You're in Love (With Betty Who): The PopMatters Interview

Photo: Molly Cranna

"All those 'oh I'm so famous and it's so hard' songs are bullshit." Dance-pop zeitgeist Betty Who speaks her mind and her heart as she breaks into the mainstream.

Betty Who

The Movement EP

Label: RCA
US Release Date: 2013-09-20

It's impossible to listen to Betty Who's "Somebody Loves You" and not want to drop on your knees and propose to someone.

OK, maybe that's taking it too far, but unless you've been living under a rock you know that at some point last year (September to be more precise) the internet gave us one of those viral videos that actually restore our faith in humanity as we saw an unabashed romantic by the name of Spencer propose to his boyfriend Dustin through a choreographed mob dance that more often than not made us wish West Side Story could've unfolded differently. Betty Who's upbeat anthem to optimism and love was the perfect song for such a moment, because in more than one way it helped convey everything that's so terrific about her music: that sense of almost careless joy that makes her the perfect midpoint in between the devastating beats of Robyn and the faux-erudite-ness of Lady Gaga.

Betty, who came up with her stage name after writing a song about this character, seems to be devoted to bringing happiness to the airwaves, something that's both awesome and scary. There just has to be something behind this peppiness and constant hopefulness, right? Even when she sings of living in a "heartbreak dream" she emphasizes the dream part, as if to suggest that everything will be alright once she's awake. Talking to her, Betty Who seems to be exactly like her songs; too sincere to be manufactured and too smart to be endlessly naive. What you get out of a conversation with her is a happy bug, listening to her opinions on her career and the industry you can't help but hope she'll be around for a very long time. The world certainly needs more romantics.

* * *

Every article mentions you as "the next big thing". Have you found that to be unnecessary pressure or just take it as a compliment?

It's definitely a compliment! I have moments where I'm like "what if I'm not a big deal and everyone is just confused?" I'm waiting for someone to find out that I'm lying [laughs]. But in all honesty it feels great so far, because I've always wanted people to praise me for being good at doing what I love to do.

You're a classically trained musician, at what point did you decide to pursue a career in pop music instead of dedicating yourself to cello?

I was studying cello until I was 18, all throughout the time when I was in school the cello was my instrument. But then I figured out that this was not what I wanted to be doing! I had this great cello teacher who didn't try to convince me to keep doing it, but instead told me to pursue my passion. This teacher taught me how to play and sing at the same time and allowed me to incorporate what I wanted to do into my education.

Your lyrics make you sound like you put yourself in very vulnerable places in romance, like you allow yourself to give everything for something that might just be worth it. Is this something that happens to you in real life or do you approach your songs from the points of view of characters?

Oh my songs are definitely autobiographical [laughs]. They're either about me or about an experience I saw someone else go through. I want my songs to make people go "Hey she's talking about me!" or "Oh my gosh that happened to me!" I want to make songs about me but I hope that people can relate to them.

I love "High Society" and was delighted when I found out it had been slightly inspired by Gossip Girl. Can you share that story with us?

Yeah! When I was writing my producer said he wanted to make a song about "high society," about being in a basement in your parents house and dreaming of drinking chardonnay and going to balls. So it was funny that we wanted to talk about was pretty much what happened in the last episode of the show where Dan Humphrey is revealed as Gossip Girl and he delivers this monologue about the opulence of the Upper East Side, which is meant to show how shallow this world is, but I couldn't help thinking "how fabulous would that be?", imagining I could have this Brooklyn loft while I was also going to a debutante ball.

What other pop culture references have inspired songs you've released so far?

That's a tough one. [silence] I guess it's easier for me to say what other artists have influenced me sonically, I have references to songs where "Justin and JC sang" for example, and those were the things that informed my music.

You've listed Carole King as one of your influences, have you seen Beautiful on Broadway yet?

I haven't seen it! Is it good?

It is so good, you must catch it when you're in New York ...

Can't wait!

As you become more famous, do you think your songs will change from aspirational dance songs to more self-conscious "fame is weird" tunes a la Lady Gaga?

I don't know to be honest, because that's something that hasn't happened to me yet. But from where I stand, the songs to me that are like "I've seen the whole world, etc" ... the number of people that can relate to that is so slim! I want to write songs that are true to me, but open so that anyone can feel me. I don't want to exclude people, and besides all those "oh I'm so famous and it's so hard" songs are bullshit.

You'll be joining Katy Perry in Australia during her "Prismatic Tour". How's that for a homecoming?

I haven't been back to Australia in a couple of years, so it's all very exciting in a good way. In the best way possible actually!

You've also been very vocal about your love for other female artists during a time in which the media constantly tries to pitch women against each other. How do you stay above that?

I don't think there's a very famous pop star that I don't like, I think of them all as sisters, as people to look up to. I believe there's room for everybody if you're different enough. If you're not copying there is room for you. So far the people I've met have been great teachers, and I feel lucky to have strong, powerful, opinionated women in my life, it really has made all the difference.

You will be headlining the Pride Parade in New York City, which is a pretty big deal! Are you excited about that?

It is so awesome, I'm super excited, because I've been on tour for so long ... that more than anything I'm just so ecstatic to come home -- because I live in New York -- and have all my friends come out, to what is really the happiest event of the year!

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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