All the world’s a stage, and singer-songwriter Jessie J’s corner of it looks something like American Idol (or maybe X Factor, since she’s a Brit). The 23-year-old’s debut, Who You Are, is not so much an album as it is a pleading, 50-minute audition, the logical byproduct of someone who doesn’t yet have the control of her own talent. Thus, it is temping to judge her with the same encouraging vagueness as the Idol panel (“Jessie’s in it to win it!” “At first I wasn’t sure, but then it felt really, really real!” “Zip zap zababble zab zezozose zadfrack, come on down and sit in my lap!”). Who You Are is a string of missteps, but the right path often feels just a few taste levels and stern talking-tos away.
Her rabid approach to song interpretation makes sense given the woeful climate of the industry she’s entering (the air pressure’s rising, like that of a sinking ship). As on the Idol stage, it feels like every second matters, so there’s little sense of crescendo or climax–Jessie just blows. She channels so many in such a short amount of time. Her vocal tone is somewhere between Kelly Clarkson and Tiny Toon Adventures’ Elmyra. Her excitability is all Xtina. Her butchie swag was previously spotted in P!nk. Her disaster chic seems swiped from Fantasia (who swiped it from Patti). At one point in “Casualty of Love” (which apes the doo-wop aping in the Spice Girls’ “Too Much”), she sounds freakishly like Ciara. In addition to its obvious influences, Jessie’s acrobatic voice contains an arsenal of annoyance: wormy vibrato, fluttery spasms, punishing shrieks, possessed snarls, syllables stretched into eons and squeaks indebted to Betty Boop as much as they are to chew toys. Her frequent, serpentine melisma plays like a dissertation refuting David Browne’s Times article from December that proclaimed the vocal technique irrelevant.
But then, annoyance is the tack that pop music often uses to adhere. Unfortunately (or whatever!) Jessie’s tunes don’t match the, erm, distinctiveness of her voice. Her R&B-lite’s whatever-sticks aesthetic spans junk crunk and rhythm-and-bombast ballads, but it’s really just a blur of shouty, fluorescently lit choruses. When Jessie’s lyrics aren’t complete nonsense (“I gotta have ya like abracadabra!”), they espouse puffy optimism (“Strive to be happy and live to believe!”) and sub-Girl Power empowerment. That “Do It Like a Dude” is probably the most overtly feminist pop song of the past year, but sports subject matter handled by TLC with far more finesse almost 20 years ago, should make you wonder if we are regressing as a culture. (Actually, it shouldn’t: you know we are.)
Speaking of regression, in Who You Are‘s first U.S. single “Price Tag”–which was produced by Dr. Luke, though you’d never know it–Jessie calls for a return to the days “when music made us all unite,” and claims that she only wants to make people dance. “It’s not about the money money money / We don’t need your money money money,” she sings. Well, first of all, she’s charging for the album, so if you believe her proclamation, I’ve got a stripper who’s in love with you that I’d like you to meet. But there is some truth there–regardless of whether she needs listeners’ money, she probably won’t be getting much of it, given the state of the industry. (It’s also probably easy to go pro bono when you’ve got a bank full of residuals from writing Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.,” as Jessie did.)
There and everywhere on Who You Are, the thinnest layer of disingenuousness obscures painful honesty. Peeking from behind Jessie J’s bravado is desperation to be liked. Psychology like this that’s visible from your parlor is nothing new; nor is playing to the crowd. But it’s amazing how uncomfortable it all feels when thrust into your ears with the force that Jessie J is capable of. It’s enough to make a near-miss sound like a tragedy. If she’s still around next week, let’s hope she steps her game up.