Betty Who Ditches Her Label and Dishes out Indulgent Pop on ‘Betty’
Is it possible to be too pop — so much so that it somehow makes you ultimately not very pop, in the true sense of the word? If there ever were a case of this, it might be that of Aussie dance sensation Jessica Newham, who records under the fitting moniker of Betty Who. She came on the radar with her 2012 single “Somebody Loves You,” and a listen to that track should instantly communicate the gist of her peculiar predicament. It’s pop on steroids, so outlandishly bubbly and giddy that it’s hard to enjoy outside a mindstate that seek to exaggerate everything with a laughable indulgence. Naturally, she became a big hit with drag queens and such, but failed to garner the type of attention that music so exceptionally cathy might promise. What followed was a rather awkward relationship with her label RCA, with recent releases revealing a palpable friction between the artist’s inclinations and the label’s attempts to mold her into a more readily consumable product. For her latest album, the aptly titled “Betty,” Newham has laudably taken matters into her own hands, going the independent route, and the music shows it.
Sugary, frivolous opener “Old Me” finds Newham reveling in her newfound freedom, singing “I’m feeling like the old me / No, you cannot control me.” Newham sounds, at once, in her element, and continues to do so for the duration of the recording. It’s only upon the next song “Do It,” however, that things start to really take shape, and the record reveals its true lustre. In a flash, you are transported back roughly fifteen years, to the TRL universe. Too soon, perhaps. The sound is likely to make you freeze up in an existential WTF moment — although that only attests to its power. No one comes to mind who has executed such an audacious throwback to this particular time so flawlessly. Newham doesn’t loiter here too long though, instead swinging freely above and below the temporal arc. “Just Thought You Should Know” goes full eighties, with obnoxiously thudding snares, and a busy, jubilant riot of sound.
“I Remember” trims the fat, and streamlines the sound, with a refreshing sharpness, then picks up a UK Garage beat, spiraling back into the retrosphere. The chorus seems to take liberties in drawing from Wayne Wonder’s 2003 single “No Letting Go.” On the other hand, that song probably did the same with some other earlier track. This is the pop universe, and one could make the case that ideas are just “in the air.” Next up, “Marry Me” might be the most bright and bubbly track yet, which says a lot on an album like this. One thing is for sure: Newham probably isn’t on mood stabilizers. She did get married last year to photographer Zak Cassar, and the authenticity of the sentiment seems to make its way into its sound. There’s a playfulness to Newham’s sound that especially pronounces itself on songs like “Language,” on which she flirtily disclaims, “Excuse my language…” Things get steamy on “Taste,” with Newham immediately becoming unprecedentedly expressive with her voice. One striking quality of the delivery is that is seems designed based on the likes of Justin Timberlake, but particularly on moments when he amps up the falsetto, and imitates female singers. So what you have here is a female imitating a male imitating a female — full circle. Well, isn’t music liberating?
“All This Woman” is the, say, “heaviest” track of the album, if we could apply the descriptor to a subject outside its usual realm. This isn’t in terms of subject matter, but of how hard-hitting it can be, with sweeping crescendos that get abruptly cut off, giving the chorus an exhilarating edge. Newham continues borrowing from Timberlake, now specifically “Cry Me a River,” and this time, it’s really a bit too blatant. How no one called her out on this before she went ahead with the release defies comprehension. Oh right, it’s an independent release. It’s only natural for an artist to subconsciously recall melodic snippets from influential songs, but it really happens a lot with Newham. The following track, “Between You & Me,” has a phrase suspiciously similar to the refrain of Sisqó’s “Thong Song.”
“Ignore Me” keeps the album’s devil-may-care attitude going, with Newham singing the titular line, and affirming, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” over an airy, varnished arrangement of synths and strings. “Whisper” seems to launch right out of the preceding track’s momentum, and instantly packs a punch, with an insistent one-two stomp. Newham’s singing truly stands out on this track, the way she boldly bends her breathy utterances, and wraps them around at certain moments. “The One” is an absolutely unabashed homage to early aughts boy band fare, from the first second, with immensely garish, stacked symphonic drum machine hits, and laser blurts, and Newham doing another uncanny Justin Timberlake impression. She impertinently borrows recognizable phrases from the genre’s songbook, but generally keeps the borrowed bits short enough to avoid downright plagiarism. Instead she dips in just a bit longer enough than needed to tap into the collective consciousness, and evoke the spirit of the era by sampling the sonic fragments that very much define it. Britney Spears is certainly in the mix here too, but more in the stylings than in the sound of Newham’s voice.
“Stop Thinking About You” harks back to the eighties with its sonic palette, and Newham seems to effortlessly match the music with her voice tone and inflections. As throughout the record, she seems to adapt spontaneously, channeling disparate pop influences without ever seeming the least bit forced. There are even fleeting moments on this track when she sounds, rather oddly, like Michael Jackson. The production here is a successful examples of eighties romanticism captured through a millennial lense, with little touches, like the atmospheric “ooh ooh” backing vocals grounding the song in the present moment, while the rest is devoted to nostalgic caricature.
Newham has written on Instagram, “I didn’t want any negativity or second-guessing to come within a mile of this album. It’s nothing but a bunch of weirdos in a basement or a pool house making completely unashamed pop songs.” As if the new music weren’t enough to validate Newham’s decision to go independent, this seemingly offhand command describes the album better than any strategic press release could. It’s a fun, lighthearted album, that couldn’t be less concerned with impressing anyone, which is ironic in that its songs are generally catchier than the works of artists who try hardest to impress everyone. The excessive borrowing of phrases from hit songs of the past can be disconcerting. Still, Newham’s statement pretty much steers clear of the quagmire. Imagine an album based on a house party soundtracked to an early aughts volume of “Now That’s What I Call Music!” This is precisely what Newham delivers, and she could hardly do it better.
“Betty” is available Feb. 15 on Apple Music.