Maybe it’s just a “Born This Way” sort of spring, with self-fulfillment and self-actualization both being achieved from external, fortissimo sources. Lest I sound skeptical of anyone “arriving” at themselves via mass entertainment, Lady Gaga’s pride-festival anthem ultimately earns its gravitas through knowing cultural appropriation, sheer momentum, mutual love between the star and her audience, and an unapologetic deployment of the things that go all full-intention on the dance floor, a strategy that intentionally leaves out the people the song’s not addressing anyway. The single’s luxurious rinse is a gift unto itself, and washes away all traces of presumptuousness lurking throughout Gaga’s lyrics.
But similar sentiments can also come cheap, and even if they emerge from arguably more earnest places, the shallow delivery can end up having an alienating effect. Especially when the monstrously overpowering voice delivering the message insists on playing the humble card over and over. Such is the problem running throughout Jessie J’s emphatic debut, Who You Are. Take the title track, which evinces a wounded sort of self-love. One potent lyric almost seems to stand in stark contrast to Gaga’s “Fuck you, I’m fabulous” pomp and spangle: “Don’t lose who you are in the blur of the stars/Seeing is deceiving, dreaming is believing/It’s okay not to be okay.” Jessie J, whose biography is peppered with references to her own feelings of inadequacy and her various bio-physical imperfections, goes even further, insisting, “Tears don’t mean you’re losing/Everybody’s bruising” and “The more I try, the less it’s working.” Accompanied only by a gentle acoustic guitar, “Who You Are” is a song masquerading as aural salve, one which seems to speak as directly to its target audience as “Born This Way” does to Gaga’s little monsters.
But the effect is tarnished, ironically, by Jessie J’s own fierce vocal commitment. She sings her homily like she sings everything else on the album, with so much pitch-bending swagger that it renders her gesture as something more like a demand, an exhortation that only hurting makes you real. And her raw vocal cords howling above the din only intend to prove she’s hurting more than anyone else in the room.
On the other hand, her overpowering acrobatics are a perfect fit for Who You Are‘s few songs—nearly all, as it turns out, clumped together in the middle—where she turns loose the bad girl she clearly aspires to be on the album’s Fairuza Balk-ian cover art: “Who’s Laughing Now” serves up a catty riposte to old schoolyard mates emerging from the woodwork, wanting to tag old photos of them together on Facebook; “Mamma Knows Best” is a trashy Broadway stomp in full Xtina mode; and “Do It Like a Dude” is a genderfuck assault the testosterone-laced likes of which might leave a few Gaga fans quaking. Unfortunately, the songs on Who You Are that allow Jessie J’s ugly, born-that-way vocals to cut loose are in the distinct minority. In the quest to find herself, she seems to have gotten sidetracked.