Guest Muuse: Sam Lansky’s “Fame Fatale: The Rise of Sky Ferreira”

So, this is something new and interesting.

The night before my interview with Sky Ferreira, I received a vaguely mysterious e-mail from MuuMuse reader Sam Lansky with an attachment entitled “Fame Fatale.” The e-mail suggested that the attached may assist me in preparing for my interview.

As soon as I began reading, I already knew: This had to be published immediately.

“Fame Fatale” is not only a remarkably in-depth analysis (and personal account) of Ferreira’s curious rise to fame, but a thoughtful contemplation of the manufacturing of the modern pop star and the very conventions of the music industry itself. It’s extremely well-researched, poses tough questions, and deserves your full attention.

With his permission, I’ve asked Sam to feature his article on MuuMuse. It’s an incredible piece, and I do highly recommend that all of my Muusers give it a thorough reading–even if it’s “tl;dr” territory.

I do, after all, hope to keep a literate company.

Click “Read More…” to read Sam Lansky’s “Fame Fatale: The Rise of Sky Ferreira.”

In April, I recognized Sky Ferreira in the VIP section of the Bell Room in Brooklyn. She was wearing a fur coat and leggings. A tangly mane of hair haloed her heart-shaped face. When she smiled, her mouth was full of small, sharp teeth. I knew instantly that she was too cool for me, that we could never be friends. But still, I surged with the aching, sexless lust of a childhood crush. I wanted to be her sassy, outrageous gay best friend. I wanted to cluck my tongue when she tried on an ill-fitting deconstructed vintage leather motorcycle jacket. I wanted to be the one to whom she tweeted a pithy one-liner.

So I approached the roped-off platform. The clamor of the club swelled around me, blotting out my heartbeat in my ears. I called up to her.

“Sky!” I yelled. She looked down at me, searching my face for familiarity that she wouldn’t find. I extended a hand and she shook it, tentatively. “I’m such a huge fan.”

“Really?” she said.

I have been following the rise of Sky Ferreira for well over a year now. In February of 2009, British music journalist Paul Lester featured her as the “New Band of the Day” in The Guardian, after being tipped by up-and-coming synthpop act Frankmusik to “this incredible 16-year-old model, promoter, singer and lyricist” he’d stumbled across. “She’s a great idea brought to life, a young internet celebrity and art-glam-trash-pop teen who makes Lady Gaga look a bit, well, old and crap,” Lester wrote.

The only song on Sky’s MySpace page was a remix of the song “Teen Lovers” by indie-dance quartet The Virgins, which featured Sky singing tinnily on the chorus. Information on Sky was scarce online. Pictures on her MySpace showed a lissome girl with messy hair, a pouting mouth, and eyes smeared with kohl. In one, she licked her lips, offering a tantalizingly half-eaten hamburger to the camera; in another, she squinted and bared her teeth, exposing shiny braces; it was the perfect juxtaposition of a patriarchal fantasy of sexually precocious teenage girls and the reality of adolescence in all its awkwardness. The contrast was self-consciously clever, if a little self-satisfied.

Early on, I unearthed another demo called “Almost Lover,” from when Sky was fifteen; it is a dissonant, ambient sprawl of a record that sounds like it was cut in a bathroom. It was the first I had heard of Sky’s voice, which is, if anything, a bracingly mature instrument. It is also the stuff of legend: I have read that she is a classically trained gospel singer, that she has the same vocal range as Mariah Carey, and that she sang for Michael Jackson when she was eleven (her grandmother was his hairstylist) and brought him to tears. It’s easy to imagine why. Her voice is rich and throaty, but unlike the theatrical ululating that’s become so ubiquitous among VH1 divas and reality talent show contestants, with its Broadway pitch and showy runs. Sky’s is not the voice of a teenager, but one inflected with melancholy, wearied by years of painful experience and lost love. In “Almost Lover,” the vocal track is raw and unmastered, soaring and collapsing into trilling synths. “You sing me lullabies to waste my time/The sweetest sadness in your eyes,” she murmurs. Then, with wrenching emotionality, The Voice breaks loose: “I try not to think about you,” she sings, “but I am just too naïve.” In a press release, Sky described one of her first songs as “Careless Whisper’ in space”; I suspect this description refers to “Almost Lover.” If so, it is a more accurate description than this writer could devise.

