Santi White was not a novice. She’d already worked the music industry from both sides, doing A&R for Epic and fronting the Philly-based punk band Stiffed, who released two albums in the first half of the ’00s. She’d been around, and she knew how this world worked. And it left her with ideas: about the state of pop music in the early days of the 21st century, about how she could manipulate it, inject her own vision into it.
To do that, she had to strike out on her own as Santogold, a moniker she later tweaked to Santigold. Anyone who dug into Mark Ronson’s sophomore album Version in 2007 would’ve found her there, singing the Jam’s “Pretty Green.” Then, her own singles started to build the path to her official solo debut Santogold, released 10 years ago yesterday. There were various other directions White’s life could’ve taken from those older origin points, but this was different. She was 31 when Santogold came out; she knew what she was doing, and emerged a fully-formed artist.
Santigold was a creature of the late ’00s through and through. These days, we’re used to a certain kind of genre agnosticism, artists who have grown up listening to everything without discrimination and are pushing towards aesthetics that smear the old dividing lines to the point that you can’t always pinpoint where one sound begins and another ends. In comparison, Santigold was one of those ’00s artists who helped set the stage for a sort of post-poptimism, no guilty pleasure, globalized type of listenership.
The thrill, back then, was in how these artists were actively colliding things that weren’t supposed to go together. There was LCD Soundsystem selecting all the coolest parts of preceding decades and teaching indie kids how to dance (or at least attempting to); there was Damon Albarn using Gorillaz as a vehicle to bridge artistic traditions from around the world and craft a multi-faceted, cross-cultural pop idiom; there was M.I.A., an iconoclast of the era, smuggling the sounds of her Sri Lankan roots through England and to the States, shooting for stardom.
This was also during the initial rise of the indie/mp3 blogs and those sites — including the very site you’re reading, just in a past life — were early to catch on to these idiosyncratic artists and helped fuel the nascent tradition of feverish, internet-based hype cycles. Just as those sites might gush about some NYC band called Vampire Weekend that sent them a demo the other day, there was often quite a bit of excitement around artists like Santigold and M.I.A. In an era where we could, for the first time, download thousands upon thousands of songs from all around the world, this was increasingly what music really sounded like: competing ideas and backgrounds and styles crashing together to morph into something completely new.
So Santogold arrived on one of those waves, the work of a woman making music that was vibrant and infectious in its steadfast denial of fitting into any one category. Santogold may have taken a lot of pop cues, but White came from a punk background and fostered a deep love of new wave and post-punk. Those genres crowded up against indie and reggae and electronic for an album that pushed boundaries by ignoring them or exploiting them.
“Shove It” turned a dub rhythm into a skittering backdrop for Santigold’s schoolyard taunt-chant of a chorus. There were synth brooders like “My Superman” and “Starstruck” next to ebullient pop in “Lights Out” next to “I’m A Lady,” a truly pretty track that somehow married flickers of ’90s alt-rock to White’s love of ’80s hits within a song that sounded distinctly of its time.
For better or for worse, that’s something you could say about the entirety of Santogold: Compared to some of the other albums we celebrate upon their 10 year anniversaries, Santogold sounds very much of 2008. On occasion, that means some things have weakened over time as their context has solidified — the yelped chorus of the nervy “You’ll Find A Way” is still as punchy and memorable as ever, but it also kinda recalls iPod commercial indie rock of the era. (As in, the Ting Tings.) Mostly though, even while you can locate Santogold in its time and place, it isn’t an album you could dismiss in that fashion. Outside of the narratives of the day, the blog buzz and the genre free-for-all, what remains on Santogold are a series of laser-focused compositions, a glimpse of an artist really coming into her own.
Remember: Santi White had been around. She’d been inside the machine. So when Santogold came out, it was an album full of ideas carefully in opposition but also in balance with each other. It was an album full of pop songs that shot you full of endorphins next to more discomfiting moments. Years later, it holds up as a whole front-to-back experience, and there’s also those earworm standouts that remain so.
That was the thing about the hype surrounding Santigold. At one point in time, it would’ve felt like she could be poised for some kind of pop saboteur takeover, that she could become a major marquee name. And, no doubt, the few-and-far-between Santigold albums usually generate plenty of press still. She’ll play decent fest crowds, maybe get a few commercial syncs. But maybe due to the long stretches between albums, it still feels like Santigold operates to the side of any particular scene or moment, especially with us being a decade removed from the cultural circumstances that birthed the project.
The highest-charting Santigold single was actually “Disparate Youth,” the lead single from her 2012 followup Master Of My Make-Believe. (And that wasn’t a major pop hit, either.) Those songs we still love and remember from Santogold? None of those were actually significant singles by the traditional metrics. And yet, they had a ubiquity to them. “I’m A Lady,” “Creator,” “Shove It” — none of these were truly mainstream, and yet I remember hearing them everywhere. In restaurants, in stores at the mall (a place I still went in 2008), college parties, over the venue speakers before another artist’s show. There was a way in which these songs felt like they were everywhere even without truly crossing over — even despite the moments when she caught the ears of big names like Kanye, which led to a sample of “Shove It” and a new Santi verse in Jay-Z’s “Brooklyn Go Hard” the following year.
Out of any of those ever-present Santogold tracks, the biggest was the album’s pristine opener “L.E.S. Artistes.” This is a song that screams ’00s: That muted guitar and snare-rim-plus-handclap beat it opens with are right in line with the indie of that decade. But it is also just a hell of a song, still maybe the best Santigold has ever released. It’s sinuous and pulsating at the same time, and it bursts into the shining, cooing chorus, a piece of pop brilliance on an album already imbued with a keen ear for (and awareness of) how music works.
When was the last time you heard “L.E.S. Artistes” out and about somewhere? I’m willing to bet that it wasn’t that long ago. Poke around online and it isn’t hard to find self-proclaimed town-criers grousing about how the rise of the blog era led to a cultural cognitive dissonance: the perception that an artist is much bigger than they are when it comes to the actual numbers. And, sure, that is part of it, along with all the various mutations the music industry has undergone last decade and this one. So, on some level, the hype dissipated: Santigold didn’t become one of the big premier names of her time, even on the back of that music biz frenzy.
What she did become is a different kind of famous, as specific to the late ’00s as the tone of Santogold’s production and its giddy embrace of far-flung sounds. It was a project built from the sound of the internet, and built to disseminate that way, too. Maybe Santigold isn’t headlining Coachella. But 10 years ago, she unleashed a set of songs that spread like wildfire across the web, and into the atmosphere of those daily experiences. In spite of or because of her roots as an administrative employee at a major record label, Santigold existed within the traditional frameworks of the industry but wound up rigging the game in a new way. Rigging the game so that the old parameters and classifications didn’t apply anymore. And in that sense, the hype was true: All you really needed to know back then is that Santigold wasn’t like anyone else, and 10 years later, that’s still true.