Music News & Reviews

Sweet and sour songs serve Mika's language of love

"It's all about teasing without satisfying too quickly," Mika says of his approach to songwriting. On his new album, he tries to balance the sweet with the sour.
"It's all about teasing without satisfying too quickly," Mika says of his approach to songwriting. On his new album, he tries to balance the sweet with the sour. The Washington Post

Mika worries that melody comes too easily for him. The 29-year-old Lebanese singer can write pop choruses as catchy as anything performed by his heroes Elton John, the Bee Gees, Michael Jackson and Queen. And though Mika has never scored a top-50 pop single in the United States, he's a huge star in Europe, with four top-10 singles in France, five in England and six in Italy.

The tall, slender songwriter is apprehensive nonetheless. Mika (born Michael Holbrook Penniman Jr.) knows that pop hooks are like sugar: If the doses aren't just right, they can easily go from tasty to cloying. On his latest album, The Origin of Love, he deliberately tries to balance the sweet with the sour.

"How can you get away with a love song nowadays?" Mika says. "You're saying the same thing as Lionel Richie's Hello, and if you're not careful, it will become the same thing, and that won't work in 2013.

"It's very easy for melody to sound contrived if it resolves too quickly. ... So it's all about tempering melody, about not letting the chords or the lyrics follow the melody too closely. You need that tension. It's all about teasing without satisfying too quickly, and when you do satisfy, you want to go back to the teasing right away."

Mika and his band are rehearsing for a North American tour.

Popular Song, the first American single from Mika's new album, marries its sing-along chorus so perfectly to its clap-along beat that it could be an advertising jingle. But listen closely to the words that Mika is singing in his buoyant tenor, and you'll realize that this is a vicious revenge song.

The track opens with a cheerleader calling Mika names over a catchy piano riff. "Standing on the field with your pretty pompoms," he says, "now you're working at the movies selling popular corn. ... You were singing all the songs I don't know/ Now you're in the front row, 'cause my song is popular." The payoff is delayed by the edge in his voice and by the stripped-down production in the early verses, making the eventual climax all the more satisfying.

It's not surprising to learn that the song is semi-autobiographical.

There weren't any cheerleaders at Mika's English boarding school, but there were bullies who singled him out as a foreigner and as gay.

"I was a loner," Mika recalls, "and I hated the reality that was presented to me. It's that rejection of something that they're afraid of. ...

"So what do you do when you hate the reality presented to you? You create your own reality. I didn't choose classical music and abstract art; I chose cartoons and pop songs, because that's what people like. It's weird, but coming from that kind of rejection, I really felt that I could justify myself by making something that people would like. Just listen to what I was singing on Grace Kelly."

Grace Kelly was Mika's breakthrough single in 2007, going top five in nine European countries on the strength of its giddy falsetto chorus warbling over a piano-pounding momentum worthy of Sir Elton.

What saves the song from a bubble-gum sugar overdose is Mika's knowing exaggeration of his own neediness. There's a satiric provocation to such lines as "Do I attract you? Do I repulse you with my queasy smile? Am I too dirty? Am I too flirty?"

All three of Mika's albums are filled with tracks like that: love songs with a confectionery frosting and a tart filling, an infectious first impression and a subversive aftertaste. An especially sophisticated example is his new album's title track, which pursues the commonplace equation of love and an addictive drug to its most disturbing implications. But these ideas are hidden within a pop production so contagious that you're drawn in before you realize what's going on.

"It's a spin on a love song," Mika says, "but it includes as much that's ugly as happy. It's like when you compare a love story in a (Roman) Polanski movie or a (Francois) Truffaut film to a love story shown on a Hallmark channel. ... The song talks about my life right now. But at the end of the day, it's just a pop song. It's all about a melody, a rhythm that pops out at you before you notice all these other things."