Sky Ferreira Is the Perfect Post-Poptimism Pop Star

After what seems like forever, Sky Ferreira’s debut album Night Time, My Time is out this week. It’s a very different record from what the world might have expected from Ferreira when her debut album was first announced, way back in early 2011. As has been well documented, it’s been a strange journey from then to now for her, one that’s occasionally threatened to derail her career entirely. She could have been another Uffie (in whose “Pop the Glock” video she appeared, incidentally), a left-of-center pop artist who promised much but delivered little. Instead, she’s managed to emerge as the perfect pop star for 2013.

The story goes that Capitol, having shopped Ferreira around as a “conventional” pop star for years to little effect, eventually decided to let her do her own thing, more out of resignation than altruism. Nitsuh Abebe’s profile in this week’s New York magazine quotes her manager Mike Tierney as saying, “[The label was] sort of out of money and ideas, and basically said [to Ferreira]: This record has to come out. You have a limited amount of time, and you’re welcome to use your own money to finish it.” Ferreira duly did so, and the result is Night Time, My Time, a pleasantly idiosyncratic record that mixes hugely catchy melodies with endearingly scuzzy production.

Cynics might say that it’s a great story as far as marketing an anti-pop star goes — the ingenue breaking free of the artistic shackles imposed upon her by her paymasters and releasing the record she wanted to make all along. For the record, I don’t think it’s any such thing. As Ferreira herself pointed out to Stereogum last month, apropos of the topless Gaspar Noé photo that adorns her album cover, “I’d sell way more if I just put a picture of my face. That’s the fact. I’d sell more copies of me just looking cute. That’s what sells more. That’s what sells at Wal-Mart. Not someone in a bathtub looking like they’re about to kill someone. Topless.” The cover is marketing, sure, but in the sense that it’s Ferreira taking ownership of her own objectification.

It doesn’t really matter, though, because either way the interesting thing is that her chosen audience has embraced her with gusto. The majority of that audience would probably have rejected her out of hand 15-20 years ago, but now they embrace her without blinking. Truly, Ferreira is a pop star for an age when it’s just accepted that “cool” / “indie” / DIY kids can be interested in Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift and Carly Rae Jepsen. Even a decade ago, declaring a love for such artists would have felt like an adventurous step; today, it’s par for the course.

This is representative of a larger shift in listening habits over the last couple of decades. It’s been well documented that music is much less compartmentalized than it used to be — a product of the rise of the iPod generation, most likely, along with a general critical shift toward viewing pop music with rose-colored glasses, so much so that the aforementioned Nitsuh Abebe penned an excellent column for Pitchfork last year about how difficult it is these days to write anything in praise of rock music.

Sure, there’s a certain subset of critics who still want to use rockism as a strawman to be immolated in the flames of proud declarations that, yes, I DO LIKE POP MUSIC, but on the whole, the pendulum has long since swung toward poptimism. (Interestingly, if there’s a backlash towards it, it’s come from young female critics, not from the old white guys one might expect — they’re still as determinedly enthusiastic as ever, bless them.)

The result of all this is that it’s pretty much the perfect time for Ferreira to come along: she’s an artist who appeals both to the DIY kids and, potentially, the mainstream. Her music has a foot in both camps — its production, in particular, is more Bowery Electric than Electric Lady, although her ear for a catchy melody is as sharp as ever. And, crucially, it doesn’t feel affected — the album feels like a record of where Sky Ferreira is at the moment, not where she’d like to be.

Whereas other pop stars have tried to claim indie cred in retrospect — take Lady Gaga’s much-trumpeted Lower East Side mythology, for instance, which was long behind her by the time she became at all relevant — Ferreira feels like a part of her chosen scene right now. She could quite easily be the girl next to you in the endless line for the endearingly terrible bathrooms at 285 Kent, or doing bumps of questionable coke with you at Passion in Bushwick.

In this respect, Sky Ferreira reminds me most of Debbie Harry; she’s ended up being to NYC’s DIY scene today what Harry was to the punk scene of the 1970s, a pop star with mainstream appeal who’s entrenched in a current subcultural scene, rather than writing herself into its history after the fact. It’s interesting to think what might happen to Ferreira if Night Time, My Time (or, perhaps, whatever she does next) really does take off — it’ll be difficult to keep a foot in both worlds forever. For now, though, it seems like another step in what’s proving to be an unusual and timely career.