Santigold’s 99¢ Is a Powerful Social Statement that Sounds Like a Party

Josh Strawn (Azar Swan, Vaura) breaks down how this hooky record tackles narcissism, the death of counterculture and a world on the brink of war.

Almost nothing sparks a barroom debate between music lovers like the question of whether or not politics and music mix. It’s almost as divisive and partisan an issue as politics itself. Some bands can do politically themed music brilliantly, while in the hands of others it’s a nightmare of half-baked sloganeering and radical chic posturing. The newest album from Santigold, 99¢, is one of those rare records that gets it right. It maps out a big picture worldview, one that isn’t just a patchwork of counterculture clichés. Over the album’s twelve-song tracklist, Santigold addresses everything from cultural maladies to paradigm shifts in power relations. It’s a record that draws you in with infectious songs — but it feels more like a party than a sermon.

The opener to 99¢, “I Can’t Get Enough of Myself,” sounds — at first — like Santigold mimicking Beyoncé tracks “Flawless” or “I’m Feeling Myself.” You could listen to it over and over and be forgiven for thinking it was just a great, sunny, mid-tempo groove about feeling good about yourself. When you listen more closely, however, you hear words such as “vanity” and “vainglory,” and soon realize that this isn’t exactly a pro-self-esteem song — it’s an anti-narcissism song. It’s a satire of selfie culture, of a world in which everyone broadcasts their existence as if they were celebrities: Ha ha, funny me life of the party/VIP got so much flavor put me on the buffet/Look at them, look at them liking me.” The word “like” is almost certainly meant to conjure up images of red Instagram hearts and blue Facebook thumbs, and the song’s sardonic tone suggests a rather grim view of the self-esteem that comes from reaping approval via social media self-broadcasting.

Commenting on consumer culture is certainly something pop musicians have done before, but Santigold appears to have positioned herself in specific and contemporary terms with this record — starting with the album title, 99¢. The tile seems to be about the race to the bottom, the devaluing of work and the cheapening of art in the “freeconomy.” We aren’t just being sold and selling ourselves, we’re doing it for cheap. Track two, “Big Boss Big Time Business,” traffics in imagery of a monolithic corporate entity that has “got no time for your bark” and wants you to know “when I want to I’m ’a take ya and it don’t matter who you are.” Big banks? Drug cartels? Bought politicians? It could be about any of the above. This is how ambiguity serves political songwriting. It not only helps guard against the feeling of being preached to, it allows for broad strokes that apply to several things at once — in this case, trends in social and political control. And the song sounds like a post-trap version of Musical Youth’s “Pass the Dutchie.”

If “Big Boss Big Time Business” sets up the atmosphere of oppression, “Walking in a Circle” brings in the album’s most bleak, ultramodern perspective. In generations’ worth of political music, there has almost always been an alternative suggested. “Alternative” music itself implied this. Counterculture ran counter to something. Those who dropped out during the “Tune in, turn on, drop out” era felt that there was someplace they could land when they dropped out — a community that refused the logic and demands of conformist consumer culture. Counterculture was a way out. ”Walking in a Circle” wrestles with the sense that the way out isn’t as apparent as it used to be: “When the lights go out I am a seer and I know my way out/I always hate it that they make it so complicated only when the lights go out,” Santigold sings, relating some glimpse of a possible escape. And again she drops a term that’s loaded with familiarity in relation to our device-driven culture: “It’s overrated the upgrade is oh it suffocates you only when the lights go out.” The upgrade. The constant, exhausting race to stay up-to-date that can’t help but bring to mind apps and software upgrades and new platforms for “joining the conversation.”

Santigold isn’t shouting revolutionary slogans from the rooftops because she appears to feel the way many of us feel — that revolt has been so thoroughly monetized and subsumed into the ideology of the present system, it feels almost impossible. Silicon Valley entrepreneurship acts as if it offers all the revolutionary potential we need; social networks are sold as radical and emancipatory. When I listen to “Walking in a Circle,” it feels like an anthem for techno-liberation’s dark night of the soul. It’s also the closest thing on the record, musically, to Rihanna’s brand of lights-down strip-club eroticism.

Speaking of Rihanna, “Who Be Lovin Me” is a little like a Drake and Rihanna track lyrically, in that it plays like a back-and-forth dialogue between lovers. But, again, it delves into deeper territory. This sounds to me like two people who haven’t approached intimacy yet because they’re spoiled for choice. There are too many Tinder matches. People are accustomed to shopping for a boyfriend or girlfriend the way they shop on Amazon: more attention is spent filling the cart with items than ordering them. In this context, the song’s question, “Who be lovin me?” takes on a certain existential weight: who does actually love me? The syrupy, woozy beat is like the soundtrack to day drunk vertigo, the perfect match for words that evoke aimless romantic disconnection.

It’s a good sign if your hooks are so good that people forget to ask what your message is. Such is the case with “Rendezvous Girl,” probably my favorite song on the record. It reminds me of Alphaville, one of the greatest and more unsung bands of the synth-pop era. There is a phrase that stood out on paper once I finally stopped listening to the melodies long enough to read the lyrics: “Got more power in my calendar than the queen herself.” As political (and especially state) power continues to decentralize, the image of the networked “Rendezvous Girl” — the connected individual — has a special potency. It especially reminds me of something Peter Pomerantsev explains in his amazing book Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Young Russian women attend so-called gold digger academies, adult education programs designed to teach them how to appeal to the class of millionaire sugar daddies known as “sponsors” or “Forbeses.” Women develop relationships with these men and use their money to do such things as start businesses.

Most of 99¢ feels like a fiesta. But by the time “Outside the War” rolls around, the fun has given way to a tense, sour feeling. The song feels like a dark companion to “The Keepers” from Santigold’s 2012 record Master of My Make Believe, which seemed to explore the way that Americans position themselves as the world’s keepers of peace and liberty but have a hard time achieving these things at home. “Outside the War” appears to speak from the perspective of America’s previously sheltered citizens — citizens who are finally getting the feeling that the war could be coming for them soon. And even if it doesn’t, they could “waste away” all the same “outside the war.” This is Santigold at her most Siouxsie and the Banshees, musically (which is perhaps unsurprising, as my friendly acquaintance Nick Zinner of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs contributed some suitably menacing Gothy guitar riffs).

So 99¢ is a record that covers selfie narcissism, the devaluing of creative work, monolithic corporate power, the death of counterculture and a world on the perpetual brink of war. And, yet, generally it sounds like a party. This is the essence of seduction. Seduction was proposed by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard as an alternative to the conventional notion of revolution. You might take 99¢ as an opening to go read arcane post-structural post-Marxist political theory. You also might just throw it on at a soiree and watch people go nuts. This is the beauty of political music when it’s done well. It can provide points of departure for deeper engagement with ideas, or those ideas can just float around your body and gradually saturate your mind while you dance.

Josh Strawn is currently one half of the electronic duo Azar Swan and the lead singer of the moody metal supergroup Vaura. He was closely involved with the now-defunct Wierd Records label and party, at which time he fronted the post-punk band Blacklist and played in the psychedelic doom folk band Religious to Damn with Azar Swan co-conspirator Zohra Atash. He has contributed written works of political and cultural commentary to various publications including Flavorwire and Slutist.

(photo credit: Jason Rodgers)