2013: The Year Everything Changed, Part 4

2013: The Year Everything Changed, Part 4

This is the fourth installment of a series of essays about how 2013 marked the point in which popular music and the culture around it changed forever. You can read the first three installments here, here, and here. The next installment will come on Tuesday, September 22, and it’ll (tentatively) be about Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories.

At this point, it’s safe to say that Miley Cyrus “got away” with Bangerz in every sense of the phrase. She weathered the public discourse of increased scrutiny that resulted from her shedding of the Hannah Montana image she’d previously cultivated in the Disney-verse, survived any side-eyes her publicized drug use, cultural appropriation, and embrace of full-on raunch might have attracted—and after palling around with the Flaming Lips (as one sometimes does), she more or less returned to a place of musical conservatism with the odd, occasional outlier.

Cyrus came out of a fair amount of public controversy relatively unscathed, but not every pop artist in 2013 would be so lucky. We’ve already discussed the duality of Robin Thicke’s career milestone and career-ending “Blurred Lines,” and up-and-coming pop artists were far from safe when it came to the type of negative headlines that would derail careers for a period of time. Case in point: Los Angeles singer and songwriter Sky Ferreira, whose debut album Night Time, My Time would mark a new era of pop stardom at the same time her own ascent was perpetually thrown into question.

Ferreira was 21 when Night Time, My Time came out, but she’d already been bouncing around the music industry for nearly five years beforehand and brushed elbows with big-ticket fame by way of family acquaintance Michael Jackson, whose personal hairstylist was Ferreira’s grandmother. After uploading songs to MySpace as a teenager and writing letters to production team Bloodshy & Avant (perhaps most famous for their hands in Britney Spears’ “Toxic”), she nabbed a major-label deal with Parlophone in 2009.

After the type of false starts and leaked singles that are often part and parcel of the major-label pop experience, she broke through to the indie sphere in 2012 with the Ghost EP and the classic single “Everything Is Embarrassing,” a co-write with Blood Orange auteur and indie man-of-the-moment Devonté Hynes that perfectly merged the two artists’ aesthetics: lushly produced R&B-pop and an unashamed confessionalism when it comes to the bad feelings of self-hatred that lurk in the recesses of our minds.

Sometimes it takes just one single to un-stick a stuck career, and “Everything Is Embarrassing” indeed took the car that was Ferreira’s career out of park practically overnight. And with good reason: the song still stands as one of her most brilliant works, a certain rawness lurking just under her vocal take and right above the splashy ‘80s-redolent production. After three years of cut budgets and studio sessions left on the table, the stage was finally set for Ferreira to finish and release her debut album.

A year and change later, Night Time, My Time saw release, and even though it wasn’t immediately received as such the album was a landmark when it came to a certain type of pop music. In 2020, Charli XCX is often and rightly seen as the queen of left-field pop music; her debut, the fine synth-pop excursion True Romance, also saw release in 2013, but she was a few years from assuming that mantle regardless.

But if we want to point to the true North when it comes to the rise of alt-pop as one of indie culture’s main fascinations in the second half of the 2010s, all fingers should be directed towards Night Time, My Time. The record’s sound is still unparalleled even as waves of self-styled imitators have attempted to capture Ferreira’s unique, teeth-gnashingly beautiful aesthetic: every synth-pop figure is tempered with fuzzy noise, grungy guitars, walls of echo.

The album’s centerpiece, “Omanko,” took its title from a Japanese word for female sexual organs and was directly inspired by Suicide; the closing title track sounds like being dragged across the floor. Night Time, My Time is ugly music in a certain nocturnal way that the Twin Peaks-referencing title evokes perfectly—it’s about the things in the dark that you can’t always see, as well as a certain mindset that leads one to believe that the darkness can be a home of its own, too.

When considering its gestation, Night Time, My Time is one of the unhappiest-sounding happy accidents of the 2010s: after years of toiling on her debut including sessions with L.A. scion Jon Brion, Ferreira scrapped most of her past work and hunkered down with Ariel Rechtshaid and Justin Raisen, who share co-writes on every single track. As she told me during an interview from that year, most of it was written and recorded just a few months before it came out, the money for studio sessions coming out of Ferreira’s own pocket after the label had more or less cut her off.

