Betty Who's 'Betty' Is the Synthpop Fix You've Been Looking For
Betty Who's heart is always in the right place, and with her newfound artistic freedom, she's is crafting the kind of pop music that she wants to make.
15 February 2019
Whatever shall we do with a Betty Who?
Ever since the Australian dance-pop queen debuted with her too-catchy-for-this-universe single "Somebody Loves You" in 2012, the woman born Jessica Newham has occupied a rare kind of queer cult status, a guilty pop secret that only a select few knew about. Her gloriously catchy debut EP soon led her to a signing with RCA Records, and her debut release, 2014's Take Me With You, proved to be a stellar sampling of her electro-candy sound, filled with memorable hooks and pathos not too far removed from her clear predecessor Robyn. She had the makings of a beloved pop idol in the celebrated ranks of Carly Rae Jepsen in the unquestionably-quality pop spectrum.
Yet for all of the buzzy reviews, Pride appearances, and championing by the likes of Tyler Oakley, Troye Sivan, and Pentatonix, Betty Who's corner in the pop landscape has been decidedly niche. She absolutely strikes you as the kind of artist who would've had a Top 40 single or two by this point, and while her club and small venue dates uniformly sell out, mainstream success has been oddly elusive for her.
This lack of a popular embrace was best exemplified by her sophomore effort, 2017's The Valley. Featuring an odd collaboration with Warren G and some bad contemporary production choices that felt outside her range (the bizarre verses of the single "Some Kinda Wonderful" especially), the album felt more like RCA recouping their investment than a true statement from Newham herself, even as her cover of the Donna Lewis staple "I Love You Always Forever" ended up charting high in her native Australia. Soon, she parted ways with her label and dropped her first EP in four years in 2018, hinting that whatever new material she puts out will come straight from the heart, continuing to write her own songs but having a stronger hand in the production and marketing.
Thus, it's fitting that the third Betty Who album is just called Betty, as a self-titled effort is the kind of thing that introduces (or in some cases, re-introduces) one to the masses. Trading in the odd melodic matches of The Valley for a streamlined, full-pastel celebration of her favorite dance-pop idols, Betty has echoes of her debut album but struts with a swagger and confidence that we haven't seen from Newham in some time.
Opening with the breezy mid-tempo groove of "Old Me", a wonderful song about trying to get over your ex, Betty soon shoots off into a mix of contemporary uptempo songs and specific tributes to very specific icons that informed Newham's musical upbringing. "I Remember", the album's stellar lead single pastes somewhat generic romantic lyrics over a skittering dance beat and light, carefully-placed synth pads for immediate impact. It's one of those guilty-pleasure pop song sugar rushes that were a dime a dozen on her debut and only made infrequent appearances on The Valley. Newham very much writes Betty Who songs in a specific style, but when her craft leads her to stellar numbers like "I Remember" or "Beautiful" or "High Society", it's hard to ask for much more from her.
Thankfully, the twists that Betty provides on her '80s-synth-sheen formula help give this album a striking identity. On "The One", Newham and her longtime songwriting/producing partner Peter Thomas re-create those Max Martin "dog pant" drum sounds that characterized so much of the late '90s production style of Britney Spears and early (early) P!nk. Instead of coming off as a crass imitation, Newham writes a full song about living up to romantic expectations, the result coming off more as a teen pop homage than anything else.
Elsewhere, she outdoes Ed Sheeran an at his own white-boy pop game ("Taste"), takes aim at romantic '80s prom-pop singalongs ("Just Thought You Should Know"), and even attempts some of plastic-synth revisionism that wouldn't feel that out of place on a record by the 1975 ("Do With It" -- and also "All This Woman", to a degree). By the time she breaks out the acoustic for "Between You & Me", it's clear that Newham's enthusiasm for dance-pop has never wavered, the only difference between "Somebody Loves You" and now being how much better she's become at craft and presentation.
So as strong as Betty is as a whole, what's ultimately keeping it from being an instant-classic on the level of, say, Carly Rae Jepsen's 2015 standout Emotion? It simply comes down to her lyrics. Newham has always been an emotive-enough singer, and her vocal abilities remain unchanged since her debut. While she sometimes finds a daring new perspective for her characters within her lyrics, songs like "Stop Thinking About You" pledge endless affection long after time has stopped ticking -- a sentiment that's sweet but hardly anything revolutionary. (Some more hardcore fans may state the song is actually about coping with the loss of a loved one, that feels like a stretch, as the track doesn't give us that much material to work with.)
Yet a couple of tired-trope couplets should do little to deter even casual Top 40 aficionados from making an effort to give this good Betty a spin. Her heart is always in the right place, and with her newfound artistic freedom, Newham is crafting the kind of pop music that she wants to make, resulting in an album that, with any luck, will finally stop people from asking "Betty Who?" and just start saying it like any other household name.