America loves a hot mess. Added by Oxford Dictionaries in August 2014, that phrase connotes "a person or thing that is spectacularly unsuccessful or disordered, especially one that is a source of peculiar fascination." The roots of hot mess attraction in popular music go as far back as the blues. We love transmissions from and about our shadow sides — secret pains, forbidden longings, destructive urges kept barely in check. Consider classic rock cyclones like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison, who combined exceptional talent and all-too-human emotion. Excess, both offstage and on, fed their legends.
"When I'm f***ed up, that's the real me," admits Toronto's Abel Tesfaye aka The Weeknd. "I gotta stay high all the time to keep you off my mind," says Stockholm's Ebba Nilsson, whose stage name is Tove Lo. These aren't incidental lyrics; they're the key lines in the choruses of The Weeknd's "The Hills," which topped both the pop and R&B charts last year, and in Nilsson's "Habits (Stay High)," a major international sleeper hit of 2014. And they're not flukes. The primary lyrical concerns of both acts are sex, drugs, sex on drugs, and — crucially — sex as drugs. Unlike yesteryear's rockers, who practically subsisted on cocaine in an era when it wasn't considered habit-forming, long before sex addiction became a commonly understood concept, Tesfaye and Nilsson write from a knowing perspective in which danger is courted like pleasure.
"I just won a new award for a kids' show / Talking 'bout a face numbing off a bag of blow," Tesfaye sings in "Reminder" on his latest album Starboy, which recently entered the charts at No. 1. "I'm like, 'Goddam, bitch, I am not a teen choice.'" He's referring to the absurdity of Nickelodeon nominating him for their Kids' Choice Awards in recognition of another 2015 chart-topper, "Can't Feel My Face," in which he personifies coke as if it were his girlfriend. The far more affluent daughter of a businessman and, notably, a psychologist, Nilsson celebrates her appetite for self-destruction as if it were truly empowering. "Keep playing my heartstrings faster and faster / You can be just what I want, my true disaster," Nilsson sings in "True Disaster," the latest fatalistic single from her recent second album Lady Wood, a euphemism for female sexual arousal.
Tesfaye, 26, and Nilsson, 29, grew up in the dark shadows of gangsta rap, trip-hop, Nirvana and Amy Winehouse. Tesfaye considers "Dirty Diana" — Michael Jackson's 1987 soul-rock tribute to a vindictive groupie who'll do anything for her idol's fame — his "favorite song of all time." He covered it on Echoes of Silence, the culmination of his 2011 mixtape trilogy, and superimposes its titular character onto the pole dancers, prostitutes, models and drug-addled hangers-on that pepper his catalog to the exclusion of most everyone else. His pointedly nocturnal music — a woozy hybrid of '80s synthpop, swaggering hip-hop, post-punk alienation and experimental R&B — frames these femme fatales with the audio equivalent of contemporary film noir.
Nilsson takes a kindred approach. After graduating from music school, this Kurt Cobain/Courtney Love fan co-authored hits and album tracks for Icona Pop, Girls Aloud, Lea Michele and others. These bankrolled her own material, which still brings the bounce of her multiplatinum mentors Shellback and Max Martin, but lyrically recalls her childhood heroes. "I eat my dinner in my bathtub / Then I go to sex clubs," opens "Habits (Stay High)," which moves onto Twinkie-fueled bulimia and picking up "daddies at the playground" to dull the pain of love lost. Undeniably catchy yet far more specific and psychologically raw than most chart pop, "Habits" is grunge played on synths and drum machines, right down to its pensive verse/anthemic chorus structure.
Tesfaye and Nilsson aren't the kinds of self-contained acts who until recently had the lockdown on gothic pop. Tesfaye's songs and sound have always been crafted with other musicians, like Doc McKinney, formerly of trip-hop duo Esthero. With each release, Tesfaye's added more co-writers and producers: Starboy features several dozen, including Martin, Daft Punk, Lana Del Rey, Benny Blanco, Diplo and former Cardigans guitarist Peter Svensson. Nilsson, having crafted hits for Ellie Goulding ("Love Me Like You Do" from the same Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack that launched The Weeknd's first smash, "Earned It") Hilary Duff ("Sparks," a #1), Nick Jonas ("Close," their duet), and other acts in tandem with many overlapping teams, generally creates her solo material with Ludvig Söderberg and Jakob Jerlström, who work as The Struts.
This committee approach to creating pop seemingly so introverted it's uncomfortable isn't unprecedented, but in the wake of Winehouse, Del Rey, and Rihanna, it's reached a critical mass that reflects shifting standards regarding intimacy and authenticity. It used to be that folky singer-songwriters created interior art, and manufactured acts represented the opposite. Nowadays, Drake and Beyoncé make personal and political statements enabled by a small army of songwriters, producers, stylists, choreographers and video directors, and they're still considered auteurs because their brands — sorry, there's no other word for it — are so strong. Even if their messiness isn't contrived, it's nevertheless a collaborative act.
