Archetype for a New Pop Star:
Kate Nash’s Constructive Crudeness
Everything I surmised about Kate Nash until recently was wrong. When Allie Hanlon of Peach Kelli Pop described to me her experience of their joint spring tour, she noted Nash’s primarily young female fan base. While Hanlon voluntarily vouched for Nash’s latest material, I couldn’t escape my longstanding assumption that Kate Nash exists in a sector of pop far too sugary for my liking.
I was wrong. Turns out Kate Nash is much cooler than I thought.
After checking out Girl Talk, her third LP, I immediately wanted to formally recant anything I’d ever said or thought about Nash. My misperceptions were mainly a result of a fickle relationship with the English singer-songwriter’s music. Basing my opinion almost wholly on “Foundations,” the cutesy piano-pop hit from her 2007 debut album Made of Bricks, was a mistake. That release is now about six years stale. Imagine a glossier take on late ’80s, early ’90s twee pop – think Tullycraft, Beat Happening and Tiger Trap – and you’re close to what Kate Nash generally sounds like. If you’re appalled by the comparison, then your notions of Nash are as erroneous as mine were just weeks ago.
Don’t feel too bad about the misunderstanding. It’s not like Nash has made much of an effort to market herself any differently than how she’s already perceived. But that’s actually reflective of the self-assured sauciness that permeates her music. She is an emotionally unabashed songwriter. She has a keen ear for irresistible hooks, and is unafraid of dipping into whatever influence she fancies, be it surf or rap or shamelessly fun dance-pop. Nothing is contrived about Nash; she has no interest in shaping a false image in hopes of mass appeal. It’s what makes her distinct from the brainless philistines of popular music and, quite possibly, what led to getting ditched by her label ahead of Girl Talk’s release.
“It was a bit of a shock, and kind of challenging,” Nash admits. “But I think it was for the best.”
Sales of her 2010 album, My Best Friend is You, didn’t hit the highs of its predecessor. Nash was caught off guard when Fiction Records, which is owned by Universal Music Group subsidiary Polydor, opted out. For the first time, Nash went fully independent. She launched her own imprint, Have 10p Records, and crowd-funded Girl Talk.
“I think there’s good things about being on a label, but then there’s also really good things about being independent,” she says. “I think that I sort of realize that now, having had it happen, having been dropped and having looked outside those options.”
The liberties afforded to Nash by spearheading an independent label have amplified her creative tenacity. The piano pop of albums past has been replaced in favor of rock ‘n’ roll. “Fri-end” shreds with riot grrl-sharp teeth, albeit a cleaner-cut, post-braces set. The surf-leaning, titular film-inspired track “Death Proof” is a spooky shimmy of a song. The vibe continues on “Are You There Sweetheart?” before the grating, raucous “Sister.” Nash strikes feminist chords again and again on Girl Talk, but she’s most direct on “Rap for Rejection.” Unsurprisingly, Nash sort of raps on that one. It’s playful, however, and lyrically it’s a brazen girl-power forum. “He’s asking for my number/ ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got a boyfriend’/ ‘Bitch, it was a joke, aren’t you a lesbian?’/ You’re tryin’ to tell me sexism doesn’t exist?/ If it doesn’t exist, then what the fuck is this?” Nash candidly asks.
Considering her audience, you’d think she would be hesitant to touch upon such topics, much less drop the f-bomb. Thing is, her audience is part of why Nash employs such tactics.
“I’m definitely not trying to escape [my young female audience],” Nash explains. “I really love and care about all the young girls at my shows. I think I really have them in mind, really, when I’m writing. All the songs I write are really about what I’m sort of going through and what I’m feeling. I think being honest about that is really healthy.”
In the past few years, Nash has gradually grown into being a role model for that audience. Made of Bricks could be summed by fair-weather listeners (myself included) as somewhat inconsequential piano pop, but lyrically it wasn’t so delicate. There were several targeted, biting sentiments, like on the minimalistic “Dickhead” and the danceable synth jam “Shit Song.” She further develops take-a-stand notions on My Best Friend is You with “Mansion Song,” which is more spoken word than it is music. The crude content is, depending on who’s decoding it, a harsh but effective tool intended to empower.
