Review Summary: On and on and on
Julia Michaels is the Next Big Thing, or the Current Big Thing who’s poised for greater heights, or the Genius Songwriter who’s finally following in the footsteps of her Genius Songwriter compatriots in seizing a portion of a spotlight for herself that she’s created for countless other pop stars. Or at least that’s what the interminable wash and endless spin cycle of the great big PR machine is saying, reportage and thinkpiece and reflection upon reportage and thinkpiece and reflection tumbling weightlessly on top of each other to a point where any individual piece is only really distinguishable from each other in the quality of the writing or reporting. Look at profiles and reviews from dozens of outlets, from the New York Times to Billboard to Bustle, each of which says in different words pretty much the same thing: Michaels wrote for Bieber and Selena, is striking out on her own, and sings about imperfections and confessions and generally “real” things. It’s as though Republic Records gave each journalist writing about the performer a bingo card of buzzwords and told them to draw tiles until they had five in a row, then include each buzzword covered in their piece.
The monotony in Michaels’ critical coverage is kind of a bummer, because at best her music is a refreshingly blunt take on mechanically off-kilter pop, but it kind of fits Nervous System
, which is unfortunately fairly monotonous itself. For a writer as typically inventive and unconventional (at least for the Hot 100) as Michaels, the EP is pretty paint-by-numbers electro-pop. Barring the occasional peak (“Uh Huh” is a fucking banger) and trough (the deeply uncomfortable chorus of “Pink” achieves exactly the opposite of the ASMR effect Michaels’ whispers sound like they’re going for), Nervous System
is pleasant, and that’s about it. Mattman & Robin, who produced most of the EP, do a fairly good job of sucking Michaels’ individuality out of everything they touch after track two, and the resulting package is vacuum-packed, touches of individuality apparently too wasteful to include. It’s a little at odds with the lyrical content on board, but the seven songs’ worth of declaring her messiness feels rote and tired by the end too.
One critical appraisal of Michaels, written by The Ringer’s Rob Harvilla, is headlined “Julia Michaels Could Be The Pop Star That You Want.” Part of the perniciousness associated with pop stars molding themselves to “what we want” is the loss of inefficient individuality, quirks that might not resonate with enough people ironed out for maximum appeal. I don’t think that’s quite happening with Michaels, but enough of Nervous System
feels indistinct enough that I worry her vibrant artistic voice - which, granted, we at least see on the EP’s first two tracks - might get squashed as she moves along to wider audiences. In that sense, the routineness of the coverage she’s received is less a reflection than a portent: the bigger she gets, the less her
she gets, and the more the range of opinions one could have about her converge. Here’s hoping Michaels distinguishes herself from the cavalcade of identical takes before it’s too late.