Life Through Cinderella’s Eyes: Dancing to the Drum of Nicola Roberts

Nicola Roberts is a different kind of pop star.

There’s just no getting around it, really: Ever since her name was called as one-fifth of the band that went on to become Girls Aloud during the finale of the 2002 reality series Pop Stars: The Rivals, the Lincolnshire-born redhead with porcelain skin stuck out like a sore thumb amongst the pristine pop quintet. There was something special about Nicola, something different–dare say “alternative” about the then 17-year-old songstress.

Roberts made her mark in the Aloud as the quiet, quirky vocalist responsible for some of the band’s most memorable moments–the opening seconds of “Untouchable,” the second verse of “Whole Lotta History,” the show-stopping bridge of “Call The Shots.” More often than not, it was Roberts’ shaky, vulnerable vocals that placed an ice-coated cherry on top of some of the Aloud’s finest work.

But being “different” can often be problematic, and for Nicola, induction into the Almighty Aloud was nearly a curse: From the get go, Roberts was relentlessly teased and bullied in the British tabloids for her appearance, as well as an apparent bad attitude: “Ginger.” “Pale.” “Ugly.” In 2003, Busted‘s Matt Willis pronounced her a “rude ginger bitch,” a nickname that the press fondly appropriated for years. And despite the best efforts made by her fellow bandmates to protect her against seeing the stories, Roberts was still well aware of the continuous public mockery, leading to several years of excessive drinking and an unhealthy obsession with tanning.

Lest anyone be confused and think she simply stood there and dealt with the criticism however, it’s simply not true: Nicola Roberts has always found ways to fight back.

During a performance at G-A-Y in London in 2003 for instance, the quiet crooner took a cheeky stab at Matt Willis’ attack by donning a black skirt with the words “RUDE GINGER BITCH…BOTHERD?!” painted on the back. Later on in her career, as Roberts slowly grew confident in her natural appearance, she would tackle her tanorexia head-on in an eye-opening BBC special, Nicola Roberts: The Truth About Tanning.

Now, with the release of debut record out on September 26, Cinderella’s Eyes, Roberts has gone one step further and turned the tables on her detractors completely with one loud, defiant rallying call: “TEAM GINGE.”

When Roberts’ solo campaign became public knowledge broke in early 2011, fellow Alouders Cheryl Cole and Nadine Coyle had already released their own solo efforts: Cheryl supplied the radio-friendly R&B-pop with smashes like “Fight For This Love” and “Promise This” with producers like Wayne Wilkins and Will.I.Am at the helm, while Nadine lent her tried-and-true diva pipes to Toby Gad and Guy Chambers-penned torch ballads and powerful pop tracks like “Insatiable.”

Roberts, as the running theme of her personal narrative goes, had something a little different in mind. Reports soon indicated that the singer was heading into the studio with indie-approved acts like Diplo, Dimitri Tikovoi, Metronomy, Dragonette and The Invisible Men, generating (accurate) predictions from the get-go that this particular Aloud member’s solo career would be the most ambitious, forward-thinking Aloud offering yet. “I didn’t want to play it safe and I didn’t want to make a record that was a guaranteed commercial success,” she told The Guardian back in June.

Out burst lead single “Beat Of My Drum” in May, an all-out assault of Diplo-produced jittery video game bleeps and blips, nonsensical electronica noise and a major cheerleader-approved chorus that found Roberts shouting–truly yelping–from the top of her lungs: “L! O! V! E! Dance to the beat of my drum!”

Every inch of the song was symbolic; the blossoming from the quiet, meek girl group member to a full-blown solo star of her own accord. From the lyrics (“Graduation, take a bow/See how strong you’ve made me now”) to the video, which featured an initially nervous Nicola taking to the stage and slowly taking over a gymnasium with a group of zany dancers and a ceaseless amount of booty bounces and cocky hair flips–put Roberts firmly in control of her career with her own brand of crazy, sexy, cool.

Even the vocals took most fans by surprise: Far from the gorgeously crooned, disco-friendly vocals we’d come to expect from Roberts while in Aloud, here was the same girl now utterly belting out a number with an odd, erratic mixture of Broadway-ready vibrato and ’40’s-era doo-wop wailing.

