Last year, Jay Z and a cadre of music industry titans launched Tidal, a streaming service meant to take a stand against free streaming and give artists value again. Grammy Foundation president Neil Portnow has twice made a call for listeners to think about what makes music valuable. Now, singer and producer Santigold is joining the fray with her third album 99¢, going a step further to rail against the brand culture she’s seen explode in the last few years, particularly online.
For her album cover, Santigold, otherwise known as Santi White, worked with photographer Haruhiko Kawaguchi to create an image showing her vacuumed-packed in a 99¢ bag with her clothes and knick-knacks. It’s an arresting, almost macabre commentary on how artists’ work — a part of themselves — are valued for so little in the current pop-culture machine. It’s something she struggles with, especially since that machine has only sped up with platforms like Instagram and Facebook.
Santigold struggles with the digital pop culture machine
But it would be wrong to say White is above toying with the trends she critiques, and even having fun in the process. Last Friday, she and Tumblr teamed up to invite about 300 fans to an actual 99¢ store in Manhattan to celebrate the album’s release. It was a bizarre, daring performance, with White singing between aisles of candy and cleaning products alongside a team of backup dancers. We sat down after her set for a quick chat about the new album, social media, and what it’s like to feel like a product.
Tell me about your album title: 99¢.
Well, basically, I was listening to what I was writing, to what I was talking about, and what the overall theme [of the album] was, and it seemed like I was writing a lot about my experience being an artist right now and this cultural climate and about feeling like a product — feeling like all I'm really expected to do as an artist is like, "Sell sell sell! Buy buy buy!" Whether you're selling yourself on Instagram or social media or whatever, it's like, "This is my perfect life!" and it's funny. Nowadays, [audiences are not] really buying music or anything, so you're aligning yourself with brand sponsors, and you go and perform at these corporate events. And I'm very aware of that, and sort of conflicted about it. I was trying to figure out how I was going to deal with it, and I decided to play with it. You can either [stand] on the sidelines and say "This is fucked up" or you can just jump in and be like, "This is what it is. I'm gonna highlight the absurdity of it in a really playful way and turn it into art." And that's what I decided to do.
I thought '99¢' was the perfect title, because it was like I climbed into a bag, literally, with all these things that represent every aspect of my life — like, baby toys, dog toys, music equipment, nail polish, anything in my life — and shrink-wrapped myself and slapped this undervalued, ridiculous price of 99¢, [which is] more than you can get my record for.
Do you mean the industry has moved in a direction where the artist is worth just pennies?
No, it was just playful. It's like, obviously my life and my hard work are worth more than 99¢, but I feel commodified. If you put it like that it sounds so serious! It was lighthearted, but that's what I'm talking about.
Did being a new mom change the way you work at all?
I was more focused. I didn't have as much time, you know. Like, "Okay, I'm here, c'mon let's do it!" But there was a playfulness and a lightness that I brought to it on purpose. But also I just had this moment that was so pure and I think that found its way into the tone of the album.
There was like one song, "Big Boss Big Time Business," which was a little bit about being a mom. Rolling out a record with a toddler is pretty crazy. And he has the flu tonight. And I was just like, "This is the craziest week ever!" It's a challenging thing. So "Big Boss" is about that, how to fucking run shit, because I’ve got to handle so many things, and I'm the Big Boss.
So you just came out with this interactive video for "Can't Get Enough Of Myself." Why did you choose that approach for that song?
"Can't Get Enough Of Myself" is I think one of the most upbeat, fun songs on the record, but it's a total satirical song about narcissism. When you listen to it, it's kind of multilayered. It makes you think of yourself as empowered, but at the same time it's totally making fun of the culture. Like selfie culture. I think that the job of an artist is to basically hold up a mirror to society. By reflecting back what things look like, it helps to sort of change people's perspective and help push progress in the right direction. And I think that it's really important, because technology is moving so fast, and I feel like values are getting lost and a little wishy washy. I think that's a very dangerous thing to not be aware of, some of the things that are not really healthy for humanity. You know what I mean? It was kind of a playful commentary on all that.
Where do you see that culture affecting music, especially with Spotify and Apple Music and the instant gratification of the streaming economy?
I mean, I really hope there's sort of like a backlash to how instant everything is right now. It's like we're in this "just add water" culture, where people think that things should come so easy and so instant and everything is disposable. I feel like music is suffering. Sometimes art doesn't feel valued, so people don't put that much time into it, and it's really about singles and quick money and basically that kind of music is a completely different kind of music. I mean it's music that's made to sound like the other things that are doing well; people trying to put out records every year, year and a half. You don't get good music like that. And I hope that eventually — I see vinyl coming back, and the experience of music [as] a tactile thing in your hand — I hope that people learn to value art again.
Laura June Kirsch / Tumblr