Unadulterated strangeness is hard to find on the pop charts. It’s to be expected when pop itself is engineered to hit pleasure centres, to make the drive to work a little easier or the ad for Grey’s Anatomy a little more memorable.
Still, sometimes something weird slips through the cracks and you get a precious, hard-to-replicate aberration: a song like MIA’s Paper Planes or Gotye and Kimbra’s Somebody that I Used to Know that, by virtue of its outré ideology or style, stands in sharp relief to everything else.
The latest in this elite club of outsider hitmakers is ultra-private producer, songwriter, vocalist and former busker Tones and I. In 2019, the Melbourne-via-Byron musician’s song Dance Monkey – only her second single – hit No 1 in over 30 countries by some twist of timeliness, catchiness and sheer luck. Now it sits with over 2 billion streams on Spotify, making Tones and I – real name Toni Watson – the first woman to hit that milestone.
There’s almost no way you haven’t heard the song – it’s a global staple of supermarkets, commercial radio, changing rooms, advertisements and pretty much everywhere else music is thrust upon an unwitting listener.
It’s easy to scoff at any song as huge as Dance Monkey, but there’s little that feels predetermined about its success. What else sounds like it? Watson’s voice is like the bark of a dog on helium; her affectations are bizarre and unforgettable. The song itself is a self-mythologising origin story about having to busk for ungrateful crowds, and it follows no popular structure or format. Building to a never-found peak, it is Sisyphean struggle as pop song, relentless and tiresome and, in a twisted way, brilliant. Like a John Waters film or a Nicki Minaj song, Dance Monkey exists so far beyond the boundaries of good taste that it swings back round to the realm of unprecedented artfulness. Debate rages on the internet over whether the song itself is good. That question seems almost laughable: when a song is this big, does good even matter?
Post-Dance Monkey, it would seem that Watson is in an ideal position artistically. Her rare oddness has proven commercial success (I’m sure Dance Monkey has paid for more than a few second and third cars for Sony execs), sheltering her from the whims of overzealous reps attempting to meddle creatively. These are dream conditions to make a record: with all the money in the world and seemingly little pressure to dole out the usual proforma hits wanted by major labels.
And yet Welcome to the Madhouse, Watson’s debut album, is never strange, never shocking, fleetingly thought-provoking, and, at its worst, exhausting – a collection that chooses rigid, conventional structure and persistent soul-baring in favour of the surrealist, formally unconventional style showcased on 2019’s The Kids Are Coming EP.
In one of the record’s few mildly interesting moments, Watson issues a boast: “My song went number one in over 30 fucking countries/And I’m sorry if that offends you my dear.” Welcome to the Madhouse, though, with its abundance of gospel choirs – six across 14 tracks – and dearth of ingenuity, suggests that an “offensive” album might have at least been a little more compelling than this decidedly maudlin one.
It feels cruel to criticise the intent behind Welcome to the Madhouse too much – the vast majority of the record deals with Watson’s struggle with mental health issues as well as the cruelty of her haters, both online and in real life. But beyond the logline, there’s little to connect with here: the ballads, which make up nearly half the record, tend to either skew infuriatingly galaxy-brain (“We’re posting happy photos like we have two different faces … like 20 likes a post supposed to be the one salvation,” she sings on Lonely) or unnerving and blank (“I had a dream that someday, I would just fly away,” goes Fly Away, the album’s double-platinum lead single.) Elsewhere, the imagery just feels rote: “Some people stop, some pass me by/It’s pouring rain but I’m alive/And where I’m headed I don’t know/Cos I ain’t got no place to go.” The sentiment works better if you can dance to it.
Dance Monkey is as emotional as any song on Welcome to the Madhouse; it ascends because its method of conveying that emotion is brazen and new. That kind of attention to detail and disregard for convention would have done well here. Instead, we’re presented with a parade of the most wizened, toothless pop trends: gentrified dembow rhythms, pitch-shifted vocals, family-friendly rap beats, rousing choral parts, easily-cleared samples.
Only one song on the record breaks from the record’s palette: Bars, the final track, is an Iggy Azalea style white-girl rap song that finds Watson sounding the most engaged she’s been all album. “You know I’m gonna write the words/I’m gonna play the strings/And don’t forget I still fucking sing,” she raps. “Even on the street I was a fucking king.” That may be true – but in pop, she seems to be just another star content to sit back and play someone else’s game.
• Welcome to the Madhouse by Tones and I is out now