Full Exposure

By Frere-Jones, Sasha | The New Yorker, January 14, 2008 | Go to article overview

Full Exposure


Frere-Jones, Sasha, The New Yorker


In early 2006, Kate Nash, an eighteen-year-old London resident, fell down a flight of stairs at her home and broke her foot. Earlier that day, she had learned that she had not been admitted to the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, a prestigious drama academy. As consolation, her parents bought her an electric guitar and an amplifier. Nash began writing songs and recording them on her computer, using the GarageBand software program. Within a few weeks, she had posted several songs on her MySpace page. The British singer Lily Allen discovered Nash's music, and featured Nash's page in her MySpace "Top 8." Soon, Nash had signed with Fiction Records, a subsidiary of Polydor.

At least, so the story goes. A similar tale of Web-to-chart success circulated about Allen when her debut album was released, in 2005. The truth, however, is slightly different. Allen's MySpace page has been consistently popular (it has racked up more than ten million page views), but the songwriter sent a demo, as aspiring musicians have for decades, to EMI and was signed before her MySpace page even existed. About Nash, what we can say for certain is that her bumptious second single, "Foundations," entered the British charts last June at No. 2, pushing forward the British release of her first album, "Made of Bricks," by a month. The album debuted at No. 1 in August, and is being released this week in the United States.

In the wake of Nash's album, several articles about the "MySpace generation" of young British female singer-songwriters have appeared in the national press. Among the musicians frequently mentioned are Nash, Allen, the unbearable neo-soul singer Adele, the appealing rock songwriter Remi Nicole, and Amy Macdonald, a graduate of the Bono School of Unbridled Earnestness. Like most trend pieces, these articles identify a genuine surge--in this case, an uptick in the number of young talented women making music in Britain--but overstate its meaning. Whether or not these women were discovered on MySpace doesn't change how their music is reaching the world: their recordings are released on major labels, and they are conducting the usual rounds of music- and beauty-magazine interviews. However, compared with the great female musicians who made their mark in the nineteen-nineties--PJ Harvey, Tori Amos, Liz Phair, Courtney Love--these women are less political, less aggressive, and, so far, less inspired. Perhaps MySpace is partly to blame. Internet exposure seems to have become an acceptable substitute for experience, and many artists are getting signed before they've played a live show, mastered the art of songwriting, or found their voice. The promotion of young talent has always been a central activity of the music business, but now, on Web portals like MySpace, which encourage the complete documentation of one's life in constantly updated photographs, video clips, and blog posts, amateurs are growing up in public. (In a blog post last year, Allen wrote that she felt "fat, ugly and shitter than Winehouse" and was "researching gastric bypass surgery.") If such exposure doesn't kill these young women, it could produce a very hardy breed of pop star.

On the strength of "Foundations," at least, Nash merits a shot at stardom. The song begins with rudimentary stuff: three simple piano chords played over a synthetic drumbeat. A guitar enters, and then Nash's unexpectedly nervous but pleasantly glassy voice: "Thursday night, everything's fine, except you've got that look in your eye when I'm telling a story and you find it boring. You're thinking of something to say." The situation gets worse as the song gets bigger and better. The dumb boyfriend throws up on her trainers (that's British for sneakers), makes fun of her in front of her friends, and generally behaves like a twenty-something male. Nash alternately whines, begs, and makes a wobbling sound that suggests an imminent rush of tears. It's fun to hear her tell him off--"Yeah, intelligent input darling, why don't you just have another beer, then? …

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