I don’t know anything about music. I don’t know about music on a technical level, a terminological level, or even a historical-cultural level. Growing up, I missed the music trends – just like I missed the t.v. trends, the movie trends and all the other pop cultural elements that seem to do so much to define a generation. I am frequently asked if I grew up under a rock, and sometimes I think I must have. But one thing I do know, about music at least, is what I like. And I know that, in the spring of 2007, I made one of the most important musical discoveries of my life to date: I discovered Mika, pop (or pop-rock, according to some sources) artist and man-boy extraordinaire. At the time, most people hadn’t heard of him. And really, most still haven’t. Most people who have heard of him, or whom I force to listen to his songs, aren’t exactly equally impressed. But regardless of popular opinion, I’m hooked.
I remember thinking, once upon that fateful time of discovery, that Mika would be a one-album-wonder with no room for growth within his zany niche. But the recent release of his second c.d. has both proven that even I underestimated the raw talent behind his music and affirmed the perfection with which Mika’s style sings to the very core of my being. So the need to articulate what I love about him and his music has finally overcome my sense of the impossibility of doing so without the proper technical, terminological and historical-cultural tools of articulation. What follows, then, is my attempt! I hope I can do Mika justice, but if not, I hope his music can sing for itself.
First off, I should lay bare my biases. I have three particular musical preferences that predispose me to Mika: piano, falsetto and happiness. Whenever I hear something I like played on the piano, I’m struck by an overpowering urge to play it myself; it’s as if I could never be completely happy until I’m pouring that music out of my own fingertips and as if doing so would be a totally unparalleled high. (I don’t know how to play the piano yet, but I will someday!) My second predisposition is different: I would never say that falsetto strikes me as any distinct source of satisfaction while I’m listening to it, but my pattern of musical favorites (the Beach Boys and Frankie Valli having preceded Mika) can only mean there’s something about that high-pitched croon that appeals to me. As for Smashmouth and the Temptations, those favorites are products of the third disposition: happy-sounding tunes! I’m not saying I can’t appreciate a good emo song now and again, but…I am saying the chances are marginal. Between these three of my top musical inclinations, it’s no wonder I love Mika. But there is much more to his music that should make anyone look (listen) twice.
I’ll start on a somewhat defensive note (pun absolutely intended) because I think Mika defies a couple of the key criticisms that are generally leveled at pop music. As I see it, pop gets a bad rap thanks mostly to industry-molded stars like Britney who have never come up with an original lyric, who seem devoid of any real vocal talent, and whose music usually contains few discernable melodic layers (the various layers, when they are present, frequently being drowned out by excessive electric instrumentation and rhythm). Mika’s music, on the other hand, could never be characterized by bad singing, unoriginality or melody-drowning electrics and drums. With a strikingly beautiful command of a three-and-a-half octave vocal range, he can clearly sing. He also writes his own songs – including, of course, “Grace Kelly,” his happy-go-lucky fuck-you to the record companies that tried to mold him into a product of their own like so many pop idols and boy-bands before him.
Most importantly, the thrill of Mika’s music comes largely from the two or three layers of melody that dance together in each of his songs. These layers almost always include piano and frequently feature an orchestral part as well. The result is a sound that is fuller-bodied, more stimulating and, when combined with the always-prominent bass, somehow more soul-striking than the average percussion- and electric-heavy pop (or pop-rock) song. Mika’s songs are not only infectiously dance-able – as all pop should be – but they are infectiously sing-able in the same way as Bon Jovi or Janis Joplin: that is, his songs don’t just allow you to sing along by virtue of tidy lyrics and an easy tune, they compel you to belt it out by virtue of a sound (entirely independent of lyrics) that penetrates deep to the core where our emotions rage and play. What Mika shows the world (or anyone who will listen) is that pop can have as much soul as any other style.
Pop also comes under fire for its generally vapid lyrics, and here too Mika sets himself apart from the crowd. His lyrics aren’t usually cryptic in any way, but his subject matter and wording often display refreshing lyrical originality. Unlike many other musical artists’ portfolios, Mika’s subjects include a wide range of feelings and situations beyond the various aspects of love and lust. The range is eclectic and uncalculated – whatever he feels like writing about at any given time – e.g. “Big Girls,” written in entirely a-political honor of the big women in his life. Perhaps the best example of non-traditional subject matter (addressed in an entirely straightforward way) is “Billy Brown,” a song that tells the story of a married man who falls in love with another man.