Roberts’ voice was even further highlighted in follow-up single “Lucky Day,” a sparkling, sing-songy track produced by Dragonette that found Roberts riffing up and down with all her might–nearly to the point of parody–against a backing track of glittery electronica and pounding beats.

Finally, on September 26, Roberts released her long-awaited solo debut, Cinderella’s Eyes, a collection of smartly crafted, endlessly cool electro-pop tunes.

Even the album’s gorgeous, Juergen Teller-esque campaign shots are as tasty as its contents. Decked out in ornate stilettos and brilliant designer threads filled with loud splashes of color, Nicola is pictured in a variety of brilliant poses: Sitting atop a kitchen sink cluttered with dirty dishes, walking a pony on a leash, scandalously holding a jar of dumdums between her legs, lying rigid against a hardwood floor–the perfect mixture of silly, chic and sophisticated.

Cinderella’s Eyes is largely an exercise in self-empowerment and self-discovery (though not without its fair share of self-doubt.) Unlike the all-too-assured “it gets better” anthems manufactured by hit-making machines like Katy Perry (“Firework”), Roberts’ record shines with a solid footing in reality: It’s not so much “It gets better,” it’s “It gets better…if you do something about it,” a rare shred of honesty that simply doesn’t exist in modern pop these days, and the kind of music that feels more inspiring and motivational than most other mainstream feel-good anthems today.

“Little girl, you got to do it for yourself / In a world where cards are so randomly dealt,” Roberts sagely advises on the album’s title track, one of the many moments of Roberts’ grand reclamation of her own destiny. Bouncing along an ’80’s synth beat, Roberts offers her well-intentioned advice through infectious hooks and melodies. “No more pretending there’s happy endings, you got to make one, make one,” she continues.

Fittingly, it’s The Invisible Men–the same producers behind one of the Aloud’s most forward thinking, game-changing smashes, 2004’s “The Show”–that claim responsibility to two of Cinderella’s Eyes‘ most thundering tracks: “Say It Out Loud” and “Take A Bite.”

Featuring deliciously rich vocal stuttering and layers upon layers of gorgeous electronica, “Say It Out Loud” is a euphoric moment of synth-pop, reminiscent of something Ellie Goulding might produce. “‘Cause the only medication / For a heart that knows it’s breaking / Is to get it out now, say it out loud…WOAH!” she shouts aloud on behalf of all broken hearts.

“Take A Bite,” meanwhile, grinds and grooves with along a rollicking drum ‘n’ bass beat that evokes an early Aloud brattitude…and even a rap to boot! “Called me a rude ginger bitch and say I bought bigger tits / They’re gonna eat all their words, they’re talking absolute shit,” she merrily sing-songs, taking one last jab at the nickname that’s haunted her for years.

Even the album’s lone cover, “Everybody’s Got To Learn Sometime,” a cover of The Korgis, is a no-brainer addition to the collection. Crooning on top of a slow-sizzling electronic groove, Roberts’ rendition converts the 1980 hit into a throbbing slow jam that fits in effortlessly with the rest of the production as she croons one of the album’s key themes: “Change your heart…it will astound you.”

But it’s when Nicola breaks away from the positivity on a few tracks however that the record becomes even more real–and to a degree, somewhat flawed. “i” is undoubtedly Nicola’s most unhinged moment, a Kate Bush-evoking slow jam that finds the songstress issuing out a laundry list of daily worries and aspirations on top of a hazy beat and groovy guitar strum straight out a post-LCD Beatles songbook. “I’m scared of dying and not trying, scared of getting old / I’m scared of telling lies, [in] case karma comes and eats me whole,” she warbles off-key. “I don’t like the people that leave comments on the Internet / They preach they’re perfect while they’re fucking you with intellect.” It’s both the best and the worst representation of the album–the most irritating moment vocally in some ways, but also her most vulnerable outpouring of insecurities.

