The torpor in which we have been plunged vanishes as fresh air streams into the room. The singer now stands among us. “I am so sorry, this should have never happened!” he says vehemently. I couldn’t give more of a fuck, it’s as though Miguel has been here all this time, like we haven’t waited a second. My sorrow has blossomed lily-like into something like a great obsession for the smiling philanderer in front of me. Within five minutes, he is our entire world, a fierce but merciful god.
Miguel is the new upcoming R&B singer to watch, a phenomenon emerging as the quintessential new-century lady-killer—muscularly conscious and socially seductive. With his biceps prominently defined underneath his white shirt, and his slick hair, and soft eyes, Miguel comes across as the distillation of the sensual and alluring singer stereotype, in the mold of, say, Sam Cooke, or even Elvis. But do not mistake me—this is not a bad thing. Allure, like poetry, is enjambed—a line of thought breaks at the precise moment of achieved lyric intensity. Speed and agility make the perfect weapon. Tempo is its ammunition.
His second album, Kaleidoscope Dream—released in 2012—vaulted the San Pedro-kid into the group of “major singers” this particular generation is now laying claim to, such as Frank Ocean and The Weeknd—behind the single “Adorn,” which has been a pop smash juggernaut. “Adorn” hit the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s R&B/Hip-Hop chart and has been a Top 20 pop hit since, culminating in a Grammy win for “Best R&B Song.” Even so, it still felt like Miguel was being criminally underappreciated. But after his Grammy night performance with Wiz Khalifa, it’s impossible to imagine Miguel remaining “under the radar.” Said Kelly Clarkson upon accepting her award for Grammy, “Miguel, I don’t know who the hell you are, but we need to sing together. I mean, good God. That was the sexiest damn thing I’ve ever seen.”
“I’m an actor, on this new scene—they say scene, like it’s cohesive—even though everyone is doing different things. The Weeknd talks about one-night stands, Frank Ocean is a lot about this unrequited long time thing. I think I’m a bit of both.”
Miguel sketches a wide image of a movement, though one gets the sense this is a movement of ideal perception and emotion rather than something identifiable across genres. Because, honestly, Miguel’s music is a world in itself, an ecology drawing lines to encompass the reality of everyone’s sensitivity (in various interviews, this is the explicit intention of his music). Yet we have to be precise where perhaps Miguel is not, because R&B isn’t made in a vacuum, and the specific emotional appeal in Miguel’s music, its originality and power to connect, depends not only the genre’s confines, but a greater limitation in contemporary American music.
Maybe it’s not a limitation, but merely an ever-evolving staging, or re-staging, of the centuries considered erogenous coincidence between sound and flesh. For decades this played as the anthem of an endless loyalty, Tammy and Marvin scaling chiefly unsexed mountains, Diana peering through a window of lost time. Then came the 90s and its heaps of white-silk-suited ephebos chasing the “girlfriend” along the beach, cherished memories of tender sex lying on the grand piano!
Miguel nods his head: “My mother once told me that I was hiding myself in a closet with girls when I was a kid, but I can’t remember.” Now modernity does not hide anymore behind insipid pretexts and a concealed and opprobrious crave for physical bliss. The new crop has fed itself on a previous generations’ memories of thwarted experience and unanswered social wrongs, and has turned those sentiments into expressions of individual oblivion, capital-cum-sex-induced inebriation that is more self-generating than destructive.
A song like “Do You” is the epitome of this new cool. “Do you like drugs? Yeah? Well me too,” claims a chorus of Miguel voices, set deep within an autotuned reverb and behind a little funk-strummed electric guitar. The song moves forward like something from The Flaming Lips, with a heavy drum beat and answering bass before bottoming out into a pool of airy falsetto, only to regain its groove with the more aggressive rephrasing of the initial refrain—“I’m going to do you like drugs tonight”—while the beat carries the song off. There is structure and movement, but these feel more like adjustments, reconfigurations, within the song as much as they are the “glitch products” of modern studio production. But its provocation, both aurally and lyrically, seems to reside more in its banality.
