On Friday, October 16, Dorian Electra put out one of the most creative, innovative and transformative collections of songs in recent pop music memory. Entitled My Agenda, Electra’s new project — purposefully not referred to as an album — shows off the majesty, glam and over-the-top musicality of the 28-year-old, genderfluid hyperpop icon.
Entirely written and recorded over the past 10 months, the project’s 11 tracks take the listener on a ride through an array of sounds, genres and themes, deconstructing popular music tropes and putting them all back together into a colorful mosaic which manages to be catchy, funny and deeply meaningful all at once. A staple of the hyperpop ethos, the project plays with the fourth wall of the creator/listener relationship, existing inside of the modern music industry while also poking fun at its trivial norms, structures and expectations.
Yet, Electra manages to do this all without alienating their audience. On the contrary, Electra and their brilliant team of collaborators have concocted ways to make music that can be seen by fans and the mainstream alike as equal-parts experimental and commercially-viable (if only Frank Zappa had lived to see the day). And when I say “team of brilliant collaborators,” I really mean it — joining Electra on this record is an impressive list of featured artists including Pussy Riot, Village People, The Garden, 100 gecs’ Dylan Brady, Rebecca Black (yes, THAT Rebecca Black) and more, all crafting the kind of bops that demand you turn the car stereo up.
At the same time, My Agenda is a political work. Tackling themes including toxic masculinity, internet troll culture, the strife of marginalized people, LGBT+ identity, the politicization of athletics and more, Electra’s writing constitutes some of the finest political art of our times. By analyzing these themes through a lens of well-informed critique, Electra is able to present nuanced looks on the realities of our culture while also retaining a sense of genuine fun. For example, the project’s lead single, “Sorry Bro (I Love You),” plays with themes of sexuality and gender in a normalizing way that presents homoeroticism as something safe, cute and fun, as opposed to shameful.
Last month, American Songwriter caught up with Electra to discuss all these things and more. Very forthcoming and genuinely enthusiastic, Electra opened up about how they made My Agenda, diving into the themes the project explores. Electra also spoke with us about their love of collaborative writing, their influences from when they first started making music in high school, their passion for creating new genres (like “monk-step”) and more.
You are on the frontlines, so to speak, of the blossoming hyperpop wave — how do you feel about that?
I’m really excited for all the stuff that’s happening in music right now, especially seeing the barriers between genres continue to dissolve. But, that happens all the time. I feel like pinpointing the moment a genre was developed is more so of a thing that we ascribe to in retrospect. We look back and categorize what artists were in a movement or in a scene or collaborating with one another, but sometimes they didn’t know each other at all, they just happen to be making similar music because they had similar influences growing up or something like that.
One really cool thing I’ve seen recently is music that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Like, music that’s not afraid to play with things that are considered “uncool” or too campy or too ridiculous or too absurd. It honestly comes down to not being afraid to blend all your influences into one sound. You go for what you like, rather than being like “I need to stay in this particular realm of shiny pop music that has electronic production and a simple, classic pop structure.” Whatever! You can also take the ‘classic pop structure’ and explode it with all kinds of unheard-of MIDI instruments or other unexpected combinations.
Especially since things move so quickly in terms of musical trends — thanks to things like SoundCloud — I can be like “oh, I hear this new sound” and a month later I’m like “I’m kinda sick of that vibe, what’s next?” It’s about trying to do something that is fun and fresh-feeling, not so avant-garde that it alienates people and is also not too traditional so it doesn’t not challenge anyone.
Tell us about My Agenda — how did you make this release? Why did you decide to label it as a “project” as opposed to an album?
All of these songs have been made in 2020, actually. They were all pretty much written in two writing camps that I had — one in Las Vegas in January and one at this weird castle in England in February. I had two groups of producers and we would work for like a week. I had been building up some song concepts for a while — I usually start with a song title, or a concept, or a music video, or just an aesthetic, honestly. I came in with a notebook full of those ideas and we just made a bunch of music. Of the tracks on My Agenda, most of them were made at those camps, one was made in L.A. with some other producers and a few were done remotely. The remote thing is something I rarely do — I usually like to be in the room working with the producer — but, because of COVID and everything, I’ve had to adapt and set up a home studio to record vocals and stuff like that.
