Freak Like Who?: Why Santigold is not worth your time
by Samuel Tolzmann on May 6, 2012
Posted in: Uncategorized
I’ve been thinking a lot about Santigold’s new album, Master of My Make-Believe, recently. For a while, I was listening to it a lot, too, but that phase is over. And the fact that I lost interest in the album is more or less the reason why I’ve been thinking about it so much. Here’s the thing: I can’t remember the last time a pop musician, especially one of fairly prominent (although, as I will remind you later, not that prominent) stature, made such a big deal — and subsequently, such a big a problem — out of authenticity. The exception, of course, is rap, where there are tracks innumerable dedicated to dissing one’s rivals and promoting one’s own verbal supremacy. But the thing with rap is that it actually takes verbal dexterity to do this; to cite the most renowned recent example in the popular rap sphere, when Nicki Minaj absolutely tears shit up in the last two minutes of Kanye West’s “Monster,” she backs up her claims by the very fact that she makes them in the way she does (that is, with intelligence and a maniacal glint in her eye). Her wordplay is dizzying and her charisma is wonderful/terrible to behold; of course, no one deserves $50K for a verse with or without an album out, but based on her performance on “Monster,” I think we can all agree it’s far better Minaj than, like, Lil Mama. This is how rap artists legitimate their verbal abuses and braggadocio: they prove the validity of the expression through the expression itself. But aside from poetically brilliant rappers, it’s a much harder game for a pop musician to play. Consider, for example, the rather unfortunate case that is Santi White, aka Santigold.
Because it is a great risk, it’s rare for a pop artist to aggressively push thematic concerns of authenticity, phoniness, freedom, and artistic merit. After all, pop music is hardly a medium inherently free from the bonds of “phoniness” and capitalistic drive, and Santi White certainly can’t claim clean hands. After all, she’s a former A&R rep and songwriter for the likes of Ashlee Simpson (ouch); the only reason she’s not sitting in a cubicle somewhere penning Fefe Dobson’s comeback single is the success of her musical career, which is wholly dependent on the moving and shaking that is the natural motion of the industry that’s hired her in so many capacities, from behind the scenes to center stage. M.I.A. got her noticed; she texts with Beyonce; she’s opened for Coldplay. Oh, but don’t worry — she’s an artist, she obvvvviously “don’t want the fame,” as she’ll assure you repeatedly on new song “Fame.”
Indeed, the lyrics to Santigold songs (especially the new ones) are essentially an onslaught of claims of artistic authenticity. It was appealing when her first single “Creator” dropped: “That shit must hurt real bad, faking what you wish you had,” she sneered then, in what amounted to a pretty badass first impression. Next, on the bigger hit (oh, the irony that Santigold ever had a hit — she’s so not about that, you guys!) “L.E.S. Artistes”: “Build me up, then bring me down, just leave me out, you name-dropper/ Stop trying to catch my eye…creep up and suddenly I found myself an innovator.” “L.E.S. Artistes” — its very title a jab at pretentious Lower East Side (get it?) trust-fund hipsters making bad art, which is funny ’cause she has a song (“Shuv It”) about how great Brooklyn is! Get it? — soars high on its gorgeous, anthemic choruses: “I can say, I hope it will be worth what I give up./ I can stand up, mean, for all the things that I believe.” It’s a great tune with a lovely sentiment at its core — or it would have a lovely sentiment, if it had a core at all.
When Santigold’s self-titled debut dropped (on Atlantic, no less) in 2008 — back then, she was still Santogold, not having yet been sued by a family jewelry company for unwittingly taking their business name — critics were tripped up by her complicated relationship to an industry she condemned as essentially devoid of artistic merit. Her frustrations as a white-collar worker for big music firms come through on tracks like “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Creator.” Now, the music on that album was frankly scattershot, and the endless M.I.A. comparisons both left Santigold wanting and, on the flat-out unbearable Arular wannabe “Unstoppable,” became quite painful to consider. At its most consistent (the highlight being future Coors Light-ad-soundtracking “Lights Out” — you stick it to that Man, Santi!), the record was a summer-appropriate, mindlessly fun blend of hip-hop, reggae, and new wave, although to be fair No Doubt pretty much covered that ground a decade earlier. But what White wanted her record to be, and what it wasn’t, was a bold statement of artistic autonomy — first and foremost because the music wasn’t very original or, you know, creative.
