Shara Nova is a classically trained vocalist and self-taught multi-instrumentalist who records dazzling shapeshifting music as My Brightest Diamond. Over the course of five groundbreaking albums, including her most recent LP A Million And One, she has resisted the conventions of genre, blending elements of rock, art pop and chamber music into a sound totally her own. During her career, Nova has also collaborated and played with a long list of talented artists and filmmakers including but not limited to Sufjan Stevens, Laurie Anderson, The Decemberists, David Byrne & Fatboy Slim, Sarah Kirkland Snider, and Matthew Barney. Last fall she was announced as one of the four Carolina Performing Arts Creative Future Fellows and is a Kresge Fellow, Knights Grant recipient and a United States Artists fellow. She has composed works for yMusic, Brooklyn Youth Chorus, Young New Yorkers’ Chorus, Brooklyn Rider, Nadia Sirota, and Roomful of Teeth and performed at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Kennedy Center.
The past is not repeatable. There is only the future. There are times in some artists’ lives when they strike a chord with the culture at a particular moment. It can be a powerful intersecting of paths, the culture going one way and an artist’s journey going another. Whether it was the artist who created the culture or whether their work simply reflected what was already happening in the culture is debatable. Regardless, this moment of intersection can never be recreated. The artist has no choice but to keep moving forward and developing, and hope that enough of the audience will come along so that they can keep doing what they do. There are those who are able to navigate a long-term career in music (Madonna, the great discerner of the zeitgeist), and those who are tragically destroyed (Amy Winehouse), and those who disappear from the public eye after such an intersection. (Message to Lauryn Hill: Please sing to us again!!! We love you just as you are!) And Katy Perry will never be the Teenage-Dream-Katy-Perry-with-five-number-one-hits again. To look for her to be the same is to look for something impossible.
And yet it’s nearly impossible to respond to an album like Prism in isolation from what album preceded it or from the artist’s public narrative. The fact is that I want Katy Perry to succeed. A lot. Recently, I was on a long flight and couldn’t find a movie to watch, so I grudgingly watched her 2012 rockumentary Part of Me. I come from the same kind of traveling evangelist family that Katy does. I identified with so much of her experience as a pastor’s kid, and I know that wanting to be an artist in that community can feel claustrophobic. By the end of the film, I needed a tissue box and I was singing along to every candy cane anthem and ready to order my own twirl-a-boob outfit.
I found myself enjoying the perfected, slick, unsurprising, dance pop charm of Prism whether I wanted to or not. The craft of the album is undeniable, but there are no sonic departures from the past. The song forms stick to the formulas. The vocals are multi-tracked. Layer upon layer. The power chord electric guitars enter precisely on the downbeat of every one of those choruses. I feel like I am listening to a really great Glee album. But the dance jams are so dance jam that I can’t help but dance the jam. I listen and enjoy dancing and I feel happy, mostly. The musical influences are easily identifiable; a drop of Madonna circa 1989 here, a dabble of indie-rock ambient, washy guitars there, a dash of hip-hop here, a self-empowerment piano ballad there. Many of the melodies have that I-think-I’ve-heard-something-almost-exactly-like-this quality. Prism is extremely well executed and also terribly inoffensive and unchallenging musically. Lyrically speaking, Katy’s enjoyment of a good double entendre remains, and some of them are enough to make me giggle and blush. The Prince-inspired “Birthday” starts off with 1985 keyboard tones and staccato guitars doubled, with Katy’s vocals in octaves singing a delightful tune about gifting herself to her lover. I’m ready to eat cake too. Many of the lyrics however, are “on the nose” or too obvious. “Legendary Lovers” employs every yogi cliché that you can imagine with words like “third eye,” “lotus bloom,” “aura” and “energy” all piling in the verses, but I don’t even feel like I’m listening to someone who has had an experience with these words, neither am I being presented with a new idea or an emotion related to words which have assumed meanings. Adding to the long list of songs titled “This Is How We Do,” Katy adopts a pop star formula in identifying the culture of her fans, she dictates the mores of those who sit at the cool kids’ table. If you aren’t at breakfast in the dress you wore at the club last night, sorry, you are not sitting at the lunch table with Katy Perry.
By the time the album gets to “Ghost,” some of the clichés begin to lessen and the songs become more confessional. Reaching toward more personal subject matter, the fun and playful Katy of the past is temporarily set aside and she expands her vocabulary as an artist, within a narrow margin, but the topics expand nonetheless. The lyrics are presumably about the breakup of her marriage with Russell Brand, and suddenly I’m taken back to the image of Katy crying backstage in the rockumentary and I’m giving her an imaginary hug. “Love Me” is full of self-help language which I simultaneously can’t stand and also want to sing along with at the top of my lungs. “Double Rainbow” has me crying like a teenager and by “By the Grace of God” I’m raising my hands up in the air and ready to run down the center aisle to the altar.
I really do not like this kind of pop music, and at the same time, I can’t help myself but enjoy it, acknowledge the power it has in our culture and be moved emotionally by it on certain levels. As a singer, though, I think this kind of vocal behavior, the melodies always requiring belting in the chest voice at full throttle, is impossible to sustain long term. When a singer is using those belty muscles all the time, it’s like driving a car in second gear when you should have switched over to fifth gear. That overdrive is what gives it the sound of angst, and as a culture we identify that as “raw” or “authentic” or “powerful,” but it’s also the sound of someone burning out their engine. The computer pitch-corrections, compressions and crossfades create realities which are impossible for a human body and this sound is shaping how young singers think and what they think is normal for a voice. Have you heard Aretha Franklin lately? I love her, but there is some evidence that even that powerhouse of a voice will diminish greatly in range and variety of tone when such muscular pressure is placed upon it. The list of singers who have had vocal surgery for nodes is ever-growing. Maybe that’s the credo of rock & roll: not to care about longevity or health, live for the moment. I’ve belted plenty in my day and the cost of it is that the voice no longer knows how to sing certain notes in any other way but to belt. That’s a pretty monochromatic existence, so I’ve had to get back to my teachers and figure out how to do what I want to do with my voice, and account for the costs of singing loud rock music.
I think the human experience has more than one way of expressing itself and if our voices are the sound of souls and hearts, then shouldn’t they have infinite variety of colors and expressions? To squash it with computers all the time and to ask it to behave in a very narrow way feels like a suppression of nature, a denial of reality. This feels American to me, and it kind of concerns me. Plain and simple, it is also nearly impossible for anyone to sing this kind of style in tune in a live setting without a computer behind a magic curtain and a knob-turning masked man. Listen to “By the Grace of God” live and you’ll see what I mean.
All that said, I still want to sit at the lunch table with Katy Perry. I want her to succeed and to be happy, to belt the universal themes in my life, to make me laugh, to get the kiss, to win the game. I can guarantee you that I will enjoy these songs in drugstores, H&Ms and airports, along with a whole lot of other people, and I won’t think too much about the suppression of the voice. Instead, I’ll dance and think about birthday suits and big balloons, because that is also nature, and it’s fun, and that counts for a whole lot.