I did my debut album, Flamboyant, last July and that was my first big musical statement. It was like “this is who I am as an artist: I am Dorian Electra, here’s my vibe.” This time, I wanted to do something that felt a little more experimental, at least for me. I didn’t want to put any pressure on “well, this is album no. 2, I gotta make a huge follow-up statement.” I think that a lot of artists do that — call something a mixtape or an EP or a project. That helps the artist, psychologically. It offers a different perspective to think about things. I mean, what is an album nowadays? An album used to be whatever you could fit on a 12” record, but now you can release music in any form you want. We’re so caught up in these constructs that determine what a body of work is or how we should compartmentalize music. For me, I was really excited to make something that wasn’t an album but had a similar length and was super collaborative. That was my goal. That’s also why I have so many features on it — I really wanted to work with artists I admire.
I also wanted to get in the habit of putting things out quickly. We made this music six months ago and it’s coming out now — I love that. Other artists might feel differently and hold onto something for a long time before it feels like the right moment to release it. For me, I like to get it out there and see the response. I love the back-and-forth with an audience, I love seeing what resonates with people. I can use that knowledge to grow and get ready for the next thing.
My Agenda has an impressive guest list of features, including Pussy Riot, Village People, Rebecca Black and more — how did you go about collaborating with so many iconic artists?
Yeah, it was pretty crazy. For my Vegas writing camp, I had five producers and three different rooms set up. I have ADHD and as much of a hindrance as that can be, I also feel like there’s this advantage where I can think about five things at once. So, it’s good for me to be able to jump from one room to the next, especially when I’m feeling stuck on something. I can leave it and come back to it, having another songwriter fill in the gaps or the rhymes. I don’t actually work with that many other songwriters, though. It’s mostly just Mood Killer — who’s basically my best friend — and Weston Allen — who’s my other best friend. Those were the only two songwriters I had that were strictly for songwriting, as opposed to production.
For me, I know the vibe and sound that I want. I don’t always know that right at the beginning of the process — there is a process of discovery. Through making the tracks and editing away at the other ones, I kinda form the narrative of what I want. My brain is well-suited for that kind of chaos and balancing it with all of the features and producers.
I also love the idea of bringing people from all different genres. I had this one hardcore producer, Lil Texas, who’s on it. There’s also Faris Badwan from The Horrors, which is more so psychedelic, garage, shoe-gazey stuff. There’s also Gaylord, who’s this amazing anti-fascist, non-binary, queer black-metal artist. That’s really cool because the history of that genre has a lot of white supremacy and other bizarre elements that not everyone in the black metal world is down with. Still, there are very few artists where their whole project is about being anti-fascist, anti-racist, pro-queer and all of that stuff. So, they’re an amazing artist and getting to collaborate with them was really cool.
And then, obviously, Rebecca Black. I’m so, so excited for this collaboration with her. I had this idea for a song called “Edgelord,” which fits the medieval vibes — you know, like “lords” and stuff — but also fits into today’s narrative with internet culture and trolls. It’s political, even, taking a look at the role that internet trolls and these other dark spaces online have taken in things like the election of Trump and the cultural climate that we’re in currently.
That’s something that I really wanted to tackle with a lot of the songs on this project — a lot of them are very political and I spend a lot of time formulating the concepts and themes behind them. At the same time, I also wanted to just make music that can be enjoyed. It’s nice to be able to operate on several different levels.
You really have a phenomenal ability to balance political themes with music that is truly fun and catchy.
It’s interesting. I sometimes feel like I spend more time thinking about the music than actually making the music. Especially compared to a lot of my friends and collaborators, who are just constantly making music. For me, it’s almost equal parts music, concept and visual component. They’re so deeply intertwined that I couldn’t have one without the others.
