Solve for Why: Allie X’s Technology, Identity-Influenced Art Pop

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Allie X spoke with Portland State Vanguard about identity, technology and art. She plays the Star Theater with drag queens Sugarpill and She. Photo: Jungle George

It’s been three years since Beyoncé performed behind the word FEMINIST in larger-than-life lights. It’s been five years since 2011 was declared “the year of the woman” across entertainment media. It’s been almost a decade since Lady Gaga interrupted the 20th century music continuum with The Fame. This is absolutely no complaint. Contemporary pop now sees canonic traditions centered around the accomplishments of women. Certain lineages of alt-pop, or “small pop” as coined by Carrie Battan for Pitchfork in 2012, explore the space between mainstream New York and Hollywood music and international independent music, blending alternative and pop sources for unique sounds, creating new art and new ideas from previously non-existent technologies and patterns.

In my studies of women’s literature at PSU, I’ve learned how essential accessing the canons of writers who look and live like the reader can be for the affirmation of the reader’s ideas, and how it is from this ideology that the phrase “You can’t be it if you can’t see it” gains strength. I also learned how access to the works of writers who are similar-yet-different is vital for exposure to the diversity of human experience. In my studies of contemporary poetry, I have learned that modern poets ask questions like “What does the poem consider itself to be?” “What can be a poem?” and “How does one engage with poetry?” In my study of L.A.-based Canadian singer-songwriter Allie X, her discography asks questions like “What can music be?” and “How can one engage with music?” These questions of identity are expressed through newly recognized art forms like GIFs and artist-sanctioned lyric music videos.

Allie X’s EP’s and singles live in a new canon from which one can trace musical artists like Charli XCX, Banks, Ariana Grande, Willow Smith, Betty Who, Vérité, Chvrches, Grimes, FKA Twigs, Sky Ferreira, Carly Rae Jepsen, MNDR, and an ever-expanding network of intellectual, high-art musicians blending R&B, pop and electronic music with lyrics brushing on elements of love and its many forms: self-love, romantic love, amorous love, unrequited love, dysfunctional love. Allie X also draws inspiration from Tumblr and the contemporary Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, whose 20th & 21st century works are critiqued as being “un-Japanese” by leading Japanese literary establishments for their interactions with the works of Raymond Chandler, Richard Brautigan and Kurt Vonnegut, among other Western writers.

I spoke with Allie X (a.k.a. Alexandra Hughes) in by phone one Friday morning two weeks ahead of her Star Theater concert promoting debut album CollXtion II. The show will open with Pacific Northwest drag queens, including Sugarpill, a.k.a. PSU alumni/#FearlessPSU poster student Alex Horsey. The official music video for her new single, “Paper Love,” appeared a few days later.

Allie X and I discussed the usage of X as separating a person from the identity bestowed upon them by family and society. “It’s about anonymity,” she said. “It can erase the past and allow you to be in between identities. You can be anonymous, you can be in this state trying to figure out who you are.” I remarked that her application of the concept reminded me, at least in part, of Malcolm X’s adoption of the letter over his legal family name and all that his choice stood for. Allie X conceded that she keeps the use of X intentionally open-ended. “I don’t get too specific, I don’t follow a formula,” she said. “It’s about following anything, it’s not about following me.”

Allie X said the biggest embrace of the X concept she’s seen in the world has been in her experiences with fans in Brazil, particularly young gay fans who write her letters about the difficulties they face in their lives (she wrote one back to all her LGBTQ fans in June for Billboard‘s “Love Letter to the LGBTQ Community” series). Allie X’s music balances lyrical brutality with danceable ear worm constructions, and seems to resonate with LGBTQ people in countries like Brazil, Australia and the United States.

Take “Paper Love” for example. The video opens with a semi-androgynous woman in sky blue & khaki Western-wear carrying a box into a wood-paneled space with a traditionally feminine woman around Sky Blue Person’s age and an adolescent girl & boy. Lyrics in the chorus and particularly the second verse use wordplay to find multiple meanings in their use of words. See “pulp” in the chorus: pulp as the remains of a physical beating for softening meat or fruit, pulp as an emotional state, pulp as the materiality of paper’s creation process. Lyrics also provide the basis for Allie X to visualize the doll character: “Oh, I know that boy’s gonna rip me up/’Cause he ain’t that nice, he won’t do right/He’ll leave a nasty cut/Oh, I cry until I just dissolve/Come on watch my heart turn to pulp/Like paper (paper-paper)/Paper Love/(Paper, paper love).”

The video, CollXtion II‘s cover art, and other elements of Allie X’s artistry are expertly curated from sources like Tumblr. Allie X praised the Yahoo-owned social network for its content’s visually stimulating appeal. Allie X is a visual creator, and described the excitement she feels when she finds a reference source that mirrors a concept in her mind.

We discussed GIFs as an art form. “I love the idea of frames that are missing in a GIF,” she said. “You only see the creator’s angles.” We discussed lyric videos as a means of visualizing a song and finding new meanings in the layout of lyrics. She said she “would rather make something iconic” than forced and inauthentic, and acknowledged the reality that lyric videos are less expensive to create than traditionally understood music videos. “Sometimes I don’t have the budget to do the vision that I want,” she said, “but it’s getting easier.”

Allie X performs at the Star Theater on Thurs., August 24, with drag queens Sugarpill and She. The show is all-ages. Tickets are available for $15 at startheaterportland.com.

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