She Won’t Be Guilted 👏🏼

Kanye West demands a public apology for Travis Scott from Billie Eilish. Who does Ye think he is?

By Lester Fang

Kanye West is truly admirable. I think so; I do. No role he has played is too much, too bold, too absurd. He has styled himself as the arbiter of taste and the barometer of the zeitgeist, on top of whatever else he does in music. Oh, that is the wannabe president of the United States as well. Now, he’s a demander of apologies too. Not for himself, as you might expect, but for his presumed pal Travis Scott, the fellow now laying low after the Astroworld Festival tragedy. If you have not availed yourself to the entertainment (and entertaining) news of the week, it goes like this.

Billie Eilish was singing during a concert in Atlanta when she spotted someone in the crowd struggling to breathe. She paused her performance, and drew the attention of the crew to assist the person. (Ms Eilish, it should be said, is known to stop mid-performance during her shows to check on fans seeming unwell.) In videos shared on social media, Ms Eilish was seen pointing to the crowd with a hand holding a bottle of water and heard saying, “Do you need an inhaler?” And she did not go right back to singing. Wearing a baggy T-shirt and cycle shorts, she told the audience, “Guys, give it some time. Don’t crowd. Relax, relax, it’s okay… We’re taking care of people. I wait for people to be okay before I keep going.”

It sounds to me that Ms Eilish was explaining to the excited many who have come to watch her perform what the hold up was about. But Mr West read that very differently. On social media, he wrote in full caps, sans punctuation, as if barking: “COME ON BILLIE WE LOVE YOU PLEASE APOLOGIZE TO TRAV AND TO THE FAMILIES OF THE PEOPLE WHO LOST THEIR LIVES NO ONE INTENDED THIS TO HAPPEN TRAV DIDN’T HAVE ANY IDEA OF WHAT WAS HAPPENING WHEN HE WAS ON STAGE AND WAS VERY HURT BY WHAT HAPPENED…”

So, what in Donda’s name was he thinking?

In response to Mr West’s post and demand, Ms Eilish wrote on IG somewhat conciliatorily, “Literally never said a thing about Travis. Was just helping a fan,” So, what in Donda‘s name was he thinking? According to some reports, Mr West was reacting to one RapseaTV news report that ran the headline “Billie Eilish dissed Travis Scott at her concert after she stopped the show to give her fan an inhaler!” on IG (the post is removed now). And he bought it? This is irony in its highest order when Mr West had attacked journalists, mid-concert, in a 2014 show in New Jersey. “Write that motherfxxxxxg headline when you try to make me look like a maniac or an animal,” he admonished. That was not the only time, of course. Some people suggested that his present fragile state is due to problems with his ex-wife. And Ms Eilish conveniently becomes another target of his easily-triggered acrimony, just as Taylor Swift was once before?

It is tempting to treat Mr West’s demand as facetious—just like his presidential bid—but he has threatened to pull out of the Coachella Music Festival. Should the organisers be intimidated? He and Ms Eilish are slated to be the festival’s headline acts. And Mr West did say on that IG post, “TRAV WILL BE WITH ME AT COACHELLA BUT NOW I NEED BILLIE TO APOLOGIZE BEFORE I PERFORM”. Did he, therefore, think that Ms Eilish had spoilt Travis Scott’s comeback bid while La Flame is still thick in lawsuits worth billions of dollars filed by the victims (and their families) of the Astroworld tragedy? Would Coachella really be worse off without eruptive Kanye West?

The estranged husband’s reaction is not surprising, even for someone whose ninth studio album is titled Jesus is King. Outbursts are almost synonymous with the star and designer. He rants as often and as passionately as he raps. But why, I wonder, is a 44-year-old censuring a woman of 20, doing nothing more than getting someone the help they need, not bullying? Or, are we to believe, like so many of his supporters do, including the many, many brands eagerly aligned with him, that the face stocking-wearing Sunday Service leader Kanye West can really do no wrong?

Collage: Just So

Music Video Or Fashion Commercial?

With the new track from Kanye West’s Donda, the line is clearly blurred

Kanye West, er, Ye (since last October, we keep forgetting) has a new single from the 27-track Donda album, called Heaven and Hell. Between those poles, he has put out a music video two days ago that is quite unlike any seen on his YouTube channel. This is not awash with the most amazing video effects or full of sensational fashion, or elephantine footwear. At about two half minutes long, Heaven and Hell is a rather short track. The accompany video is dark, gloomy, and dystopian-looking, more hell than heaven, with many people in it, all looking rather like Ye has this past Balenciaga-enabled year: facially obscured, mysterious, and inaccessible. Even zombies have more expression.

We see only silhouettes of the indistinct people. They seem to be monks—just men. Maybe the gender is incorporeal, inconsequential. Maybe they are non-binary. Just single beings, single units, single entities, looking from the shadows towards the abode of the Almighty. The singularity is rather odd for a proudly cisgender Ye, more so when he reminds us in the new song, “women producing, men go work” (taken from 20th Century Steel Band’s 1965 track Heaven and Hell on Earth). Were the faceless men working as they go about slow-mo in what looks like a housing estate? In the stills towards the end of the video, the hordes seem to be in battle. The end of days?

Could they be angels? One thing is for certain, all of them are outfitted in a black hoodie of one design. And at the end of the video, we learned, at the sight of the familiar blue logo, that the top was from Yeezy Gap. Not likely the trousers since the Gap and Yeezy partnership has only released one hoodie and one puffer jacket, so far. Is the MV sponsored by Gap then, or is this part of the marketing exercise of the two names coming together? If there were to be roles/talents/characters in the video, the people would need clothes. But Gap (traditionally) takes pride in the many colours of one style that they could merchandise. It is, therefore, unclear how this gloomy video could augment the (still) fading glory of Gap, even if it was announced that Balenciaga would “engineer“ something with Yeezy Gap. Or, is it just the black similitude that the brand sees as the way forward?

