Simulacra of pop stars past walked the red carpet at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, last Monday. The sartorial baby of Liberace and Prince was there, in the form of our laced and glittered folk hero Lil Nas X. Snakes encircled the necks of Tana Mongeau and H.E.R., a stunt borrowed from a Britney Spears V.M.A. performance nearly two decades back. In some kind of homage to this year’s ceremony being held in New Jersey, Joe Jonas donned a Springsteen-style denim vest. Lizzo, in a red Moschino dress emblazoned with the word “SIREN,” brought buxom human dimension to the cartoon character Jessica Rabbit. These clever beings of late-twentieth-century cosplay lured us to a grotto where the only air was pastiche.

Enlivening the zombie feel of the night was Normani, a twenty-three-year-old star on the brink of making something old into something new. As at least one fashion Web site pointed out, Normani’s studded, asymmetrical red-carpet dress recalled the look of Christina Aguilera, one of many pop phenomena that Normani must have absorbed as a young girl growing up in the early two-thousands. It is a convention for new artists to name their inspirations, but with Normani there is special intensity to the activity. In an Instagram Live video last week, she said that she “studied” Britney Spears, who famously integrated the moves of gymnasts into her choreography, in preparation for her V.M.A. performance of her solo début, “Motivation.” During the bridge, her dancers parted and Normani did a handstand, her legs scissored open in the air.

The song’s music video, sunny and romantic, harks back to the zenith of the pop diva. In the opening seconds, a young girl dances in front of a television set, mesmerized by “106 & Park,” BET’s answer to “Total Request Live.” The video was directed by Daniel Russell and Dave Meyers; the latter made his name when music videos were still major events. The mood is laid-back, a casual hang with Normani on the block. But the choreography is jaw-dropping. Normani and her dancers hang off a chain-link fence, twerking. She does a handstand, and twists into a split, on concrete in the rain. When “Motivation” premièred, I saw maybe a thousand tweets thrilling over one well-edited sequence, in which Normani bounces a basketball off her knee, spins, and then bounces it off her butt.

The look of “Motivation”—all airbrushed logos, low-rise jeans, and pierced belly buttons—is straight out of the early two-thousands. In addition to Britney, Jennifer Lopez, Ashanti, and Ciara come to mind. Normani’s way of strutting down the street, as the video opens, recalls Beyoncé’s stride in her solo début, “Crazy in Love,” from 2003. Normani has been outspoken about her reverence for Beyoncé and Destiny’s Child, which has led some critics to deride her as a nostalgia artist. I see her as a revivalist. The elements of flippancy and irony that are popular currency among today’s referential artists are completely absent from her enterprise. In this era of post-post-everything, her sincere devotion to the pop project makes her a gutsy, somewhat daring figure. Ever since Rihanna declared that she wasn’t a role model, the pop-princess title has lost its twinkle. The performance of cynicism sells. Taylor Swift thinks darkly of the princess she once was. Shawn Mendes, more of a Normani peer, croons about feeling like the walls are caving in. Normani is interesting because she forgoes the faux-subversive pose of winking at her own packaging. She sweats showmanship. Entertainment is her world view. She believes. And that’s a risk.

Normani Kordei Hamilton was born in Atlanta and spent her childhood in New Orleans and then Houston, after her family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina. She trained as a gymnast, dancer, and singer, inculcating in her a flashy poise. In 2012, her rendition of “Chain of Fools”—groomed, loyal, and not too showy—won her a spot on the second season of the American version of “The X Factor.” She was let go in the next round, and then brought back to form the group Fifth Harmony, with four of the other competitors: Ally Brooke, Camila Cabello, Dinah Jane, and Lauren Jauregui. Like a good number of engineered music groups, Fifth Harmony never quite coalesced into a unit with persuasive personality. The group’s three albums of R. & B.-adjacent jingles were successful, which is not the same as being impactful.

Fifth Harmony’s long dissolution was hastened by the gossipy departure, in 2016, of the de-facto lead, Cabello, who quickly premièred an inoffensive Latin-pop sound and never looked back. Normani stuck around until she and the other remaining members disbanded last year. In interviews, she’s talked, with wit and grace, about her experience as a dark-skinned black woman in pop. She was the only black member of Fifth Harmony, and the only one who never sang lead; she was a target of online trolls and, in 2016, briefly deactivated her Twitter account to escape them. She’s maneuvered to solo life with head-down determination, appearing on “Dancing with the Stars” in 2017 and finding a mentor-peer in Ariana Grande, for whom she opened on the first leg of Grande’s “Sweetener” tour, earlier this year. (Grande was also a writer on “Motivation.”) I liked a couple of bedroom duets that Normani recorded, “Love Lies,” with Khalid, and “Waves,” with 6lack, which won her a V.M.A. for best R. & B. video, but wasn’t entirely sure of the direction her solo career might take.

A single of emancipation, “Motivation” is elegantly coded in a way that reminds me of Destiny’s Child’s “Survivor.” The chorus, “Imma break you off, let me be your motivation,” is a sort of double entendre, with its veneer of flirtation masking an underlying message about professionalism. “I want to work for my spot. It’s not fair that I’m the next Beyoncé just yet,” she said in an interview with The Fader last summer. “But I hope to become that.” Her valorizing of hard work and long days has won her admirers, perhaps because audiences miss the primitive shiver of watching an artist do something—a scalar run, a back flip on live television—they know they could never do. But is diligence an ideal to chase in our era, when the charisma of the amateur has such a strong hold?

At the V.M.A.s, though, it paid off. Fantasies of competence are often destroyed on the awards-show stage; musical acts comfortable in the Instagram square have a hard time adjusting to the auditorium. Normani, though, was a dance captain in lavender short shorts, hitting each count, not even blinking when an outfit reveal got slightly botched. I liked one formulation that I saw on Twitter, observing that Normani is more of a black Britney Spears than a new Beyoncé. She seems keen on revitalizing a version of pop music that is untroubled by worldly things. To kindle the moment of fleeting magic when the traffic in your brain stops, ceding to big, propulsive horns. It took me a bit to get into “Motivation.” It took me a second to learn to not think.

Sourse: newyorker.com

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