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.”