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 elements of pop culture that do so much to define a generation. But I know what I like, and I know that I have a lot to say – in whatever non-technical words I can find – about the brilliant but under-appreciated Mika, European pop artist and man-boy extraordinaire.
I remember thinking, when I discovered Mika in 2007, that he 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 proven that even I underestimated the raw talent behind his music.
First off, I should note that I have three particular musical preferences that predispose me to Mika: piano, falsetto and happiness. I’ve always wanted to play the piano more than any other instrument, and I still hope to learn someday; it might be the countless hours I spent in ballet class growing up, listening to the pianist guide us through our exercises. I’m not sure, but there’s something about the piano that I just love. My second predisposition is different: I would never say that falsetto strikes me as an identifiable aesthetic preference or the stand-out reason I like a particular song, but my pattern of musical favorites (the Beach Boys and Frankie Valli preceding Mika) can only mean there’s something about a 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. Considering these three musical inclinations, it’s no wonder I love Mika. Yet there’s much more to his music that should make anyone look (or, 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, are devoid of real vocal talent, and whose music contains few discernible melodic layers (drowned out as they are by excessive electronics and rhythm). Mika, on the other hand, has a strikingly beautiful command of a three-and-a-half octave vocal range and 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, his music almost always contains two or three layers of melody that blend playfully together. The piano represents one detectable layer, and it’s usually in concert with a full-bodied orchestral component. The orchestration in particular creates a richer, more emotionally resonant sound than the average percussion-heavy pop fare. Mika’s songs are not only infectiously dance-able, as all pop should be, but they are infectiously sing-able too – not just by virtue of tidy lyrics and easy tunes but because his sound penetrates on a real emotional level. 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 vapid lyrics, and here too Mika sets himself apart from the crowd. His lyrics aren’t cryptic in any way, but his subject matter and wording can display refreshing lyrical originality. Subjects include an eclectic, uncalculated range of ideas beyond the various aspects of love and lust – 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 so many other songs dealing with the same idea. 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 an auditory lollipop itself.
An example of lyrical creativity of a different kind is the song “Touches You” from Mika’s latest c.d. The wording itself isn’t 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 unique world, as only someone like a family member might usually be.
Finally on the topic of lyrics, lyrical complexity is too often thrown around as an indication of depth: the less cryptic, the less poetic, the less intelligent, the less to be taken seriously as a quality song. Mika’s lyrics, as you can see from the above, generally make a pretty clear point – but not to the detriment of his music. Instead, his brilliance lies in his ability to tap into basic human emotions that are most easily accessed and appreciated when they’re not subjected to the complicated over-analysis that verbalization can so often bring to bear. Mika just lets his message out freely and clearly, making it impossible for the receptive listener not to confront certain feelings head-on. In this way, despite a childlike bounciness and honesty, there’s an enduring universality about the emotional quality of his music. In fact, I suspect that our situations grow more complex as we age, but the associated raw emotions just grow more difficult to tap into as we quell them to play the “responsible adult.” And that’s where Mika comes in, if you let him. Forget “responsible adult”; hell, forget “adult” altogether and let loose the kid that’s bottled up inside.
And yet Mika’s music retains, at every turn, a certain whimsical lightheartedness that softens even his confrontations with life’s most miserable angles. The underlying whimsy in his pseudo-serious songs is – I’ve finally realized – the key to my own deeply personal connection to his music. Regardless of the quality of his lyrics or overall sound, it’s 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 irony. In so many songs, the mix of campy and heady, with an ironic twist, 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,” with its sickly sweet sound contrasting the obvious opportunity to read something much more adult between the lines.
“Pick Up Off the Floor” is another great example of a song that parallels 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 matches the image of sweeping 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 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 (maybe 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:
“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 a measure of anguished release, while the layered interplay of serious and playful holds you back; one more love lost 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 pops 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?”
In many other examples, the simple juxtaposition of a serious subject matter with a cheerful tune communicates what 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 in his 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,” he implies in “Billy Brown.” “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 his bedroom where nobody can judge him. 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 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?!