Sad13’s Power-Pop Memories, Anthony Ramos’s Feel-Good Exhale, And More Songs We Love

Every now and then, I get this itch to drop everything, change my hair, and become a dancing gay Brooklyn bartender à la Coyote Ugly, never mind the fact that I can’t dance. I thought I might be alone in my disputatious daydreams until I heard Chappell Roan’s “Pink Pony Club.” The rising pop starlet has been charting her takeover since signing with Atlantic Records as a teen, and the dusty yet decadent single is a promising sign of what’s to come. In a rhinestone cowboy hat, Roan starts off slow with visions of “a special place where boys and girls can all be queens every single day,” letting the soft keys give way to a triumphant electronic chorus reminiscent of Kacey Musgraves’s “High Horse.” Her voice reads as hallowed as the halls she sings about, and there’s a palpable electricity in its glitzy video, as she gives a stadium-ready performance to a group of bored barflies. Add in a couple of cameos from RuPaul’s Drag Race legends like Meatball and Porkchop, and she’s got me already booking my ticket to L.A. —Carson Mlnarik

The Glam Grief In Sad13’s Haunted Painting

By Caitlin Wolper

Sadie Dupuis and a fellow poet were looking for ghosts. Rooming at the same supposedly haunted hotel, they took photos and stayed up until 4 a.m., but found nothing. It wasn’t until the next day that Dupuis — a vocalist and guitarist for Speedy Ortiz, who performs solo as Sad13 — came across a presence in Seattle’s Frye Art Museum. She was immediately obsessed with it.

It was a portrait of the dancer Saharet by Franz von Stuck. Dressed in green, a red flower in her hair, Saharet appears benign at first. But after a moment, you notice the dark circles under her eyes — a stark contrast to her very red lips and intensely pale skin. The utter weariness of those circles adds a hyperrealistic depth, a whisper of sorts: She’s seen something. This portrait primarily inspired Dupuis’s new album, Haunted Painting, out September 25.

While a painting is tethered to one moment, to call it haunted imagines an entire life behind it. Haunted Painting is much the same. Beneath a veneer of synth pop, bubbly beats, and deft lyricism hides loss, mental health struggles, and environmental disasters.

“When my dad passed away in 2015, I basically went right back to work: I had a record that was about to come out, and I was in a shocked state of grief — not in denial about it, but not really ready to process it,” Dupuis tells MTV News. “I remember doing a big interview the day after the funeral. I remember going to SXSW maybe two weeks later, going on tour for most of the next two years, and not really sitting with that or processing it … I just kept creating work for myself so I could be working all the time and not have to deal with my mental health.”

That’s particularly clear on “Good Grief,” where she bemoans the distance between them, singing, “I’m taking the loss best I can.” Dupuis wrote the song while he was still alive, as a way to say, “I’ll be OK, Dad!” but unfortunately, he passed before she completed it.

Death and grief haunt these songs. Dupuis recorded two of Haunted Painting’s tracks — “Good Grief” and “Oops…!” — at New Monkey, the Van Nuys, California studio of deceased singer-songwriter Elliott Smith; one of Dupuis’s musical heroes, he’s the first whose passing she remembers. It was after that studio session that, stuck in a 22-hour layover at LAX in August 2019, she heard of the death of David Berman, a musician and poet, best known for his band Silver Jews. From this compounded grief came “The Crow,” a creeping track with arresting, gritty guitar interludes and jarring lyrics: “The future just confounds me / He’s dead, I’m drinking at Taix / Faint-hearted bottle blond hiding out ‘til the smoke just passes.”

“While the record’s about grief, it’s also partially about having to reconcile with the fact that love is not enough to keep people with you all the time, and your heroes can make beautiful art but that doesn’t mean they’re going to be here forever, and trying to learn to understand and cope with those kinds of losses,” Dupuis says.

Haunted Painting also reckons with the loss of Dupuis’s friends to drug overdose. Specifically, in 2019, three of her friends died within a couple weeks of each other; she found this reactivated OCD symptoms she hadn’t experienced since childhood. She explores this resurgence on “Ruby Wand,” perhaps her most lyrically direct work, orchestrated with mathematical synths she feels echo her experiences with OCD. As she sings “I need control,” the song explodes into cacophony; she compares it to musical theater.

“My own OCD symptoms are very much about wanting control and wanting to do homework for things that aren’t homework, just to have a place for my brain to focus,” Dupuis says. “A very over-the-top, guitar-heavy, out-of-control moment feels like what it’s like to go through these intensely obsessional, invasive fixation periods when things feel out of control.”