The hit singles from Mika’s first c.d., “Grace Kelly” and “Lollipop,” contain examples of quirky or non-traditional wording. The chorus of “Grace Kelly,” a song about the pressure to mold yourself into someone else’s image, reads:
“I could be brown
I could be blue
I could be violet sky
I could be hurtful
I could be purple
I could be anything you like
Gotta be green
Gotta be mean
Gotta be everything more
Why don’t you like me?
Why don’t you like me?
Why don’t you walk out the door!”
It’s not hard to interpret, but it is certainly a more originally-stated expression of theme than, oh I don’t know, “the way you’re acting like you’re somebody else gets me frustrated,” or “I don’t wanna be anything other than what I been tryin to be baby.” In “Lollipop,” Mika uses quirky modes of metaphor as he sings in child-voiced glee: “sucking too hard on your lollipop/oh love’s gonna get you down.” Do with that what you will, but let’s just say it’s not the hum-drum way of putting things, especially when combined with the song’s over-the-top campy sound that makes it nothing short of a lollipop itself – a lollipop for the ears.
An example of lyrical creativity of a different kind is the song “Touches You” from Mika’s latest c.d. The wording itself is not original, but the overall idea conveyed by the lyrics represents a precious innovation on a classic theme. The chorus reads: “I wanna be your sister/wanna be your mother too/I wanna be, wanna be/Whatever else that touches you.” The familial reference pushes these lines beyond the routine expression of longing to touch someone physically or personally. This song is about the longing to get through to someone on a much deeper level – to be close to them, to be part of their world, as only someone like a family member might usually be.
Finally on the topic of lyrics, lyrical complexity is often thrown about as an indication of song quality: the less cryptic, the less poetic, the less intelligent, the less to be taken seriously as a quality song. Mika’s lyrics, as in the examples I have presented, generally make a pretty clear point – but not always, and more importantly, not to the detriment of his music. Much of Mika’s brilliance is in his ability to tap into basic human emotions that are most easily accessed and appreciated when not subjected to the over-analysis and complication that verbalization can so often bring to bear. Mika just lets the emotions out, free, clear and pure, in a way that makes it impossible for the receptive listener not to confront them head-on. Some call it teenage angst. (Indeed, Mika’s second c.d. is the product of an intentional focus on his own teenage years, following on the first album’s theme of childhood.) Yet there is an enduring universality about the emotional qualities of his music. I suspect that our situations seem to grow more complex as we age, while the associated raw emotions remain the same. Those raw emotions just grow ever more tangled and more difficult to tap into as we become increasingly accustomed to quelling them for the sake of playing the “responsible adult.” And that’s where Mika comes in, if you let him. Forget “responsible adult”; hell, forget “adult” altogether. Turn on Mika, and he’ll make you let loose the kid – or the teenager – that is bottled up inside.
And yet Mika never becomes truly angsty. His music retains, at every turn, a certain charmingly whimsical lightheartedness that softens even his confrontations with life’s most miserable angles. The way in which this lightheartedness is delivered, in the pseudo-serious songs, is – I’ve finally realized – the key to my own deeply personal connection to and preference for his music: in a word, it is irony. Regardless of one’s final judgment of the quality of his lyrics alone or the quality of his sound alone, it is by playing with the relationship between lyrics and sound that Mika achieves everything from a delightful touch of off-beat zaniness to, more typically, a dose of downright delicious irony. Sure, some of his songs are total lighthearted fun with no room for the ironic; the point of songs like “We Are Golden,” “Love Today” and “Blame It on the Girls” is clearly just to inspire instantaneous joy and dance parties. But many others, particularly in his new album, mix the campy and the heady with an ironic twist that makes you want to laugh, at life, as much as the music makes you want to dance. At the same time, Mika has a brilliant ability to create parallels between sound and words – as in the aforementioned “Lollipop,” the sickly sweet sound of which matches the candy references throughout the song, even as the between-the-lines subject matter is less than completely kid-candy fun.