I think that comes from the fact that one of my biggest coping mechanisms is humor. Humor can really be important and effective in tackling a lot of issues. I mean, that’s why you see so many memes about depression or other horrible things that are going on in peoples’ lives and the world. It’s a way for us to understand things, confront things and deal with things that isn’t so painful and torturous.
Humor is a really powerful tool of critique. Being able to criticize and poke fun at something is really important politically. It goes back to the legacy of satire, like early Voltaire or Monty Python and stuff. I love that Monty Python was able to make fun of the BBC while also being a government-sponsored program that was played on the BBC. Things like that are all big inspirations for me. It makes things easier to cope with.
I think an example of that on My Agenda could be “F the World.” That was the hardest song to make for this project, by far. On one hand, it’s about violence and suicide and mental health issues. On the other hand, it’s not unlistenable or super depressing… I hope. I’m trying to make something that people would just dance around and go crazy to if there were live shows still going on. It’s so amazing to be able to let loose and feel that musical catharsis.
On a similar note, your music skillfully addresses LGBT+ identity. A lot of LGBT+ art focuses on the struggles faced by the community — as important and necessary as that is, it’s also important to have spaces that embrace the joy of the community. What can you tell me about your thoughts on this?
Well, I’m definitely incredibly privileged. I grew up in a super supportive household with super supportive parents. I went to a school that didn’t emphasize gender differences. My mom identifies as queer. All those things I had growing up are rare and many people don’t have that. I recognize that. For many people, it is hard to be queer. It’s hard to get access to basic healthcare. Trans women of color are still being murdered and brutalized. There are so many things happening — even police violence — and it’s all really heavy and serious. So, I also want to make it part of my mission as an artist to bring light to those issues and lift up those artists who are very often marginalized.
That being said, I also want to share the experiences that are true to me and my life. Hopefully, somebody can relate to those experiences and get something good or affirming out of them. In that regard, it’s easy to sometimes forget how my music addresses that. For example, in “Sorry Bro (I Love You)” I’m referring to myself as a ‘bro guy’ and there’s that switch-up. I’m so used to it at this point that my collaborators and I aren’t phased by it anymore.
But, I definitely remember feeling alienated by a lot of music — especially music by cis female artists that was always about being in love with some guy or something like that. Of course, those elements are present in a lot of music. The way that sex is talked about, the way male-identifying artists talk about women, all of that. I always felt like those things were alienating. Err, if not alienating, then boring.
It feels like everyone was just playing into those tropes because they felt like they needed to make the most relatable content. When I did “Career Boy,” I didn’t know if anyone was going to relate to it, but I just had to do it. I was like “it’s in me and I really need to put it out there.” Seeing the amazing, overwhelmingly positive response to that was very affirming for me. It was validating for me. There were a lot of AFAB folks, masc folks and trans guys who were like “I really identify with this.” Or, there were other queer people who didn’t necessarily fit into the normal gay-straight, gender spectrums who said things like “this is amazing. I’m a queer person who works 9-to-5, this song keeps me going.” I never anticipated any of those responses. Seeing how my music could be validating to others was validating to me, as an artist and as a person. I was like “okay, cool, people are understanding that I’m not just putting on some costume and doing this funny little joke.” People genuinely get all the different levels of it — even the ones about identity and politics that are a bit harder to put into words.
I also don’t want to think of my music as exclusively queer. My goal is that ideas of queerness and whatnot just become part of the mainstream. Gender roles should continue to become more flexible, people should feel less anxiety and pressure to conform to things sexually. Those harmful inhibitions are perpetuated by our culture, our media and even ourselves, unconsciously. I want to make “music for everybody,” but I want to challenge what “music for everybody” looks like.
It’s amazing how you’re able to do that without necessarily diluting or straightwashing queer culture.
I feel there should be a place for any queer artist to share whatever they want to share. If there’s a queer artist that wants to fit into the idea of what a traditional mainstream pop star looks like, sounds like and acts like with the exception that they’re queer — that’s super necessary. We need people in all places to be normalizing queerness and everything that means.