“Do you like drugs is something I ask people to start a conversation. It seemed normal to me to write a song about it.” And this might be a clue in figuring out the riddle of a new generation. Objects are erected as lifestyle totems as we set up the rituals of our material existence. A thousand traces—inscribing these objects—over which people interact, build common tales and open possibilities for more dynamic, two-sided relationships. “Music should be a reflection of the time. It wasn’t necessarily acceptable for R&B to discuss some things, and how some things are culturally different. Music is a picture of its time. I don’t say that I depict entirely the time we live in, but a part of it, yes.” Speeches and banners appear useless. A song draws a raw and trivial affirmation in the sand. There is no falsification or mystification in that, nor idolatry. 21st century girls just wanna get high, and so do we, and because there’s nothing else to it, it feels like there’s a whole lot more. And then we get high.
This then is the ironic essence of consuming music in a globalized consumer society. We have sold ourselves fantasies of this other side, a blurred and unknown land where “Sexual Healing” flourishes on the vine, where freedom and escapism can have legitimate roots in a creatively self-destructive process of art-making. But traumatic anger can’t suffice anymore, nor can hermeneutic distance, especially when feelings of separation from our own fantasy machines result in anxious outbursts on Twitter. Clearly, we are the end result of a function of destitution, and boredom is our cradle. But that’s also the beauty of it. We are normal—hopelessly fucking normal—and Miguel stands at the front of this new swath of kids, teasing the strands of a new identity politics, this new de-centered and globalized code of “normal.”
“I’m not coming from what some call a cool neighborhood, my parents did their job, protecting their son. I don’t understand why there would be any dramatic element about what I am today.”
Indeed, Miguel’s sensibility has little to do with an a posteriori personal rewriting. Badass is overrated and real thugs are long gone. Our drama is precisely the negative kind: a lack of drama. But what we love is that this teenager’s doubt has remained, this quavering lack of confidence that can’t be outshined by one’s self-narration.
Still, time and the aleatory urges of the market place, remain the proper obstacles on Miguel’s creative path. After his signature dotted the Jive label line, the young singer’s first album All I Want Is You remained silent for two years because of legal issues. “It was kind of a very sad moment of my life, when the album got released. I wore it like a communion outfit. Like it fit you when you bought it but after a few years, you’re growing, changing, the size ... it doesn’t fit, and then you realize the cut is outmoded. You still like it, that was you, then, but you can’t wear it for real now. That’s what it felt like.”
So a fucking stinging pride made the 27-year-old aim further and higher. Kaleidoscope was born out of this frustration. Every second album is a bit darker, and in Miguel’s particular case, it’s not hard to see why. Uncertainty and an unsettling of the image are the dominant themes. A velvet voice rustles from an undetermined and distant place and dreams lead the way. Miguel produced the album by himself, he wrote the lyrics that serve the very walls of the labyrinth. “My idea of art is that it has to be a personal process. As a creative individual, you almost create for your own sanity, build your own sanity. It’s crucial for me to be involved in every part.”
While taking the measure of his epoch, he offered the world three EPs, mere fragments, details from a picture of a more complete version. He knows that people are in a hurry, rushing and running their life in the abyssal maelstrom of existence. Attention barely grazes the sturdiest materials and minds and before you realize whatever it is you’re supposed to being doing, it’s gone, the time slipped into the numinous absence of time.
“Twitter, Instagram, we are solicited permanently. In 2013 you have to feed people all the time to exist. But I can’t imagine myself tube-feeding my public until they get disgusted. Everyone needs the time to digest, and maybe imagine themselves having another slice.” That’s the reason Miguel moves slow, plays chess, provides his fans with free music on the Internet only after letting a little of their lives pass. The seduction lies in the tension he cherishes—the moment right before arrival, before your head pulls in for a kiss. We want life to be fast and fierce but to hold on to its beauty. We’ve got the all night and there is no reception down here. What can we really talk about without sounding like fools? The camera opens its eye, light strikes the dust, Miguel is arrested, captured, then let go.
And we follow, follow. Fearing yet this might be over, already, the meter shrinking toward its zero, as I get out of the spell, as I get into the crowd. Longing for this, the crowd has invaded the Trianon, one of the most untimely venues of Pigalle. On the stage, Miguel strikes up “Adorn,” playing mischievously with the codes of fascination. Did you know that the Big Bang is just the illusion of a compressed time? Each acceleration is merely the equivalent of its opposing force and leads automatically to a dilatation of the beat. And you know what else? The single thing that finally differs around you is the invariability of speed. Bang, bang, gotcha.