It started on the drive home from a 5-year-old’s birthday party, held at a brewery, which was a first for us, and also frankly delightful. An uneasy aroma of early-evening bounce-house comedown wafted from the back seat, though maybe that was just the McDonald’s. Contentment, fatigue, fries. Alice Merton’s “Funny Business” came on our town’s beloved alt-rock radio station. I didn’t pay it much attention. But in the back seat, it triggered an immediate and lasting obsession in my own 5-year-old son. Which was a first for him, in terms of picking his own music with no parental prodding whatsoever, and remains delightful even now, when at his insistence, we’ve both listened to “Funny Business,” like, 50,000 more times.
Merton is a 25-year-old German-English-Canadian savant who makes the sort of lithe, swaggering, and casually genreless music our modern streaming-service overlords demand, danceable but with just enough of an occasional guitar-driven edge to remind you that guitars still exist. She is an early-21st-century pop star’s idea of a late-20th-century rock star.
“Funny Business” has an infectious bounce to it, what with the shakers, the handclaps, the merry piano-recital melody, and the brazen loopiness of the chorus, which ends with a cascade of ascending pitch-shifted voices chanting Get hung up in it. I just assumed these were all Merton’s vocals run through a computer, whereas the 5-year-old assumed she’d befriended a group of increasingly helium-voiced cartoon characters. Who’s right about that seems beside the point. “You are, but he doesn’t have to know that,” Merton tells me. “You can just tell him there’s just lots of people there who have different-sounding voices.”
I am talking to Merton because my son wanted me to; Merton and I are both wondering what he’d really like to know about her. “I’m trying to think what did inspire me to use so many funny voices,” she says, being an enormously good sport about this. “I like making things just a little bit quirky and a little bit kind of, just, silly almost.”
“Quirky” is often a damning word even among pop enthusiasts, a faintly derisive way of condemning an artist’s unforgivable whimsy and wanton unseriousness. (I myself became a rock critic solely to avenge a positive yet condescending Rolling Stone review of They Might Be Giants’ righteous 1992 album Apollo 18.) But Merton, who has a song about hanging onto childlike delight called “Why So Serious,” is reclaiming the term, or is too busy actually enjoying herself to bother trying: “I find it a compliment if someone says that I’m quirky, or my music’s quirky.”
Mercifully, “Why So Serious” has absolutely no doofy, dark, Jokeresque subtext. It’s a simple question. And in a current pop landscape dominated by relentless glumness—from Drake on down, summer 2018 was prismatically dour, and if the splendid but menacingly somnolent Billie Eilish has her way, summer 2019 will be dourer still—it’s not a bad question, either.
Merton’s breakout 2017 single, “No Roots,” an insidiously chill dance-punk strut celebrating her German-English-Canadian itinerant lifestyle, was a minor alternative hit in the U.S. and a fairly major pop sensation in Europe. Her debut album, Mint, came out in January; it is, thanks to my son, the 2019 record I have listened to the most, by a factor of 10. “Please give your son a big, big, big hug from me,” is how Merton responds to this, warmly and seriously.
Thus far I have been determined not to force “cool” music on my children, so as not to accidentally infect them with overwrought critical wonkiness. (“When I grow up I want to be like you and say whether music is good,” the 5-year-old told me last week, which is at once heartwarming and a phenomenally savage burn.) The various songs and albums they’ve gotten obsessed with so far are fairly organic and commonplace, from the Frozen soundtrack (I still tear up at “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?”) to the Trolls soundtrack (Justin Timberlake and Anna Kendrick’s version of “September” is much worse than Taylor Swift’s) to the star-studded and surprisingly robust Sandra Boynton empire. Please enjoy this absolutely killer Fountains of Wayne song about trucks.
They Might Be Giants are, in fact, the only band I have actively pressed on the kids thus far, a lifelong obsession of mine that practically counts as a tangible family heirloom, though even that binge was first triggered by the 8-year-old hearing Apollo 18’s “The Statue Got Me High” on the radio. (We have had several awkward conversations about the lyrics.) But there’s something comforting and antiquated and preferable to the totally random radio-obsession approach; the kids have no control over what the radio plays, and I have no control over what radio songs the kids fixate on.
Songs the 5-year-old has loved in the past month alone include the Chainsmokers’ “Don’t Let Me Down,” AJR’s “Burn the House Down,” “House of Jealous Lovers,” “U Can’t Touch This,” “Love It If We Made It” (radio edit), Depeche Mode’s “Policy of Truth,” and Candyman’s “Knockin’ Boots.” Most of these, he asks to hear again maybe once or twice. But he always goes back to Mint and “Funny Business,” which Merton played on Jimmy Kimmel Live last week with a postmodern look but a sound that could’ve fit in snugly anywhere within the last 40 years.
For the record, the first song Merton became obsessed with as a 5-year-old herself was “Prime Time,” by the Alan Parsons Project. “It was the only CD we had in the car, and I loved it so much,” she explains. “My dad was a big fan. I didn’t really listen to any pop music, so it was either classical music or the Alan Parsons Project.” The first remotely current-to-her rock band she ever loved was either Green Day or Fall Out Boy; the Killers remain a huge influence on her overall. “I think it’s the lyrics, and the vibe, and the atmosphere that they create with their music,” she explains. “I haven’t experienced that with any other band up till now, where they just create such a crystal-clear picture.” (She remains awestruck to this day by the hi-hat in “Read My Mind” in particular.)
There is an Elle King sort of throwback spunkiness to much of Mint, an omnivorousness that spans from the Franz Ferdinand guitar flamboyance of “Lash Out” to the house-music piano exaltation of “I Don’t Hold a Grudge.” (“A grudge is when you don’t like someone for a long time,” I tell the 5-year-old, who maybe didn’t ask and probably isn’t listening.) But I find that trying to hear it through his ears is far more gratifying than hearing it through mine. He is transfixed in particular by the minor-key crawl of “Speak Your Mind,” which builds to a stormy lite-metal climax and includes the line “There is a silence in the room and it is killing me,” which requires me to constantly assure my son that Merton is not actually dying. “Don’t worry,” she concurs. “It’s just a figure of speech.” He can’t quite get that idea through his head yet. He might be a better pop-music listener if he never does.