What’s more is, even leaving all her industry connections pre- and post-Santigold aside, the Bold Statements of Santogold are irritatingly vague. “I can say, I hope it will be worth what I give up. I can stand up, mean, for all the things that I believe.” Great idea, but what exactly is it she believes? We never really find out, as listeners, and so the Statement is destabilized. “That shit must hurt real bad, faking what you wish you had” is a snappy line, but then it turns out that Santigold doesn’t seem to possess it, either. “Me, I’m a creator, thrill is to make it up,” goes the hook of that song… unfortunately, though, she never actually makes anything terribly interesting up. “I got to be unstoppable,” she chirps incessantly on “Unstoppable” (until you wish she’d stop). “…Well, okay,” you want to tell her, like a father hearing his teenage son declare he wants to go to art school (I’m not bitter, I promise). “But first you’re going to need something to be unstoppable about.”
Instead, White produces an endless stream of claims that she does make interesting things up. She is a creator! She did find herself an innovator — and yes, found herself; it wasn’t intentional! She don’t want fame (her grammar, not mine)! The new album, Master of My Make-Believe, forces more of the same down our throats. The follow-up was White’s chance to prove that Santigold was the viable artistic endeavor she insisted it was; instead, she uses it to continually insist that Santigold is a viable artistic endeavor. All White knows how to do in a song or an interview, it seems, is hate on phonies and declare herself an — ahem, “L.E.S.” — artiste. On opener “Go!” she can’t shut up about how everyone wants to be her because of her status and reputation, rather than substantiating the apparent appeal of her status and reputation, so that, as with “Creator,” you’re left wondering (after the initial sugar rush) whether what she says has any truth to it. On single “Disparate Youth,” she apparently speaks for the eponymous group (I certainly didn’t give her my permission): “We know now we want more, a life worth fighting for” — the accidental admission she makes being that her life is not yet worth fighting for, which doesn’t seem quite right for someone who once spurned the help of all others in single-minded pursuit of art (on “I’m a Lady”: “Don’t try to underwrite me, I’m a lady, got my mind made up”). On “Freak Like Me,” a tired “Rich Girl” retread, she presents herself, as, um, a freak, but outside of that lyric, there’s no evidence of freakiness on White’s part. “The Riot’s Gone” finds White confessing that she makes art because she’s haunted by ghosts, which is great and all, but we never find out what said ghosts represent, so I for one refuse to believe in them. On “The Keepers,” we’re informed that “while we sleep in America, our house is burning down,” but the feint of specificity — that word “America” sure sounds political, right? — can’t disguise the fact that the metaphor of the burning house doesn’t actually refer to anything (or if it does, White keeps it on the D.L., rendering the track’s efficacy as a rallying cry of artistic youth null).
It’s opening a whole other can o’ worms to address the hypocrisy of the fact that — sorry to break the news — Santigold’s songs are not very original. At their best, they’re echoes of the kind of melancholic-but-not-dejected anthems that made Yeah Yeah Yeahs a staying power: add dub and hip-hop inflections in varying proportions to YYYs’ It’s Blitz! and you’ve essentially got the entirety of the new Santigold album (Karen O’s vocal guest spot on “Go!” doesn’t help this issue); that is, one thinks of YYYs when the intimidating shadow of No Doubt happens to diminish for a second. You know, I’m not shitting on these songs entirely; White certainly can write a catchy melody — maybe she should write songs for other people! Oh, wait — but even then, many of her “pretty” songs (as opposed to the “tough” ones), while earworms all, sound unfortunately similar to one another. Look, I’m sorry, I wish I could be more positive here, but not one of Santigold’s songs holds up to her pronouncements of pop music as art. They’re fun, they’re functional, but they’re derivative, too, and entirely hollow to boot.
