Scaring the Sharks

Agile ingenue and extraterrestrial outsider experience life

The American girls, they're so hung up over sex—not having it, mind you, but projecting as if. Blame that on the boys, though. You see it in our teenpop, little more than idealized innocence chum for aspiring pedophiles.

The slightest whiff of actual experience—and the ability to be articulate about it—would scare the sharks off, which is probably why Maria Mena's debut fizzled into nothingness. "Sex, drugs, or rock 'n' roll?" MTV recently asked the 18-year-old half-Norwegian ingenue. Her reply, "Rock 'n' roll, because there's nothing like it," passes the Hilary Duff test, but the follow-up—"There's nothing like sex either"—most certainly doesn't. Disney won't have one if its under-20s admitting to congress, no less feature a shirtless hottie brushing his teeth before he spends the night in her debut video. (Does that Good Charlotte lout floss?) "Do you like my ability to bend?" Mena asks a new beau on "Your Glasses," but she doesn't mean Carly Patterson. Young women are far smarter than media that's not The N typically allow them to be, and Mena, for all her Alanis poses and first-blush eagerness, flashes emotional brilliance that seems shocking, but is really closer to those secret lives than even Josh Schwartz at his most tortured could evoke.

In about five years, if Mena's allowed to reap her pop failure for all its worth, she'll make something as idiosyncratically elegant as Soviet Kitsch. Regina Spektor—who's opened for the Strokes, but don't hold that against her—moved to the Bronx from Moscow at age nine, and still carries enough of an accent to endear: like a bit of Björk, a bit of Natalie Merchant. Accordingly, her songs—mostly quirky piano ditties—sound even more extraterrestrial than the lyrics already are. Each one seems to take the shape of a different conversational form—a scolding ("Poor Little Rich Boy"), a fever-dream confessional ("Chemo Limo"), a shrieking plea from a dispossessed lover ("Somedays"). Each style is inhabited with equal verve, even the Le Tigre–esque skronk on "Your Honor": "You fight for my honor, but I just don't know why." Her range, even at its most absurd, is so audacious as to be wholly convincing. Maybe it's because she grew up in a sort of exile, unbound by false cultural heritage. Keep Irwin Chusid away—this is practically outsider music, deliciously unmediated. As she sings on "The Flowers": "Things I have loved, I'm allowed to keep."

 
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