Sky Ferreira is part of a peer group attempting to attract a quickly dispersing crowd back to pop’s big tent. Along with Miley Cyrus, Lorde, and Selena Gomez, she’s one of a relatively small group of prominent ’90s babies who has attempted to make music for a mainstream audience, rather than bubbling up in a smaller sub-genre and using the buzz to cross over.
Each of these musicians has her own approach to reach an audience that certainly exists, but can be difficult to pin down. Ferreira is noteworthy for the way in which her selling points, her image and story, have taken the leash away from her actual music. Her debut album, Night Time, My Time was a near-anonymous, entirely pleasant mix of pop and new wave with spikes of alternative influence included like easter eggs, for those who gravitate to the edgy, high-fashion net of Ferreira’s brand.
That makes the enterprise of Sky’s music making sound more manipulative than it is–she’s simply a talented, classicist pop songwriter who enjoys the trappings of ’80s and ’90s alt-culture, and those ideas show up in her music as accessories, rather than the core of her sound. Sky has taken on the guise of a provocateur: her selling point before the release of the album last autumn was her sudden freedom from the corporate slavery of her label overlords. But she has followed up with all the substance of a particularly pop-friendly mouse.
That tricky one-two punch of explicit provocation followed by amiable vagueness was epitomized in the response to the just-released video for “I Blame Myself.” The video plays with the imagery of West Coast gang culture, at first in a way that seems explicitly stereotypical, but which is later muddied by several scenes, including a deliberately strange (and really funny) dance sequence. The clip was an impressive vehicle for Sky to further her image: in it, she’s a snarling Sharon Stone-influenced figure who exerts control on those around her, mainly through a hard-edged sexuality. But the clip is also suffused with irony, and is clearly intentionally comical. Sky has promoted it as an act of catharsis, to help her excise the demons that came when she and her boyfriend were arrested and charged with possession of ecstasy and heroin, respectively.
The video provoked a twitter-fueled tempest in a teapot, with some fans calling it racist and accusing Ferreira of using black people as “props.” Sky and the video’s director, have responded, and the message of the video’s song has been submerged (and exemplified!), first in the presentation of its star and secondarily in the controversy that followed. The whole incident follows the Ferreira playbook of big noise drowning slight substance so closely that an observer of Sky’s career could have scripted it before it happened.
The video was an amplification of the song’s message, using imagery to accomplish what relatively airtight songwriting only suggested. Sky’s voice isn’t quite powerful enough to summon the rocker that she and her co-writers/producers Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen may have been going for. But her timidity on the track works in her favor because it helps to explain the misunderstanding that she’s exploring. While Ferreira’s songs don’t ring with the lyrical dynamism of a Lorde, she does have a factory music knack for communicating complex sentiments in digestible terms:
“Is it because you know my name/
Or is it because you saw my face on the cover?
Either way it’s all the same/
It’s like talking to a friend, who’s trying to be your lover
Underneath it all
I know it’s not your fault
That you don’t understand
I blame myself”
Sky’s narrative and presentation have deliberately fueled that misunderstanding, both back when she was being represented by Capitol Records in straightforward fashion, and now, when her story depends on a fabled break with the label that appears to have retained at least some control of both her image and her music. By presenting as she does, she continues to deepen her own artistic contradictions.
Sky Ferreira is not big, but she’s on the verge of getting there. She’s currently opening for Miley Cyrus and after the video controversy, a fan posted below Ferreira’s response that she should “learn with miley: do what u want and don’t give a fuck.” But the image that Ferreira has projected since she started promoting Night Time, My Time has been exactly that, the wildchild provocateur, (though she has had the savvy, or guidance, to coat her acts of rebellion in a high-art gloss).
It is Sky’s restraint, and straightforward simplicity that has characterized her music thus far; she has let her image force the door open to let a harmless pop sound tiptoe in behind it. It’s a careful balance that has helped her to attain a certain degree of celebrity, and a tightrope that she will have to continue to walk in order to make coherent sense as an artist.