Since neither the lyrics nor the music of Santigold backs up her claims to authenticity, there exists a gaping hole in her artistic persona into which floods the unfortunate mess of her less-than-independent relationship with the music industry. Already destabilized, she collapses as a viable artist entirely and ends up looking like a puppet (even if she writes her own songs), espousing virtues she doesn’t exemplify in order to deceive a certain resistant corner of the market into abetting the industry’s capitalistic agenda. In light of this, her “infamous” disses, which on “Creator” made her famous, come off as spiteful rather than triumphant. Tough-girl rap banger “Look at These Hoes” is almost parodic in its put-on put-downs. And then there’s the almost offensive “Big Mouth.” First: the video for the song is an open parody of pop singers like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, as if Santigold is somehow different than those two. In this Pitchfork interview, White claims that it was the director who presented her that way, not White herself. But this argument, while believable, misses the point, which is that Santigold is once again held up to be something she’s not. By even posing as the opposite of that echelon of pop stars, she draws attention to how little she actually matters in popular consciousness. What do her criticisms matter? I’m not sure what kind of empowering symbol of what sliver of pop culture she thinks we think she represents, but I’m guessing it’s not right. In trying to have it both ways, pop star and artist with integrity, Santigold is in a tricky position where everyone can call her bluff, but few do because the target is just so damn easy.
The “Big Mouth” video only proves every point to be made against Santigold with layers of irony that White herself may have even missed. It’s almost painful to watch, and when she obnoxiously hollers, “Big mouth, big mouth, my my my, you’ve said enough,” you have to wonder whether Santi White realizes that, lacking any sense of interesting, coherent, and autonomous identity as a pop music artist, she’s only talking to herself, in more ways than one. Indeed, White babbles on and on to the point of insufferability about being authentic without one single piece of artistic evidence.
Should we hold our pop musicians to higher standards than this? Absolutely. Now, don’t get me wrong; I don’t think all pop need be challenging art with a genuine soul or sophisticated point of view — I’m not stupid. I’m as down with soulless, AutoTuned, high-gloss hip-shaking shit as you are. There’s a place for Rihanna’s totally dumb “Only Girl In The World” (sry I’m not sry) and Xiu Xiu’s heavily politcized, guts-exposed, utterly demented cover of that same song in the pop landscape. What there shouldn’t be, can’t be room for is a pop musician who hypocritically derides everything that’s made her what she is with nothing to show for it; if empty, superficial rhetoric condemning empty, superficial rhetoric gets a free pass in pop culture today, then, ladies and gentlemen, we are in deeper trouble than the unfortunate commonplace of a hit record full of mediocre songs. I would have no issue here if Santigold delivered on her self-importance or if she cut the crap and sang about making eyes across the club. It’s not like this is an impossible dream — consider Swedish underdog-cum-superstar Robyn, who writes her own songs and opened for Katy Perry and is critically lauded; she pulls it off because she never insists she’s above opening for Katy Perry. Instead, Robyn’s songs are about something — love, loss, dancing, fucking, breaking up. She has something to say about these subjects. Can you imagine that? Santigold can’t. She can’t seem to imagine anything at all, but that won’t stop her telling you imagination is what makes her special.
The fact that this whole PR line is a foul load of utter bullshit can’t be ignored just because its pretentious originator strikes a cool pose (three cool poses, if you count those Ray-Ban-sporting twins that fetishistically back Santigold in her videos). “I’m so damn gold!” White crows victoriously when the refrain of the interminable “Look at These Hoes” arrives. It’s supposed to be a thrilling moment, but it fails to excite, because it’s just not true. Move along now, folks — there’s nothing to see here, just a woman so concerned with seeming real, she never learned how to be real. Sorry, Santigold, but you said it yourself (although I’m not sure you’re sure what you meant): I have to “stand up, mean, for all the things that I believe.” And I don’t believe in you.