Decades of Auto-Tune and American Idol have fed the perfectionism and interchangeability of contemporary music, and so today's pop superstars forge distinction by boasting on about things not worth bragging about. Their imperfections assert their authenticity while paradoxically confirming them as unreliable narrators. Lady Wood begins with the bubbling of a bong that segues into "Influence," Nilsson's duet with cannabis-celebrating rapper Wiz Khalifa. "You know I'm under the influence / So don't trust every word I say," she says. "I've been poppin', just took three in a row," Tesfaye brags of his pill intake in "Party Monster," one of several Starboy tracks seemingly designed to assure longtime fans that the now-mainstream singer hasn't changed his bacchanalian ways. "She said I'm the realest," he attests in the same song. He and Nilsson win respect for telling it like it is, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Neither commanding like a diva nor submissive like the dream-poppers, Nilsson sings straightforwardly to serve her tunes, which tug in the most unnerving places. Lady Wood's "Cool Girl" bumps along on an icy-smooth synth riff so riveting it takes repeated plays to notice anything else, like the way her ghostly background vocals float and flutter through the mix. Everything else is minimal and instant, flowing effortlessly in the direction of the most crucial line, where the beat drops out and she dips to the bottom of her register, conceding, "I wanna be free like you." With that, the melody undergoes a sudden melancholy twist, one calling into question her assertion that this new relationship is entirely casual. As she later reveals in the bridge, Nilsson isn't cool at all: She burns with desire and craves similar heat from her potential beau, and so she's here caught in a lie underlined by dissonant chords rubbing up against it.
That synchronicity is the mark of superior craftsmanship, and there's plenty of that on Starboy as well. The frisson that flares throughout Tesfaye's entire discography is the disjunct between his sweet, wounded falsetto and his bitter, steely attitude. If he sang the way he wrote, he'd be insufferable. Instead, there's a tension between the two, as if we're hearing the cries of a battered inner child trapped inside the mind and lifestyle of a misanthrope.
Yet Tesfaye delivers his purest Starboy performances furthest from his stoner loner comfort zone. He begins "Secrets" almost unrecognizably as a baritone crooning conventional, but for him atypical, romantic phrases. The tune takes him progressively higher, right into his falsetto for the chorus, a rewritten hook from the Romantics' "Talking in Your Sleep." Suddenly that falls away, and the only thing left is a filtered but fully intact chunk of Tears for Fears' "Pale Shelter" right when Curt Smith sings, "completely in command."
As his fixation on status, drugs and S&M suggests, Tesfaye has major control issues. However, the New Wave double-shot here proves that despite his commitment-fearing persona, Tesfaye excels at conveying passions simmering below the superficial surfaces he celebrates. On the album's conclusion, "I Feel It Coming," he finally sets them free. As optimistic as most everything else he does is despairing, the album's second Daft Punk collaboration grooves sweetly on a midtempo house beat and scratching rhythm guitar syncopation. Whereas Quincy Jones led a still-young Michael Jackson into an adventurous adult world, the Parisian robots bring Tesfaye back to a comforting, childlike place. But the effect is the same — warm, sunny, bright and with everything in precisely balanced proportion. No hot messiness here.
Nilsson serves that in steaming piles with "Fairy Dust," a half-hour film that strings together her album's first half in a loose narrative in which she's paired with Free the Nipple's Lina Esco, who plays her childhood pal and alter ego. After making out on a motel bed, the pair do drugs, dance and drive until Esco's character steers them head-on into a station wagon. The two somehow emerge unscathed, but Esco douses their car with gasoline and sets it on fire while Nilsson runs through the street executing the kind of post-collision choreography that only happens in music videos. The storyline veers to accommodate "Cool Girl" and another unrelated song; Nilsson sets their motel room ablaze, yet returns to it with a guy. As the credits roll, she's on its bed, this time alone, underwear-clad with her hand beneath her panties. As her eyes stare blankly into space in pre-orgasmic anticipation, there's the suggestion that every preceding scene was a masturbatory fantasy, and that this — her lady wood — is her only reality.
At an age when celebrities routinely overshare on social media, Nilsson's sudden verisimilitude is nevertheless oddly shocking. As a publicity stunt, it backfired: Lady Wood topped the chart upon release in Sweden, but fell off the U.S. charts soon after release. Directed by Tim Erem, whose Major Lazer and DJ Snake "Lean On" video scored well over 1.7 billion YouTube views, "Fairy Dust" comes across as largely lesbian soft-core porn for straight dudes. Even counting the final money shot, it's nowhere near as erotic as her earlier "Talking Body" video, which depicted women freely navigating discos, fetish clubs and bordellos without this film's punishing conclusions. There, she came across truly liberated; here, she's mostly desperate.
When they're at their most dysfunctional, Tesfaye and Nilsson adhere to the norms their progressive pop otherwise rebels against. His singing may transcend gender, but Tesfaye doesn't know how to treat a woman: His relationship with supermodel Bella Hadid ended shortly after "Starboy" bragged that his baby cleaned cocaine from his ebony tables with her face. Nilsson's "Habits" video suggests she's so messed up she'll even go bi, and "Fairy Dust" also equates same-sex relations with mental illness: Contrast its girl-on-girl car crash with the sole hetero segment, which ends with the singer and her hippie feller walking literally into the sunset. That banality may feed their relatability, but not their creativity. In art, as in life, a little messiness goes a long way.