“Pick Up Off the Floor” is another great example of a song that contains certain parallels between words and sounds within a larger framework of irony. Mika hangs onto each note, each word, for just a split-second extra, investing the song’s sound with a sweeping feeling that parallels perfectly the images of sweeping [something off the floor] that are embedded in the lyrics:
“Put your heart back in your pocket,
Pick your love up off the floor
When your mama says you’re stopping,
But girl, let me tell you more:
If he’s 95 or 22,
A boys gonna do what he’s gonna do,
He says he don’t love you anymore,
So pick up off the floor.”
The song is about a pretty damn painful situation, but its lilting, bluesy and almost sensual qualities (which kick in after the song opens with a dramatic orchestral flourish) make you want to move your hips and join Mika in gently, charitably – but inevitably nastily too – telling someone (perhaps yourself) to “get over it.” It’s harsh medicine, but delivered by a cooing Mika, the blow softens to the point where you can see – thankfully clearly since he isn’t mincing words either – even your own folly in “dragging down” your life à la the verse:
“Love is lost, life can burn,
But your luck will return,
But if you’re dragging it down you won’t know it’s there.”
The melodramatic orchestral background allows you your fill of anguished release, while the layered interplay of serious and playful ensures that you won’t feel too pathetic relishing in the release; the loss of a love is, after all, just another joke on life.
When it comes to irony, I probably shouldn’t even mention the exemplar “Toy Boy,” a story-song told from the perspective of a literal and figurative toy. Suffice it to say, the tune skips merrily along while the words make a mock mockery of the boy on the receiving end of a situation that, addressed by Britney, might sound something like: “I played with your heart/got lost in a game” – that is, if Britney were a man playing a socially taboo (homosexual) game. A taunting sarcasm practically drips from Mika’s voice as he sings:
“But your mama thought there was somethin’ wrong
Didn’t want you sleeping with a boy too long
Its a serious thing in a grown-up world
Maybe you’d be better with a Barbie girl
You knew that I adored-ya
But you left me in Georgia
Toys are not sentimental
How could I be for rental?”
Then there are all kinds of songs in which the simple juxtaposition of a serious subject matter with a cheerful tune communicates, at least for those of us listeners who are predisposed to the ironic, a message that Bob Fosse perhaps put most succinctly: “Everything is important, and nothing is serious.” Mika’s “Stuck in the Middle” is positively bouncy, even as part of the chorus reads, “Is there anybody home?/Who wants to have me/just to love me?”. “Loverboy” sounds similarly cheerful, but the most stand-out line is, “Love is just a cautionary, momentar-reactionary lie.” The airy melodies of the aforementioned “Billy Brown” form the backdrop for a song about a married man thrown into crisis by having a homosexual affair.
Through it all, the theme that emerges over and over again in Mika’s music (and, it would seem, life) is individual identity – finding it, maintaining it, celebrating it. “Why don’t you like me the way I am?” he asks (in not-so-many words) in “Grace Kelly.” “You should be able to live whatever sexual orientation you feel, without shame,” he implies in “Billy Brown” and “Toy Boy.” “If you’re big, be beautiful anyway,” he says in “Big Girls.” “I’m more powerful and beautiful than you think I am,” he shouts (more metaphorically) in “We Are Golden,” the music video of which is a teenage Mika, stripped down to his undies, dancing around in his room where nobody can see him and judge him. And in fact, Mika defies identity judgment at every turn. On a personal level as much as an artistic one, he refuses to be boxed in by traditional perimeters. Long questioned about his sexual orientation, he has said only, “there is a way of discussing sexuality without using labels. I’ve never ever labeled myself. But having said that, I’ve never limited my life, I’ve never limited who I sleep with.” Those three sentences just about sum up a couple of my three-page blog posts below, and they sum up an outlook on life in general – far beyond the issue of sexuality – that speaks to me as deeply as does his joyous, quirky, melodious irony: don’t try to fit anything or anyone into a box; live and let live, love and let love. And while you’re at it, make sure you find time to dance around in your underwear when nobody’s watching – to Mika of course: what else?!