Beyond Gaga: Two Trailblazing Female Singers

>Female-fronted pop will surely follow in the footsteps of Lady Gaga, right? Her hooky, electronica-dripping hits have sold millions of albums in the impossible MP3 era. She has armed herself with enough mystique and pomp to springboard past Madonna as a mass media icon. And her lyrics and public statements, full of principles and social statements, have invigorated her young fan base.

Copycats will surely follow, but to say Gaga is an innovator or trailblazer is to give her too much credit. Her elaborate performances and celebrations of outsiders, if anything, prove that she's a pop music history major, tapping into a glam-era cult of personality similar to David Bowie and Marilyn Manson. Her brilliant video for "Alejandro," released earlier this week, proves this in spades; it's a poignant reply to accusations that she's a Madonna rip-off, and the video sees her reveling in the chatter by mocking Madonna's most iconic elements (see: Madonna's cone bra vs. Gaga's machine-gun top).

Kudos to Gaga, I say. Pop hasn't seen such a tactically proficient media manipulator in too long, and I'm glad to see her catchy music mobilize a young fan base. But I'm not as excited by the history majors. Give me the women who push the basics of pop—the musical concepts, or the attitude that fuels them—in new directions. June sees two such women thrust into the spotlight, and both of them use hip-hop as a launching pad, each embracing its sounds and history en route to novel ideas for the genre.

Alexis Krauss makes up the singing half of Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells, though it's hard to believe only two people make all this racket. In a typical Sleigh Bells song, a single guitar roars at peak volume, while a drum machine cranks out more thudding bass than a 2 Live Crew cut. Sprinkled atop that bone-thin formula is Krauss's airy voice, either sing-speaking or shouting through a layer of fuzz and distortion.

People still haven't figured out how to label Sleigh Bells' seductive noise. The term "dream crunk" has been floated by a few websites, but that implies Krauss whispers like a pixie over rap tracks. Not so. Beyond the monstrous riffs, Krauss herself turns from singer to taunter in floor-pounding singles like "Infinity Guitars." At times, it's more nightmare than "dream."

Nor is "rap-rock" appropriate. That label denies guitarist Derek Miller credit for the range of noise he works out of his instrument—synth-like squeals, British Invasion-esque strumming, and herky-jerky, punk-like riffs—nor for the saccharine-sweet groove and catchiness behind the clamor.

This is guitar-driven music informed by decades of electronic, hip-hop, and even pop acts to be at once danceable and moshable. I've taken to calling it post-hip-hop. It's the sound I've expected ever since hip-hop took over America, and I'm shocked Sleigh Bells took so long to show up to put this abrasive-yet-catchy album on the precipice of universal acclaim. Far as I'm concerned, that makes their album Treats—eleased earlier this month—this decade's Bleach.

Thus, Krauss becomes the visible spokeswoman for this new sound, a fact made all the more interesting by her mythos. Before Sleigh Bells, Krauss was a member of a manufactured, all-girl pop group called RubyBlue that never took off. So many of her bubble-gum-pop peers did their damnedest to emerge from their careers as "mature," only to look pathetic and exploited; think Britney Spears sweating in a loft full of half-naked men in the "I'm A Slave 4 U" video, or even Miley Cirus slithering around in a birdcage in her latest attempt at maturity.

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Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle, WA. More

Sam Machkovech is a freelance arts and tech writer based in Seattle. He began his career in high school as a nationally syndicated video games critic at the Dallas Morning News, eventually taking up the mantle of music section editor at Dallas weekly paper the Dallas Observer. His writing has since appeared in Seattle weekly The Stranger, in-flight magazine American Way, now-defunct music magazine HARP, gaming blog The Escapist, and Dallas business monthly Dallas CEO. He currently serves as a games and tech columnist for Seattle web site PubliCola.net, as well as a volunteer tutor at the all-ages writing advocacy group 826 Seattle.

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