Indie electropop and hair metal don’t necessarily come to mind as the best of bedfellows. Indeed, the two genres couldn’t be more opposed. Yet in the hands of Chicago avant-pop artist Emily Blue, the disparate forms merge into a synergy that sounds like they were destined to become entwined.
For an idea of what Blue and producer-guitarist Max Perenchio have crafted with new tune “17”, think Mitski fronting Whitesnake, or maybe Banks taking over Ann Wilson’s role in the 1980s-era Heart — even Lana Del Ray leading Cinderella. The power ballad — half of a dual single with forthcoming “Heartland” — features the hallmarks of Los Angeles glam metal: frenzied, virtuoso guitar work, grandiose percussion, and a general over-the-top eruption tailor-made for arenas illuminated by a sea of Zippo lighters. All the while, it’s centered by Blue’s searing voice and pop sensibilities, tempering the song with subtly and injecting it with genuine nuance.
Opening with sparse key notes and Blue’s vocals taking a dusky turn, “17” unfurls ebb-and-flow style, the chorus teased before its full-fledged arrival. Near its midpoint is a brief misdirection, the music seeming to fade before ratcheting drums herald a Mötley Crüe-worthy guitar solo. “I still feel like I’m 17 / In your car, windows open in the backseat”, Blue sings, her voice going from velvet crooning to impassioned belting.
Thematically, “17”‘s lyrical focus is on nostalgic yearning and wistful reflection on youth in small-town America. As such, the hair metal affectations work as a sincere touchstone, an effective device rather than a tongue-in-cheek shtick, recasting that beleaguered subgenre’s garishness as an emotional anchor.
The accompanying video and its anachronisms complement the song suitably. Oversaturated and grainy with vintage, Super 8mm home video aesthetics, it features Blue riding aback a motorcycle through autumnal woods and dancing adrift in an overgrown field. Such rural settings contrast with the song’s musical flamboyance, as one can visualize the pyrotechnics on a prodigious stage when the anthemic refrain hits. Shot by Morgan Paije and Matt Bordman, the video showcases “the beauty and tragedy of a midwestern upbringing,” according to Blue.
In addition to the new songs and video, Blue and fellow Chicago band Cold Beaches are launching a fall tour aimed at benefiting Planned Parenthood. Blue talks with PopMatters about the two ventures.
These songs mark a musical and lyrical shift from your most recent work. ’80s hair metal is often derided for its inherent schlockiness, but you deftly applied some of its touchstone elements. Counterintuitively, it’s the use of the form’s anachronistic and kitschy grandeur that hammers home the songs’ emotional resonance. Tell me about the genesis of your decision to incorporate ’80s arena rock into your sound.
Hair metal and glam rock just hit me in my core. I have a soft spot for anything deeply emotional, visceral, or cathartic, but what I love about this particular style is the unapologetic nature of it all. I listen to bands like Heart or Whitesnake and just get unequivocally amped, I guess you could say. It’s roll-the-windows-down music, hair in the wind-type shit.
What I’m really excited about through all of this is highlighting my own identity (small-town adolescence, discovering my bisexuality, general nostalgia and romance) into the music, whether it be through the songs themselves or how I represent them visually.
Despite the presence of the hair metal aspects, the song still sounds like you. Was there ever a concern that the new style would be too far removed from what you’ve already established?
With any and every shift in my career, I feel both excited and nervous to present it to the world. But if you look at my catalogue, there are always dramatic changes. *69 (2018’s five-song EP) was me embracing my sexuality and electropop; this is me digging into (and finding the beauty in) my past, my roots, etc.
After a lot of writing workshops with my producer (Max Perenchio) we found a way to “popify” some of our favorite classic styles, pulling a lot from artists I love, like Mitski and Lana. What I’m proudest of besides the challenge of writing in this new style, is that I learned what my voice is capable of. I hear a new resonance in these recordings that I hadn’t gotten to access before.
Lyrically, the songs come across as more reflective and nostalgic than the playful and innuendo-laden songs of *69. Did you set out to craft these songs so drastically set apart from those on the prior EP?