The only other recording I could find, at least at that point, was a cover of the Billie Holiday song “God Bless the Child.” If this recording is less experimental, it nonetheless betrays the same maturity at which “Almost Lover” hints. She carries the final note for ten long seconds of chill-inducing vibrato.

Sky was a fan of Bloodshy & Avant, née Christian Karlsson and Pontius Winnberg. The Swedish production team are best known for their work on Britney Spears‘ critically lauded single “Toxic,” though their popularity among the indie set has risen due to their production as two-thirds of the pop outfit Miike Snow. She sent them a message via MySpace, which, she claims, read like this: “I write my own songs and sing. I can do everything, and I can do it better than Britney Spears, so you should work with me. There’s only problem: I don’t have any money, so I can’t pay you, but I swear to God, I’m going to be a huge pop star.” To her surprise, they wrote back, charmed by the audacity of this curious American girl. Over the next several years, Sky corresponded with Karlsson and Winnberg, until finally, they flew her out to Sweden to begin recording music.

How are pop stars actually “manufactured”? The term suggests construction from raw materials into a finished good. It connotes big business, industry. With a manufactured star, a corporate interest is responsible for the development of a product, with the physicality of the artist as one asset in a portfolio of agents, managers, songwriters, producers, and handlers. The face, the body, the voice (and in the era of digital manipulation, the necessity of vocal talent is questionable at best): these corporeal components are the artist’s sole contribution, while everything else is filtered through channels of commoditization. Sculpted, mastered, abridged. The performer’s personality and image are subject to the whims of the record label and the desires of the public, never the vision of the singer’s artistry. This is what we’re told.

So in this model, Britney Spears at age fifteen is an ontologically vacant vessel, sculpted by the Man to be sexily virginal, pruriently wholesome, exotically American, girlishly mature. We buy her records and watch her videos and in exchange, she lets us pour our fantasies and preoccupations into her. This is the popular illusion, perpetuated by music snobs to disparage chart pop — that Britney’s persona was somehow cooked up in a conference room by Clive Davis and a bunch of other suits. This notion is pervasive, even though Britney, as a teenager, was the one tugging her family out of some backwoods bayou town, cutting demos with producers, grinning like an idiot on The Mickey Mouse Club, fighting tooth and nail to develop her image. When Britney signed her record deal and recorded a few future smashes, the label pitched a treatment for the “…Baby One More Time” video, which involved Britney and her friends dancing around on an oversized vinyl record. She thought it was silly, so she proposed an alternate premise. In her aesthetic vision, she was prancing around in a Catholic schoolgirl uniform, skirt hitched up, midriff bared.

It is too tempting, too easy to undercut the business acumen and musical talent of our “manufactured” pop stars. The successful female solo pop artists of the last few years, despite the rapidity that tends to characterize the eventual ascent to fame, actually floundered for Hollywood eons until finally breaking big. Lady Gaga was a fixture on the New York burlesque scene for years before she became the next Madonna; Katy Perry, whose lesbian-lite single “I Kissed a Girl” dominated the airwaves in 2008, had an unsuccessful career as a Christian contemporary artist under the pseudonym Katy Hudson; Ke$ha sang background vocals for Britney Spears, The Veronicas, and Paris Hilton (of all people) before her drunken chav-pop ever charted. There is, of course, the Disney machine, which has been churning out freshly scrubbed triple-threat tweens with the vulgar commerciality often ascribed to pop music as a whole, but their market is niche, limited largely to kids in the heartland and gays who listen to musical theater. That is, for every crossover success like Miley Cyrus, there are countless singing-dancing stars of Disney Channel original movies who have faded into the sonic ether, too jaundiced by age sixteen to be commercially viable. Even Taylor Swift, easily the most blandly palatable popstrel of the last few years, toiled in the Nashville circuit throughout her adolescence, turning down a development deal with RCA because they wouldn’t let her record the songs that she was writing — the same songs which have shattered airplay records since Taylor broke big with Fearless.