In many ways, it’s a miracle that Night Time, My Time exists at all—but the time period surrounding the album’s release was far from providential, as Ferreira would find herself under more scrutiny than ever before. A month before its release, Ferreira was arrested for drug possession and resisting arrest after a routine traffic stop in upstate New York that also resulted in then-boyfriend Zachary Cole Smith of nü-gazers DIIV being arrested for heroin possession.

The album cover—a shot of Ferreira topless in a tiled shower, taken by filmmaker and perpetual provocateur Gaspar Nøe—drew an amount of online-discourse controversy that seemed quaint and silly in retrospect and more so now. As men in media often do, the image was grossly sexualized as much as it was needlessly scrutinized; a full three years after Night Time, My Time’s release, an entire L.A. Weekly column from otherwise failed writer Art Tavana was dedicated to panting over Ferreira’s breasts and perceived sex appeal, which triggered a subsequent apology from the column’s editor Andy Hermann.

The album itself sold modestly, but despite the negative press Ferreira still seemed poised to break through to a more mainstream level in a meaningful way: after Night Time, My Time’s release, she was announced as one of the openers for—wait for it—Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz tour, which kicked off the following year. What could be perceived as the string of bad luck that kicked off with the previous year’s arrest, however, was nowhere close to over: Ferreira made it three dates before an onstage injury took her out of commission, returning after she’d recovered.

Under a certain light, Night Time, My Time stands as a harbinger of what was to come in both pop and indie for the rest of the decade (as well as the beginning of this one). It wasn’t the exact launching pad for Rechtshaid and Raisen, both of which who had also worked on True Romance and the former having a hand in two more classic 2013 albums (Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City and HAIM’s Days Are Gone); but as a whole, 2013 was more or less the beginning of an increased profile for both. Rechtshaid is as in-demand as ever as one of indie and pop’s true behind-the-scenes wizards, while Raisen has continued to work his production magic with left-field artists like Yves Tumor and former Sonic Youth member Kim Gordon.

As for Ferreira: she’s stayed in the periphery of the public eye musically, guesting on records from Ariel Pink, Charli XCX, and SSION. She broke out as an actor, too, with memorable appearances in Baby Driver and, in a prophecy-fulfilling moment of serendipity, Twin Peaks: the Return. But seven years later, the follow-up to Night Time, My Time—bearing the perpetual and, at this point, self-evident title of Masochism—is still nowhere to be found. All signs point to the album languishing in major-label hell, if it’s even in a state near completion; last year’s overtly Lynch-ian single “Downhill Lullaby” did little to whet the appetites of Stans online who have been “Where’s the album?”-ing Ferreira for the last five years.

The internet-native public clamoring for Ferreira’s new album felt different in a way that previous major-label development hell cause célèbres have not. The perpetually cresting anticipation that followed Night Time, My Time arguably presaged the act of Stanning artists regardless of whether or not they’re actually releasing art—and, in the case of struggle-pop artists like Ferreira and Tinashe, often taking up the case for their art being released regardless of an awareness of what’s actually going on behind-the-scenes.

Every time I’ve seen someone Tweet “Where’s the album?” at Frank Ocean or Rihanna, I can’t help but draw the connection between those acts of online badgering and the feverish behavior that online denizens have constantly expressed towards the potential release of Masochism. (We watched this happen with Vroom Vroom-era Charli as well, before she gave the impression of breaking free from label confines with the epochal Pop 2 in 2017.) With the success of Night Time, My Time and the inactivity that followed, Ferreira didn’t exactly invent the act of anticipation—but she absolutely kickstarted the granular level of digital fandom that’s since driven pop music on all levels. It’s a hell of a lot of pressure for any artist to face, and hopefully, someday, she’ll get a chance to reclaim the narrative for herself.

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Jamie Larson