Dorian Electra Returns With A Project, Not an Album

Dorian Electra's new "project," "My Agenda," is available October 16.
dorianelectra.com

The cliché that an artist has their entire life to prepare for a debut album and only a year or two to work on the follow-up is often true. It helps explain why musicians frequently come so strong out the gates and can’t back it up with their second albums.

Non-binary hyperpop singer Dorian Electra released their first song in 2010 but waited till last year to drop their debut album, “Flamboyant.” When they began making music, they were a libertarian, singing the praises of economist Friedrich Hayek over piano.

Non-binary hyperpop singer falls short of standard set by last year’s “Flamboyant”

Their politics have moved to the left, and their sound has become much more electronic (although it’s influenced both by baroque music and heavy metal). “Flamboyant” fits into a niche with artists like 100 gecs, Arca, Charli XCX, and SOPHIE, a form of abrasive, glitchy pop inspired by the PC Music label. Hyperpop has proven to be a refuge from the mainstream’s narrow ideas about gender. The genre often uses Autotune and other forms of digital vocal processing to distort, speed up, and slow down vocals, challenging the idea that singers should use their “natural” voice and creating a space that distances vocal tone from biological limitations.

Even going back to “I’m In Love with Friedrich Hayek,” Electra’s lyrics have always had a conceptual center. At best, they offer comic social commentary with a heart; at worst, they’re novelty songs. “Adam & Steve” addressed homophobia with a sense of humor; “Career Boy” shouted out gay businessmen and acknowledged Electra’s own hustle to get their music noticed.

“My Agenda,” which Electra insists on describing as a project rather than an album, takes on contemporary masculinity from a perspective that’s both critical and generous. (The fact that it’s only 26 minutes long, with several songs under two minutes, suggests why they think it’s not a full follow-up to “Flamboyant.”) The music is more aggressive and rock-oriented, although classical harpsichord and flute still pop up alongside Skrillex-influenced beats.

Electra’s music relies on a theatrical component, with many of their songs illustrated in low-budget but elaborate videos. The visual for “Edgelord,” partially shot on low-quality digital video, casts them as the Joker and guest singer Rebecca Black as Harley Quinn. In “Sorry Bro (I Love You),” they appear shirtless, showing off real and fake tattoos and engaging in traditionally masculine pursuits like playing basketball and lifting weights. The danger with this approach is that their lyrics can sound like treatments instead of standing on their own. It’s a problem that “My Agenda” succumbs to.

Electra has many sparks of brilliance. How many singers would use the Village People and Pussy Riot as guest singers on the same track? “F the World” is more about genuinely wanting to making love to the world than the misanthropy implied by the title. But all too often, “My Agenda” descends to cheap, glib irony. “Ram It Down” is told from the point of view of a homophobe who sings “love who you want, but don’t ram it down my throat.” Can you guess its twist from that line?

Electra takes the perspective of incels and Internet trolls without facile condemnations. This kind of satire is a delicate, difficult task. All too often, they settle for jokes over insight. One can understand why they want to redeem these characters and find hope instead of singing about the full ugliness of homophobia and misogyny, but relying on “toxic masculinity… except the joke is this guy’s really queer” as a last-minute gag — the “digital warrior” of “My Agenda” reveals that he’s out to turn frogs gay by the song’s end, living out one of Alex Jones’ weirder conspiracy theories — gets tired. “Sorry Bro (I Love You)” is musically compelling, with clanging metallic percussion, but it has nothing to say that isn’t obvious from its title.

Their goal is taking this exaggerated machismo and showing how ridiculous it is. The BDSM homages “Iron Fist” and “Give Great Thanks” reduce it to a playful fetish. Musically, “My Agenda” uses elements of dubstep and heavy metal as markers of masculinity — “Iron Fist” features lead guitar shredding. The 67-second black metal interlude “Monk Mode” would be worth developing into a full song.

Despite its ambition, “My Agenda” feels like a place-holder. The videos for “Edgelord,” “Sorry Bro (I Love You),” and “Gentleman/ M’Lady” are sharper than the songs themselves. (“Edgelord” grants queer singer Black — whose “Friday” became a novelty hit through YouTube hate-watches when she was 14 — the dignity of a depiction as a glamorous movie star rather than defining her for life as a kid whose parents funded a vanity music project despite her questionable singing ability.) It’s fine that Electra deals with serious issues through a light touch, but the jokes were funnier and the tunes catchier on “Flamboyant.” Here, most of their ideas were stated better by trans YouTuber ContraPoints in her videos “Incels” and “Men.” But hopefully Electra will get back on track with a full second album.

DORIAN ELECTRA | “My Agenda” | Self-released | Drops Oct. 16 | dorianelectra.com

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