Here’s a sentence I never expected to write about Kate Nash in 2012 or ever: “Is this trying to be early Throwing Muses?” I knew what Kate Nash sounded like. All you needed was a few cursory listens to know exactly the same. Kate Nash made slightly off-kilter pop, arch and quite British, as if Mary Poppins didn’t take up governess work but a stint at the BRIT School where she was gently chided by the PG-rated bullies from the Nancy Drew movie. The result: pop that was practically pleasant in every way, where her celebrated new direction was just more girl-group revivalism, like Adele with less suffering or Pixie Lott without less reality-show baggage, and whose new nastiness just meant more child-safety equipped barbs like “I think that girl’s shady” and “guess I’ll go read a book instead.” In other words, she’s the sort of artist who could make even a song called “Dickhead” seem charming.
“Under-Estimate the Girl,” her latest, couldn’t be described even ironically as “charming.” There’s no charm at all; the closest you’d come would be the massed backing vocals toward the end, or Nash’s half-yelp after the bridge. To get that far, though, you’ll have to listen through a lot of snarling, the sort of abrasive, untrained yawp you might find on the same ’90s cassettes where the backing guitar track could have come from. You’ll also have to watch the video, which is either a homage to or parody of the same. It sounds as if it took half the 24 hours Nash claimed it took to write. YouTube commenters had already invoked Satan, “the urge to kill innocents” and “chundering her guts out” in the 30 seconds before I had to stop for fear of my own chundering.
Is “Under-Estimate the Girl” good? It’s certainly not the abomination people’ve made it out to be; out of context, it absolutely could be one of said garage-band tracks. But you’re not hearing this out of context, and a lot depends on whether Nash’s seriously trying, screwing around or slumming. (There’s an argument for the latter, considering the tossed-off nature and the lipstick-and-bindi costuming.)
What this isn’t, however, is trend-jacking. Outside of a few really specific enclaves of blogs and possibly Williamsburg, enclaves that don’t generally move millions of records, this sort of music isn’t trendy at all. This will not sell Nash records, and the fans it wins her won’t come close to outnumbering the ones who react with shock and lols. And the video’s too exuberant, as is Nash’s own writeup, for this to come off as entirely mean-spirited. (“We recorded it, then started shooting a video at 10.00 pm and proceeded to get pretty silly until about 4.00 am and run around being dicks and having fun all over poor Oscar and Steve’s (the owners) practice rooms. There was beer, there was cheescake, there was dancing with dogs, there was a LOT OF SHOUTING.”)
Then there are the lyrics, specifically its chorus (“underestimate the girl, go on, underestimate her”). It’s almost as if they’re aimed at critics, the sort who’d write subtly condescending things like the first paragraph here. More than anything–any alt-rockers mentioned, any grunge artists namedropped–this reminds me of Liz Phair’s “Bollywood,” which is probably a recommendation to no one but which is almost the same track. They’re both sudden, divisive, deliberately abrasive lead tracks by artists who’d been mocked for trend-hopping; people spewed equal amounts of venom at both, with a little too much glee; and they were both far more compelling than anything either artist had released in years. (They also appropriate Indian culture in the same way, which was a problem then and is a problem now and keeps this writer, at least, from fully co-signing.) We can’t exactly recommend “Under-Estimate the Girl” as a song. But as a screw-you, it’s easily Nash’s most interesting work to date.
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