These women paid their dues to the industry. They failed enough times to understand how to effectively cultivate a successful image. They learned through trial and error that, with a thousand pretty girls with big voices groping for the same elusive record deal, no management team is willing to do the hard work for them. The little creative control that Britney Spears once exercised over her career has yielded to a process that is unexpectedly driven by grassroots efforts and sheer tenacity, such that any resultant popularity is legitimately deserved. The old paradigm of the manufactured pop artist is simply no longer operative.

But rather than honor the artist for the ruthless intelligence they must exhibit, it’s easier to credit the industry, or better still, fault the parents, disturbing as it is to think that the children of the next generation possess the cool, calculating savvy that is necessary to claw one’s way to the top. The Algeresque scrap of a rags-to-riches fame narrative is only endearing once a star has already made it, for the drive itself is unattractive; as in all art, the craft should appear effortless, never revealing the teeth-grinding tenacity required for mastery.

The truth is, the progeny of the Dina Lohans of the world never had a chance to be the doe-eyed naïfs we’d want them to be–it’s just that the domineering stage-mom archetype is a useful foil that helps defuse the desperate quest for stardom which is so intrinsic to the pop star. The obdurate narcissism of a fame-starved teenage girl isn’t oppositional to the precocious innocent–actually, the former facilitates the presentation of the latter. Given the right resources, some pluck and a squadron of hitmakers, the girl goes triple platinum: the self-made Lolita, selling nothing more than herself.

Sky released two tracks in the summer of 2009. The first, “Lolita,” was posted on YouTube by her record label; the other, “Femme Fatale,” appeared on her MySpace.

“Femme Fatale” was produced by Greg Kurstin, a producer well regarded for his work with artists as diverse as Lily Allen, the Flaming Lips, and Britney Spears. The song has a jangly ‘60s sound, but harsh and dissonant, with vocal delivery that is variously seductive and antagonistic. “If you bother me, I’ll hiss,” she begins, sounding less threatening than coquettish, “My claws will dig deep into your skin/My paws are the only thing I’ll lick/Only thing you’ll taste is my fist.” The message of the song is compelling in its oxymoronic simultaneity; the urge to dominate a man (“Lay in the sun and get a tan/As you crawl to my demands”) coexists with a mutually exclusive disgust (“Don’t ask me questions, I’ll tell you nothing/Don’t touch me, don’t bug me, you’re wasting time”). In the chorus, she sings, “You’re able to tame the tiger but you can’t tame me too…All I do is make you a fool.” Putty-willed, the subject worships Sky, but the affection is never reciprocated. Is the material autobiographical? If Sky was a fixture on the Hollywood nightclub scene by age fifteen–compounded by her modelesque bearing and obvious precocity–it seems inevitable that she would be intimately familiar with the unwelcome advances of older men; in “Femme Fatale,” she harnesses her sexuality by withholding it.

The other song released in the same period, “Lolita,” is a frothier cousin to the causticity implicit in “Femme Fatale.” An earworm of a five-note piano riff is layered over a cacophony of handclaps and keyboards as Sky entreats: “Come on now, can you please turn the radio up?/Turn it on, make it loud, cause it’s oh-oh-oh/Hear the music and lose my self control.” If it is indeed a fairly typical ode to the beat–reliable lyrical content for most pop fare–it takes a twist after the bridge (“I can’t stop the beat, I can’t stop,” repeated ad infinitum). The chorus defies the song’s conventionality in a testament to the singer’s putative originality (“There’s nothing like this Lolita/You fall apart when I look at you”), then yields to a rapid-fire rap bridge in the vein of “Hollaback Girl”: “Pop pop ‘em when I’m dropping come on baby drive me crazy/You’re cute and I’m so bitchy when I’m gone you’re gonna miss me.”

