“Boys (That I Dated in High School)”, the first single from the debut album by the NYC trio the Prettiots, captures in about three minutes all of the band’s best traits and everything that will be used to criticize them. The latter would be the ukulele, cleverness and self-aware way of singing for the spotlight. And, you know, the fact that they’re voicing from a place of certainty the desires, feelings and opinions of Millennial women, a ticket to being brushed aside. On the positive side would be the song’s bubblegum pop melody, the punky energy they give it, and above all the way the song incisively deflates the puffed-up egos of men, when it comes to claims of sexual prowess and subtle attempts to exert power over women. I could have said “young men”, as the song’s about high school, but the implications cross age.
“These are the boys that I dated in high school / I thought they were so nice and I thought they were so cool / these are the boys that I dated in high school / they weren’t very nice and they weren’t very cool,” goes the chorus. The verses call out the boys by name, from one who was “only good at texting” to one who says he won’t break up with his other girlfriend because she has a dead grandma.
The rest of the album is in this vein, in terms of perspective and approach – sometimes more complicated and sometimes less, but with a similar sense of frankness and humor. In the opening song an ex is someone the protagonist feels like she’s gotten over; but still she classifies him as the person most likely to run her over with a truck. The morale of the story: be smart when choosing a mate. “Dreamboy” wraps up idealistic hopes with girl-group harmonies, but there’s also a humble sense of low expectations (“scratch that you don’t have to be that great / you could just be someone I don’t totally hate”) that cuts against against the idea of the title in a pleasing, real-world way.
And lest you dismiss their music as fluff, listen to the human struggles in “Anyways…”, where freedom is sought from an aggressor. “You broke me / but I wasn’t yours to break”, lead singer Kay Kasparhauser sings.
The Prettiots will no doubt be described as cutesy indie-pop, but there’s a serious strain of nihilism, anxiety and realism within their songs, even the jokey ones. “Suicide Hotline” sums that up neatly if a bit preciously, with self-comparisons to famous suicides. The other famous-people allusions on the album fit with that sense of romantic hopes being twisted and unrealistic — Werner Herzog and Klaus Kinski are held up as an ideal couple, and Elliot Stabler from Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is dreamed about as a savior, sincerely.
There are also covers of the Misfits’ “Skulls” and Dolly Parton’s “Me and Little Andy” (you know, the one where Parton sings in a little-girl voice the pleas of an unwanted girl and her puppy dog who escape to heaven), two songs that have certainly never shared an album before. Both reflect the darkness within the Prettiots’ pop world.
That self-conscious, under-the-spotlights quality I mentioned at the beginning ultimately seems like an inadvertent or intentional reflection of today, of the Millennial generation, if you want to call it that, or the social-media era we’re in now. But not in a negative way – beneath the tweetable lyrics lies critical commentary and reflections on human dynamics that play out in life every day.