And AJ McKenna is here to tell you why you should be listening to Hannah Diamond already.
I was sitting on a friend’s bed when I heard that Prince had died. It had already been a hard day for both of us and now we were kicking back, relaxing, and idling on the Internet. I decided to check my Twitter feed. “Huh,” I said, a little numb at the thought of what I was about to say. “Um… Prince died.”
“What the fuck?” my friend asked. Minutes later we were sifting through stories about the Purple One’s death, hoping that it wasn’t corroborated, that it was some morbid hoax, but of course it wasn’t. Another dead artist to add to the year’s grim, mounting toll. Prince, that day. Victoria Wood the day before. Ronnie Corbett – perhaps not a figure of towering cultural achievement, but a much-loved face from many of our childhoods all the same. Alan Rickman. David fucking Bowie.
Admittedly, my reaction to Bowie’s death was complicated by revelations about his use of teen groupies in the seventies, but I was still saddened by the loss of a man who wrote so many songs that meant so much to me growing up as a queer young thing in the late nineties.
And now Prince Rogers Nelson was gone too. It seemed as if 2016 had gone rogue, and was trying to take every last bit of musical joy, performativity, innovation and play from our lives. I don’t want to resort to hoary rock-journo cliché, but I really needed something to make me get excited about music again.
Maybe it’s fitting that I was sat on the same friend’s bed when I heard Hannah Diamond’s “Pink and Blue” for the first time.
“Pink and Blue” was something altogether other. There were traces of genres with which we were familiar – most obviously bubblegum pop – but there was something else going on too. It took us a couple of listens to the track, and the other songs in Diamond’s currently far-too-small oeuvre, to work out what it was: the lyrics. They were so simple, direct and naïve, even, but that naivety was the best thing about them. This was pop stripped of pretension, stripped all the way back to its roots: a girl singing songs about boys she had a crush on, about not wanting to be alone, about the brittle happiness of what we think is love, before we learn it isn’t hearts and flowers. It was like reading Frank O’Hara or William Carlos Williams, if either of them had doodled love hearts on top of their “i”s with glitter gel pens.
In my non-Clarissa life as a poet, I’ve been on a bit of a journey of late. My own work has become simpler, more direct, and I’ve realised just how much work is involved in making something which seems simple at first sight, and how I couldn’t make such work without the years spent striving for effects and to impress. As Miles Davis said, it takes a long damn time to start to sound like yourself. Hannah Diamond sounds like no-one else but Hannah Diamond already, and she’s only 25 years old.
It seems weird to me that I keep reaching for these grand old men of rock and poetry and jazz to describe someone who is quintessentially a pop artist, but the fact is Diamond’s work merits this kind of comparison, and if she were a boy singing these observations about life while interfering with an acoustic guitar, she’d be being rammed down our throats as often as those sub-Banksy cartoons of people whose smartphones have been swapped with their heads. But because these lyrics are sung in a vulnerable, hyper-kawaii, unabashedly femme voice, and soundtracked by bleeps instead of strums, their depth goes unremarked. It’s like that Dude Rob Zombie called out for dissing Babymetal: just because something seems cute, that doesn’t mean it isn’t deadly serious. And underneath the Love Hearts and disco skittles, these lyrics are serious indeed.
Take “Hi”, Diamond’s most recent song, and the first to have a professionally made video. Sure, on first listen, it’s easy to dismiss this song as adolescent mooning, but give the lyrics time and attention and they’ll work their way under your skin like a Nick Cave chiller. “Feel like I know you / but is it really the real you / you say you’re as real as it gets / what do you mean?” is a line which says so much, so simply, about growing up in a culture where your first sexual understanding of yourself is mediated through selfies, suspicion, and Snapchat. What makes the object of Diamond’s affection “as real as it gets”? Are they who they claim to be? And if not, what are they? A groomer? An uploader of revenge porn nudes? A bad boy? Or just the kind of dude who likes to quote hardboiled lines because he thinks they make him Eastwood mysterious?
And the chorus!
“I don’t wanna be alone in my bedroom / writing messages / you won’t read […] on the Internet / waiting to say ‘Hi’.”
You want to know the number one reason why I’m sad that Bowie’s dead? Because I wish the man who sang “The Loneliest Guy” and “Bring Me the Disco King” could cover this song. You only need to watch the “Hi” video, or see any of Diamond’s publicity photos (created as a collaboration between the singer and her best friend William E Wright) to realise that you’re looking at an artist with a strong visual as well as musical sensibility – a sensibility rooted in pop, aware of itself as pop, and in genuine dialogue with the pop canon (seriously, since I started listening to Diamond and her PC Music label mates my Discover playlist is suddenly full of fifties girl groups). But also a kind of pop which is aware that, since at least the 1970s, the best kind of pop has been a form of science fiction: longings of the present, visions of tomorrow. Bubblegum Crisis Pop: that’s what we need now, and it’s what we now have in glorious HD. Hannah Diamond is the Future Sound of Everywhere.
AJ McKenna is the author of the poetry pamphlets A Lady of a Certain Rage and names and songs of women, and the album …the gunshots which kill us are silenced. Her poetry film Letter to a Minnesota Prison was screened at the South Bank Centre in 2012, and she performed her spoken word show, Howl of the Bantee, at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. AJ previously served as So So Gay‘s Deputy Editor. She is about to embark on the Apples & Snakes tour, Public Address III, which is being directed by Hanna Silva. She lives in Newcastle with two cats and two lesbians.