Wednesday, February 22nd, 2017

Julia Michaels – Issues

The next Sia, or the next Bonnie McKee, or the next someone at least…


David Sheffieck: Aside from the Enya-esque preset the synth uses, this sounds like half the songs on the radio for the past year and change. Which makes sense, since Michaels wrote on most of them. The problem is that this plods along like the worst of that batch, a leaden production with a hook that glances off “catchiness” and lands in “grating.” And Michaels doesn’t have the vocal distinctiveness yet to overcome those deficits. Maybe she’ll get there someday.

Crystal Leww: Julia Michaels claims that “Issues” is her most personal song, so distinct in her voice that she cannot imagine anyone else having sung it. Listening to “Issues,” I find that wild to believe; her vocal style here is the same vocal style that we’ve heard Selena Gomez, Hailee Steinfeld, Justin Bieber, and I imagine Gwen Stefani (I did not listen to the Gwen Stefani album) copy. “Issues” is a good song — I particularly love the quiet mania — but Michaels has had much better hits with much bigger hooks.

Alfred Soto: As anyone who’s breathed oxygen around me knows, I loathe “issues” as a portmanteau. I especially loathe it when the speaker means problems. “She has jealousy issues,” a person will say when what he meant was, “She’s a jealous person” (“That sounds so cold,” a student will respond). At first this breathy number reliant on finger snaps sounds like a mockery of need. But Julia Michaels rasps the key line in the chorus (“One of ’em is how bad I need ya”) as if she meant it. Oh well — it’s brief enough. 

William John: The lure is in the cadence — I’ve returned to this song repeatedly over the last month or so just to hear Julia Michaels intone “andoneofthemishowbadIneedya” in one flustered breath. “Issues” has an arrangement that is strikingly, almost blandly spare, and the lack of bridge is somewhat contemptible. But Michaels, one half of pop’s songwriting maestros du jour and now breaking out on her own, is too competent a melodicist to be toppled by scrawny production or pop formalism: her sighing-alone inflections sell the sadness. A remix might accentuate them further, but this will do for now.

Joshua Copperman: I thought this was sarcastic at first, the subtext being that the couple is codependent and self-destructing but can’t pull away — like “No Children” disguised as “7 Things.” That said — and yes, this blurb is one of those Lefsetzian things where the writer hears an acoustic version and thinks it’s better — it is much better stripped down. The performance there is passionate and far more honest than anything in the recording, and the feeling is less “I’m going to dump all my problems on you and we hate each other lol” and more “Will you love me in spite of these tics and inconsistencies?” — a complicated but ultimately genuine song of devotion. In fact, forget Scottish rock. Acoustically it’s more reminiscent of modern country, maybe even something by a Kacey Musgraves type. The studio version, with a flat vocal and Benny Blanco plunking down some notes and calling it a string section, doesn’t do it justice.

Maxwell Cavaseno: Yeah, the real issue is some genius producer decided not only to let Michaels sing with hurried non-delivery in an audibly unattainable register, but to do it with a goddamned pseudo-waltz and pizzicato strings. This is a mess the absolute minute it comes out the gate, and as a first impression, any brilliance on Michaels’ part is marred by the ineptitude of her presenters.

Katherine St Asaph: The “On the Radio” strings, if you ignore their likely formation inside Stargate and Benny Blanco’s skulls, belie Michaels’ past in the singer-songwritersphere (citing Fiona Apple as an influence is pro forma, but citing Sarah Blasko and Missy Higgins requires a library of pretty deep cuts. Or maybe she just really wanted to sell in Australia at the time.) The singer-songwritersphere is not in fashion, so like Sia before her, Michaels has moved toward top 40. This doesn’t have to dilute the writing, at least not in depth or drama, but “Issues” is diluted anyway: PG-13 emotional lability that glosses over all the alienation and loneliness and life rubble such issues produce in favor of chirpy “love me at my worst”/”deserve me at my best” platitudes. (There’s an approximately 33% chance Michaels wishes she wrote the line “I’m looking for baggage that goes with mine.”) Ultimately that’s my issue with so much pop like this, much of it written by Michaels. When the issues are the subtext of otherwise exuberant or determined or quasi-alluring songs, they are palpable but missed. When you spell it out this much, they become anodyne.

Will Adams: The heavy string foundation, while novel for radio pop, is very “Wow just installed this East West library lemme check out the pizzicato samples!!!” Julia Michaels has a way with a melody, but as with “Good For You,” the lyrics’ subtext complicates things. It’s difficult to accept the optimistic attitude toward codependency on the surface when there’s so much sinister right beneath; namely, that her partner’s main issue seems to be with anger management.

Ryo Miyauchi: “Issues” reminds me of a more cheery version of Alicia Keys’ “In Common” in that the issues they share aren’t the breaking point but what tightens their bond. A good part of that owes to those strings, tiptoeing the surface as delicately as Julia Michaels does with her ride-or-die. Though it’s filled with intense dependency, her final word in the chorus also lands as a light-hearted punchline in this thank-you note of a song.

Cédric Le Merrer: The dad in me looks kindly on these lyrics made to be scrawled in locker cases and on school desks. The lightness of the arrangement, the cracks in the singing, the total lack of chill are perfect. But I’m probably trying to signal wiseness while in truth, as years have gone by, I’ve more and more sought songs that make me feel reassured. It’s 2017, and we all need this feeling, don’t we? It’s not at all about me or made for me, but if I let my guard down just enough, I can relate to “Issues” on a primordial level.

Reader average: [6.4] (5 votes)

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8 Responses to “Julia Michaels – Issues”

  1. Alfred, not that I endorse prescriptivism, but in what way is “issues” a portmanteau?

    (Sorry, couldn’t help myself. We have very different views on language!)

  2. fuck that is probably my fault

  3. I think I enjoy this mostly because it seems like such an odd choice for a debut single from a basically unknown entity. It doesn’t really sound like anything else at the moment, certainly no debut singles I can think of, and neither does she. A recognisably teenage posture, a spiteful “let’s be terrible people together” that’s laced with an actual ache. The acoustic version Joshua linked to above sounds almost the same to me, but it did highlight something: the studio version actually smoothed down some of her idiosyncratic delivery and timbre which I assumed was played up for texture.

  4. Scott, I referred to the way “issues” began as a description of political questions and now has come to eliminate “problems,” a word that for many young adults sounds judgmental or harsh – especially for guys, of course.

  5. Yeah, I shouldn’t have said anything, so sorry on that front.

    I don’t see the problem with what you’re taking issue with though, beyond personal preference. The OED cites uses of issue in the sense of referring to the “action [or opportunity] of going or flowing out” with regard to “an immaterial thing, such as an emotion” as early as 1350. The notion that it began as anything in particular is a hard one to stand by. Just because language change might be happening in your lifetime rather than centuries ago, that doesn’t make it bad.

    I don’t know how likely I am to change your mind on the issue anyway, so I’m happy to disagree.

  6. You haven’t offended me at all, and I appreciate the chance at clarity and to read the OED’ss determination. When I hear us use it casually it denotes a certain mushiness – that’s all I meant.

  7. oh the “portmanteau” thing I meant — probably an editing error on my part

  8. All good. I don’t use the OED to determine so much as illustrate though – illustrate some of the problems with determination, in fact. Preference is just a separate issue.