Shamir Bailey, a twenty-year-old from Las Vegas, who performs as Shamir, has a high-pitched voice that has been compared to Michael Jackson’s, though the closer comparison might be to that of the jazz singer Jimmy Scott, whose remarkable contralto seemed to float between genders. Shamir’s singing voice is thinner than Scott’s was, but, like Scott, when he sings he sounds both ageless and genderless. Shamir moves freely: his songs draw on the history of dance music, especially disco and house, without being burdened by it. His androgyny, while genuine, feels light in spirit.
Pop performers who look androgynous outnumber the sort who, like Shamir, really sound it. Shamir’s voice also recalls that of Sylvester, the disco vocalist whose 1978 anthem “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” sounds like a kiss-off to anyone who might try to pin him down. In a video for the song, footage of partying clubgoers is intercut with scenes of Sylvester dressed in costumes ranging from a crisp white suit to a sequinned turban and matching gown. Likewise, Shamir, in the clip for “On the Regular,” a single that he released last October, appears in an assortment of outfits: a candy-colored shirt and silver sneakers, a fringed cowboy jacket, a black top that glitters beneath the light of a disco ball. Transformation lies at the heart of pop music’s appeal (David Bowie has understood this better than anybody), and androgyny is a transformation both spectacular and unstable, never settling on one thing or another. The androgynous pop star can become anyone; by extension, so might the listener. “Hi hi howdy howdy hi hi,” Shamir opens “On the Regular.” “While everyone is minus you can call me multiply.”
When Shamir sings his lyrics, his pacing is leisurely, but when he speaks them the tempo increases, and he sounds even younger than he is. “On the Regular” is like a schoolyard chant, delivered over an insistent kick drum and a bouncing cowbell. The song is the first single from Shamir’s fine début album, “Ratchet,” which comes out this month, and the sassiness of its lyrics is an exception on a record that sounds jubilant until you read the liner notes. “We’ve given up on all our dreams,” Shamir sings, in “Make a Scene,” which looks back on adolescent hedonism with a young adult’s newfound weariness. The teen-agers may puke and party, but adulthood, too, is “one big mess.” The track has a rubbery electronic bass line, and a handful of synthesizer notes that squeal like fireworks, but, as throughout “Ratchet,” the arrangement is minimal, using not much more than programmed drums and synthesizers, and leaving plenty of room for Shamir’s voice. Shamir has a diva’s ability to draw you in, but also a diva’s ability to keep you away from him, at a distance that he determines. “Don’t try me, I’m not a free sample,” he warns, in “On the Regular.” “Step to me and you will be handled.”
Shamir was brought up in the suburbs of North Las Vegas, and began playing music as a child. He taught himself guitar holding the instrument upside down, and he still plays that way. He grew up as a fan of country music, and he included a faithful cover of the Canadian singer-songwriter Lindi Ortega’s “Lived and Died Alone” on his first EP, “Northtown,” which was released last June. (He has also recorded a cover of the American country singer Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me.”) The first three tracks on “Northtown” are constructed on the pulsing arrangements of drum machine and keyboard common to house music, but the Ortega cover, along with a ballad called “I’ll Never Be Able to Love,” draws out the basic sadness of the whole recording. “There was no way to move any faster / Because we stay stuck in one place, with nothing to do,” Shamir sings, on “Sometimes a Man,” while a single chord repeats. The video for “Sometimes a Man” tracks Shamir through various Las Vegas landscapes: a casino, a suburban street, a highway leading out across the Mojave Desert. The pull between celebration and isolation in Shamir’s songs seems as much a result of his environment as of his voice: beyond the hectic revelry of the Las Vegas Strip lies the quietness of suburbia and, beyond that, the desert’s unnerving solitude.
During his teens, Shamir and his friend Christina Thompson formed a duo called Anorexia. The two played pop songs loosely, with a punk attitude. In early 2013, Anorexia posted a short video to its Web site, described as a trailer for “the upcoming web series Ratchets.” The shaky footage captures a young group of friends, dancing and goofily mucking around at home. Nothing more came of the Web series, but the word “ratchet,” which is slang for “déclassé,” and refers in particular to women, clearly has resonance for Shamir. Ratchet can be a compliment or an insult. “Feel like I’m right but always wrong,” Shamir sings on “Hot Mess.” “Hot mess” would be another way to describe someone who is “ratchet.”
Shamir’s peculiarity makes his music as vulnerable as it is strong. He has cited the rebel women of pop history—Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, the British punk trio the Slits—as formative influences on his songwriting. (Sylvester wore gardenias in his hair as a tribute to Holiday; Shamir has done the same.) He also names Kurt Cobain and the outsider artist Daniel Johnston (a personal favorite of Cobain’s) as being important to him. These are men who have laid bare their emotions in song; even when their lyrics are cryptic, their unique voices have exposed their feelings. Not that Shamir is particularly interested in perplexing his listeners. “Musically, it’s a party,” he told me of his album. “But, lyrically, it’s like my diary.”
Whatever Shamir does next will probably not sound quite like “Ratchet.” His ease with inhabiting and then discarding musical styles, from punk and country to dance, seems, more than anything, a consequence of his being young at a time when all genres are equally available and equally interesting. He is too young to be truly nostalgic for genres that were past fashionable before he was born, so “Ratchet” uses house and disco conventions as a means rather than an end—musical scaffolding for his own lyrical insights. It seems likely that, when these conventions are no longer useful, he will move on. Meanwhile, together with the producer Nick Sylvester—who co-wrote eight of the songs on “Ratchet,” and who released “Northtown” on his label, Godmode—Shamir has created pop songs that retain something of the make-do spirit of his teen-age experiments with Anorexia. Shamir’s current label, XL, has advertised “Ratchet” with a billboard in Times Square; if that kind of real estate suggests the appearance of an imminent teen idol, then Shamir may be a more idiosyncratic teen idol than most.
In the video for “Call It Off,” a single from “Ratchet,” Shamir transforms from human to Muppet and back again. The effect is sweet and childlike, but it also feels generous, as if we, too, were being offered a space in which to become something, or someone, else. “Call It Off” is a breakup song that dwells on the pleasure of new possibilities—the verses are disdainful and the chorus feels ecstatic. The song layers two jaunty synth lines, one bass and one treble, over a simple four-four beat. “Like I’m the one who needed questioning,” Shamir sings, waving his doubters goodbye.
(Originally appeared here on The New Yorker. Author – Anwen Crawford.)