“I think especially now young girls are really…and I mean like young, like kids, I don’t even mean like teenagers. I mean really, really young kids right now are being exposed to pornography, really, and adult subject matter,” she points out. “I think there’s got to be people talking about adult subject matter in a different way as well, I guess…People get worried about what kids listen to, and they’re smarter than we give them credit for, really, I think. I think the thing that really makes a difference in your life are the role models you have in your actual life –and that’s parents, and your sisters and brothers or friends or whatever.”
Nash was lucky, then. More than a decade ago when Eminem was at his controversial peak, she was still in her teens – and she was a fan.
“But I have parents that have educated me really well and have been really open minded and talked with me about stuff. I’ve always had good role models,” Nash says. “I think that people are so hyped up the minute I’m talking about sex in pop culture, and what we should talk about is our education, more support and education for parents as well – and how to bring up kids.”
In some ways, her stance is a bit shaky. Eminem might spark a dialog, but he doesn’t offer solutions. He’s difficult to defend. Nash, on the other hand, supports the coarse subject matter with legitimate action. In a 2010 op-ed for The Independent, she spoke out against the popular culture’s warped standards of beauty, sexiness and femininity. She offers mentorship to youths through an after-school music program. She recently journeyed to Ghana as an ambassador for Plan USA’s Because I Am a Girl project, which aims to provide girls everywhere with better access to clean water and healthcare. In April, she publicized her personal thoughts on what it means to be a feminist on her blog. Much of it espoused a particular viewpoint: “Feminism is not a club.” For Nash, feminism encompasses striving for quality as well as supporting and helping others. It means feeling safe and happy with yourself so you can be whatever you want to be –regardless of what stereotypes it may or may not mesh with.
The impetus for the post was a Twitter argument in which she was called a “shit feminist.” That person – and a whole bunch of other users and bloggers – didn’t appreciate a Girl Talk bonus track called “I’m a Feminist You’re Still a Whore.” Nash defended the song:
In the song I address not wanting to feel, wanting to switch off, wanting to be filled with hate, wanting to seek revenge. But I can’t waste my time doing that. It resolves with having to feel, I have to feel the pain, I have to deal with it and I have to focus on myself and my life rather than someone else and how they’ve treated me like shit or fucked me over, I can’t focus on that forever. I can let it fuel me instead and make me productive.
Even within the context of Nash’s idea of feminism, dubbing someone a whore is a questionable move. Still, it’s hard to argue against her good intentions. Though easily misconstrued, it is a well-meaning lesson in self-love. A second bonus cut that’s on par in terms of surface shock value is “Free My Pussy.” Initially released on Record Store Day as a limited edition 7-inch, the track likely caused a lot of jaws to drop. The flipside is more direct about what Nash was actually hoping to alert people about: “Free My Pussy Riot Now!”
Nash is obviously very aware that the core of her audience is incredibly impressionable. Her approach to setting a shining example is clearly not a conservative one. But that doesn’t mean it’s meritless. Among her latest endeavors in that regard is a web-based advice show – The Agony Aunts. In the inaugural video, Nash advises a girl who is contemplating getting back together with an ex who she misses, but says never respected her. Nash, of course, recommends against a reunion based on the latter complaint.
“I’m hungry for advice from others, and I think everyone is. I feel like at this point I have a lot of life experience and can share that with people. I talk a lot and I’m an over thinker and analyzer,” she says. “When you’re struggling with something you need to talk something through and discuss all the options, not everyone has friends to do that with.”
Like her straightforward lyrics, Nash’s response is more austere than tender. She talks about delusions about love, what people think they deserve and tells the inquirer that she “shouldn’t be making excuses.”
“I’m stubborn and opinionated and I’m just not afraid of that stuff,” Nash says of her forthright personality. “It frustrates me when other people aren’t opinionated. I think I just can’t help myself.”
Near the end, Nash squeezes in some lasting tips with widespread applications. Eat well, sleep well and try writing about your feelings. More importantly: Emotions pass. What really matters is your self-worth. If only all the other pop singers – the culturally massive ones currently counseling our youth – were that smart.