As with most of Ye’s music in recent years, Heaven and Earth is a sharing of the power of the Christian God and a show of the rapper’s evangelical flair. This, like all of Donda, doubles as soundtrack for his popular Sunday service. It isn’t known how Ye—now, a monosyllabic moniker, like God—reconciles the materialism, swagger and self-absorption of fashion with the values of religious dogma. “Save my people through the music,” Ye raps, but not once does he plead, through clothes (instead, “no more logos“), even when he has used fashion merchandise to preach, such as as his label Yeezy Sunday Service, sold through the Coachella pop-up Church Clothes. Despite acknowledging the part that image and clothing play, Ye is still unwavering in his devotional bent, sing-preaching/suggesting more good than goods; more God than Gap.

Screen grab: Kanye West/Youtube

Travis Scott: Before This Shoe Drops

La Flame’s latest collaboration with Nike is overshadowed by the shocking deaths at his concert in Texas. But it won’t be doused

Three days ago, reports appeared that this Nike X Travis Scott Air Max 1 will launch in the middle of next month. The autumnal colours are expected to be a hit for this iteration of the Nike classic, as sneakerheads are also drawn to the impertinent mirror image of the Swoosh on the side of the shoe. Before Nike could even list the sneaks on their SNKR site, a tragedy related to Mr Scott unfolded in Houston, Texas earlier today (evening, US time). At the music event Astroworld Festival, the headlining show of Mr Scott, also the event organizer, saw an attendance of 50,000 people swarm the sold out mega-show, according to CNN. Tragedy struck past 9pm when ardent concert-goers who thronged the stage, surged forward, crushing people in the front. At least eight have been reported dead, with scores of people injured, including a child believed to be aged 10.

Initial reports stated that even before the deadly crush, attendees “were rushing through a VIP entrance, knocking metal detectors and sometimes other people” earlier, as CNN described. Videos shared online showed near-stampede: people dashed forward impetuously, with the same determination to get ahead as those waiting behind doors of stores on the eve of Thanksgiving to be the first to take advantage of the Black Friday sales. There were already reports of injury (even fights) during this early part of the annual music Festival. It is not certain what the rush was for or if the concert had already started and these people were late.

Travis Scott stopping his performance. Screen grab: CNN

According to the BBC, Mr Scott had “stopped multiple times during his 75-minute performance” when he saw the potentially devastating crush. He had also asked the security to help. But, things escalated too quickly and the emergency resources were, according to local police, “overwhelmed”. Netizens, however, thought that the rapper did not do enough. Many believed that he should have halted his performance altogether after seeing even the slightest problem. Why did he allow the show to go on for that long (this excludes the “30-minute countdown” before the appeared on stage during which the pushing already intensified)”? Videos started appearing on social media showing the audience chanting “stop the show”(one even revealed a young woman climbing up to a platform on which a crew or cameraman was standing and saying the same thing), but the consumate performer continued to sing and urged his audience to make the “earth shake”, as reported by Reuters. Others blamed the ongoing pandemic: “people were desperate to live again”, one commentator wrote on Facebook.

As more of what happened came to light, attention, too, was drawn to Mr Scott’s own record of ensuring safety when it comes to the unruly audience in his concerts. Back in 2015, the rapper was arrested and charged with “disorderly conduct” after he encouraged attendees of Lollapalooza (another music fest) to “climb over security barricades and storm the stage”, according to Rolling Stone. The father of Kylie Jenner’s daughter Stormi further incited the crowd with chants of “we want rage”. He was again arrested after a 2017 Arkansas concert when that “rage” was also vehemently encouraged. In his 2018 song Stargazing, which referenced Astroworld, he even rapped, “it ain’t a mosh pit if it aint’t injuries”(his mosh pit, according to Forbes, is “a febrile atmosphere Scott stoked from the stage”), adding, “I got ’em stage divin’ out the nosebleeds”. In rap speak, the highest seats in a stadium are referred to as the nose bleed sections. His fans—he calls them “ragers”—would jump from these elevations and literally suffer from nose bleeds. It is also possible that he was referencing a New York City show when a fan was pushed off a three-story balcony—he was paralysed.

Kim Jones and Travis Scott in a publicity photo shared by Mr Jones after the Dior menswear spring/summer 2022 show in June. Photo: mrkimjones/Instagram

It is hard to say how this latest “mass casualty incident”, as authorities have called it, will impact the many fashion-related products with Travis Scott’s name stamped on them that will be up for grabs. As of now, the Air Jordan 1 Low that came from the Nike X Travis Scott X Fragment trinity in August—“the collaboration to end all collaborations, according to Highsnobiety—is asking for more than USD2,000 in the resale market, a staggering 100 times more than the original retail price of USD150. Hip-hop stars have become far too powerful, not just through the music they make, but also the wide range of ridiculously hyped products linked to them, never mind the controversy they have stirred. We are not referring only to concert merchandise. Apart from the ongoing collaboration with Nike, Mr Scott has also paired with Dior, an upgrade and a highlight of his fashion career. He gratefully referred to Mr Jones on Instagram as “my bro 5 (sic) life”.

In fact, his tie-ups with popular brands go back to 2016 when his name appeared atop A Bathing Ape in the limited-edition pieces of Baby Milo tees. In fact, they span the high- and low-brow—last year’s with McDonald’s being the more accessible. While fashion folks are divided over whether there is truly a wow factor to his personal style, or whether he’s a taste-maker or a hype-maker, Travis Scott—“one of rap’s most ambitious figures”, as The New York Times described him—is doing everything to put himself up there, god-like, so that devotees, unable to be satiated by sneakers and such, can bask in his mighty presence—only this time, deadly. Are fans no longer able to tell the difference between scoring kicks and getting kicked? Or, must the show, amid people dying, really go on?

Updated: 7 November 2021, 8am

Product photo: Nike. Photo illustration: Just So

Is K-Pop Just More Progressive?