And it’s not just death and loss that are out of her control. Dupuis also reckons with the climate crisis on “WTD?” and misogynistic, offensive comedians on “Hysterical.” She challenges: “You’re in it for the fight, right? / You clamor for the gore / You can’t hide that lust anymore.” It’s a world’s worth of outrages packed densely into the album — all that keeps it from bursting is Dupuis’s careful attention to language, fitting words like “mellifluous” and “febrile” in her songs so seamlessly that neither the emotional takeaway nor the accessibility of the music itself are interrupted.

But despite its ghosts, Haunted Painting can be ecstatic. “With Baby” is a glittery track that hinges on “kissing the hero in the photo booth.” In the music video for “Oops…!” Dupuis is a saccharine vampire dressed in her mod best, baking with blood; in “Hysterical” she watches nonchalantly, ordering a pizza, as her friends are murdered by ghosts over video chat, her YouTube sidebar exclusively populated with Wallace Shawn.

These splashes of humor, especially in the “Hysterical” video, are essential in maintaining balance and levity among grief. And it’s so clear in Dupuis, the person, too: Merch for the album has ranged from your standard vinyl to a haunted hot sauce, haunted breakfast tea, and haunted hazelnut spread.

In part, she gets to make such silly, winky products because on this album, Dupuis is fully in control of everything from production to promotion. She’s releasing Haunted Painting herself through indie label Wax Nine. While she finished mixing the album in December, she did say that “the slowing down that is a necessary byproduct of being in a global emergency has made me look at different aspects of the release cycle in a way that’s special.” For example, she plays nearly every instrument on the album — that makes livestreams an interesting challenge.

While she’s not sure if she’ll write deeper into this grief in the future, environmental and economic disasters are still top of mind. “WTD?” was inspired by an article she read about “housing in the ocean that would be impervious to rising sea levels, obviously for the uber wealthy — [I felt] anger at the idea that the benefactors of huge industries that are causing the greatest impact to our climate will be the first to be able to colonize another part of not only our planet, but also space.” After all, these issues are ongoing.

“While it’s a nice utopian fantasy to imagine a world where we’re not constantly working against so much,” she laughs wryly, “I imagine that’s probably too optimistic.”

But don’t read Dupuis as pessimistic, either. In “Good Grief” she sings to her father, “Anytime I make a big sound, that’s when I feel you.” Haunted Painting serves in many ways as a memoriam, but it’s also a tribute to the memory of those lost, and a commitment to keep moving forward.

BTS Bring Fall-Ready ’70s Disco Threads To Intimate Tiny Desk Concert

Last month, ahead of their staggering set of wins at the 2020 VMAs, BTS broke down their latest smash, “Dynamite,” to MTV News. “It’s a really fun disco-pop track about doing what we can do, even when things don’t work out as planned,” RM said.

But even as 2020 has been the year of things not quite working out they way we planned them, BTS has continued to thrive. “Dynamite” hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. The group picked up four VMAs, including one for Best Pop. And now, even if they can’t rock stadiums with their live spectacle, the group is still making it happen: Their latest performance for NPR Music’s Tiny Desk (Home) Concert series is proof.

The group brought “Dynamite” to life to kick things off, seated in a row and bedecked in their best ’70s attire — flared collars and pant legs and a sea of fall-ready earth tones — from a record shop in Seoul. It’s cool to see the group perform this way, backed up by a band behind them for what’s essentially an intimate in-store moment. And it’s the first time they performed the track with the band to accompany them.

BTS take advantage of that added muscle. For “Save Me,” the piano-led rhythm and live drums lend the track a stadium-grandeur quality, even as the action remains grounded in the diverse vocalizations between all seven members. After, “Spring Day” ends their set on a note of hope, thanks to a preface from RM: “This has been the roughest summer ever, but we know that spring will come, so let’s go together.”

It’s in keeping with a similar message J-Hope told MTV News in that same pre-VMAs interview about “Dynamite.” “We hope this song can be your energy,” he said. If the electrifying, show-stopping VMAs debut can’t be – or if you need just a little more, perhaps something autumnal and sweet — continue the vibes with BTS’s engrossing new Tiny Desk concert above.

Trixie Mattel’s Twangy Cover, Aquihayaquihay’s Sunny Future, And More Songs We Love

Pop music has a new rising star, and she comes from a pretty impressive pedigree. On her new single “Strangers,” Lulu Simon, daughter of Paul Simon and Edie Brickell, gets breezily bitter about an ex who can’t quite accept that a relationship has met its expiration. Over a stacked production of ’80s synths and electronica pops, Simon’s lyrics read like a diary or a heated string of texts — you know, the unhinged ones you send in quick succession to a friend when you’ve got some feelings and you’ve got to get them out. Considering that her sarcastic yet sweet debut “Wasted” is just as much of a bop, it looks like there’s more where that came from. —Carson Mlnarik

Justin Bieber And Chance The Rapper Sing A Song Of Praise In ‘Holy’ Video

Justin Bieber‘s new era is here — and he’s taken a job working at an oil plant.

