MUNA Are Bound For Pop Stardom, And Nothing Could Be More Fun

Isaac Schneider

MUNA Are Bound For Pop Stardom, And Nothing Could Be More Fun

Isaac Schneider

It’s easy to forget that MUNA have been a band for nearly a decade. Three albums in, they’re finally getting their mainstream due, and it couldn’t come at a better time. But before I launch into a whole screed about why MUNA – aka indie-pop trio Katie Gavin, Josette Maskin, and Naomi McPherson — are on their way to becoming full-blown pop and fashion icons via their new, self-titled album, it’s important to look at all of the elements that had to come together in order to make this happen.

Since forming while attending USC, MUNA’s rise has been slow but sure: amassing a loyal fan base among the LGBTQ+ community, getting a remix from Tiësto (2016’s “Winterbreak”), playing Lollapalooza the same year, opening for Harry Styles the next. Fans flocked to Gavin, Maskin, and McPherson for their crazy-catchy electro-pop bangers covering a spectrum of feeling: loneliness, isolation, joy, horniness, gender identity, lust, love, and coping with the worst stuff your mind tells you about yourself. It’s easy to feel a closeness to MUNA, so it’s really no wonder they have this reputation for speaking radical truth while outwardly representing the LGBTQ+ experience (McPherson is non-binary, and all three members identify as queer).

But RCA Records, home to huge names like Christina Aguilera, SZA, H.E.R., and Tate McRae, didn’t seem to know how to treat MUNA, who released 2017’s About U and 2019’s Saves The World via the major. Ironically, their star seems to have risen higher upon being dropped by RCA and signing with Phoebe Bridgers’ Saddest Factory Records, an indie. Upon joining forces with Bridgers, the group immediately released the “first-gay-kiss” anthem “Silk Chiffon” (co-written by Daniel Tashian and Ian Fitchuk, best known for working on Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour), which had a music video inspired by 1999 queer rom-com classic But I’m A Cheerleader. Truly a great cinematic experience, please go watch it if you haven’t already.

In addition to their on-point movie references, MUNA really know how to grab your attention with a turn of phrase. You’re already aware of that if you’ve heard the band’s 2019 single “Number One Fan,” which wryly admits: “So I heard the bad news/ Nobody likes me and I’m gonna die/ In my bedroom/ Looking at strangers on my telephone.” The band pulls this lyrical sleight of hand again on the new album’s synth-pop romp “Anything But Me,” which begins, “You’re gonna say that I’m on a high horse / I think that my horse is regular-sized/ Did you ever think maybe/ You’re on a pony/ Going in circles on a carousel ride?” That is some Musgraves-brand lyrical skill right there, between sticking to a theme (horses, ponies) and getting a point across (we don’t see eye to eye anymore, and it’s time to break up).

Coming in at a tight 40 minutes, MUNA pulls off hit after potential hit while hardly appearing to take a breath. The band has said that their latest effort is intentionally “moving away from celibacy” (“MUNA Celibacy Club” is one of the names for their stan community), and this album is indeed thirsty and, as Kristen Wiig once proclaimed, readayyy to PARRRR-TAYYYYY. After the hormone rush of “Silk Chiffon,” MUNA head right out to the club on “What I Want,” which proclaims with a Miley Cyrus “See You Again” stutter: “I spent way too many years not knowing what I wanted, how to get it, how to live it, and now I’m gonna make up for it all at once, ’cause that’s what I want.”

Later, “Runner’s High” goes hard on the ’80s synths, which simultaneously glower and sparkle, like an episode of Stranger Things set at Starcourt Mall, minus any extra-dimensional creatures. The Robyn-esque “Home By Now” finds MUNA dancing on their own with lyrics that acknowledge those questions that hang in the air when you want to contact an ex but shouldn’t: ​”Heard that you were selling your piano and your car/ It feels so weird to not reach out and ask you how you are/ Wonder if you’re moving or if money’s just that tight/ These are the kinds of questions to which I’ve resigned my rights.”

MUNA expand their genre horizons here too, notably on the country-leaning ballad “Kind Of Girl,” where the alto-voiced Gavin imagines an aspirational version of their future self while still showing their current iteration some love: “I’m the kind of girl/ Who owns up to all of my faults/ Who’s learning to laugh at ’em all/ Like I’m not a problem to solve.”

