Beyond Gaga: Two Trailblazing Female Singers

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>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.

Krauss, on the other hand, has emerged with her grown-up destiny in her own sweaty hands. At this year's South By Southwest festival in Austin, TX, she tore the stage apart, whipping her head to the beat, screaming, and raising her tattoo-smothered arms to work her crowd into a frenzy. No ridiculous outfits or choreographed dance moves; just her, Derek, and the loudest sound they could muster.

uffie.jpg

Ed Banger

This month's other leading lady, Uffie, is comparably blunt, though not because of sheer volume. The 22-year-old rapper comes out kicking on recent single "MCs Can Kiss":

There's two kinds of MCs out there
There's the ones who rap, and the ones who don't care
And frankly, I don't give a fuck
You might be dope on the mic, but your music sucks

For the rest of the track, Uffie asserts that she's racked up millions of Internet hits while being the "least working woman in show biz-nass." To prove her point, the song—otherwise a catchy bit of big-beat techno with healthy dollops of low-end synth—finishes with a sax solo (supposedly by the MC) that sounds hideous.

Such attitude never lets up on Sex Dreams & Denim Jeans, a full-length debut years in the making. In 2006, the American-born Uffie allied herself with Ed Banger Records, a French label known for jilted, overproduced electronic sound (and the breakout success of late-'00s electronic group Justice), to release debut single "Pop The Glock." It quickly climbed the Euro club charts, and her weird, vocoder-heavy single, produced by former boyfriend, Feadz, was a perfect fit for the roster.

The word "spokeswoman" fits in her story, too. On her debut single, Feadz got the credit for turning Uffie's voice into a strange instrument, but this time, it's Uffie who runs the show on behalf of her DJs. She grabs the best beats by Ed Banger's roster—paper-thin drum-and-bass material, littered with samples that are chopped and staggered—and gives them life with a lyrical flair that's somehow both boastful and despondent. Single "ADD SUV," featuring the Neptunes' Pharrell Williams, has slick beats, but its catchiness comes from Uffie's astral touch; her vocodered voice practically sparkles as she dryly lists a rap sheet of mental disorders in the chorus.

Recent one-hit wonder Ke$ha seems similar on paper: sing-rapping, overuse of vocoder, electro beats, and a general sense of slackerdom. But Ke$ha's material only seems like hip-hop on the surface; the heart of her debut record, Animal, is an escapist, fantasy diary, far better suited for the pop world. Uffie's record is better by default, thanks to Ed Banger's beats, but I'm more taken by how Uffie proves herself a hip-hop purist—a storytelling boaster first and foremost, unafraid to prioritize her ego.

She does this with a rare twist in hip-hop: the proud perspective of entitlement and privilege, not struggle and hustle. It's hard to tell whether she's being facetious, or duping everyone with a thick helping of satire, or laying back and relishing her success. The reason it's hard to tell? I'm too busy nodding my head to figure it out, a fact she's giddily aware of:

When the freaks come out at night
They dancing hot and they getting high
Guess who's making big bucks on this?
I got something MCs can kiss

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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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