Though it would be misguided to ascribe too much meaning to these lyrics, when juxtaposed with the prowling sexuality of “Femme Fatale,” the artistic statement is too compelling to be coincidental. Like many artists who could be reductively aggregated under the hipster umbrella, Sky’s musical influences have a willful eclecticism; she cites Madonna (but only “during the Blonde Ambition years”), Britney Spears, Serge Gainsbourg, Vanity 6, Brigitte Bardot, Sarah Brightman, and Dr. Dre (go figure). To be a student of contemporary music, Sky would be shrewd enough to discover, and creative enough to comment upon, the paradoxical dichotomy that has always bounded young women in pop: they must be both femme fatale and Lolita.

Sky has said that she is “interested in telling stories about youth and desire…[n]ot love, though, because I haven’t experienced that yet.” Implicit in the lyrics of these first two songs is a desire to circumnavigate the hypersexualization that characterizes most female pop artists by claiming her incipient femininity as hers and hers alone.

In the last decade, celebrities with no putative musical talent used a cult of personality as a platform to musical success. This is, admittedly, not a completely recent trend; Eddie Murphy‘s 1985 smash “Party All the Time,” produced by–who else?–Rick James, springs to mind; but the wave of so-called celebutantes in the mid-noughties produced a glut of pop music spanning a dramatic gamut of quality. As is so often cited as one of the elemental faults in pop music, image favored heavily over substance, such that when Paris Hilton released her first single, “Stars Are Blind,” in 2006, the backlash against the heiress for her musical aspirations was so severe, virtually nobody noticed that the song was actually brilliant. (The unlikely champion of “Stars Are Blind” was none other than indie bible Pitchfork, whose reviewer described the track as “so lovely and decent, I want to stab out my eyeballs.”) In an anomalous act of selflessness, Nicole Richie quietly shelved her debut album, Dandelion, but in recent months Heidi Montag, star of MTV’s The Hills, has revived the reality-star-cum-would-be-diva fantasy with her LP, fittingly titled Superficial.

As with Paris, Heidi is so widely reviled by, well, everyone, that her musical career never had a fighting chance. Never mind that most of her album was penned by Cathy Dennis, who is considered to be one of the greatest pop songwriters of her generation, with writing credits on eight #1 singles including Kylie Minogue‘s “Can’t Get You Out of My Head,” Katy Perry’s “I Kissed a Girl,” and that bastion of pop excellence, Britney Spears’ “Toxic”; Heidi’s shrill, wafery vocals render even the catchiest songs virtually unlistenable. As a case study, the failure of Heidi’s music career is tragic–over three years in the studio and $2 million of her own money to record an album that sold 658 copies in its first week. Unlike Paris, whose vapidity could be occasionally charming, Heidi’s persona is entirely loathsome. It makes good sense that her ubiquity in the tabloids wouldn’t translate into an actual fan base. But the pop market is fickle, even when the artist isn’t universally despised. The irony of naysayers who claim that pop music is shallow trash because image matters more than substance is that they’re right: the image of pop music as shallow trash precludes good pop from actually being judged on its own merits.

Of course image matters, but conventional wisdom would dictate that the voice should always matter more. This is not to say that an artist with no vocal talent can’t become successful on a platform of image, but rather, that an artist equipped with strong pipes and a compelling persona should put the music front and center. After a string of belters, Christina Aguilera‘s makeover for her sophomore album was shocking because her voice was so magnificent–why would she want to mud-wrestle, popping and locking like an overeager stripper, with such an extraordinary instrument humming in her larynx? Likewise, the disgust surrounding the decline of Whitney Houston into drug-addled disarray was horrifying because it betrayed the implicit pact she made with the public by singing at all. For anyone to dwindle away the years freebasing crack cocaine would be regrettable, but to trash a gift as precious as her voice was unforgivable (as the failure of her recent comeback album, I Look to You, can attest).

