Liberation is the touchstone of dance music — freedom to do what we want, love who we want, dance our cares away. From Motown to disco, New Wave to techno to indie pop, the disenfranchised and underserved have gathered beneath the disco ball or strobe lights or lasers to declare themselves to each other and the world.
But independence is a thornier subject, and while the Australian pop star Betty Who, signed to RCA for her first two releases, was never so frustrated that she changed her name to a rune and wrote ‘Slave’ across her cheekbones, she’s finally a free agent releasing her stellar third record, Betty, on her own.
“When you’re signed to a label,” Betty Who has said, “there’s all these expectations. Most of the time, I wasn’t the one necessarily putting that expectation on the music. That constant pressure and stress of knowing that no matter how successful I became, I was never going to be good enough … it clouded everything I did and made me feel like I wasn’t worth anything.”
Betty makes it clear from the offset that the woman born Jessica Anne Newham knows exactly who she is, thank you very much, and she will control her destiny from here on out.
“Old Me” is her opening salvo that gets her back in touch with the reasons she made music in the first place, and over a fast 43 minutes and 13 tracks she makes her case for why she’s a first-class dance doyenne, up there with her Swedish sister Robyn (for critical cred) and her Canadian soulmate Carly Rae Jepsen (for commercial reach).
Let me be honest here: much as I’ve admired Betty Who (and her LGBTQ inclusiveness, including the re-booted Queer Eye theme song), her first two records left me wanting. Yet Betty resonates in all the right places. It’s tuneful and hooky, with lyrics that do more than just place hold for the next chorus or fat beat to get your ass on the dance floor.
“Marry Me” takes the reins while she proposes to her lover. The perfect pop confection of “I Remember” is a bouncy number with a chorus lyric so simple, so perfect, it amazes me it hasn’t been said before: “I don’t want perfect, I want you.”
She challenges a potential bedmate on the sinuous “Do with It.” And though it doesn’t have the over-the-top melismatic throw-down of club classics, I’d love to see what an inventive drag queen would do with the sassy “All This Woman.”
Throughout Betty you feel the power of a woman released from her shackles (whether external or self-imposed). But Betty Who never makes it a slog. “I love being positive,” she says. “I love everything. Especially in recent years, I just feel like there’s so much pain the world. As an artist, what am I going to bring into the world? More than anything I want to bring joy.”
The new Betty Who album Betty is out now.
Images of Betty Who by Ben Cope