Korea’s first all-LGBTQ boy band released their debut single, Show Me Your Pride, two days ago. And it’s seriously good

Out and proud: that’s not something you associate with South Korea, and even less so with the world of K-Pop. It is ironic that when members of Korean boy bands can (and do) put on so much make-up and even sell just as much cosmetics, gay anything is generally frowned upon. Or barely talked about in popular culture. As CNN noted in a report last year, “in the camp world of K-pop, it’s hard for stars to be gay”. But things may soon change. A new boy band from South Korea, Lionesses (nope, we did not get the gender wrong), has just released their first single, Show Me Your Pride, and it is joyfully good and deserves to be played on loop. It does not, in fact, require repeat listening for the hit vibe to emanate. As with coffee, you’d know how good it is at the first whiff.

Lionesses is a quartet from Seoul. Not much is yet known about them. They described themselves as “openly LGBTQ+”. However, their openness presently goes only as far as revealing the face of the group’s leader Bae Dam-jun, who told the Korean media that the key message of Show Me Your Pride is “we are us”. How they are in terms of what they look like—key ingredient in the success of K-pop stars—is yet to be clear. The rest of the members wore a cat mask for the accompanying MV of the track. On naming themselves after wild felines, Mr Bae said, “It is easy to think the apex of the African ecosystem that we have seen through the mass media is a male lion with a rich mane, but in the end, the ruler of the plain is (not) actually a lion. It’s a group of lionesses who are in charge of hunting for the pride”.

As with many boy bands, Lionesses comprises different characters that might appeal to their target audience. There is the chubby diva Mr Bae; another who shares the same silhouette as the lead (could they be siblings?), but more willing to show his moves; a tough/fit-looking rapper; and a mysterious, seemingly andro-type who hits the high notes—really high. Visually, the boys have not made a distinctive mark, yet. They would not have Louis Vuitton come acalling tomorrow. Two of them are dressed positively Normcore, one of them as aspiring hip-hop star, completely with obligatory chunky chain-necklace, while the fourth, the sleekest, is probably the fashion plate of the four. Still, better than the bengness of so many the average K-pop boy band. What they have in common, if not in the style stakes, is their ability to sing, each bringing something of their own to the song. They are not smooth as butter—thank the hallyu gods for that!

To be sure, there are queer pop stars in South Korea. Holland (aka Go Tae-seob) is believed to be the first openly gay pop soloist, whose stage name was chosen as homage to Holland being the first country to legalise same-sex marriage. His first self-funded single Neverland received over 1 million views on YouTube in the first 20 hours when it was posted in 2018. The accompanying MV showed two boys kissing; it was rated in South Korea R or “Adults Only”. And there is Aquinas (aka Minsoo Kang), who came out on Instagram with the announcement: “I’m bisexual” in Korean and English, just three months ago, not long after he released his debut EP It Doesn’t Matter. There is also transgender star Harisu (aka Lee Kyung-eun), who has released five successful albums to date, but she and the others are not quite representative of a wider acceptance of the LGTBQ community in the K-pop industry. While there are individual members of groups who have been open about their homosexuality, such as real-life couple Seungho (Jang Seungho) and B.Nish (Yoo Bon) of D.I.P, a boy band comprising gay guys is unheard of, until now.

Show Me Your Pride is dance pop with flourishes of charming experimentation. It is cheerful as it is confident, with an anthemic quality—that love is love/show me your love chorus—that would not be out of place as love theme of a gay movie (not with the lead transcribing and playing classical music!) or the closing song of a pride parade. But, not the Pose-ready, neu-handbag house of RuPaul. As Show Me Your Pride plays, it could sound like K-pop you are already streaming daily, but, with headphones on, you’ll hear, apart from some eye-opening vocal harmonies, grooves so sleek that they could be, like kimchi, a delectable pickling of the funky smoothness of Skylar Spence (formerly Saint Pepsi, aka Ryan DeRobertis) and the infectious danceability of The Garland Cult, all wrapped with the palpable exultation of Sakanaction. It is such a handsomely packaged track, with such remix potential, that we suspect Towa Tei might be keen to take a dip. What is, perhaps, the most amazing is how the verse in which one of the boys, singing in falsetto, could really wake your goosebumps. Not quite Dimash Kudaibergen, but definitely groundbreaking for K-pop.

The track is written by the leader of the group Bae Dam-jun and compatriot Zantin, a now US-based producer, formerly of YG Entertainment, the company behind Blackpink and Big Bang. Show Me Your Pride addresses the still-real strife of the LGBTQ community. But it has a positivity about it too. “No matter how much you shoot at us with your tiny keyboard,” the rap goes, “we are bulletproof/we are bulletproof”. To the affected, it urges: “You don’t have to hide or try to avoid it/That bright sun is on our side/Just before dawn is the darkest time/And if you feel trapped in the darkness/Just call us ‘friends’/Then we’ll be the candles in your dark room”. There is a sweetness to that. Believable assurance too.

Screen shot: Lionesses/YouTube

Tong Poo Refreshed

Following the special edition of the Yellow Magic Orchestra track for Junya Watanabe’s recent show, Ryuichi Sakamoto will release it later this month as a limited-issue vinyl

A single track from the B side of a 43-year-old record has just been re-released. Tong Poo by the seminal Japanese electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) is now a two-track vinyl that features the acoustic version of the original, played and rearranged by band member Ryuichi Sakamoto, who wrote the song. This new version debuted last month at the spring/summer 2022 show of Junya Watanabe. According to reports, Mr Watanabe had reached out to Mr Sakamoto for the latter to re-imagine the song in order for it to be used as soundtrack to his fashion show. It was a song that apparently impressed the designer in his younger days. The musician agreed, and Tong Poo for Junya Watanabe was born, a version quite unlike what was first released.

Tong Poo (東風) or east wind in Japanese was the first composition written by Mr Sakamoto that was used in the eponymous YMO album and the only track of his recorded by the band for their debut. At the time, YMO’s electronic sounds, coming in the wake of the likes of Kraftwerk, married arcade game e-blips with melodies that could be considered Oriental kitsch. Tong Poo was, according to Mr Sakamoto, inspired by Chinese classical music and the cultural revolution in China. He told the media around that time that when he wrote it (concurrently with songs for his own debut One Thousand Knives of Ryuichi Sakamoto), he was imagining the Beijing Symphony Orchestra playing it! In Tong Poo for Junya Watanabe, the BSO might actually be tempted to do so.