A theme of self-acceptance continues on “Handle Me,” which plays out with a mid-tempo Y2K R&B rhythm and reminds me a bit of Sheryl Crow’s “Strong Enough.” The beat picks back up soon enough, though, on the vocally warped, Mitski(!)-co-written “No Idea,” which has a high-gloss 2000s pop sheen. “Solid,” meanwhile, offers shout-along catharsis with Phil Collins snare flourish and an explosive chorus.

In the superficial sense, MUNA frequently draw comparisons to HAIM, perhaps because both bands originate in Southern California and make genre-diverse pop with crisp hooks and perfectly in-sync, harmonized vocals. But unlike HAIM, MUNA are not related to one another, and all three are openly and proudly queer, which they have matter-of-factly imbued in their songcraft. But if their third album (and frankly all of their albums) exhibits anything, it’s that what MUNA offers is so much bigger than tossing them off as “gay HAIM.”

Not that the band has any plans to obscure their identities. “We joke about [this album] having dyke boyband energy,” Gavin recently told I-D about making MUNA. “There’s something fun about playing into that while we have the freedom of an indie label. It’s a more indie record than Saves The World, in the sense that we really did it on our own with our friends. There’s nobody telling us what to do now.”

That sense of freedom and agency is readily apparent all across MUNA – which packs in the “queerworms” (as I saw NPR say, and I love that, even though I generally hate the word “earworm”) and is just all around a triumph. MUNA recently opened for label boss Phoebe Bridgers, but I have no doubt that their own headlining set at Forest Hills Stadium is well on its way. Covering Britney Spears’ “Sometimes” hasn’t hurt their stock either.

We’ve also come a very long way in pop music when it comes to pronouns; today, you see high-profile acts like Halsey and Demi Lovato adopting “they/them” (though Halsey still technically goes by “she/they,” while Lovato prefers “they/them”) and using same-sex pronouns in songs that play on the radio. Lil Nas X, of course, is another prime example of tearing through gendered boundaries in mainstream pop (and possibly facing industry exclusion because of it). Dove Cameron has “Boyfriend,” and Hayley Kiyoko has “For The Girls.”

Still, there is always a slight sense of “that’s ALTERNATIVE” when the mainstream media talks about these things, even when it comes to the most well-known acts. MUNA’s presence on an independent label — albeit one run by Bridgers, an indie singer-songwriter who is becoming a pop star in her own right — might serve to underline that alternative framing. But this band really should be as famous as, well, Demi Lovato (who was Disney famous long before they came out), and I’m hoping MUNA will get the band to that stadium-filling level.

BIGHIT MUSIC

CHART WATCH

Chris DeVille here with your weekly update on the Billboard charts.

BTS score their sixth #1 album on the Billboard 200 this week with the mostly retrospective anthology collection Proof, which debuts with 314,000 equivalent album units including 266,000 in sales; both totals are the second biggest of the year behind the first-week totals for Harry Styles. According to Billboard, Proof’s 259,000 CD copies sold is the biggest week for CD sales since Adele’s 30, which moved 378,000 copies on CD last fall. The primarily Korean-sung Proof is the 15th all or mostly non-English #1 album in chart history and the third this year following chart-toppers from Bad Bunny and Stray Kids.

The bulk of the top 10: Bad Bunny at #2, Harry Styles at #3, Post Malone at #4, Future at #5, Morgan Wallen at #6, Kendrick Lamar at #7, and Olivia Rodrigo at #8. SZA’s Ctrl rises back to #9 thanks to its fifth anniversary deluxe reissue. Finally, Carrie Underwood’s Denim & Rhinestones debuts at #10 with 31,000 units including 22,000 in sales, just barely eking out her 10th consecutive top-10 album.

