in there: picking up where Pink and Kelis left off, Jessie is poised to be our resident bad gyal. That is, smart, bo$$y, all-around-awesome. Or at least that’s what she and the folks at Island and Universal, the major labels behind her respective UK and US efforts, seem to be banking on.
Though Jessie, who co-wrote Miley Cyrus’ “Party In The USA” and has also written songs for Alicia Keys, Christina Aguilera, and Chris Brown, is not yet famous in America, her invasion is imminent. She made her first appearance on US television this weekend as the musical guest on Saturday Night Live, a couple of weeks after the UK release of her chart-topping debut album Who You Are. The videos for her first two singles, “Do It Like A Dude” and “Price Tag” (featuring B.o.B.), have each been viewed more than 20 million times on YouTube. Plus, she is the first artist on VEVO LIFT, a McDonalds-sponsored platform for emerging artists that aims to generate “viral activity” around a new (and presumably industry-approved) artist.
As a look back at any given year in recent music history can confirm, pop stars are not born, they are manufactured as, or at least molded into, viable commercial products. Markets are researched, personalities are developed, publicity is very shrewdly cultivated. We all know it; many are offended by it. The thinking commonly goes: How dare these suits, wildly out of touch and with massive marketing budgets, think they can buy our fandom with a perfectly groomed image and a few glossy singles? (The perception that he has a natural star quality and was not entirely created by a tiresome industry has been credited for Justin Bieber’s unprecedented success.)
And Jessie, with her blunt bangs, jet-black hair and bold lips, big attitude, and Dr. Luke-produced tracks, is being sold to us as pop’s answer to Ke$ha: sweet, stylish, of substance. Equal parts singer-songwriter, fashion icon, and role model. Words like “edgy” and “stylish” will no doubt be used to describe her. So will words like “down-to-earth” and “positive.” That much, it appears, is part of the plan.
Yet there is something about her—in addition to her talent, of course—that is so appealing I find myself forgiving everything about Jessie that seems so carefully calculated for pop chart success. Perhaps it is that she does everything slightly imperfectly—not poorly, but with an honesty that makes her relatable. Her singing voice, though strong and at times awe-inspiring, can be abrasive; in trying to show it off, she often oversings to the point of bordering on grating. And the positive messages for which she is lauded are vague and not particularly articulate, yet still very much welcome in the sea of “brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack” and “let’s go all the way tonight.” In short, Jessie is great, but her lack of a perfect, shiny veneer is even greater. Let’s be honest: flawed is so much easier to like in a person, and a pop star, than perfect.
Jessie’s latest single “Price Tag,” a straight-forward, mid-tempo pop tune produced by Dr. Luke and guested by B.o.B., features the lyrics, “It’s not about the money, money, money/We don’t need your money, money, money/We just wanna make the world dance/Ain’t about the price tag.” Never mind that it actually is about the money in some ways (we’re buying CDs and mp3s and concert tickets, after all), that kind of feel-goodism is exactly what Jessie is hawking. On “Nobody’s Perfect,” also co-written with Dr. Luke, Jessie sings, “When I’m nervous/I have this thing that I talk too much/Sometimes I just can’t shut the hell up/It’s like I need to tell someone, anyone who’ll listen/And that’s where I seem to fuck up.” The point being: See, guys? She’s just like us! She gets nervous, too! She suffers from verbal diarrhea, also!
On her first single “Do It Like A Dude,” Jessie follows in the footsteps of other women who’ve recently made attempts at gender-transgression in popular music (Beyoncé with “If I Were A Boy” and in her video for “Upgrade U”; Ciara with “Like A Boy”; Nicki Minaj with her alter ego Roman Zolanski), but she does it far more convincingly than any of them. Not because she’s any more dude-like, but because Jessie appears more concerned with having fun than with proving a point. In the song and corresponding video, Jessie equates doing it like a dude with wearing her hat low and grabbing her crotch and drinking beer (“No pretty drinks in here”). Not particularly deep or progressive. But somehow, likely because it’s playful and functions as a parody of sorts, it works.
That lightheartedness tips the pop star scales very much in Jessie’s favor. In fact, as paradoxical as it may be, it is the reason she comes across as earnest in the middle of all the fabricatedness: she’s just a young artist who stumbled upon this huge, commercial, lucrative way of making music her full-time living. Her ubiquity is a means to an end, not the end itself, as it is for other pop artists. On Who You Are, Jessie weaves between classic pop songs, big-band numbers, and darker ballads in a way that could easily be described as messy and incohesive. But I tend to think of Who You Are not just a debut pop album, but also as a portfolio, an indication that she can—and probably will—transcend industry-ascribed strictures in the future.