Musical Notes: Mika

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To say that there’s buzz around Lebanon-born, London-based popster, Mika (born Mica Penniman) would be an understatement. Given the avalanche of praise, accolades and testimonials, one would think the release of his full-length debut, Life in Cartoon Motion, will change the course of music history forever, creating an aural aftershock heard all over the world. And, in some respects you’d be right: Mika’s album will most likely continue to be one of the most talked about albums of the year. And rightfully so. Whether it’s history in the making – that remains to be seen.

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Nearly every review makes reference to a musical predecessor, such as George Michael, Madonna, Elton John and, of course, Scissor Sisters – a group many credit for paving the way for the 23-year Lebanon-born crooner. The American quintet’s influence can be heard throughout the album, most noticeably on “Love Today”, the intro to which sounds suspiciously like the rift from the Sisters’ “Filthy Gorgeous”. Later in the song, Mika’s strained falsetto could have been recorded by Jake Shears himself, implanted in the album like some viral vocal marketing. This isn’t to say the influences aren’t entertaining, but they can be a bit of distraction.

It’s well documented that Mika wrote the album’s first single – the at once infectious and tiresome “Grace Kelly” – in response to some pushy record execs who hoped to shape him in their own preconceived image. He croons:

I try to be like Grace Kelly
But all her looks were too sad
So I try a little Freddie
I’ve gone identity mad!

I could be brown
I could be blue
I could be violet sky
I could be hurtful
I could be purple
I could be anything you like

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Now that’s an understatement. He’s not only anything you like, he’s everything you’ve always liked. In fact, much of the album veers dangerously close to a somewhat obvious homage to twenty years of pop music.

While certainly he’s got some catchy tunes, one can’t help but worry the young buck’s buried under too many other people’s sounds. It’s almost as if he’s simply testing the waters, throwing out some sugary bait before embarking on a more creative career. At least, that’s what one can only hope, for there’s no doubt Mika’s a natural talent.

His skills as a natural musician – his fingers tickle those ivories with wit, while he picks the guitar with pluck – he’s on target with some of his more original tunes. For example, the appropriately saccharine “Lollipop” or the snappy “Billy Brown” – sure to be a queer favorite for its sexually-confused title character.

Neither compares to the longest track on the album, “Happy Endings/Over My Shoulder” on which the listener gets a taste of his background as a trained opera singer. It’s here that Mika deserves the title of musical messiah, infusing each high note and protracted syllable with true human emotion: exhilarated confusion and irrepressible sentiment.

We’ve no doubt Mika has a career ahead of him. The trajectory of that career, however, depends largely on which influences he chooses to keep and which he throws to the tenacious jaws of history.

(Mika, Life in Cartoon Motion, Island/Casablanca, 2007)