Public NME (2)

by Michael Tatum

Soko: "We Might be Dead by Tomorrow" (Community Music) Debuting on Billboard's top 100 at number nine (as Casey Kasem used to say) "with a bullet," Soko's "We Might Be Dead by Tomorrow" could be the weirdest phenomenon of the year. To begin with, Stephanie Sokolinsky is French -- a novelty on a chart that considers a Kiwi like Lorde "exotic" -- an actress with almost a dozen films to her credit in her native country. She's also vegan, straight edge, and openly bisexual, a girlish looking twenty-seven year brunette whose youthful good looks remind me of another French ingénue, Virginie Ledoyen. But despite what might sound like an indie rock pedigree, that's not the weird part -- the weird part is that her music is as pretentious as it is contrived, a queasy amalgamation of French chansons, twee singer-songwriting, musique concrete, and atrocious high school poetry, the latter especially tricky because English, the songs in which Soko speaks-sings her material, is her second language, hence titles like "Why Don't You Eat me Now, You Can," "Destruction of the Disgusting Ugly Hate," "First Love Never Die," and, indeed, "We Might be Dead by Tomorrow" itself. So why are we discussing this song? And how did it splash down on our shores into the American top 10?

As it happens, "We Might be Dead by Tomorrow" serves as the background music to one of the biggest viral videos of March: "First Kiss." The idea behind what was originally promoted as an "art piece" by director Tatia Pilieva was to take twenty strangers, pair them up, and have them kiss for the first time. Most of the participants begin tentatively, engaging in small talk, looking as nervous you might expect two casual strangers asked to be intimate with each other might be. Except when their lips finally meet, they look comfortable, compassionate, and sometimes even turned on. Having said that however, though it received inexplicable praise (really, gushing) in some quarters, the end result, slickly shot in black and white on an unadorned set, resembles nothing less than a high concept advertisement for Guess Jeans.

Well, there had to be a punch line, and it turns out my joke about it looking like a "high concept advertisement for Guess Jeans" isn't far off -- far from an exercise in spontaneity, the video "celebrates" nothing less than the fall collection for Wren Studios, and already I know what some of you are thinking: a fall collection? In March? But wait, it gets better: the participants are also all paid actors and models, which explains why all of them are young, attractive, and well-dressed, something that struck many pundits as odd even before the truth behind the three and half minute short was actually made public (on Twitter, of course). As Amanda Hess of Slate notes: "I'm betting that if Pilieva had filmed the video with a more diverse cast of people...the result would have been more unsettlingly comedic than searchingly romantic. It would also have been more interesting, if infinitely less shareable."

Soko is one of the "strangers" in the video, which I suppose would have been a tip off had any Americans known who she was by sight. The wistful, melancholic strains of "We Might Be Dead by Tomorrow" pluck away in the background, the message I suppose being something along the lines of "Eat, drink, and be merry -- but remember to put on your makeup in the morning, because you've got a nine o'clock audition." My god, it's an abysmal piece of work. She can't sing, the arrangement makes "Chopsticks" look ornate, and the trite lyrics make A Great Big World's "Say Something" ring with the power of Dylan Thomas, from the awkward construction "adding scars to my heart" to the maudlin "If you're not ready for love/How can you be ready for life," to the bizarre notion that those who have intimacy issues haven't been faced with the loss of a parent (an idea which would get Ms. Sokolinsky laughed out of Psych 101).

But what really gets me about this farcical ballad is its accompanying video, "directed" by the Renaissance Woman herself with a Super 8 camera, depicting her and what we assume (better yet, made to believe) is her real-life girlfriend caught in intimate moments -- showering, engaging in foreplay, playfully exchanging a bit of food between their mouths. Because footage from those cameras recalls old home movies, the intimacy depicted in the video has a different sort of quality to it than "First Kiss" -- you really do feel like you're secretly peeking into someone's life. But then you wonder -- who's holding the camera? Who's the third person hovering over the bed while they're caressing each other's naked bodies? And if these are random moments from the course of one relationship, why does their hair look the same length in every shot? And your suspicions wouldn't be completely unfounded -- Soko's "partner" is actually Meghan Edwards, guitarist and vocalist for goth-psych girl band Black Bow. Jane Helpern of the blog The Cultist posed to her the perfectly reasonable question: "How much of this video is based on reality and how much is just a wet dream or acting?" The answer: "It's real. As long as it made you feel something. It's real."

In other words, not real at all. Of course, no one expects Taylor Swift to be "really" romantically involved with the guys in her videos anymore than they expect every single one of her lyrics to be drawn from her private life. Playacting and exaggeration and inhabiting personae is only to be expected. But Soko's approach is something entirely different: despite her air of self-importance, everything in her bag of tricks seems drawn from the muddy well of reality TV. Granted, no one, except for the very gullible, accepts what goes down every week on The Bachelor on face value. But on the other hand, enough people bought into "First Kiss" that the backlash to its aftermath has been palpable (for what it's worth, I love the "First Handjob" parody by Pimms Girl), and Jane Helpern isn't the only blogger to think that Soko and her co-star in "We Might be Dead by Tomorrow" are an item (they're not). Sokolinsky's approach is duplicitous, so unseemly, yet also emblematic of a culture that pretends to reveal everything even as it divulges nothing. No wonder she debuted at number nine.

Keith Urban: "Cop Car" (Capitol Nashville) Now here's some romance: couple dismisses a "No Trespassing" sign, watches planes take off from a spot on an open field, and get arrested by the cops. No alcohol or fisticuffs involved, but she tries to work her charms on the arresting officers, who don't buy it -- but he falls for her completely in the police car's back seat while the officers take their sweet time letting them go. Call it the Hold Steady's "Chillout Tent" transplanted to the Heartland, except Keith happens to be Australian, and sports the funniest last name in country music since Hank Yankee. Most of Urban's output is mainstream C&W at its most expedient and I suppose this song is no exception, from the muted synth chords that dramatically set the scene to the "Whoa-oh-oh" football stadium chorus that takes the song home, but for me songs like this are always lifted by the details, and this one's got them: "I knew you didn't smoke when you asked him for a light/And I laughed as he got mad and slammed the door," or Keith muttering, "Well, ain't that some shit" when he realizes he's gonna have some explaining to do to his date's father. Ridiculous I suppose, as well as cornily plotted, but also glorious -- something I'm willing to bet a lot of people in his target audience can relate to. An excellent song.

March 28, 2014, Odyshape