This will not be an interview with Sky Ferreira. Not much of one, anyway. The shapeshifting Los Angeles pop starlet released one of the best songs of 2012 with her melancholy stab at disco-pop, "Everything Is Embarrassing," and now, apparently, she is very busy. She is too busy to be interviewed by phone from London (so we're told by her publicist, with apologies), and also too busy to contribute much more than one-word answers to a list of e-mailed questions. We asked, for instance, about her view on why the slight, noirish "Everything Is Embarrassing" — which debuted on Pitchfork in August and landed on many lists of 2012's best singles — became a sleeper hit. Especially since the 20-year-old Ferreira has been on a major label for five years, without anything else making a similar impact.
Her response? "Because it's simple, clean, and has a nice good hook." Which is true — and totally unsatisfactory. "Everything Is Embarrassing" is a ridiculously good pop song, the kind you can play on repeat for weeks without finding your way out of its insistent, spacious, alluring gloom. With the original clip at just over 1.1 million views on YouTube, it's no "Gangnam Style," but it's a definitely a success: The song has been remixed by numerous other artists, including Twin Shadow and Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and it sparked a mini-reprise of an awkward conversation the music world had last year around Lana Del Rey, pop authenticity, and major labels successfully marketing their artists to people who dislike major labels and being marketed to.
Like Del Rey, Ferreira is something of a pop construction. She was signed to EMI at age 15 and her image has been reconfigured numerous times since then, with a debut album yet to see release. "Everything Is Embarrassing" was written and produced with her pals Devonté Hynes and Ariel Rechtshaid, and marks the arrival of the sometime-Calvin Klein model's pouty Pitchfork phase. (Hynes, who records his own music as Lightspeed Champion and Blood Orange, has co-written a number of indie-leaning big-pop hits, including Solange Knowles' "Losing You.")
Like a lot of successful youth-oriented music these days, "Everything Is Embarrassing" is notably spare. It begins with a simple, distant drum sample that never changes or goes away, and continues with punctuating strikes of piano chords. A slow wash of synthesizer arrives during the chorus, and the bridge teeters across a ripple of slap bass. The core thread is Sky Ferreira's voice, warm and dark and indifferent and hurting — but hurting with ambivalence, hurting like Calvin Klein models always appear hurt, hurting like it's cool.
What's she hurting about? A broken relationship, although on paper some of the lyrics don't make a lot of sense: "Maybe if you let me be your lover/ Maybe if you tried then I would not bother," she sings repeatedly, and it's unclear whether she wanted things to work out. But the hook sort of clarifies: "I've been hating everything/ Everything that could have been," she sings. "Could have been my anything/ Now everything's embarrassing."
It may be the pinnacle of millennial hyper self-consciousness: a post-breakup song lamenting not the loss of the actual relationship, but the embarrassment of having imagined that it would work out. But the strength of "Everything Is Embarrassing" is less the specific sentiment than the way its lyrics and production conspire, forcing you to feel how the song wants you to feel. The verses exist in a vacuum, with Ferreira singing over just a drumbeat and piano. The chorus brings a soothing blanket of synth, suggesting a lover's arms or bed; a longing for comfortable intimacy. And then, for the final refrain, everything but Ferreira's voice and that urgent drum beat fall away, thrusting the listener back out into the chill of the lonely present. The song is propulsive (although not quite danceable); you are ushered along, never allowed to lag or linger. When it's over, hitting play again is all too easy.
"Everything Is Embarrassing" was released along with an EP, Ghost, which contains one other thumping disco-pop song (the also-excellent "Lost in My Bedroom"), two folky numbers, and one loud, grunge-y rocker that was written with Garbage's Shirley Manson. Ghost, in other words, is all over the musical map. With Ferreira's long-overdue full-length debut now promised for this spring, her recent releases offer precious few hints as to the singer's musical direction. After the breakthrough success of "Everything Is Embarrassing," can we expect more of a dark, electronic sound in future releases? Or perhaps more rock? Ferreira will reveal nothing on this point — at least not over e-mail. "I want to keep that a surprise!" is all she writes back.