On “Just Like Me,” the opening track to Betty Who’s highly anticipated debut album, Take Me When You Go, she sings, “So if you think you’re falling apart / and I’m the only one you’ll call / if you keep reaching for me in the dark / and can’t stand it any more / then you just call my name / I will do the same / You can look into my eyes and see / if you’ve got a broken heart then you’re just. like. me.” It’s a bouncy, airy, earnest pop track with a chant-worthy chorus that finds Who cooing “just like, just like me” over and over again; it’s perfectly crafted pop gems like this that showcase Betty Who’s accessibility and potent potential prowess as the next big thing to happen to the pop music scene since Lady Gaga broke out with her undeniable debut, The Fame, in 2008.
The difference between Who and her predecessors is rooted in Who’s ability to relate to the Everyday Twentysomething. Why? It’s all about sincerity. Unlike contemporaries Lady Gaga (whose debut album was a smart, shiny, startling commentary on the various effects of fame and being a pop culture media darling/rising star wrapped up in pitch-perfect pop. While wonderfully crafted, it isn’t the most relatable or tangible concept for the everyday listener) or Katy Perry (whose debut album One of the Boys was a P!nk-redux with very “iffy” moments like the unintentionally offensive “Ur So Gay” and the pandering “I Kissed a Girl”; both songs showcase a lack of sensitivity to the gay community by reducing being gay to insult-laden phrases and one-time hook-ups), Betty Who’s debut album captures that very real feeling of a being Twentysomething who wants to: love (“Somebody Loves You”); be loved (“Missing You,” “Dreaming About You”); get over heartbreak (“Just Like Me,” “Heartbreak Dream”); rebel against societal norms and dream about living the “high life” (“High Society”); reminisce about the past, yet live for the here-and-now (“A Night to Remember,” “Glory Days”); capture that feeling when everything you thought was a part of your reality is really just a let down (“California Rain”.)
Take Me When You Go is 80s-Whitney Houston of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” fame meets anthemic Bruce Springsteen meets “Dancing On My Own” Robyn meets Teenage Dream-era Katy Perry with edge and more personality.
Betty Who is accessible. She gets the struggle, the ups and down, what it feels like to be on the precipice of change, yet not wanting to let go of the innocence of youthful desires. While Lady Gaga has been busy blending high-concept performance art and classic art with shiny pop music about fashion and drug use on ARTPOP (which hasn’t resonated with casual fans outside of her loyal Little Monsters), and Katy Perry has been busy cultivating a persona who isn’t afraid to play it safe with her music — PRISM was a boring, watered down version of her go-to classic sophomore album Teenage Dream — while utilizing cultural appropriation to stir up controversy and pretending not to know any better, Betty Who has been using her voice, charisma, stage presence, and nothing more than a leather jacket and retro, 80s-inspired looks to carve out her own niche.
On Wednesday, October 8th, 2014, her High Society Tour stopped at Irving Plaza in New York City, and it was clear from the moment she took the stage, opening with one of the album highlights, “High Society,” a song about dreaming of a lavish life, that she is the real deal; it’s perfectly imperfect in its lyrical depiction of high societal life, a narrative by someone who doesn’t quite know what that life entails, yet dreams of the ease and perfection of it all anyway, which in and of itself captures the feeling every twentysomething who hasn’t quite made it on their own. Plus, it features one of the most sing-along lyrics, already iconized among her hardcore fanbase, the “Who Crew” : “We’ll drink Chardonnay through the day ’cause we say so!”
She’s a real person. On stage, she’s a kick-ass pop star with undeniable stage presence who high kicks and jumps around and engages with her audience; she gives off the feeling that she truly cares about her fans, not just as “fans” who worship her, but as people. She’s tall and curvy and represents a real woman, not some stick figure media-crafted ideal of what a female pop star should look like. She’s beautiful and adorable, sexy and sensual, edgy, yet approachable. Upon leaving the show, journalist Melissa Tabeek said, “I wanted to jump on stage, give her a hug, and then grind on her.”
Take Me When You Go reflects her M.O. from start to finish. There isn’t one weak moment on the album, each song is a piece of the Who Puzzle. Following “Just Like Me” — which immediately allows the listener to relate to her on a personal level — and “High Society,” is “Glory Days,” a high-energy Bruce Springsteen-esque anthem. The song is an adrenaline-rush throwback to the 80s which declares: “These are the glory day! This is the golden age!” and recalls a time where “making out in the basement” was a not only a risky endeavor, but a prelude to teenage love. The song is about breaking rules and having the time of your life.
It’s pretty much like this:
The fourth track is her breakthrough single, “Somebody Loves You,” a love anthem that’s pure and simple in its lyrics, but it’s because of that pure simplicity that Who found her audience. The bridge, “If I am good to you, won’t you be good to me? That’s how easy this could be,” is straight-to-the-point, but it’s among the most raw lyrics on the album. Too often pop singers try to bury their intent underneath layers of complicated and cliched metaphors (Katy Perry’s signature writing style on songs like “Firework” and “Roar”), and this uncomplicated line strips away all the pretense, all the platitudes, all the mess and lays it all on the line.
