All photos shot in London by Nicol Vizioli.
It isn't often that you hear of a pop star on the rise who is simultaneously pursuing a career in the spotlight and a master's degree in philosophy from the Sorbonne, and yet Petite Meller is doing exactly that. Ambiguous in age and willfully obtuse when you try and pry, here is a Londoner (via Paris and New York), who is equal parts afro-electro chanteuse and psychoanalytic, post-structural Dionysian. Add the Godard inspired music videos, like recent single "Backpack," plus a Lolita aesthetic to the mix, and the result is both painfully chic, and almost unbearably French.
What's ever-so-slightly disconcerting however, is that it all comes across so earnest and insistent, it's difficult not to be skeptical of her sincerity. That is at least until you look a bit closer and listen a little longer. For in fact, the effortlessness and ease with which she parades her eccentricities actually has far more to do with authenticity than with marketing. It's strange to say, but Petite Meller makes the most sense through the more esoteric philosophy she espouses.
"When the mind goes out of its borders, I believe it's kind of like psychosis in a way and creativity is also connected to this," she says coyly holding my iPhone/voice recorder in an otherwise empty East London pub. "Creating realities, different realities, I believe in multiplicities of realities. I don't think it's a utopia, but just an option for reality that I give."
Thus, to give voice to some of the thinkers Petite quotes in conversation, it's less the Nietzschean maxim of, "Perhaps truth is a woman who has reasons for not letting us see her reasons," and much more Freud's famous, "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar."
This is an artist who seems to have made peace with her own unconscious libidinal desires, and who in fact struggles continuously to get in better touch with them through her craft. Whether it's manifested as celebratory tribal dances in her "Baby Love" video, or piggyback rides around greater New York City in "NYC Time," it really makes no difference. The nature of her music smacks of breaking through the symptoms of repressed sexuality and social normativity.
I liken her otherwise upbeat songs and videos to successive sessions of psychoanalysis, each one delving a little deeper and perhaps subtly darker as well, all the while getting ever closer to the creative charge that drives the engine forward. Even if it's easy to chalk up the tiny pink shorts, saddle shoes, and rosy-cheeks to a sort of infantilism—and perhaps that's there to an extent—we'd be remiss to ignore the latent kernels of sexual awakening, childhood trauma, and an overall sense of wonderment in all of their psychological complexity. What's so refreshing about Petite Meller, aside from the catchy tunes, with their bouncing percussion, jazzy piano, and girly melodic lilts, is the ease with which she gives it all away; even if it isn't immediately clear to her why. Her work is like Freud's proverbial talking cure made public. It's only after the song has been recorded and the video has been shot that the analysis and therapeutic self-discovery begin.
"I'm not so aware, it's after I write a song or after I make a video that I think about all of the things inside and I recognize them," she explains. "That's what I used to do as a child; playing these games and discovering my sexuality…"
Each track is another session on the couch and a more penetrating look inside. And as for her fashion sense, she doesn't really seem bothered by what people think. "People always ask me how I created my style, but it's just me. I don't wear a costume. It's how I am everyday."
However I want to stress that I don't think the point for her is to transgress boundaries so much as completely ignore them, or rather to try and live as if they don't exist, and indeed this is a precarious business. Living entirely according to the impulses of the ID and then attempting to express that experience publically surely takes a lot of courage, even more charm, and even then the results still run the risk of alienating people.
Take for example her latest offering, "Baby Love," the video for which she insisted on filming in Africa against the expressed wishes of her friends and associates generally more sympathetic to her creative vision. Frankly, it was hard not to feel a bit uncomfortable watching her take to a giraffe sanctuary in Kenya and dance her cares away with school children, while being all too aware of the harsh political and economic realities they face. In such a correct minded, neo-liberal society which rightfully demands sociological qualification from all matter of cultural appropriation, how could I not be made uncomfortable by what seemed like the fetishization of African children?
Admittedly I am no expert on race relations or the intricacies of post-colonial theory, but I couldn't shake an uncertain feeling that this was the sort of thing I should be taking issue with. Yes, the visuals are beautiful and beautifully shot, and all those involved look excited and happy, but if those appearances in fact contradict the realities of these children's true daily existence, then isn't that wrong? The answers I got from Petite were a healthy reminder that appearances need not always be immediately politicized, if even at all. In a true Freudian sense, sometimes pleasure simply for the sake of enjoyment is perfectly OK. Petite Meller did not go to Africa to paint an attractive sheen on an otherwise embattled and impoverished continent simply for the sake of freewheeling exoticism, but rather she went because that's where her inspiration pulled her. Given how the visuals came out, it seems well worth the travel.
Her next single, tentatively entitled "Barbaric," is already in the works, and from how she described the concept, it seems things are only going to continue getting darker and more introspective. With this song, Petite Meller explores the plight of Daniel Paul Schreber, a 19th century judge whose recounted battles with mental illness had a tremendous influence on Freud and the development of psychoanalysis. The crux of the issue was that Freud believed Schreber's symptoms and eventual insanity stemmed from his repressed sexuality. Petite Meller again creates an intersection between her music and her philosophy studies to confront complex issues like repression and psychosis in the public arena. "When you go to the bank, you can't suck your fingers," she said. "In my videos I'm trying to show what it's like to live the life you repress instead of a psychotic reality."
On an intellectual level I certainly respect her search for what Kant calls the Sublime, a sort of inexplicable joy in our own inability to comprehend the vastness of it all. Perhaps it isn't just her particular philosophical slant that sets her apart, but it's definitely a somewhat unique perspective to bring to popular music. And in this, what otherwise comes across as eccentric or bizarre, is in fact just the true face of individuality. We all have our symptoms which we carry around inside, it's just Petite Meller has made an art out of trying to make sense of them.
"It's always from my perspective—a girl's world, and I show how I see it as a girl," she says. "Wishes, dreams, I'm not afraid to show it. My goal is to be more open with every next song and in every next video."
It's risky to expect that everyone else can relate or enjoy it in the same way, but that's the point. And as for my search for the perfect philosophical quote to summate Petite Meller, she said it better than any famous thinker ever could: "Many philosophers would try and say what a woman is. I just try to sing it."
"Baby Love" is out now. More Petite Meller music will be released later this year.