In the original version on vinyl, it appears as the first track of the B side, an almost lyric-free song, except for the short sing/speak of singer-songwriter Minako Yoshida that appeared in the US release of the album. Rather unusual for the time, Tong Poo seems to prelude the song that followed, the joyful La Femme Chinois, as the former flows rather seamlessly to the latter. Tong Poo was very much a part of the YMO setlist during their live shows. Similarly, it was a staple for Mr Sakamoto’s own live performances. Among the YMO inner circle, Akiko Yano, wife of Mr Sakamoto (and part of YMO’s live shows), recorded Tong Poo with Japanese lyrics for her 1980 solo album Gohan ga Dekitayo (ごはんができたよ). Her version, with her distinctive high-pitch vocals, sounded more Japanese than Chinese. Interestingly, an SOTD reader told us that he once heard a bootleg version as soundtrack to a porn film!

Although, Tong Poo for Junya Watanabe is arranged for a fashion show, it bears little semblance to what is often played at such staging: it’s not beaty. While not sounding quite like Mr Sakamoto’s film score, it does have a cinematic quality about it, although there would be those who thinks it is more akin to the music he created for Yohji Yamamoto’s shows. Listening to this largely piano interpretation with some synthesizers, we miss the input of band mates Yukihiro Takahashi on drums, percussion, and vocal, and Haroumi Hosono on bass. Alternating between the latest version and that from the original album, as it was for the Junya Watanabe show, seems rather cool to us. Past and present in a happy mix.

Unfortunately, Tong Poo for Junya Watanabe is only available in Japan. Photo: Ryuichi Sakamoto

The Return Of…

Gone quiet for 30 years as a group, ABBA is back with a new studio album. Are we still in a nostalgic mood? Is it true when they sing, “I’m not the same this time around”?

Avatars of ABBA perform in the video of the group’s newest single, I still have Faith in You. Screen grab: ABBA/YouTube

For the many youngsters who shop at Shein and those who endure the electro-cheese that’s mainly TikTok’s soundtrack, ABBA is likely a pop-culture relic. Disbanded since 1982, the year when Billboard’s number-one hit was Olivia Newton-John’s “raunchy” Physical, ABBA has largely existed on karaoke nights of men and women of a certain age and as the soundtrack of their own promo-vehicle ABBA: The Movie (1977), the stage musical Mama Mia (1999) and the movie of the same name (2008), followed by Mama Mia! Here We Go Again (2018). It’s unclear how frequently ABBA is played on Spotify (compared to Ed Sheeran?), but in their heyday, the Swedish quartet reportedly sold more than 380 million albums (what are those? Let’s leave that for another time). So massive ABBA was in terms of album sales for a quartet that only The Beatles (since we’re looking back, why not even further back?) sold more, at 600 million. E!Online reported that the four of them turned down USD1 billion in 2000 to reunite for 100 performances. So ABBA’s much-publicised reunion and comeback and an impending live show are a big deal. And they have not only announced a new album Voyage coming out in November, but also the release of two new songs at the same time in the past 24 hours. Are we on the cusp of another ABBA-mania, even when their fans are mostly those considered senior citizens?

I Still have Faith in You is the first among the two to be made available with an accompanying music video, which is a patchwork of old photos and footages, and an in-the-shadows preview of the gig to come. Written in 2018 for a TV show, but somehow not broadcasted or used, it’s now their comeback theme of sort. This is classic ABBA if classic ABBA is what rocks your boat. It is perhaps hard for fans to imagine them doing anything outside their range when they are making new music as septuagenarians. It’s not as if we can imagine ABBA as Kiss or, perhaps more accessibly, Blur. If Bee Gees can return, they too would be just Stayin’ Alive. Schmaltz was an ABBA signature, and they still sign that way. NME quoted Benny Andersson explaining why they won’t adopt current pop music trends: “We can’t, because I don’t understand the ingredients in the songs that work today, so it’s impossible to emulate.” Dripping with sentimentality (“It stands above the crazy things we did/It all comes down to love”), I Still have Faith in You is the quartet looking back, or unable to part with their dreamy young selves. The ballad builds slowly (another ABBA identifier) to emotion-tugging musical-theatre style arrangement (as if prepping for another Mama Mia film) that easily becomes guilty pleasure. But have we not already sung Thank You for the Music?

There is moderately more heft to the other released track, Don’t Shut Me Down. While I Still have Faith in You is written to bring a stadium to its feet (and it will!), this is arranged for a dance floor to the DJ’s mercy. Similarly announced in 2018, but did not materialise, this is a potential dance-charter and stayer. Again, the song opens slowly, but when “the lights are on/it’s time to go/it’s time at last to let him know” and the showy piano glissando strikes, you’re in familiar territory. Cue to grab your partner by the hand and hit the dance floor. Voulez vous? Only thing is, you’re back in what was called a discotheque. Don’t Shut Me Down is no Dancing Queen, but you may want to scream. When was the last time you danced to a song that encouraged you to sing along, let your hair down and your voice out? Yet, it is not quite the disco banger it could be. One sense restraint here, as if the band was asking, “do they still boogie?” Or leaving the others to do a worthy remix. But not too new. Almighty Records come to mind (full disclosure: we’re not huge fans of ABBA, but we’re partial to Abbacadabra)! In the present form, Don’t Shut Me Down does not pretend to be, like their creators, other than a blast from the past. Even with Internet-era language such as “I’ve been reloaded”, the baseline, the percussion, the xylophone(!)—they conspire to make Tetron bell-bottoms want to dance along.

