With “I LUV IT,” Camila Cabello Goes All In on Indie Sleaze

It’s like this: one day you’re futureless in a town whose climate is officially described as “perma-cloud,” then EUREKA, there is neon, 128 kbps MP3 downloads, ecstasy pills, shutter shades, and an American Apparel store only 90 minutes away. And you’re driving to the city anyway to pick up the pills from some guy’s parents’ basement, because tonight there’s a party—Crystal Castles at Sonotheque. You look the part: gold lamé leggings, tank top with arm holes cut to the ribs, bangs secured to your forehead by a strap of glittering string. It’s 2009 and nothing matters but the music, besides of course the line of graphic tees you’re designing in Photoshop, which is lowkey going to be major. Later that night, eyeballs vibrating, you think you see a UFO streak across the sky.

Two years ago it was decided that this kind of person is once again cool, except that’s sort of a lie; for this was never a cool kind of person to be, not even in 2009. But it was a fun kind of person to be — creatively optimistic, if a bit lowbrow, and wonderfully indulgent, borderline degenerate. This stretch of the late 2000s and early 2010s holds a tenuous claim to the last IRL gasp of “alternative culture” before our phones salted that particular earth, but wait—alternative to what, again? The character I’m describing was often preoccupied by ideas of “authenticity,” stemming from a gnawing feeling that perhaps they were not really a bohemian at all. In 2010’s “What Was the Hipster?”, the writer Mark Greif called this character the “rebel consumer.” So savvy were they at deducing “the tiny changes of rapidly cycling consumer distinction” that buying and selling the right products approximated an artistry, a sense of self.

Isn’t it reassuring how even the most garish times return as throwback trends? I have so far enjoyed watching the youth, and those who cling to it, do their various impressions of a Misshapes party during George W.’s second term. Turns out my culture is a costume, and a hideous one at that. But Lord knows we need some fun where we can find it! It’s dreary out there on the charts, where it seems that every song is about either setting boundaries or abusing benzos. And that’s where Camila Cabello—the 27-year old singer whose previous songs I have considered inasmuch as I have been inside an Uber as they played—comes along, to bless us with something vintage and demented.

Inside pop’s PR machine there are two wolves, Victim and Troll. I can respect the Troll; the role requires some finesse. Since the 30-second preview of “I LUV IT”—the lead single from her forthcoming album C, XOXO—dropped in early March, I have witnessed more discourse regarding Camila Cabello than I have in the decade-plus of her career. (That includes the time “Havana” topped the charts in 24 countries.) In the teaser video, the singer dangles herself from the passenger window of a moving car in a manner that suggests she has not seen Hereditary, her hair newly deep-fried platinum with two-inch dark roots. She vibes to the track as it splices her own glitchy voice with a sample from “Lemonade,” the Gucci Mane classic from 2009, either having or valiantly trying to have the craziest night of her life, or possibly auditioning for a role in Spring Breakers 2.

Let’s call “I LUV IT,” which premiered last week in its barely-three-minute entirety, a simulacrum of a cool pop song, brazen enough to dispense with any doubt as to its sources. I can’t see the video’s fluorescent gas stations and candy-painted sunsets without thinking of Harmony Korine (Cabello and Spring Breakers' corrupted co-eds share a fondness for finger-gun violence). The video comes via director Nicolás Méndez and his production company Canada, from whose work with the alt-pop auteur Rosalía you may recognize the motif of the arrow-pierced heart. (Or perhaps from recent images of Lana Del Rey as shot by Nadia Lee Cohen, whose freakshow-glam Americana I’d bet was on Cabello’s moodboard.)

Go deep in Canada’s catalog and you’ll find similar kitsch and chaos in their 2010 video for “Bombay” by El Guincho, recently known for his Grammy-winning productions for Rosalía, who co-produced “I LUV IT” alongside Jasper Harris. (El Guincho’s breakout album, 2008’s Alegranza, stayed in heavy iPod Nano rotation.) “I LUV IT”’s squealing synth loops, like nearing police sirens, pull from the style of EDM-flavored trap popularized by Playboi Carti; it’s the sound of the Spring Breakers soundtrack, thrown in a blender and compressed. Carti's presence here is presumably not thanks to his and Cabello’s fabulous chemistry, but rather as a signpost, a certain foolproof edge.

And then there’s the Charli XCX of it all, a parallel so glaring that Charli got to the joke first, posting an impression of an impression: a video vamping in the car to her song “I Got It,” club pop with a looped three-word hook from 2017. “There are some comments I see that are like, ‘She so wants to be that girl. She will never be that girl.’ And I'm like, I don't want to be that girl. I don't even know what that means,” Cabello insisted in a recent Paper cover. The claim is maybe partly true if you choose to view “I LUV IT” as pure hyperpop parody (which would indeed be brilliant) instead of a botched copy whose lyrics read as if you prompted ChatGPT to write a Charli XCX song: “I’m blacking out, I’m on a spiral!”

To all of which I say, turn up. Don’t let the recent bumper crop of therapy-pop fool you: what we need at this very moment is less half-baked rumination on astrology and self-care and more good old-fashioned fun, no matter how you get there. (In pop stardom, as in life, you are allowed as many cringe and ill-considered reinventions as you please.) The memories “I LUV IT” jogs are of that joyful, tawdry era of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s: the sweaty Hollertronix parties, the chintzy homemade remixes climbing the Hype Machine, the psychedelic hangovers from caffeinated malt beverages. In those days, I will admit that most of what I understood of “authenticity” I had learned on Hipster Runoff, a website that was equal parts satire and manifesto, whose primary concern was the endless culture war between “lamestreamers” and “alts.” (I’m glad to see this battle rage on in “I LUV IT”’s comment sections.) Through a series of consumer gauntlets, the site’s author sought validation for his esoteric tastes, but underneath it all coursed a stream of honest shame: shame at having painstakingly constructed an “alternative” identity that was just as hollow and wildly more cynical than those who enjoyed Coldplay songs and Chili’s happy hour, for thinking his life was more special than others’ for really no reason at all.

It wasn’t an alt-pop It Girl who made the first hyperpop album, but a former high school cheerleader who appeared on MTV’s 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom around the same time as the era I’ve described. Farrah Abraham was a laughingstock when she dropped her only album, 2012’s My Teenage Dream Ended, a fascinating capsule of outsider electronics that’s now considered something of a cult classic. When asked a few years later in an interview with Vice about her “critically acclaimed debut noise album,” she shot down the alt distinction: “My album? I just create therapeutic music.” (“EDM or what is it called, BBM?” she replied when asked what she was listening to.) What I’m trying to say is that you can’t count out the normies. Those MFers are weird.

Originally Appeared on GQ