The leap from Songwriter for Pop Stars to Actual Pop Star is vertiginous and daunting indeed. But “Uh Huh,” an alluringly loony highlight of Julia Michaels’s new Nervous System EP, at least gets her in the air. It’s a celebration of unbridled puppy lust unembarrassed by its buoyant silliness, a carnival of quirk that nonetheless showcases an actual endearing human being, and one more magnetic than at least a few of her way more famous clients.
Michaels, a 23-year-old native Iowan and ascendant superstar-whisperer, gives off a vibe similar to Charli XCX and Kesha and Hey Violet’s Rena Lovelis, all young, gleefully volatile pop singers who radiate a bratty vulnerability. She and reformed glam-rocker Justin Tranter were hailed by The New York Times last year as “the hottest songwriters in pop music,” contributing to righteous and chart-storming jams like Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” Selena Gomez’s “Hands to Myself” and “Good for You,” Gwen Stefani’s “Used to Love You,” and (nobody’s perfect) Ed Sheeran’s “Dive.”
Charli XCX, another behind-the-scenes force now chewing her own scenery, might be the best point of comparison here. (At least one former White House communications director has admired her work.) By now hopefully you’ve made the acquaintance of “Boys,” Charli’s fizzy and forlorn new single, which, like the best songs, you long to hear on Top 40 radio but never will. There are also a bunch of mildly famous hot and not-so-hot dudes in the video, doing various adorable and dudely things.
The low-key video for “Uh Huh” has far less viral potential than “Boys”: it costars a lone unfamous boy, an affable gent with Problem Hair who’s there mostly to gently throw Michaels around and be less gently thrown around in turn. (At one point she leaps into the frame and kisses him with such force that he reacts as though punched.) But in Michaels — whose finest work as a songwriter is currently all over the radio — you immediately sense a kindred spirit to Charli et al, the searing warmth of 1,000 fire emoji.
MIchaels adorably overshares in the brief intro — “My parents got divorced when I was 6” — as the camera takes in her nose ring, her tattoos, her bright smile as she waves red flags like they’re championship banners. “I can be a very jealous person,” she notes. “I’ll get really crazy.” Tattoo-wise, there’s “I love you” on her palm (a message to her, not you), “Speak up” just below her throat, and “I am _______” on her neck. She’ll fill in the blank, not you.
“Uh Huh” is built on a bright acoustic-guitar loop bouncing off a dainty piano melody, the bass and drums just slightly more concussive than you expect. Michaels hiccups and bleats and moans through it with a voice that stretches like taffy, with a breathy musical-theater flair. The bridge is odd and delightful and alarmingly goofy:
The seven-track Nervous System is a humble monument to the panic in her mind, a roller coaster with no brakes or seat belts or bolts. Michaels’s biggest solo hit to date is “Issues,” a slower and more stately parade of those red flags: She gets a ton across, melodically and psychologically, in the mere four words, “I’m jealous / I’m overzealous.” She wrote it figuring she’d pass it along to another Selena or Gwen or Demi or Shakira, but she liked it too much: “It was the first time I had written a song that felt like me.”
The impressive thing about this EP is that every song feels like her. The most direct Julia Michaels antecedent is Sia, who boasts dual citizenship as a pop-star-whisperer and a howling pop star in her own right, but keeps that link explicit: Her last album, 2016’s This Is Acting, was explicitly billed as a collection of tunes other singers rejected. As a consequence, when you encounter even a no. 1 song like “Cheap Thrills,” you don’t hear Sia so much as you hear a version of Rihanna that was not quite good enough for Actual Rihanna.
To that end, it’s hard to imagine anyone else purring her way through, for example, Nervous System’s buzzing and swaggering “Pink.” The challenge of writing a clever and non-gross sex jam literally named “Pink” once befuddled even America’s most sophisticated rock band. But Michaels gives it her all. Here is the actual chorus, whispered a capella:
Too much? It’s too much. But too much is the value proposition here. “I wish I could be that tender, stable girl / That you want,” she says on an earlier track, “but I’m not.” That song is called “Make It Up to You.” At least she’s trying.
Every non-Beyoncé pop star, both reigning and ascendent, dines out on that sentiment: I’m a mess, and you love it. The Julia Michaels version is just slightly more vivid and credible and appealing than you’d expect from a relative unknown. And when you’ve fully absorbed Nervous System, you can go back to her songwriting work and often hear her even more clearly than the more famous person singing.
Another early Michaels/Tranter cowrite was “Love Myself,” a twinkling anthem from True Grit/Pitch Perfect 2 star Hailee Steinfeld that is very explicitly about masturbation. Bizarrely, Steinfield used to deny this (she preferred “empowerment anthem,” at least initially); Michaels, refreshingly, has always been far blunter. Listening to the song now, you get the sense its songwriter still understands it a little better than its singer.
With Selena Gomez, perhaps the biggest beneficiary of Michaels’s work, there’s a stronger and more balanced connection, an awfully endearing mutual-admiration society. But going back now to Gomez’s likewise self-explanatory “Hands to Myself,” easily the best part of that song is the sly, “I mean, I could, but why would I want to?” ad-lib she throws in near the end. This turns out to be a Michaels flourish, and a subtle burst of throwaway ingenuousness right up there with Han Solo responding to I love you with I know. Dream up one moment like that and you’ve got yourself a killer song. Dream up a handful and you’ve got yourself a career, and one that’s distinctly your own.