At this age, the foursome—it is possible—was not having that much fun. We’re not saying they did not derive joy in writing and producing the songs, or singing them, but both tracks sound so serious that we almost forget that ABBA was very much associated with the campy or even the kinky (remember Two For The Price Of One from the last album, 1981’s The Visitor? Was it a more liberal era then?). At this age, the Super Troupers are not keen to perform in person. In announcing the ABBA Voyage concert (for 2022), described as “revolutionary”, we were told that Industrial, Light and Magic-designed digital “ABBA-tars” (think Gollum) would take their place. These are put together, according to the BBC, by “850 people (who) worked on recreating ABBA ‘in their prime’”. More remaining in the past while bringing ABBA to the AI-ready anything? As we hear mellower-sounding Agnetha Fältskog and Anni-Frid Lyngstad stack-harmonise, “we have a story/and it survived” in I Still have Faith in You, we also hear the making of Mama Mia: Don’t Shut Me Down!

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Happy, Not Happy

Coping with fame or romantic relationships, as Billy Eilish croons, isn’t easy, but are we still enthralled by more confessions of the tough and the dark?

It’s retro-tinged, it’s melancholic, it’s tuneful, and it is destined to be a successful follow-up to 2019’s When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?—the album that worn Billie Eilish’s (and her brother Finneas O’Connell) five Grammies. It’s quite a feat for what Mr O’Connell called “home-made cookies”. The sophomore Happier than Ever, released two weeks ago, boasts more refined and rarefied song craft, and is, therefore, poised to repeat the feat in the next music award season. Ms Eilish creates music far more sophisticated than other recording artistes much older than her. She expresses emotions the average late-teen rarely emotes or so ardently. Her songs, woke and ever so anguish-filled, are not about musical trends; they are song-writing that tugs at heartstrings. On the cover of Happier than Ever, the newly blonde Billie Eilish is in tears.

Teen confessional-pop is, of course, (still) a thing. Singing about growing-up pains is the stuff of the rapid rise to stardom these days, and if you do it all with a smidgen of alt posturing, all the better. Ms Eilish packages herself vocally as an old soul. She offers not Meghan Trainor’s vibrant pop or Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour-ness, but they all share the need to express periods of their lives affected by heartbreak and whatever now—and then—ails young women embracing the adult world, including, in the case of Ms Eilish, her objections when watching porn. In Male Fantasy, a guitar-driven track that would actually appeal to guys, she recounts: “home alone, tryin’ not to eat/distract myself with pornography” and continues to point out the untruth of such performances since, as she believes, the actresses in them “would never be/That satisfied, it’s a male fantasy”.

On the whole, Happier than Ever encourages you to put your player (or streaming service) on loop. It is not manic; it’s nicely paced, and, in parts, it makes for the listening you’d keep for between you and the four walls of your bedroom. It’s ideal for listening alone, whether streamed through your smart speaker or via wireless earbuds. Our problem—if it’s right to call it that—with this album is Ms Eilish’s singing. Don’t get us wrong, she can sing. In fact, we like her voice: the clarity, the roundedness, the warmth, the not-girlish vocal styling. But it is how she used that voice that can sometimes annoy. In this album, Ms Eilish sounds as if she is singing to herself, as if testing a tune. The words won’t come out wholeheartedly, the phrasing too manipulated in the throat. She metronomes between amusing herself and seducing you. It is appreciable that she does not scream, she does not show off in unnecessary vocal gymnastics, but sometimes it is better not to let the singing get in the way of the song.

Many of her fans say her style is “intimate”. Since she sings almost entirely in the first person (except in GOLDWING), it is “natural” that she sounds as if she is in your attentive company. Happier than Ever is, therefore, ideal for solo listing, whether streamed through your smart speaker or via a pair of wireless earbuds. Perhaps it is with such intimacy that you’ll know she’s Getting Older (“I wish someone had told me I’d be doin’ this by myself”) and, in the talk-not-sing, Anne Clark-ish Not my Responsibility (“If I wear what is comfortable, I am not a woman/ If I shed the layers, I’m as slut“), that criticisms of her body bothers, if not hurt, her. Some songs augment her indie cred, including the stand out Your Power (“Will you only feel bad when they find out?”). There are a couple of tracks that beg to be remixed for the dancefloor or your bedroom, such as the excellent Oxytocin* (“I wanna do bad things to you… You know I need you for the oxytocin”)—how many young women use such a lovely word?!—and GOLDWING (“They’re gonna tell you what you wanna hear/Then they’re gonna disappear/Gonna claim you like a souvenir/Just to sell you in a year”). Pretty hardcore stuff from a fresh post-adolescent.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

*Oxytocin is a neuro-hormone that plays a part in the emotions we feel and the sensations in the body. It is also popularly known as the love hormone as it is released while we kiss and hug, and get heavy in sexual activity

Screen grab: Happier Than Ever/YouTube

Seungri Is Sentenced

The former member of Big Bang is found guilty by a military court for multiple crimes, including “prostitution mediation”

Once thought to be headed for immense success for his accessible pop music as a soloist, Seungri will be heading towards jail. In what has been described by Korean media as “sex and gambling scandal” that has riveted the nation, the verdict of the court case—he was tried in military court as he enlisted for compulsory military service in March last year after being indicted in January—was thought to be a foregone conclusion. K-pop industry watchers and the media did not think he was able to extricate himself from the explosive allegations. Earlier today, Seungri was sentenced to three years in jail (it is not known if he would be sent to a military lock-up) “on multiple charges, including prostitution mediation and overseas gambling”, according to the Yonhap News Agency. Prosecutors had sought a five-year prison term for the star. He was handed down a total of nine charges, which included “the operation of an unlicensed adult entertainment establishment and embezzlement”. Seungri denied the charges. With his arrest in 2019 and the accompanying allegations, the K-pop industry was sent into a reverberant state of shock.

Seungri, whose name in his passport reads Lee Seung-hyun, was called for questioning when Burning Sun, a high-end nightclub in Gangnam that was reported to be co-owned by him, was under investigation: Initially over the alleged assault of a male guest, but soon blew up to include criminal activities that was staggeringly wide-ranging, from prostitution (as well as the trafficking of the underaged) to the mistreatment of South Korean women (the use of ‘date drugs’) to spy-cams to drug trafficking to tax evasion, even police corruption (some law enforcers allegedly colluded with the club owners). It was considered one of the biggest probes of the entertainment industry at that time, and impacted individuals—the famous and the less so—across Seoul. When he decided to quit the entertainment business following charges of “sex bribery”, Seungri admitted on Instagram that he had caused “societal disturbance”.