The MySpace years promised a new democratization of music, a meritocratic system in which an artist with good tunes and a web page could be virally catapulted into success. But this has had its own casualties. The hype machine eats up and spits out artists with relentless impunity–Arctic Monkeys, Vampire Weekend, and Little Boots are three of the most salient examples of the last half-decade. The Next Big Thing is declared so quickly, in a glut of leaked tracks and feverish buzz, no label could hope to act quickly enough to capitalize upon the hype. By the time the album is actually released, blogs are lambasting them for being derivative and fans are complaining that they’ve already heard all of the songs in various stages of production on MySpace; besides, there’s already someone newer and better. If it is easier than ever for a musical artist to get famous, it is harder than ever to develop longevity. As ferociously driven as an artist must be to attain success, it is actually subtlety and restraint that are the keys to keeping it.

Besides the aforementioned Bloodshy & Avant and Greg Kurstin, Sky has clocked studio time with Dallas Austin (Pink, TLC), Linda Perry (Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani), RedOne (Lady Gaga, Usher), Ryan Tedder (Beyonce, Leona Lewis), Paul Epworth (Bloc Party, Florence and the Machine), Diplo (M.I.A., Santigold), Benny Blanco (Lady Sovereign, Ke$ha), Dr. Luke (Britney Spears, Katy Perry), Mark Ronson (Amy Winehouse, Adele), Teddybears (Robyn, Sugababes), and Fernando Garibay (U2, Whitney Houston). If those names of those producers are meaningless, as they are to most casual music listeners, this list is arguably the most impressive roster of producers with whom a debut pop artist has ever worked. And yet, with the exception of the Greg Kurstin-produced “Femme Fatale,” none of the work with any of those producers surfaced, at least not in the early months. The buzz tracks and covers have been produced by lesser-known names–Skeet Skeet, Cory Enemy, Daniel Luttrell–while the other work remains heavily guarded.

It must be no coincidence that the artist who is arguably the first big talent of this decade has shrouded her music in secrecy, instead using hype built on furious tweeting and being photographed at events as her initial platform to cultivate a digital mystique. Using a portfolio of social networking tools and images, gathering a following of devoted young fans, Sky has developed a magnetically cooler-than-thou persona–without leaking all of her music.

Having just turned eighteen, Sky is of the first generation to be raised in the Internet age rather than arriving to it as an adult. The virtues and vicissitudes of digital fame must, I think, be inherent to her understanding of her career, rather than retroactively applied. Although musically, there is only very little to support the suspicions that are growing on message boards and blogs that Sky Ferreira is going to pervert the conventional logic of the teen pop star in how she’s manufactured herself–that doesn’t stop me from believing it. I can only speculate, but it seems to me now that Sky Ferreira has played the game just right.

Three covers have played a pivotal role in the rise of Sky Ferreira. The first is a twinkly, synth-laden cover of the Stevie Nicks song “Stand Back.” Lyrically, it fits easily into the canon of Sky’s other work, a simultaneous gesture of kiss-off and come-hither. “He asked me for my love, that was all,” Sky intones. More recently, Sky released a brilliantly unexpected mash-up of the beat from Dr. Dre’s “Still D.R.E” with her vocal of the Beatles‘ “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” titled (somewhat lazily) “Happy Dre.” By the final notes, her voice has risen into a panicked, anguished cry: “Happiness is a warm gun for me!”

The final cover, and the song that cemented my fanboy love for Sky Ferreira, is a rendition of “Animal” by her mentors, Miike Snow (comprised of Fires of Rome vocalist Andrew Wyatt, as well as Bloodshy & Avant). Consisting of only Sky’s voice and a piano, it is an astonishingly emotive vocal performance, transforming the tangy rhythms of the upbeat original into a crushing, devastated ballad, tenderly questioning and deeply wounded. “And now I’m pulling your disguise up/Are you free or are you tied up?” she sings. “I change shapes to hide in this place but I’m still, I’m still an animal/Nobody knows it but me when I slip but I’m still, I’m still an animal.”