At least, that’s the Bieber we see in his folksy new video for “Holy,” a five-minute parable that feels as wholesome as a Hallmark movie. It’s about the trials and hardships of love and life, but not quite in the same way as his 2020 album Changes. Most notably different is the absence of his wife, Hailey, and the fact that the sepia-soaked vision finds Bieber playing a character. No, he’s not playing Drake this time; instead, he’s just a guy trying to keep it all together.

As Bieber said on social media ahead of the “Holy” release, he — along with the creative team behind the visual, led by director Colin Tilley — views it not as just a music video, but as a movie. So, in this particular film, Bieber and his romantic partner (played by Ryan Destiny) are blue-collar, everyday people, he at his oil gig and she in her element at a nursing home. They wake up staring into each other’s eyes and kiss in front of sunset-glowing windows.

It’s all very nice. But some bad things happen: His plant shuts down and his job disappears. She loses a beloved patient. They lose their place to live. Remember, though, that this song is called “Holy,” and that its we-can-make-it-as-long-as-we’re-together refrain goes, “The way you hold me / Feels so holy,” with a bunch of repetitions thrown in. I won’t spoil the ending, but you can guess the general direction of the resolution. (What you probably won’t guess is the presence of Wilmer Valderrama, who arrives just in time.)

Musically, “Holy” revels in mid-tempo gospel-influenced pop, which makes the perfect backdrop over which guest Chance the Rapper can do his thing, including rapping, “I know we believe in God and I know God believes in us.” Bieber himself switches up his singing style slightly, taking a step or two away from R&B to better accommodate the more spiritual new terrain.

It’s been billed in the lead-up as Bieber’s “new era,” and “Holy” does indeed seem to signal a new period for the pop star, who had spent most of late 2019 and early 2020 re-emerging as a reformed bad boy who’d settled into a loving and fruitful marriage (and made an entire album and docuseries about it). Watch Bieber and Chance’s new music video movie, “Holy,” above.

Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video

“We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.”

That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic refrain with clear gospel influences. It’s Monáe’s take on a contemporary protest song, a call for a political sea change, in the vein of, say, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”

Courtesy of Atlantic Records

And on Tuesday (September), Monáe released a moving music video — or, as she calls it, an emotion picture — that solidified that message. The visual opens and closes with the singer walking along the beach in a beige trench coat and military cap. At times, she can be seen singing into a retro microphone before an American flag; in others, she moves through staged breakfast scenes, with a family reading through newspaper headlines as they mouth her lyrics. The visual flashes through archival and contemporary footage depicting inspirational figures past and present: Where one scene shows the model and activist Jillian Mercado at a photo shoot, another depicts a conversation with lifelong activist Angela Davis.

What rings true without is a hopeful cry for change and for equality, and a recognition of those who have been leading that fight for decades. Monáe wrote “Turntables” for the new Amazon Studios documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, that shines a light on voter suppression, particularly through the lens of Stacey Abrams’s failed bid for the Georgia governorship. “Right now, I am focused on turning the election in our favor,” Monáe told Entertainment Weekly, “and I hope this song can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work.”

Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors

It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case of the New York-based artist Michael Love Michael, who last month self-released their debut album XO, it’s simply not possible, in part because they do so much.

As the former culture editor at Paper magazine, the 32-year-old “Cancer-Leo cusp,” who grew up between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, crafted celebrated profiles of such disparate musicians as Paramore’s Hayley Williams and cyborg sensation Poppy, while also serving up weekly playlists packed with the best bops from Megan Thee Stallion, Yves Tumor, and beyond. One day, it seemed they were stomping a runway in New York in a leather tank top and a cherry pout for the queer designer Willie Norris; the next, they were escaping to a farm to study permaculture at an undisclosed location “out West.”

XO, by design, rejects easy categorization. The collection, which was produced in under a year in collaboration with Michael’s longtime creative partner Rich Dasilva, fluctuates dramatically between glittering power-pop — as on the synth-heavy “6 Jaguars,” which dissolves at the bridge into a biting rap (“They call me bitch if they don’t like me… Does that tell you who I’m voting for, honey?”) — and lush, emotional ballads. Michael’s voice boasts a similarly wide range, whether as a groaning whisper in a spoken-sung segment closing “The Hatred,” or as a looping, crystalline falsetto as they perform as their own backup singer on “Blueberry.”