One of the far-reaching allegations against Seungri was that he “procured” prostitutes for VIP individuals, identified as “investors” for his nightclub and attendant businesses. These men were believed to be from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, and other countries. Curiously, even our little red dot was implicated when Seungri brought up a name, “Kimmy”, during a March 2019 interview with Chosun Ilbo, the oldest newspaper in South Korea. In a widely shared translation, Seungri was quoted saying, “In the Club Arena (another nocturnal venue linked to the star) case, it’s regarding a woman from Singapore called Kimmy. She’s the daughter of a famous soccer club owner. I’ve received a lot of help from her, so I just wanted to look out for her.” Looking out, according to Seungri, was arranging for a “female travel companion to shop with her while she was in Seoul”. The Straits Times, following the Chosun Ilbo interview, wrote: “While he did not identify who she was, speculation swirled that he was referring to socialite Kim Lim, whose billionaire father Peter Lim has a controlling stake in Spanish side Valencia.”

The talk that emerged bordered on the shocking and unseemly. Ms Lim, not a stranger to Seungri (there were social media posts of them together), was quick to act, posting on Instagram stories, three successive pages that refuted any suggestion that she was involved in the burgeoning scandal, 4,669 kilometres away. She insisted that she was at Club Arena with Singaporean friends, saying “we partied by ourselves and left after”. She was emphatic: “I’m not involved in any way whatsoever” and concluded with the warning: “Any media outlets which persist in reporting so will be hearing from my legal counsel”. Ms Lim’s outrage is understandable. Why would she, a seasoned shopper, need local shopping companion when she had company from home with her? And why should aspersions be cast on what was essentially a night out with friends?

Many Seungri fans were unable to accept the guilty verdict. On Twitter today, some of them claimed that there was “no evidence” to the purported wrongdoings, while others thought the allegations were “made up”. That Seungri could be embroiled in seedy sex crimes is still beyond the grasp of his followers. He is, among the Big Bang quartet (now a trio), the most relatable—despite his reportedly lavish lifestyle, he is not aloof; he is friendly; he is masculine; he does not dress weirdly; and he “does not come across as someone who would even have a beer with a pimp, let alone do the pimping”, as one disappointed SG fan said to us. Unfortunately, K-pop idols, like all pop idols, as the increasingly prevalent reminder goes, are humans too.

Illustration: Just So

A “Buffalo Boy” Passes

Obituary | Popular model of the ’80s and Madonna’s protégé, Nick Kamen was pop culture’s definitive pretty boy of that era

Nick Kamen: The career-making photo that made it to the January 1984 cover of The Face. Photo: Jamie Morgan/The Face

One of the most striking faces associated with UK fashion and pop music of the ’80s Nick Kamen has passed away, according to reports in the British media. Mr Kamen succumbed to bone marrow cancer at home in his flat in Notting Hill, West London. A family friend confirmed to the BBC that he died on Tuesday evening after a long battle with the illness. He was reportedly diagnosed four years ago, and had largely kept quiet about his ailment. Despite the fame of his younger days, Mr Kamen led a relatively low-key live in the past 10 years or so, almost entirely away from the spotlight. He was 59.

Nick Kamen started modelling in the early eighties, appearing on Vivienne Westwood’s runway shows, but he was a relative unknown until he was discovered by the legendary British stylist Ray Petri in late 1983. Born Ivor Neville Kamen in 1962 in the town Harlow of the county of Essex, a “working class” area in Southeast England, his good looks were attributed to his highly mixed ethnicity: Burmese, Irish, Dutch, and English. The Asian connection might have accounted for his “cafe latte skin”, as teen mags of the time liked to describe him. Mr Kamen went to a Roman Catholic secondary school in Harlow, where his formal education ended. In his late teens, he and his brother Barry, who was, later, also a model and (with another brother Chester) a musician, worked in a clothing shop in Covent Garden. It was here that the lads met Mr Petri.

Nick Kamen and Madonna in a recording studio. Photo: Sire Records

According to the lore of the ’80s, Mr Petri had gone to the shop to borrow clothes for a shoot. It was that fateful meeting that led to Mr Kamen’s first magazine cover for The Face, an ’80s British title that went into hiatus in 2004. Although it returned as a quarterly and an online edition two years ago, many of today’s readers of e-mags are unlikely to know of The Face and its influence to readers, such as SOTD contributor Raiment Young. “I bought every issue back then,” he told us. “It was a magazine to read, which was not always what mags of the era, way before the World-Wide Web, offered. They covered music raves (which I could only read about) like political rallies! And the covers, always different from the last, were just unlike anything I had seen.” The Face was one of the few that covered emerging sub-cultures and underground scene of that time, putting out covers that were not considered cover material, typical of the Margaret Tatcher years: a visual identity that is exceedingly cool, but not necessarily swinging along with what was fashionable.

Mr Petri had a thing for using unknowns. The images he created was almost entirely his own making, save pressing the shutter button of the camera. His trend-setting photographic partner-in-crime was Jamie Morgan. Together they created an unmistakable aesthetic that The New York times called a “supermarket of styles”. Nick Kamen on The Face issue of 1984 (top) that kicked off the New Year exemplified that mish-mash. Now, we won’t bat an eyelid on styling that appear to imagine a spiffy manager of a ski shop creating his own #OOTD, with a bandaged gash on the right brow, but back then, when designer mania was emerging and Italian, especially, considered the height of chic, the young model looking the way he did was seen as anti-establishment: beanie, military insignia, aviators, and—untypical of magazine covers (Anna Wintour, then creative director at US Vogue before her editorship of the British edition a year later, would have puked)—Band-Aid (like an open inverted comma) and roughly-applied lip balm! This was not the American Gigolo look, made famous by the 1980 film, with costume designed by Giorgio Armani. This was “Buffalo.”

