Though there were plenty of incidents that made me groan or gasp in surprise during last night’s VMAs, the worst moment of all came when the programmers decided to cut off Julia Michaels’ effervescent live performance of her hit single “Issues” and head directly into a commercial break. I screamed at the TV and almost threw my laptop to the ground. How were they going to play her like this? Last night should’ve been her big TV moment.
While Michaels didn’t take home the coveted Best New Artist award that came down to the wire, but eventually went to Khalid, she did beat out SZA, Young MA, Noah Cyrus and even Kodak Black to vie with the American Teen star for the crown. Besides, it doesn’t take winning an arbitrary award category like that one to prove that Michaels has been quietly blowing up the pop world.
She comes from a long line of behind-the-scenes songwriters turned stars in their own right, and released her debut solo EP Nervous System at the end of July. Ever since then, it seems like everyone has been spotlighting her breakout. Michaels has written hits for the likes of Demi Lovato, Fifth Harmony, Hailee Steinfeld, and Gwen Stefani, but her solo hit “Issues” reached No. 11 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart all on its own.
Here’s the full clip of her performing it at the VMAs that MTV cut off last night:
That is a star in the making, right there. Part of why, is because of her perspective. There is an urge, I think, when explaining your behavior in a relationship to a friend — or the rest of the world — to sugarcoat your own fuck ups. The prevailing narrative in pop songs about heartache is that the other person is the one with the issue, if only they would be more loving, loyal, open or honest, then the relationship could progress along just fine!
The introspection it takes to see your own role in the situation is something that takes time, maturity, and self-awareness, but rarely has someone made it sounds so vulnerable and accessible as Michaels. For most of us, our love stories — or the ones we fantasize about — don’t exist in prim, clearly delineated happy-ever-after narratives.
Millennials (drum roll please) have grown up watching divorce rates skyrocket, adultery abound, casual sex grow rampant and love wither into brief exchanges of text messages or dating app chats throughout the day. The emphasis on marriage and keeping your “issues” behind closed doors has been thrown out the window in exchange for an open hearted embrace of all the messy and complicated ways that humans try to interact.
It’s nestled right in the center of that world that Julia Michaels thrives. All of the songs on Nervous System are about half-relationships, or decaying love, none of these relationships are quite working, but that doesn’t mean they’re failing either. In addressing these in-between moments, Michaels gives a whole new generation a grammar for parsing their romantic reality.
A love song like “Issues” is about falling in love with someone while knowing that you’re not perfect, and still openly struggling with a lot of your own baggage, but feeling confident that the person you’re with can see the world from the same flawed perspective. Maybe they’ve even been through some of the same kind of rejection that mars your own self-confidence. This song thrusts acceptance over judgement, arguing that it’s the very flaws both partners have that will help make the relationship work. It takes an “us against the world narrative” and spins it on its head, reclaiming old wounds as the ideal foundation for new love.
No wonder this struck a chord with audiences — most love songs are about achieving “perfection” or some sort of ethereal bliss through love; Michaels talks about a reciprocal, therapeutic partnership that hews much closer to how love unfolds in the gritty daylight of reality. And God, does it feel good to hear her reclaim the demeaning phrase “you’ve got issues” and turn it into a declaratory missive about why all of us still deserve love.
Truthfully, most of us will probably never achieve that perfect, glowing moment to be in a relationship, relationships come to us when they do, and we have to survive and adapt as best we can. Sometimes, that process can happen in tandem with someone, and sometimes, as another track off the EP, “Make It Up To You” points out, sometimes it turns into another not-quite-working, not-quite-relationship cycle. But these are the moments that make up most of life, not that final perfect fit, and it feels so good to hear those damaged attempts given their own space in the pop world.
Throughout the rest of Nervous System, Michaels squeaks and flips her way through the rest of her own flaws without ever backing down. My personal favorite off the record, “Worst In Me” doesn’t have the happy ending that “Issues” does, this one delves into a relationship’s dissolution, encapsulating how jealousy or competition can tear down two people who could easily be perfect together, who instead bring out the darkest, ugliest sides in one another.
Still, Michaels doesn’t frame this as a sad, somber ballad, but keeps it in the upbeat, almost happy register, all while talking about the worst parts of herself. Elsewhere, “Uh Huh” turns a brief phrase of affirmation into a syrupy, sexy chorus that mimics the electric high of hooking up with someone, even if it’s venturing into the addictive, off-the-rails kind of affection.
Michaels uses her chirpy, high-pitched voice to punctuate lines that would be boring or commonplace in someone else’s songs, filigreeing her hooky melodies with spoken word moments or vocal fry scratches that will surely help usher in a new iteration of pop ad libs. In fact, they already have, think of Selena Gomez’s “Hands To Myself,” which Michaels helped write, to get a sense of where this playfulness will lead.
Even when ideas don’t quite work — “Pink” would be so much better without the dated whisper prelude on the chorus — Michaels’ songwriting is so strong that even her missteps still end up making you dance. “I wish I could be the tender, stable girl that you want — but I’m not,” she sings on “Make It Up To You.” While tenderness and stability have their place, excavating your damage is much more interesting and honest way to go about falling in love in 2017. And hey, if it ends in disaster, Michaels has a song for that too.
If you need a lonely drinking song, the final track on her EP “Don’t Wanna Think,” above, is as comforting, warm and dangerous as a late night whiskey. Which leads me to think that while Michaels is busy taking the pop world by storm right now, the country world better watch its back, too. For my money, by the next time the VMAs come around, Michaels will be absolutely impossible to ignore — but since they dropped the ball, that breakout can and will happen elsewhere. CMAs, feel free to step in at your own will. Stream Nervous System below.