Their first comprehensive artistic statement, Michael tells MTV News, was intended to dispel any notion of essentialization, particularly as a Black, nonbinary artist making their mark in the industry (in June, they left Paper, citing its treatment of its Black staffers). “I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way of me saying that I have multitudes,” they say. “I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person. And I’m also fierce.”

Ross Days

MTV News: Did you record XO while you were on the farm, or was that all done before?

Michael: I basically worked on it from April until late July, so there was part of it that was finished here, but most of it was done during quarantine in New York, four or five tracks. I started recording my vocals on my iPhone and my computer, and I’m really happy with how it all turned out, because, at least in my opinion, none of it sounds like it was done at home. It has a uniformity, and it sounds kind of expansive in a lot of ways.

MTV News: I really connected with the song “Blueberry,” and there was this sound on it that reminded me almost of a dulcimer, though I couldn’t quite make it out. Given that much of it was produced at home, was there a lot of live instrumentation on this?

Michael: So there’s acoustic guitar, there’s whistling, there are actual finger snaps, and then the rest is electronic. So then there’s kind of the 808 bass drone and there’s that sound, which is like a fake electronic guitar. But I’m glad you like “Blueberry.” “Blueberry” is very, very sweet and comes from a sad place.

MTV News: Would you tell me about it?

Michael: OK, so “Blueberry” is about an unrequited love. When I was a teenager, I had this really intense crush on this guy who was closeted and involved with this girl as a way to kind of conceal, as we all do when we’re going through that journey. But we always had a connection, and it was very kind of the teenage lust kind of factor. And then, after high school, he went to the Iraq War and died.

There are lines about going off to war but also being brave and being who you are. There’s this line about purple hearts beating wild with red, red blood — the idea of a Purple Heart for bravery, while also referencing the bravery it requires to be out as yourself. There’s also the idea that both of us are sacrificing something, my jealousy and my self-reflection, and the blueberry gates became a place I would go in my mind when I would think of him. I wanted to find a way to talk about having a closeted relationship full of young lust and love, and to speak about what’s involved when two people sacrifice parts of themselves to make things work that can’t work, ultimately.

MTV News: What are some other songs on the album that feel special for you?

Michael: This is almost like my second coming out, as an artist and sharing my music with everybody. Even though I’ve been making music since I was 16, I’ve never actually had the courage until now to release anything. “XO” is my favorite track, because that’s the thesis of the project. It’s about overcoming some of my own personal demons to love myself enough to realize I had something to share and something to say, like a love letter to a damaged former self.

“Mother’s Day” is another one that I really love, because it’s kind of strange and cryptic. This one is more about people’s relationship to all things maternal, how you have to be a reciprocal give-and-take dynamic with whatever those things are, whether that’s the earth, someone you look up to who is a femme person or a mother figure. It has echoes of my own relationship with my mother and my grandmother. There’s a line about planting a garden — “Every Mother’s Day, I plant a garden for you / Every Mother’s Day, I water your flowers that bloom” — and that was something I used to do for my grandmother as a kid.

MTV News: Do you have a good relationship with your mom and your grandmother?

Michael: With my grandmother, yes. With my mother, that’s something that’s very much in process. It’s a tricky song. It’s really complex, obviously. But I love it for that reason, and I love that I feel like I’m learning how to be really good at writing about things that are personal broader and nuanced ways. I can be descriptive and I can also not be descriptive, and all of it’s intentional. It kind of reminds me of a St. Vincent, Brian Eno vibe. It feels kind of stompy, crunchy, stadium rock or something.

MTV News: What made now feel like a good time to release an album and share this project?

Michael: It was something that I didn’t intend to happen. I was happy with just having some demo recordings and maybe an EP released on SoundCloud, and then I had friends who really encouraged me to think bigger. Also, I had my own aspirations that I buried because I was trying to be realistic and I was trying to hold down full-time jobs and I was trying to be sort of a traditional careerist, and it’s just like, no bitch. Don’t dull your own shine, don’t gaslight yourself just because society gaslights you.

And so, that’s what kind of really motivated me to kind of come out with it all, and I just feel really grateful for the ability to have unlocked this avenue of creativity. Even for this to happening, for us to be talking about my album for MTV is fucking cool. Everything is luxury now, I just get so excited about everything else because creativity begets more creativity. So I don’t take any of it for granted, it’s so fucking cool.

MTV News: Yeah, I can really relate with feeling vulnerable in sharing something creative. 

