We Need to Talk About Jessie J and Our Irrational Pop Star Preferences


With a record-breaking six Top 10 singles from one album in her native UK, Jessie J is England’s answer to Katy Perry. Admittedly, that’s selling her short — her voice possesses Aguilera power and she writes her own material — but details are unimportant in the mud-pit wrestling match that is the female pop star gauntlet. The singer’s most successful American single to date, Top 10 hit “Domino,” is straight-up Teenage Dream Perry, down to its reference to skin-tight pants. “(Insert new singer) is like (insert established pop diva starting to show cracks/long past her prime) plus (insert another big pop star)”: this is the musical conversation pop stars get, despite the fact that pop hits are defined more by their songwriters and producers than their interpreters. The personality conversation is an even uglier scene, one in which stars are made and fade away.

Full disclosure: I find Jessie J grating. I Just Cannot With Her. From “Price Tag” to the cringe-worthy “Do It Like a Dude,” her songs are catchy in that, “I know this is annoying but it’s still stuck in my head, help meeeee” kind of way. She’s sort of tacky but not enough to pull off Kesha’s brand of ‘so bad it’s good’ pop. If she was ever endearing, it was as narrator of Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the U.S.A.,” a hit she co-wrote. Miley’s clearly not the girl who hopped off the plane at LAX with a dream and a cardigan, but what if Jessie J is? She opens her mouth and the dream is dead.

Sure, I can recognize that she’s more talented, in a technical sense, than numerous pop stars who are more successful stateside than she will ever be. She has the tendency to over-sing at times, but I know that when Beyoncé runs scales like that, it gets me hailing “bow down, bitches.” That’s because I love Beyoncé. I buy into her “never let your seams show” act, which in all honesty is one Goop guest “journal” away from Paltrow perfectionism.

This is how pop music fans think. Hell, this is how the entire celebrity beast works. It’s why people think Katherine Heigl is a heinous actress: they don’t like her public persona. It’s irrational Mean Girls shit.

All this is to say: Stop trying to make Jessie J happen in America. If she were going to be a thing bigger than she already is (which is still pretty big), it would have happened already. Her new single, “Bang Bang” featuring Ariana Grande and Nicki Minaj, is not going to change that by one-upping the female duet power of our current Songs of Summer (Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy” and Ariana Grande’s “Problem”). Instead, “Bang Bang” is yet another opportunity for Nicki to steal the show, the irony being that a rapper is one of the best pop stars of our time.

Jessie J’s label didn’t even release her second album, 2013’s Alive, in the U.S., instead plotting a different version of it for American release later this year. Although they’re generic, her songs are not the problem. For Jessie J to become zeitgeist-controlling levels of popular in America, she better be prepared to cater to the cult of personality with, you know, a new personality.

This is not that she doesn’t have a personality. She has enough of one to judge the UK version of The Voice, in fact. Wearing bright prints and taut catsuits, she urges her fans to “never take life too seriously” and tells them that “nobody’s perfect.” She shaves off all her hair, dyes it blonde, and rocks giant hoops, like a white-girl Amber Rose. When she broke her foot in 2011, in the midst of trying to conquer America with her debut album Who You Are, she turned her crutches into a sparkly accessory at the VMAs. Then there were her tabloid-fueling comments about dating both men and women, which actually made me like her more. She’s since retracted them.

Jessie J’s London 2012 Olympics performance about sums her up. Even the overly polite broadcast commentators seem surprised that she has been asked to front Queen for a rendition of “We Will Rock You”, a version that’s so full of British pride even this Yankee got second-hand chills. Freddie Mercury beats his chest on a video screen, Queen guitarist Brian May strut-shreds as naturally as he would just running ’round the corner for a coffee, and then there’s Jessie J.

She’s Tyra Banks-ing it towards May and drummer Roger Taylor, across a massive stage covered in newspaper headlines while a canary yellow train — we’re talking Princess Di wedding dress train — trails behind. She is covered in jewels. She is a queen. Oh my god, I am overcome with emotion. Then she begins singing. My finger lingers on the ‘x’ in the corner of my browser window. She is really working it though, gesticulating and reaching dog octaves. Then she gets on the ground and starts playing AIR GUITAR right next to Brian fucking May, one of the best living rock guitar soloists. I immediately despise her again.

Criminally offensive air guitar and all, it’s clear that Jessie J does herself no matter what. Like fellow bigger-in-Britain singer-songwriter Lily Allen, there’s cultural limitation to that in the U.S. Not every mouthy British pop star can sass and sing her way to being America’s sweetheart like Adele, whose throwback class was positioned as an anecdote to American pop bangers. Pop stardom is illogical, and not necessarily solved by major-label marketing might.