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Loose: A Nelly Fertarticle

18 July 2017

No one else made a fuss about Nelly Furtado’s latest album when it was released three months ago, but I felt I owed it to her.

In our early teens, my sister and I got ourselves into a state about our music collection and gave away nearly all our CDs. Among the discarded: two Avril Lavigne CDs, the first Veronicas album, some Rihanna from when she still had long hair, Destiny’s Child’s Greatest Hits. But we kept Loose by Nelly Furtado.

Things were dire for a time. Throughout my teens, I internalised music media’s derision towards anything not considered Serious Music, and turned against all the pop music I had loved as a kid. Unconsciously, I applied this new perspective to my own understanding of which music was and wasn’t inherently valuable, and often got it a bit wrong – such as when I replaced my Destiny’s Child with Wolfmother. I cursed female-driven pop music for having distracted me for so long and listened obsessively to The Smiths.

The Serious Music Fan lifestyle requires dedication. The energy I expended on memorising 250-plus Beatles songs boggles the brain. I’m now kicking myself for not having spent that time listening to somebody like Sean Paul. Within the dominant standards of music journalism, artists like Sean Paul don’t seem to count, despite producing some of the most distinctive and fun moments in 2000’s pop – and still getting seven-ish collaboration requests a day. This is because these standards are racialised and gendered. Serious Music has generally been made by white men, producing an aura of legitimacy from which white man music collectively benefits, in a self-referencing loop. Of course, the white male-dominated music I devoured as a teenager had a sinister side. Many of my idols had abhorrent pasts which I only discovered later. Lennon was a wife-beater, Morrissey a raging racist and Bowie committed statutory rape. These facts have done nothing to dull their hero status. Collectively, these men are positioned as immune from current-day criticism, because their contribution to music is just too important. I had been ashamed of my pop music habit, but every new revelation, every new toppled idol left me aghast. Serious Music eventually wears you out.

Nelly Furtado’s Loose, the jewel of 2006, is not a serious album. It is an album where the beats are loud and stomping and allowed to resonate, from the decadent banger ‘Maneater’ – “it’s like having too much cheesecake, in a good way,” says Furtado – to the swirling, echoing and beautiful ‘Say It Right.’ Furtado has experienced depression since age seventeen, but laughter rounds out the album opener, ‘Afraid,’ an ode to overcoming social anxiety. In it, a group chants, slightly off-pitch: “So afraid of what the people might say, but that’s okay ‘cause you’re only human.” Furtado and producer, Timbaland, chatter away in an interlude, reminiscing and admiring “this beat – it’s so emotional, it’s wicked,” which after a few seconds launches into ‘Wait For You.’ This was both Timbaland and Furtado at their finest, yet for all its slick production, the album feels defined by its humanising moments of imperfection. I have not wavered on this point since first buying the album 11 years ago.

Sean Fennessey of Pitchfork felt differently. In a disdainful review, he described Loose as “scattershot in every respect, crippling in its inconsistencies” and “painful”. Fennessey rated the album a 6.4, lower than what he’d bestowed upon an Eminem Greatest Hits album a few months earlier. Then again, a USA Today article lamenting a dearth of ‘Serious Female Musicians’ in 2006 actually presented Furtado as a Serious Female Exception to the glitzy, overproduced, oversexed rule, but could not make this claim without underestimating certain artists – at its peril, since these included Beyoncé (unbelievably, when viewed with post-Lemonade hindsight). It would appear that difficulty arises when the governing standards of Serious Music, created by and to serve cisgender white men, are simply extrapolated outwards. Because they have developed upon the marginalisation and erasure of the contributions to music by women, people of colour, and LGBTQI+ people, these standards will at best divide and conquer, and at worst disregard these contributions, entrenching harmful power dynamics.

Furtado’s newest album The Ride, released in March, has met with critical and commercial ambivalence and a much more restrainedly patronising Pitchfork review – they now seem to realise that they’re dealing with a mid-2000s pop icon. There seems to be a general latent disappointment that even her collaboration with St. Vincent producer John Congleton couldn’t mould Furtado into a genuinely serious musical product. She stares into middle distance out of the front cover, dressed in overalls, gripping a bunch of flowers and surrounded by flat green, in total contradiction to the red hot Loose-era Nelly. Here, design and music alike are carried off with finesse but they don’t scream blockbuster. I recognise that while some tracks off it are excellent (in particular ‘Pipe Dreams’ and ‘Live’), others are dreary. And in the end, I don’t have to care about these deficiencies in the slightest. In hanging on to my old Nelly Furtado album, I was reminded that I could love music for the sheer fun of it, and it would be a shame if my appreciation of her music were conditional on her living up to a paradigm invented by self-serving white men and enforced by music blogs.

One chorus on The Ride reminds me of Loose: “Have you just grown up and given up, and you don’t believe in magic anymore?” Loose was inspired, according to Furtado, by being fourteen and dancing around in your bedroom to Janet Jackson. I made a mistake at fourteen in giving up on some of the finest pop music ever made, but the mistake was reversible. Furtado, and Destiny’s Child, and all others I once exiled, were welcomed back into my life as easily as I’d let them go.