This premature adult weariness comes through again in the content of her first promotional single, “17.” The song opens with simple, quiet instrumentation as Sky sings: “She, she, she, she came home late again tonight/You could see it in her eyes/She’s been up to something/We, we, we don’t know what to do with her/She’s from a different world.” When the chorus hits, the volume rises by several decibels, and there is something patently sinister about the layering of the vocals as she describes, “She’s been sneaking out at night, she’s dancing at the nightclub/Yeah, she’s got a fake ID, they’ll never know she’s seventeen/She’s drinking with her friends and they’re all twenty-one/I wonder how much longer she can get away with her dirty little secret.”

For me, there are two things that are intriguing about the message of this song. The first is that, though the story is nothing fresh, Sky chooses to tell it from the perspective of her parents, which suggests a self-aware perspective far beyond her years.

The second, actually, is that Sky wrote the song when she was fifteen. But really, this is just par for the course after a lifetime’s worth of preternatural insight. If fame is the central thematic thread woven into the narrative of Lady Gaga’s work, youth is what is most central to Sky’s. There is nothing more telling than the fact that the retroactive reflection on the spoils of her youth that Sky explores in “17” was composed by someone who had yet to experience it.

Sky’s first official single, “One,” will be released in Europe on August 23. In the recent tradition of brilliant pop songs about robots (“I Am Not a Robot” by Marina and the Diamonds; “The Girl and the Robot,” by Röyksopp with Robyn; “Self Machine” by I Blame Coco), “One” tells the story of a heartbroken robot. It’s a shimmering pop gem, produced by Bloodshy & Avant. It’s currently B-listed on BBC’s Radio 1, and will probably be A-listed by next week. It’s everything that her first single deserved to be.

Since I started writing this story, I have seen Sky in the pages of Interview, Nylon, and Entertainment Weekly. Her upcoming debut American single, “Obsession,” was written by Ryan Tedder, the Timbaland protégé, OneRepublic frontman, and master hitmaker responsible for “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis, “Halo” by Beyonce, and “Battlefield” by Jordin Sparks. I haven’t heard it yet, but I have every confidence that “Obsession” will be an international smash, and Sky Ferreira will be a household name. I am excited for her, but I’m also saddened that she won’t be my secret anymore. But I am comforted by the knowledge that when she is incredibly, hugely famous, it will be on Sky’s terms — not her label, not her manager, not her parents. Sky made Sky this way.

Standing in the VIP section with Sky Ferreira in April, clutching my tonic water, I told her what a huge fan I was. I told her that I was certain she was going to be famous. I tried to defuse my starstruck energy by dropping the name of a mutual friend who works in the music industry.

“Oh, he’s great,” she said. “We’re supposed to record a song together soon.”

“That’s amazing,” I said stupidly.

“You should hang out with us later,” she said, pulling out her BlackBerry. “Let me get your number.” I was dumbfounded. My breath clotted in my throat. Sky Ferreira wanted my number. I was cool, at least by proxy.

“Yeah, okay, that would be great,” I said. I punched her phone number into my iPhone, thinking how strange it was to see her name in my contacts, rather than on my playlists. After a moment of standing awkwardly, I said, “I should go find my friends.”

“Cool,” she said brightly. “I’ll see you later!”

After the show, I found her standing by the bar, talking to someone who looked much cooler than I was. I tried to act casual. “So, are you guys doing anything tonight?” I said.

She shrugged. “Not really.” My heart sank.

“Oh, okay. Well, it was nice to meet you!” I scampered away, feeling humiliated. Had I just been rebuffed by Sky Ferreira? Was she going to go do cool hipster music things with people who were eminently cooler and hipper and more musical than I was? On the G train, wallowing in unglamorous self-pity, I listened to “Animal” on repeat.

A week later, I sent her a text to ask if I could interview her for this essay. She never responded.

She did accept my friend request on Facebook, though.

Sam Lansky is a writer who lives in New York City. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr.

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