Honesty in pop culture is refreshing.
Also, if you’re unfamiliar with the song, check out this flash mob proposal video (which is how I initially found out about Betty Who last year):
Who slows it down with standout tracks, “Missing You” and “Better,” in the middle of the album, and later with “A Night to Remember” and “California Rain,” (the former one of the highlights and the latter is the album’s closer, both the heart of Who’s shiny collection of 80s-inspired records.) Here she showcases her vulnerability, which just makes her all the more relatable. “Runaways” is the perfect get-out-of-town-in-the-middle-of-the-night road trip soundtrack. The track, Who said, “is driving down to Mexico in the middle of the night, not telling anybody, and sleeping in your car at the side of the beach with somebody you probably shouldn’t be running away with” (Billboard). It’s one of those songs that, juxtaposed with “A Night to Remember,” creates a startling visual and sonic narrative about escaping reality with someone due to a reckless sensibility that every young adult has had at one point. It’s dangerous, destructive, but it’s also one of those moments that’s so hard to recapture once lost, that the fact Who was somehow able to speaks volumes about her talent.
“Heartbreak Dream” is the antithesis to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Both are similar in feel and construction, but Who’s “Heartbreak Dream” depicts what happens after that teenage dream ends. Who said to Billboard:
Sometimes it’s so hard to let go even though you know you’re not right for each other. You want to be together and it’s passionate and it’s intense, but it’s like, “We are awful together. You don’t treat me well. I don’t treat you well. I drive you crazy. You make me an insane person. We need to let this go. And that’s okay.”
Who doesn’t wax poetic about love and life; she gets straight to the point. If she wants sex, she says it. If she wants to break up, she’s done. Maybe there’s some grey area (“Alone Again,” which follows “Heartbreak Dream,” talks about a late night booty call, and it’s hard not to follow the narrative from “Dream” and assume that she’s talking about ex sex), but that’s what makes Take Me When You Go a perfect soundtrack for every twentysomething. The truth is that nobody makes perfect decisions. We’re all imperfect. We all want danger and adventure. We all want to love and be loved. We all want to feel included in something greater than what we are. And Betty Who has somehow managed to capture all of these feelings.
It’s earnestness that will propel her forward. Her fan base is steadily increasing. She’s already captured the attention of gay men, who are the driving force behind pop divas. These are the same gay men who worshipped at the altar of Mother Monster and incessantly tweeted lyrics to Katy Perry’s “Firework” because they somehow got the struggle. I couldn’t turn around at Betty Who’s High Society Tour without bumping into another gay man, and with that kind of support, there’s no doubt she’ll be facing off against her more seasoned peers on the charts sooner rather than later.
How did Betty Who manage to capture the attention of a notoriously fickle fan base? An article by Daniel Reynolds in The Advocate recently claimed that Lady Gaga lost — or is in the process of losing — her gay fans, so it stands to reason that we’re all looking for another “mother” to flock to. But is this the case? The issue, as The Advocate points out, is that Lady Gaga, a self-proclaimed bi-sexual woman, rose to fame in a time where there were few gay and lesbian pop stars topping the charts, a fact that hasn’t changed too drastically (Sam Smith is the only solo gay man who has topped the charts recently.) What has changed is that Lady Gaga, who played a vital role in raising awareness of gay issues (her speech in Maine during the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010 was particularly, followed by 2011’s “Born This Way,” which was a gay pop anthem that topped Billboard charts at the time), has seemingly shifted focus from raising awareness and crafting songs that represented gay men, to the abstract performance art of ARTPOP and claiming to speak for the unrepresented “odd” minority. This minority definitely includes gay men, but excludes anyone who isn’t weird enough to “get” her ARTPOP. And it’s with this schtick that Gaga has come off as “inauthentic” to the mass majority, at least as far as casual fans are concerned. Reynolds wrote:
Be it rooted in biphobia or suspicion of exploitation, even a whiff of inauthenticity can be the end for an entertainer among gay fans, and for Gaga — whose headline-grabbing couture so shocked and titillated when she first arrived on the scene — it appears the meat dress routine may be rotting.
Gay men are no longer downtrodden outcasts in pop culture (the rest of society is a different story), so there’s no longer a need for gay men to cling to artists like Gaga and Perry, who have pandered specifically to them in the past. Betty Who represents inclusion. The lyrics to “Somebody Loves You” are so inclusive, in fact, that there are no gender-specific pronouns. It’s a love anthem for gay men and women, for straight men and women, for trans men and women, for men and women of all ages, shapes, and sizes; it’s for everybody, and this represents the inclusion that the gay community has wanted.
Still, there is room for everyone. Whether or not Gaga can win back the gay community remains to be seen, I think with the right collection of songs, Mother Monster can get back on track. In pop music, it’s important never to count anyone out. Though it’s clear Gaga can learn a thing or two about crafting relatable pop jams from Betty Who. To that effect, everyone should start making room for Betty Who, whose star has only begun to rise.