Publicity still during the launch of Every Time You Break My Heart. Photo: Sire Records

Mr Kamen’s ability to embrace realness and defiance so stylishly and, to many, sexily, was his greatest appeal. As soon as he was launched, he became associated with the totally DIY Buffalo style that Ray Petri dreamed up at the time, and with which the stylist (a self-created title, his friends declared) would go on to define British menswear of the ’80s, first at The Face and later at sibling Arena. Buffalo, a word used in the Caribbean to mean boys that were rude and rebellious, was appropriated to be synonymous with fearless self-expression. It became a personal trademark of Mr Petri, and it involved a British clique of mainly guys: fellow stylist Mitzi Lorenz, the photographers Roger Charity, Jamie Morgan, and Cameron McVey (he dated Neneh Cherry, one of the few Buffalo girls, who sang the 1988 hit Buffalo Stance, which sampled from Malcom McClaren’s 1983 track Buffalo Gals), and the crucial models who could express the Buffalo attitude: Wade Tolera; Tony Felix; the 13-year-old Felix Howard (The Face‘s youngest cover model); and, of course, Nick Kamen and his brother Barry.

With Buffalo’s influence stretching across the world, it was Nick Kamen who came to represent the much-touted Buffalo stance, culminating in a career-defining 1985 Levi’s TV commercial that showed him stripped—in a busy launderette—to his white boxers (a now-not-shocking reveal that may have been copped from a Jamie Morgan-lensed fashion spread that appeared earlier—in the March 1985 issue of The Face—when Mr Kamen wore similar white boxers and a black T-shirt under a trench coat). Ringing success embraced the American jeans brand and the British model. It is understandable why Mr Morgan called him “our muse”. Comedian Matt Lucas told the media recently, “If you didn’t have a crush on Nick Kamen in the ’80s, you probably weren’t there.”

Man in skirt, not a shocker now, but back then, scandal-rousing. Styled by Ray Petri. Photo: Jamie Morgan/The Face

The model was one of the earliest of that time to cross successfully over to pop. Mr Kamen’s big break arrived when Madonna came admiring, and handed him the song, Each Time You Break My Heart, one that was omitted from her third album, 1986’s True Blue. The accompanying video, shot by the French fashion photographer Jean-Baptiste Mondino, featured many of Mr Petri’s coterie of friends/models, including the boy-star Felix Howard (who later appeared in Madonna’s Open Your Heart and Sinitta’s Toy Boy MVs) and Mr Kamen’s girlfriend at that time, American model and 1989 Licenced to Kill’s Bond girl Talisa Soto (later, he also dated another ’80s model, the German Tatjana Patitz). So sure of his singing potential she was that Madonna even did the backing vocals of Each Time You Break My Heart, but Nick Kamen did not have a voice that you’d remember; he wasn’t a Sam Smith. He did, however, have a presence that worked well on stage and, with the emergence of music television (MTV), winsome close-ups. Although some haters of that time referred to his songs as “himbo pop”, he would continue to release another four albums, all with varying degrees of success, but none to equal those by the likes of Rick Astley or Nik Kershaw.

As the telling of most who knew him goes, Mr Kamen was an extremely nice individual, so uncommon a trait in the business of fashion and pop music that stars still remember him by his niceness. Boy George, the first to break the news of his death, posted on Instagram, “RIP to the most beautiful and sweetest man”. Duran Duran’s John Taylor wrote on Twitter, “One of the loveliest and gentlest men I ever met.” Madonna was just as effusive on IG, “You were always such a kind sweet human.” Could Neneh Cherry, three decades earlier, too, have referred to Nick Kamen when she sang in Buffalo Stance, “No money man could win my love. It’s sweetness I’m thinking of”?

Her Power

Billie Eilish’s new single from her upcoming second album has immense force and pull

By Ray Zhang

Every time I listen to Billie Eilish I have to remind myself that she’s nineteen. Barely out of her adolescence, she’s not supposed to sound like this. Way past my adolescence, I am not supposed to like her (!), or specifically, her music. But I do. Ms Eilish is not, image wise, my cup of teh C kosong. I do, however, like her songs—they have a pull that, by convention, I shouldn’t now enjoy—when I am supposed to be in reminiscent mode and collecting old Kean albums in vinyl! Her first album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? of 2019 really caught me the way teens releasing first albums almost never do. Like my colleague Mao Shan Wang, it took me quite a while to intensely enjoy Miley Cyrus, and it wasn’t until her much later, later albums and The Backyard Sessions that really got me hooked. That girl can sing. And Billie Eilish too. And neither just for the tween-aged.

The voice is always important to me. I am never into voices that scream, roar, or belt. Or that are desperate to be cute. I like it when they don’t sound forced, as if in participation of some vocal Olympics or a jam session where the crooners are clearly out of their league. I understand why there is so much hooha about Joanna Dong’s (董姿彦) performance at the Star Awards. She over did everything—impress took the place of express. Subtlety is not her style, showing off is. Ms Eilish, by contrast, sings as if to you only, in her ballads, especially. There is an intimacy that is rather uncommon in the Idol-era bombast. She does not make dramatic note leaps, but within the gentle coos of an ungirlish-sounding tone, I can hear that she uses her voice in a skillful and nuanced way. Her vocal ability does not attempt to outpace the music, and it works rather well with minimal arrangements. Such as her latest single.

Early this week, Ms Eilish announced through social media that she will be releasing her sophomore album Happier Than Ever in July. Since then fans have been expecting a teaser by way of a single. They didn’t have to wait long. Your Power is for the woke generation, a ballad with folksy undertones that draws you in. Against a rather spare arrangement, with strummy guitars, rather than fierce electronica, Your Power is for waking up to, for drive time, and for going to bed with. It is not for pre-club hours or to get you moving your hips while readying to go out or while doing housework. I find its simplicity not quite so simple, and extremely refreshing, as in her Bond theme No Time to Die. Both Ms Eilish and producer/co-writer brother Finneas have a flair for tunes. The lilt and the legato are nothing like what’s recorded these days; the hummability is easy to catch on, but maybe not; the accessibility not quite Taylor Swift. I feel I am listening to a follow-up to the lush Everything I Wanted. While much of When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? was tethered to teenage angst, Your Power is a far more grown-up confrontation with the real difficulties and threats young women have to navigate in the world of entertainment, and beyond.