*69 was, in many ways, me learning to have fun with my music. I was also learning my strengths as a solo artist in terms of identity and playing a ‘pop’ character. What I love about “17” and “Heartland” is they prove that genre is in many ways dead. I look at artists like Lil Nas X, who literally went number one with a country / trap fusion song, and I’m inspired to do whatever the fuck I want from now on.
Of course, I enjoy strategizing and planning releases as packages, not just throwing them out willy nilly. But honestly, in today’s music culture, every form of expression becomes valid if you give it your authentic effort.
Were you writing more in-character or drawing from personal experience in these tunes?
Growing up in Champaign (Illinois), I had bigger dreams than what I felt was possible in a small midwestern town. At a certain point, the longing to leave was so great that I would spend weekends in the city (via Greyhound bus) and head back to college just to feed my artistic hunger. So, a lot of these songs are about the tension between comfort and passion, as well as balancing relationships with your dreams in life.
I also chose to use the ‘Heartland’ video as a portrait of some of my earliest queer experiences, something that’s very personal and important to me. It’s not quite ready yet, but I’m excited to show it to the world.
What does it mean to you as an artist to express such vulnerability and essentially put yourself out there via these songs? Do you ever experience an inner conflict, or trepidation, over revealing too much. Or on the flipside, do you worry about not revealing enough?
I feel that music, like people, occupies a spectrum of feelings. Sometimes, you want to be humorous, fun, danceable, upbeat. Other times you have trauma that you need to just lay on the table. Just recently, I was starting to worry that using writing in this way would appear inconsistent or indecisive. Maybe even inauthentic. But I trust the magic of the process, and of my inclinations as a curious person who loves to learn and discover myself through this.
Tell me about this fall tour you’re going on. You’ve mentioned it’ll see you visiting women’s resource and LGBTQ+ centers in various cities to shoot videos and record podcasts. How’d that come about?
My friend Sophia (of Cold Beaches) and I are both really passionate about Planned Parenthood specifically, so we are making a custom merch line for this short East Coast/Canada tour in November that will directly benefit Planned Parenthood. We plan to interact with as many people making waves in feminist activism, reproductive health, and LGBTQA+ social justice as possible.
We will be documenting these experiences while on the road via social media and more. Super excited for this string of shows and adventure to come!
Will they be full-band performances or more intimate or stripped-down affairs? Will it be both you and Cold Beaches performing at each spot?
This will both be full-band shows and we are performing in venues across the United States and Canada!
The goal is to use these performances as opportunities to spread awareness about women’s issues (interviewing different women and other activists as we go; we will post the episodes as videos and podcasts), and also showcase solidarity and strengths as women artists who independently tour.
There also be a Cold Beaches/Emily Blue single soon too! Stay tuned.
What are some of the social issues you plan on raising awareness of with these appearances?
Abortion access. Planned Parenthood is suffering due to its forced withdrawal from Title X ($60 Million in funding) and we just want to show solidarity and action as women in this country.
As an American woman and as an artist, how do you deal with the current trend of emboldened misogyny and increasing restrictions on women’s rights in the Trump era?
Honestly, I write whatever I want, and say whatever I want. It empowers me more than anything. I try to feel as free as possible despite the many stressful developments in our political climate. Obviously, we have tons of work to do. I am only one voice in millions, but hopefully the messages I have are positive in some way for the people that need it.
Do you feel a responsibility or obligation to use your artist’s role to address injustices and advocate for the oppressed? If so, what are some of the ways you fulfill this?
I do feel that my art lives in the broader conversation of feminist work, but I really try to remember and remind others that I am also just one person. My work, while often about women’s issues / gender, come mainly from my experiences in life and I never seek to preach others’ unless they share them with me.
My experiences and traumas exist in a system that in many ways gives me an advantage, so I offer up my thoughts just with the hopes that they are helpful to others and true to myself.
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“17” is available on Spotify and other online platforms now. “Heartland” is due out soon.
Below are Blue and Cold Beaches’ tour dates, with venues and ticket links available soon on Blue’s website here:
Nov. 15 — Detroit, MI
Nov. 19 — Richmond, VA
Nov. 20 — New York City, NY
Nov. 21 — New York City, NY
Nov. 22 — Montreal, QC
Nov. 23 — Ottawa, ON
Nov. 24 — Toronto, ON