Fittingly, it’s worth noting upon hearing “i” that Cinderella’s Eyes simply isn’t perfect: While the production and lyricism easily makes the album one of the best of the year, it’s Roberts’ newly discovered new pipes that occasionally throw off the record, often jumping from pleasant crooning to grating yelps in a matter of seconds. The shrill shrieks can often be cringe-worthy and–at certain points–nearly unbearable.

Even some of the album’s more uptempo cuts threaten to burst at the seams with their combination of Nicola’s vibrato-heavy vocals and big pop production. “Gladiator,” for instance, bounces along with the same happy-go-lucky pop energy as Sky Ferreira‘s “99 Tears.” But unlike Ferreira’s too-cool-for-school air that works so well with “99 Tears,” Roberts’ chirpy, Liza-like delivery comes across as downright annoying, making the unexpectedly naughty lyricism (“I got some KY, time to open wide!”) feel all the more…err, grating.

Vocal limitations aside, Cinderella’s Eyes still largely flourishes as a whole. And when Roberts isn’t busy bettering herself, she’s wearily ruminating on relationships gone bad.

“Yo-Yo,” a chilly mid-tempo, captures the essence of what made Girls Aloud so legendary while still remaining true to Roberts’ own personally narrative as she goes back and forth in a relationship gone south. “You come around, stop messing around / If you wanna be my baby please tell me now,” the singer pleads. And while you’re at it, prepare for the album’s most lush moment during the bridge–a full minute of shiver-inducing, Aloud-esque icy disco crooning: “You got me wrapped right around your finger / And I can’t let go, and I can’t let go,” she agonizes.

“Fish Out Of Water,” Metronomy’s other production aside from “i”–is perhaps the album’s most understated moment. Riding along a weird, warbling wave of ambient noise, Roberts tenderly ponders the loss of her first love. Of course, there’s also the song unbelievably gorgeous finish, as Nicola purrs in her (way underutilized) lower register: “Even if I have to go alone, I’d rather that then let you go, so I’ll face the road unknown.” It’s a chilling moment that surely would have been another one of Nicola’s show-stopping lines in an Aloud offering.

Yet while all the electro-encrusted gems dispersed throughout the record represent Nicola’s quirky personality, nothing quite epitomizes Cinderella’s Eyes like its final moment: “sticks + stones.”

Floating along a sad, haunting melody, the album’s closer is a fearless, be-all end-all account of Roberts’ experience as a member of the Aloud, featuring a bridge that might as well be a page ripped directly from her diary during the mid ’00’s:

Too young to buy my own bottle of vodka
So I’d beg the driver please I need another
How funny that I was too young for so many things
Yet you thought I’d cope with being told I’m ugly
Over and over I’d read it, believe it
Said no to the shrink I can fix me I think
I got friends in my head they’ve got me on the mend
I am pretty in my mirror, easy to pretend
17 and thought that I’d won the jackpot
Seems I didn’t read between the lines of this one
I can’t think why I could of made you so, so angry
Your bullets I don’t feel them come on and fire at me

In the same vein as Christina Aguilera‘s legendary “Beautiful” (albeit with a more personal touch), as Roberts reassures once and for all: You’re not alone–a touching way to signal the end of her debut.

“With all their mean words, they’re ugly / Starting to see I’m lucky, and that’s enough,” Roberts tenderly concludes at one point. If that isn’t one of the most powerful pop lyrics to be uttered in years, I honestly don’t know what is.

Cinderella’s Eyes would certainly be considered a solid attempt for any debut artist–let alone a girl group member-turned-solo star (a category from which the end results are so rarely satisfying.)

Yet while Roberts has successfully made the transition from the shadows of the Aloud into the spotlight as an act in her own right, her debut is often weakened due to a delivery gone unrestrained; the result being a series of shrieks and yelps (which is perhaps to make up for nearly a decade of being subjected to quiet crooning in the background) that isn’t always the easiest to endure.

Still, thanks to her emotional honesty, charming wit, and ability to avoid any and all pandering (i.e. no club cuts or cliche love songs), Nicola has forged her own unique musical identity as a solo act while taking a stand once and for all against the bullies. There’s a kind of solace in Cinderella’s Eyes–it’s real, it’s relatable, and it’s one of the best offerings of 2011.

By all accounts, Team Ginge has won the war.

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