Harry Styles’ “As It Was” rules the Hot 100 for a seventh nonconsecutive week, followed again by Jack Harlow’ “First Class” at #2 and Future, Drake, and Tems’ “Wait For U” at #3. Lizzo’s “About Damn Time” climbs back to its #4 peak, followed by Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill (A Deal With God)” at #5. Glass Animals’ “Heat Waves,” Latto’s “Big Energy,” and Bad Bunny and Chencho Corleone’s “Me Porto Bonito” are at #6, #7, and #8 respectively, with Bad Bunny’s “Tití Me Preguntó” following at #9. And rounding out the top 10 is Japanese-born singer/songwriter/comedian/YouTube Joji, who, per Billboard, had a role in turning Baauer’s “Harlem Shake” into a viral meme way back in 2013. Joji’s piano ballad “Glimpse Of Us” debuts at #10 this week, becoming his first top-10 single. With that, I’ll hand the keyboard back over to Rachel.

POP FIVE

Babyface & Ella Mai – “Keeps On Fallin'”
Thanks to last week’s Old Music vs. New Music column, Chris and I have spent a lot of time this week talking about new songs that interpolate classic material. “Keeps On Fallin” does exactly that by weaving in Tevin Campbell’s 1993 song “Can We Talk,” which Babyface wrote and produced with Daryl Simmons. Aaaand time just got a little flatter.

Chlöe – “Surprise”
Chlöe — aka Chloe Bailey of Chloe x Halle — shares a silky, sexy song that leans into how playful intimacy can be: “Surprise, tonight you get my freaky side.” Titillating!

Black Eyed Peas, Shakira, & David Guetta – “DON’T YOU WORRY”
Everything old is new… again! The chrome-shiny “DON’T YOU WORRY” borrows verbiage from Bob Marley & the Wailers’ “Three Little Birds.” Except will.i.am, apl.de.ap, and Taboo (plus Shakira and Guetta) have taken a potato masher to the original idea and made a dizzying space jam. Watching Shakira teach aliens how to dance is kind of cute, but overall this thing sounds like someone dipped a Life Is Good(TM) T-shirt in neon dye. I want off this ship.

Måneskin – “If I Can Dream” (Elvis Presley Cover)
I’m officially tired of nu-Elvis covers. I don’t even want to see the movie, which apparently comes out this week but feels like it’s been out for most of the year.

Luke Combs – “The Kind Of Love We Make”
This goopy song title gave me the ick at first, and while I like the Tom Petty-sounding guitar intro, Combs’ growly invite to “get some candles burning” and “records burning” is bringing the gag reflex back up.

NEWS IN BRIEF

  • Mickey Guyton will host A Capitol Fourth from Washington, D.C. on the fourth of July. [People]
  • Megan Thee Stallion has been cast in Starz’s P-Valley and wrote a new song for the show. [TV Line]
  • The Kid Laroi brought the Wiggles onstage in Melbourne. [YouTube]
  • Anderson .Paak appeared in BTS’ Proof Live concert special in the Nevada desert. [YouTube]
  • Miranda Lambert launched a new home goods collection at Walmart. [YouTube]
  • GIVĒON announced a North American headline tour. [Giveon]
  • The members of BTS will “take time to explore some solo projects.” [Billboard]
  • After Jimmy Fallon suggested to Halsey that Millie Bobbie Brown should play them in a biopic, Brown commented on Instagram that she’s “so down.” [People]
  • Jack Antonoff released the short film How Dare You Want More and two Bleachers remixes from A. G. Cook and Earth, Wind & Fire’s Verdine White. [The Music Universe]
  • H.E.R. joined Coldplay on “Let Somebody Go” in Tampa. [Twitter]
  • Kelly Clarkson covered “Womanizer” days after Britney Spears called her out on Instagram for comments she made in a 2007 interview. [Rolling Stone]
  • Harry Styles paused a recent concert to locate his first teacher in the crowd. [YouTube]
  • Justin Bieber cancelled more shows due to his facial paralysis caused by a virus. [Instagram]
  • Tate McRae covered Harry Styles’ “As It Was” for SiriusXM. [YouTube]
  • In its new location Pharrell’s Something In The Water fest was reportedly plagued by disorganization: “Be assured that it was indeed a logistical nightmare.” [USA Today]
  • The Chicks ended their Noblesville, IN show after only 30 minutes, reportedly due to Natalie Maines losing her voice. [WTHR]

CLOSING TIME

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