Michael: This is an exercise in proving something to myself. I really do believe, if you see something missing and you have the capacity to provide or be that missing link, then do that. If you feel empowered and you feel like you can and you have the resources and the energy, do that. Where queer voices are sort of becoming less and less marginalized, people want to hear what it is we have to say. Remember that there are so many people who fought and died for so much of the freedom that I and many of us take for granted. Part of being a person with a voice and sharing it is also being in service to your ancestors who came before you.

MTV News: In listening to XO as a whole, there are songs that are very soft and almost indie-leaning in a way, and then you also have these songs that are very fierce and very hard. I wondered what your intention was, or were you expressing different sides of yourself?

Michael: Well, I love that you picked up on the contrast, because that was the exact point. I definitely wanted to present duality. It’s an introduction to me as a musician and, hopefully, if there ever were any expectations, it surprises, maybe it shocks. Maybe it’s exactly what people expect — I have no fucking idea. I called it XO because I thought of X-O as sort of an expression of contrast, because it’s like hugs and kisses are sort of opposite things, but then so is the idea of being open and being closed.

I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way saying that I have multitudes. I’m a complex, fully realized human being. So it was important for me to show a hard edge and a softer, gentler side, because at the end of the day, I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person, and I’m also fierce. The Cancer-Leo cusp is really that, it’s very that.

Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love

About a year ago, Australian middle-part heartthrob Ruel told MTV News that for him, “songwriting is exaggerating to an extent.” On his latest, the technicolor, soulful “As Long As You Care,” his exaggeration is so seamless, you’d be forgiven for believing the 17-year-old is actually a time traveler. The neo-soul groove he rides propels everything upward, even as the sound cheekily looks backward. “As Long As You Care” has one amazing hook, coupled with sonic candy that makes his upcoming third EP, Bright Lights, Red Eyes (out October 23) one to watch. —Patrick Hosken

Johnny Orlando Is On A Race Against Dusk In ‘Everybody Wants You’ Video

“Everybody Wants You,” Johnny Orlando‘s big new single, shares 75 percent of a name with “Everybody Here Wants You,” an immortal, silken entry in ’90s alt-crooner Jeff Buckley’s all too brief, staggeringly beautiful career. The songs don’t sound much alike, but seeing the title of Orlando’s blown up in bleeding purple text at the front of his new video put me in a Buckley mindset; the mood quickly followed.

While Buckley’s song leaves an unmistakeable R&B footprint, Orlando channels more contemporary bedroom pop, imbuing his latest cut with lo-fi rhythm chops that yield to a booming stadium chorus. In the cinematic new video, directed by Alex P. Smith, Orlando is the star, embodying a dusk romantic vibe as he drives around his city and tries to soak up the last bit of a summer eve.

Orlando, a 17-year-old Toronto talent and Juno nominee, belongs in an aesthetic class alongside fellow DiCaprio-circa-Titanic middle-part Gen Z heartthrobs Greyson Chance and Ruel — and, come to think of it, Buckley could be a stylistic spiritual Gen X godfather — though his sound is more in the vein of fellow Canadian Shawn Mendes, if more outright pop-leaning.

The “Everybody Wants You” video arrives just as Orlando begins his senior year of high school, and he marked the occasion on Instagram.

Watch Orlando haunt the twilight of Toronto in the dynamic “Everybody Wants You” video, which premiered on MTV today (September 10), above.

Janelle Monáe Is Triumphant On New Rallying Cry ‘Turntables’

Janelle Monáe is back, and she’s turning the tables.

On Tuesday (September 8), the multi-hyphenate shared an empowering new song called “Turntables,” a rousing call to change that will feature on the soundtrack of new Amazon documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy. The film centers around voter suppression and prominently features Stacey Abrams; as a result, “Turntable,” too, goes all in, with Monáe using the song’s lyrics as a platform.

“I’m kicking out the old regime / Liberation, elevation, education,” she says. “America, you a lie / But the whole world ’bout to testify.”

Over a soulful, minimal backbeat, Monáe packs a ton of uplifting talk of the winds of change into just under three minutes: “Burning down plantations / Ain’t no parking, I don’t need no validation.” And the chorus rises like that of another recent movie-soundtrack call to action, “Glory,” though Monáe keeps her eyes forward, always looking to what’s next. “A lil energy for the fatigue,” she wrote on Twitter about the song.

Monáe also recently debuted an updated look on Instagram, centered around her new red hair. She’ll also star in the upcoming horror film Antebellum, due out September 18. Her last album, Dirty Computer, dropped in 2018, and in 2019, her song “That’s Enough” helped soundtrack Disney’s Lady and the Tramp reimagining.

All In: The Fight for Democracy is out tomorrow, September 9, via Amazon Studios.