Santigold: Master of My Make-Believe

Santigold’s greatest strength lies in the rich diversity of her sonic palette, and she delves deep into that range of creative sources throughout this album.


Master of My Make-Believe

Label: Atlantic
US Release Date: 2012-05-01

In the mercurial hyper-reality of internet music culture, four years can feel like an eternity. Yesterday’s over-hyped ‘next big thing’ quickly becomes today’s snarky punchline -- think Lana Del Ray -- or simply falls victim to our ever shortening memories and attention spans. Four years ago, Santi White’s debut album as Santogold, with the impossibly catchy hooks of “L.E.S. Artistes” and “Lights Out”, rode a wave of internet adulation to near universal critical and popular acclaim. Her free-spirited blend of punk attitude and new wave guitars with reggae bass and hip-hop beats firmly established her place within a lineage of genre blurring, party rocking women from Debbie Harry to Gwen Stefani, and MIA. And then there was her voice -- deep and mesmerizing with just a touch of rasp, equally suited to riot grrrl shouts, emotionally resonant melodies and those perfectly crafted choruses.

Although Santogold was White’s first album as a solo artist, she was no neophyte within the worlds of popular and independent music. She’d worked for years as an A&R rep for Epic Records, written and produced for an eclectic and boundary pushing pop album in Res’s How I Do, and fronted the Philadelphia punk band Stiffed. Given her considerable resume, it's no surprise that Santogold played more like a greatest hits album than a debut. And as is often the case for artists who emerge fully formed in this way, it all adds up to a lot of pressure to repeat the successes of their initial offerings and avoid the proverbial sophomore slump. In the years that have passed since Santogold dropped, sites and platforms like Twitter, Tumblr and Spotify, along with countlessly proliferating music blogs, have altered the ways that we discover, share and consume music. And the esoteric blend of artful genre hopping and neon ‘80s cribbing visuals that White once owned so fully has been co-opted in different ways by a range of mainstream artists from Rihanna to Gaga to Nicki Minaj. For her part, White has spent this time touring incessantly, collaborating with a range of hip-hop artists including Pharrell Williams, Kanye West and the Beastie Boys and enlisting an all-star cast of producers and song writing partners for her new album as Santigold, Master of My Make-Believe.

White’s music has always perched precariously on the boundaries between indie and mainstream music culture, and it’s a position she embraces fully on this album. Nowhere is this clearer than on the opening track “Go” which pairs producers Q-Tip and Switch with 2/3 of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs in guitarist Nick Zinner and Karen O. The song’s chorus proclaims “People wants my power / And they want my station … Try to pull my status / But they couldn’t fake it”, over a driving, reverb drenched electro beat. It might be a shout-out to all those top 40 copycats mentioned earlier, or it might be an allusion to the current state of global unrest and uprising. Either way, it sets the tone for an album that is unrelenting, confrontational and bold in the ambitious scope of its vision, despite its meager 38-minute running length.

Those twin themes of confrontation and collapse that emerge in “Go”, are carried to their fullest expression on two of the albums most immediately striking songs. On “Look at These Hoes”, White takes a shot at any would be competitors, rapping “Look at these hoes / These bitches ain’t fuckin’ with me, killah” over a glitchy, otherworldly hip-hop beat produced by Diplo and Boys Noize. And on the lush and gorgeous indie ballad “The Keepers”, she sings “We’re the keepers / While we sleep in America / Our house is burning down” in the most overtly political statement on the album. These two songs also represent the widely varied musical terrain that the album explores. On one end of the spectrum, there is the futuristic, beat driven territory of tracks like the fierce and frenetic “Freak Like Me”, and “Big Mouth”. And on the other, there are the epic indie rock collaborations with Zinner from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and TV on the Radio’s David Sitek including “This Isn’t Our Parade”, and the pensive, world weary beauty of “The Riot’s Gone”. And then there’s the single “Disparate Youth”, a Ricky Blaze produced ear worm that would feel right at home on a playlist along side a JT/Timbaland R&B jam if it weren’t for Zinner’s occasional burst of angular guitar stabs. There are few artists out there who could pull off this kind of balancing act, but Santigold’s greatest strength lies in the rich diversity of her sonic palette, and she delves deep into that vast range of creative sources throughout this album.

Perhaps because there are no instantly gratifying individual tracks on the level of an “L.E.S. Artistes” on this album, the initial critical responses to Master of My Make-Believe have been often luke warm at best. Or perhaps it’s because of the fickle nature of an internet music culture that set expectations for this album unreasonably high, a fact that was surely exacerbated by the amount of time that it took for it to see the light of day. At any rate, I’m guessing that this will be a grower for many fans and critics who might dismiss it as somehow lacking upon first listen. I would place this album among the strongest work coming out in both the realms of indie and pop music these days, and though it may not inspire the level of critical and popular veneration that her first album enjoyed, it’s a welcome return by one of the most inventive and inspired recording artists working today.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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