new music: deqn sue makes the world safe for “theatrical” pop in the 21st century on ‘zeitgeist.’ #soundcheck

August 12, 2014

One of the weirder bits of stubbornly persistent fallout from the 90’s minimalist rebellion against 80’s excess has been the use of the word “theatrical” as an insult. From hip-hop to grunge, there was a sense that stripped down equals honesty (totally forgetting that one of the greatest rock bands of all time, Queen, was nothing if not theatrical, and that the stripped-down bubblegum pop of the early 60’s was about as interchangeable as it gets). Over the past 2 years, we’ve started to see more artists (most notably the great Janelle Monae) explore unconventional song structures and theatrical storytelling and characterization without losing a shred of emotional honesty. On her debut record Zeitgeist, idiosyncratic pop singer DeQn Sue makes a strong case for theatricality in pop and R&B.

Words by Nathan Leigh, AFROPUNK Contributor

On “Phobia,” DeQn Sue re-appropriates a Disney-style ballad to manifest the internal monologue of body image issues. It’s the perfect irony of contrasting the Disney princess ideal with the reality of what constant exposure to that sort of inhuman perfection does to one’s psyche. “I feel I have to be perfect / Look like I’m 28 pounds / Fit into a size 2 dress / Sucks that my hips are too loud / Wish that I could only eat cupcakes.” Meanwhile on “Greedigus,” DeQn Sue eviscerates our culture of greed over a killer beat before turning the lens back on herself. “I’m a victim of it too / Gotta have a lot of shoes / Why do I need these things?”

The most conventional pop song on the record “Magenta,” works its way through the rainbow, trying on each color and rejecting them while the backing vocals chant insistently “I am a color,” demanding that she make a choice. What DeQn Sue seems to do better than just about anyone else right now is vocalize the contrast between our internal monologue and our outward facing selves. It’s patently theatrical in the best way. Rather than being larger-than-life, she uses her outsized persona to tell small and incredibly honest stories. The album closes with “Pulchritudinous Frankenstein,” in which DeQn Sue looks to build the perfect man, while deconstructing her own flaws and the inherent flaw in expecting anyone to be perfect. Both the pop scene and the increasingly stagnant world of musical theatre have a lot to learn from DeQn Sue. Where so much of the 80’s represented the worst of both worlds to such an extent that “theatrical” became a dirty word for 20 years, this is the best of both.

Zeitgeist is available here.