Lyrically, Ms Eilish, now all-blonde and big enough to let a python curl around her, sounds like she grew up too soon in the glare of the spotlight and in the company of music-exec creeps. Your Power broaches the IRL prevalence of sexual abuse, especially by an older, abler person. The words suggest a scumbag in similar business that Ms Eilish is in: “Will you only feel bad if it turns out they kill your contract?” If only more women—the way-to-young as well: “She was sleeping in your clothes/But now she’s got to get to class”—will take the senior, more powerful person on! And to protest sooner than later: “How dare you and how could you?” Despite the dismay and anger, she is aware of her own vulnerability (as well as others in similar positions): “I thought that I was special, you made me feel/ Like it was my fault you were the devil”. This isn’t being only woke, it is being awake too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Screen grab: YouTube

A Good Let Down

Paris Jackson’s debut single is surprisingly listenable. And she didn’t have to take after her dad Michael

Paris Jackson doesn’t sound like a Jackson, not one bit—not vocally, not musically, and therein possibly lies her peculiar appeal. Nor, does she even look like a Jackson even when her father has unusually fair skin for a black man (attributed to vitiligo), which, to us, possibly gives her an edge. With her debut single let down (lower case her choice), she showed that she can go the musical route her own adult way. There isn’t the necessity to reach into her father’s back catalogue. And she need not ride on her family name, or the reputation of the King of Pop.

We really didn’t expect this. The eldest child of a child-prodigy dad really chose her own path. Unlike the youngest member of the Jackson 5, she took her time, starting rather late (her father’s career as a soloist began when he was 13. She’s now 22). As an artiste, she did not grow up in the presence of an adoring audience. Lyrically this is a rather a teenaged view of love lost, and but musically, it has a maturity that brings to mind Billie Eilish. We are not familiar with Ms Jackson’s influences, but it seems she is—at least for now—staying clear of the R&B much associated with the legacy of the paternal side of her family. Or, the two famous aunts.

When we first heard let down—from the up-coming debut LP Wilted, we thought of Sophie Zelmani (whose Going Home was covered by Faye Wong as Passenger [乘客] in the 2003 album To Love [将爱]). In that sense, the sound is rather European, compared to those of her American peers releasing first albums. Co-written with Manchester Orchestra’s Andy Hull, the song surprisingly avoids a catchy dance hook or Thriller kind of hard edge, preferring strumming guitars and the gentle swell of rather lush orchestration. The sum borders on what might be considered trendy melancholy pop. With the name Jackson in mind, it takes a while to get used to her somewhat wispy voice (her father, for sure, isn’t exactly known for his deep power vocals). But Paris Jackson sings with conviction and the pleasing tune quickly wins us over.

The accompanying video isn’t visually ground-breaking stuff and Ms Jackson offers no impactful sartorial statement, unlike, again, Billie Eilish. She wears (to a ball?) vaguely Victorian gowns—seemingly corseted—and a prairie dress (or two) that suggests lounge wear of another era than what has been popular during pandemic lockdowns. And how the nose ring fits isn’t clear. Ms Paris has been a model (and still is), but she has not (yet) been a fashion darling. Gucci clearly hasn’t invited her to appear in their films-as-fashion-show. It is, however, possible that she may make a mark through her music—if listeners don’t find her a let down.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Screen grabs: Paris Hilton/Vevo

Hip-Hop Flop

Was Versace selling fashion or music?

 

Versace SS 2021 P1

Sure, in the age of e-fashion presentations, lines are often blurred. Since fashion and music go hand in hand like a needle and thread, they do often come together to make some noise, although if the music is sweet is another matter. Versace, like other brands, have decided to play this easy pairing up. They chose to work with the British rapper from Ladbroke Grove, AJ Tracey and the Sudanese-American model Anok Yai (who considered Carine Roitfeld writing in an Instagram post about her—“Anok is not a black woman, she is my friend”—as “insensitive”) to create a music video. And in doing so, they targeted two birds with one stone, simultaneously shining the spotlight on black creatives—an on-trend theme.

AJ Tracey and his companion arrived at the filming venue, both already togged in Versace, which raised the possible that the music video was backed by the brand. He got to pick whatever he wanted to wear and proceeded to meet the other participants of the video, primarily Anok Yai. The singing and recording proceeded, he doing his thing, she doing hers, both with no contact that can be considered friendly nor communication electric. The video might lure fans of the rapper, but fashion folks won’t be impressed by the model. We were suddenly nostalgic for George Michael’s Freedom! ’90.

Versace SS 2021 P2

Versace has always had a deep relationship with hip-hop stars that goes back to the late Tupac walking the brand’s runway, even singing, in the 1995 Hit Em Up, “now it’s all about Versace, you copied my style”. A year later, he wore a  black double-breasted Versace suit with pronounced shoulders to the 38th Grammy Awards. And then everyone else that mattered, from Jennifer Lopez to Kanye West to P. Diddy, were linked to the house of the Medusa head. Even Vogue declared back in 2015 that “Versace and hip-hop have the ultimate love affair”.

When a fashion season is bereft of fashion, what Versace showed only augmented that perception. Music, however catchy, even sung by the latest rap hottie, will not be able to stand in for the clothes—or the lack of them. Presented was a “Flash collection”, showing the few (preview number?) pieces that would be available for sale online next month. Donatella Versace appeared in the video to welcome the star artiste, but not to introduce or explain the ideas behind the collection. Personal appearance is always useful in advertising, and she knew it. Perhaps, with the designer showing up, we can add one more look to the video’s sad total of less than a dozen.

Screen grab: versace.com