There was a time, if you can imagine, in which pop music set trends rather than fucked them. The genre’s last cultural peak was brash, noisy, chaotic, stuffed to the brim with hooks and production that turned heads at non-gay bars, dominated radio, even influenced the rap and R&B that would later come to usurp it. Something horrible happened between then and now. Pop music stopped doing its literal only job: being fun. Ke$ha gave way to Meghan Trainor; the Pussycat Dolls mutated into Fifth Harmony; Justin Bieber collapsed under the weight of Ed Sheeran. Suddenly, pop music stopped making us want to do shots and take the doors off of our Jeeps and started making us feel like we were in an elevator at TJMaxx. What did we do to deserve this?
The biggest pop stars of today — Ariana Grande, Billie Eilish, Doja Cat — aren’t making pop music, but scrapping it for parts and applying them to more fashionable rap and R&B templates. The music itself can be good, sure, but leaves a gap in culture that the pop powerhouses of the last decade have been too weak to fill. Lady Gaga came closest, but not without help; Katy Perry is still digging herself out from under The Haircut; Taylor Swift pivoted back to her roots when she was needed most.
Something like pop music exists at the periphery. Charli XCX’s experimental bangers have been widely acclaimed by critics and fans alike, but there’s something a little too “alternative” about it to imagine her in the same vein as Britney Spears. Then there’s the hyperpop boom, from 100 gecs to every TikToker who’s discovered the power of insane pitch correction. Fun, maybe, but there’s something cynical at its heart — an idea that pop’s not even worth making anymore if you’re not sort of making fun of it. Pop can laugh at itself, but when its creators think it’s stupid, the music can only be as fun as scrolling past some dumb meme. Pop music is more than that — it’s a state of mind, baby.
This is what made Slayyyter so exciting in 2019. There was nothing mocking or overly ironic about her debut self-titled mixtape. Her commitment to the garish and maybe even a little bit corny McBling aesthetic called attention to the void in music — nobody making music at the time cared enough to be corny. The striking mixtape art in which Slayyyter is a vision out of A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila — black hairstreaks, a smoky eye, and a string bikini in a hot pink tanning bed — reintroduced a vital question for the future of pop. “Wait, do we actually miss this?”
The jury was divided. To some, Slayyyter seemed like a nadir for petty nostalgia baiting, a less capable Britney copycat who remembered the mid-2000s being a lot better than they actually were. To others, she was messianic — a second chance for the music that was relentlessly mocked for its supposedly shallow and commercial center, allowed to grace wiser ears.
Slayyyter herself is clearly a believer in the latter, expanding her scope beyond Blackout-era Britney in a dazzling artistic leap on her debut album for FADER Label, Troubled Paradise. It’s a staggering achievement for an artist whose early career was a sort of voluntary pigeonholing — if Slayyter once succeeded by sounding a little like everyone else, Troubled Paradise ascends by leaving that crutch behind, filling a void in pop music left vacant for nearly a decade by simply having the gall to go for pure pop — no matter how embarrassing it may be.
The threat of embarrassment is what makes pop music such a fine art, what makes the prospect so scary. (Billie Eilish’s R&B take on pop, for example, rarely rises above a certain energy level lest the impenetrable “coolness” crumble.) Though Slayyyter is clearly aware of the challenge, she doesn’t seem to care. That is what creates the album’s most memorable moments. Following the first ear-splitting, glitchy, screaming chorus on opener “Self Destruct”, she suddenly deadpans: “Bitch I am the queen, White Castle / Pussy real fat with a tight bleached asshole.” Huh??? This happens one minute into the album. It triggers the same incredulous double-take as Kesha’s “rat-tat-tat-tat on your dum-dum drum” on “Sleazy”, the kind of “WTF” gift that keeps on giving.
“Venom”, “Throatzillaaa”, and “Dog House” are similarly unafraid, bringing the white-girl-rap-song count to four in a row, all tapdancing at different speeds on the line between perfect and cringey. “Dog House” is likely the best of the three, an insistent vogue-inspired cut more in the vein of “Hollaback Girl” than Ashnikko, and certainly the catchiest with its “You in the dog house! You better get! Out!” refrain. “Venom” is frantic and swaggering, full to the brim with stan-Twitter punchlines: “I got the serve, bitch, let’s go!”. “Throatzillaaa” speaks for itself, a song entirely dedicated to shouting about sucking dick, each way more ludicrous than the last (“Wig off like I’m Hannah Montana”) (?!?!). It doesn’t hurt that “Throatzillaaa” features so many unlikely beat changeups that it feels roughly ten minutes long despite clocking in at only three, a bizarre symphony, the best kind of a head-scratcher.
At this impasse, the record pivots completely, forgoing brat raps for emotive and uncharacteristically tender electro ballads and power-pop inspired bangers. The influences swerve from No Doubt’s Rock Steady to the better moments of Charli XCX’s Sucker, but remain firmly in the world of the initial cuts, just as audacious and self-assured.
“Serial Killer” is one of the standouts, the spiritual successor of No Doubt’s “Detective,” a slinky and cinematic track that features some of Slayyyter’s sharpest and most focused writing to date. The song’s crunchy, sputtering bridge injects her light-hearted persona into a song about a cannibalistic psycho-killer boyfriend: “The man of my dreams, he may kill me… Like, really kill me!.” Little moments like these are sprinkled throughout the album, testaments to Slayyyter’s knowing humor and steadfast command of her artistry. “Over This!” brings Best Damn Thing Avril Lavigne and Sleigh Bells together to explosive results, and “Butterflies” bridges the gap between Robyn and Robin S, a heady and intense robotic house track reminiscent of “None of Dem” and Slayyyter’s “Mine”, a further refinement of her unique take on deep club tracks.
And yet, for all its melding of references and adherence to pop traditionalism in terms of aesthetics, the other defining feature of Troubled Paradise is its unorthodox approach to songwriting. The title track boasts a 32-line bridge that separates the chorus from its only other repetition by two full minutes. The hook on “Venom” never sounds exactly the same at any point. “Cowboys” closes with a shouting fake-out coda where one more booming chorus should be. This quality works to keep listeners on their toes, accounting for the often enormous changes in production style and emotional palette from track to track. It serves as a testament to her adventurous approach to pop. Tonal whiplash is embedded into this album by design — to open an album with “Self Destruct” and close with “Letters”, an impossibly tender and vulnerable Charli XCX-ian love song without a drop of humor or irony is meant to be disorienting. Why wouldn’t one be able to have love and a tight bleached asshole and sing about both candidly in the same 36 minutes? Doesn’t this world need that?
It used to be that we could never have too many pop stars, each one indispensable. We needed the party girl, we needed the artsy freak, we needed the tomboy, we needed the sexpot, we needed the edgy one. Now it’s a fight to secure a seat at the table for even one. Given the opportunity, former champions of the genre cough up cheap fan service, offerings that are too left-field to stick with the general public, or flaccid pop-by-numbers with zero club appeal. It’s a cliche at this point to label any singer with vaguely catchy electronic music “the future of pop”, but with Troubled Paradise, Slayyyter provides pop music an exciting present, so that it might have a future at all.
Slayyyter strips the cynicism from hyperpop, invokes the best parts of the last generation of pop powerhouses, and fills the void in culture left by the last time Katy Perry went #1. Each song on Troubled Paradise is a reminder of how good we had it, but more importantly that we still can have it back. It’s a funny, catchy, boundary-pushing collection of songs that bring a desperately needed light to a genre whose prospects seemed extremely dark. She has risen!