In 2017, mainstream pop acts should well understand that playfulness needn’t come—entirely!—at the expense of a message. In recent years, it’s mostly been black artists (Beyoncé, Killer Mike of Run the Jewels) who have succeeded in marrying these two approaches. White pop stars, on the other hand, usually err in one of two ways. Often they fall prey to the self-aggrandizing slip-ups of, say, Macklemore and Taylor Swift, for whom advocacy of their own brand always overshadows whatever cause they’re trying to support. Then there’s the hollow empowerment pop of Sia and Katy Perry, which aims high to mask the low emotional stakes, and trades in endless triumph against odds that are seldom defined. Having come of age against a backdrop of these gaffes, and having become politicized by movements like Black Lives Matter, the LA trio MUNA have thought carefully about advocacy in their work as musicians.
Singer Katie Gavin and guitarists Josette Maskin and Naomi McPherson met while studying at the University of Southern California. At their first jam session, Gavin informed her new bandmates that they would be making pop music. All three members identify as queer, and their lyrics often focus on sexuality, sanctuary, and abusive relationships—themes that rarely figure explicitly in mainstream pop. MUNA’s willingness to be explicit is a tonic, but they’re wary of accepting credit for what they see as other people’s advocacy.
“I think pop music has always had a relationship to activism, but I don’t want to say that we’re on the forefront of organizing social change,” Gavin told the online magazine Coup de Main last year. “I think we have to be really clear about what our role is and where the possibilities start and stop.” Maskin has said that the band wants its music to be intersectional and liberating—recasting the old line about journalism, she says that “the purpose of art is to comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable”—and they titled their debut album About U as a way of bringing the listener into focus.
It’s a modish way of vacating the frame (Christine and the Queens’ Héloïse Letissier has also spoken of wanting to be a contagious energy rather than an idol), though it’s upset by the fact that MUNA’s members make excellent pop stars. Although cautious about misinterpretation, they’re mostly bold and unapologetic. They self-produced About U, which shares DNA with the music of fellow LA trio Haim but trades the latter’s West Coast breeziness for darker synths—more Pat Benatar and Cyndi Lauper than Fleetwood Mac. There is subtext to their choice of era: “Pop musicians gave people so many new experiences in the ’80s,” Gavin said. “When you look at what was going on politically and socially—the AIDS crisis, ‘broken windows’ theory, Reaganism—the times match up in a lot of ways in the way we’re being sold fear. There may be a connection between everyone being scared and needing to hear big, melodramatic, escapist pop music.”
It’s a connection that MUNA is keen to reinforce: On the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration, the trio pointedly released “Crying on the Bathroom Floor,” a song about Stockholm syndrome that judders ominously. During a recent appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, they performed the euphoric “I Know a Place,” a tribute to gay clubs as safe havens and to the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. It’s a song that would sound as appropriate in a club as at a hand-waving community sing-along; against a backdrop featuring the famous lines at the base of the Statue of Liberty, MUNA added a new verse that rebuked Trump’s immigration ban. “Even if our skin or our gods look different / I believe all human life is significant,” Gavin sang. “I throw my arms open wide in resistance / He’s not my leader even if he’s my president.”
Pop music has always been about letting listeners read their preferred specifics into generalities. But MUNA’s willingness to name its enemy is one of the band’s greatest strengths. This power stems in part from the trio’s overt queerness, which means they can move beyond issues of recognition and representation to explore the toxic dynamics that can pollute any relationship. Their approach is both institutional and interpersonal: About U tackles the fallout from emotional abuse and the painful consequences of being silenced.
Their calling card is “Loudspeaker,” which pairs the confident chug of Manchester’s the 1975 with the gleaming intimacy of Carly Rae Jepsen’s Emotion. In the face of a gaslighting ex, Gavin finds her voice. “Every time I don’t shut up, it’s a revolution,” she declares coolly, before a barnstorming outro that raises the roof without sacrificing emotional complexity: “I don’t know where the blame lies / But you better believe I’m not gonna carry it all / I don’t know when the shame dies out / But it’s helping me to scream, ‘This was not my fault!’”
Gavin’s singing voice is unusual, something like Annie Lennox attempting to sound like Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears at the turn of the millennium: “I am a loudspeak-urgh,” she sings, with a kind of regurgitated elasticity. It’s an acquired taste, but an effective quirk. After decades as the dominant pop mode, the North American accent is giving way to Scandinavian and Caribbean influences; Gavin’s strange tone both fits the deviation and queers MUNA’s hyper-sanitized synths. Usually the effect is punchy, like a trademark guitar lick, but on “After” and “End of Desire,” which both explore the draining effect of romantic uncertainty, she sounds appropriately imprisoned by Auto-Tune. Similarly, “If You Love Me Now” is an anesthetized ballad about how internalizing a message of worthlessness feeds self-destruction and negation. “I’ve been trying to find out if anyone / Feels super sure that they are deserving of someone / ’Cause I always seem to give it up provided that I can get some,” Gavin sings bluntly.
Uninterested in conventional narratives of innocents and villains, MUNA explores all sides of the power dynamic in toxic relationships, giving About U a rich emotional complexity. Early in the record, Gavin’s the victim of an unrequited infatuation that she outlines in grave language, dispelling any notion of romance in suffering. On “Winterbreak,” two lovers can’t resist their mutually destructive attraction: “Oh it’s magnetic, isn’t it? / The sense of something underneath the surface when you’re lying on thin ice,” Gavin sings, her digitally refracted voice reflecting the cracked frozen surface. Most intriguing is “Promise,” in which Gavin confesses to having internalized the tactics that others have used on her and wielded them against her own lovers: “I told a lot of lies / And called it a compromise / To keep you in your seat.”
It’s a striking, almost savage admission—not least because “Promise” is one of the most exuberant moments on About U, a kaleidoscope of gated drums and gemlike synths. But the members of MUNA—each of them an avid music student—know that total honesty is the only way to get free. They’re under no illusion that pop music can suture the wounds, but overdriven synthesizers and raucous sing-alongs can definitely help. As Gavin sings on “I Know a Place”: “I’ve still got the scars and they occasionally bleed / ’Cause somebody hurt me, somebody hurt me / But I’m staying alive.”