While on the topic, when lifting up marginalized artists and voices, it’s also important we don’t just look at gender identity and sexual orientation. We have to consider the other ways that people are marginalized, like race or socioeconomic class. We have to be intersectional about it and look at: who else’s voices need to be heard? Who does the industry need to be benefiting or supporting? To me, it’s important to always look at that.
Your arrangements are so intricate and eclectic — when you’re working on a song, where do you start? What does the ‘Dorian Electra’ process look like?
Let’s take for example “Ram It Down.” Initially, I thought of the name, “Ram It Down.” Then, I thought it would be really cool if I had a song with some hard rock and metal influences, but then went into something epic, something along the lines of hardstyle and hardcore with electronic influences. So, I’d pitch that and say “okay, what can we do with that?” From there, producers will come in with ideas, like “okay, well what if we took it into a direction like this.”
It’s like that. For the majority of my songs, I usually come to the table with two or three genres we could combine. Dylan Brady and I work really well together when I do that. Like “Monk Mode,” for example. I said to him “okay, bro, it’s like ‘Monk Mode’ is this genre that doesn’t exist that’s Gregorian monk chant music plus dubstep.” Then, he whipped it out in like two minutes and it was basically done. We called it “monk-step.”
I love thinking about music in those terms — “oh, this would be funny” or “oh, that would be really entertaining.” But, there are other songs that we kinda stumbled upon. “Give Great Thanks,” for example, was something that Socialchair put together after they said “c’mon, Dorian, you definitely need one cheesy ballad on this project.” He recommended that we combine a cheesy, ‘80s love-song vibe with some dark and twisted, dirty sentiments. It’s something that’s endearing but also disturbing. Leading up to that session, we had been talking about BDSM and other complicated political issues. That was really one where it came together super collaboratively — he had a concept for it and I just filled in the lyrics based on our conversations.
“M’Lady,” however, is an example of one that was a clear concept from the beginning. I came in already knowing that I wanted it to have harpsichord and guitar. We tried out a different version of it, but we weren’t feeling it. So, we went to the next writing camp and totally redid it, making a whole new version that wasn’t related at all to original. That ended up being the song that we put on the project.
“Gentleman” is proof of how collaborative this project was because I could have never predicted it. I suggested we did something with more of a pop vibe and Dylan pulled up Jason Derulo’s “Wiggle.” Then, Count Baldor comes in with the MIDI saxophone. We were all like “woah!” and cracked up laughing. It was the stupidest sound I had ever heard in my life, which is why I knew it had to go onto the track. So, yeah, it’s a super collaborative thing. I’m so lucky to be able to work with so many musicians and artists who are multifaceted and talented.
Between Instagram filters, TikTok dances and an overall prolific presence on social media platforms, you are also an artist who can almost be seen as the embodiment of the increasingly-blurry line between music-maker and content-creator. What can you tell me about that element of your artistry and work?
Our concept of what a “musician” is is very old… think about how old that role is as opposed to something like “filmmaker,” which is a much newer thing. “Content-creator” is even newer than that. So, it’s amazing how truly ancient the idea of a musician is. Some people really do only identify as strictly a musician and it’s about the sounds, tunes and melodies that they’re creating. For me, however, as soon as you add photography or a live element, it’s about the entertainment aspect — the visuals become more important. Now, there’s photography and film and the internet and all of these different platforms and mediums. I think to see yourself as only one of those avenues is totally cool, but as musicians, all of those avenues are available to us. That’s what I love about being a musician.
I actually started out making music videos. I was mostly interested in film and the videos were the aspect I wanted to get involved in. I was into all of that before I was into making music. Today, I still see music as the perfect vehicle to exercise that passion. That’s not to say I only care about the videos, it’s actually to say that I love it when all of those elements combine into one piece of art. Growing up, I watched YouTube videos and I wanted to make YouTube videos. Having all of those influences from that exposure to multi-media art is ingrained in my brain.
Who would you list are your biggest influences?
Honestly, the group that influenced me to make music was The Horrors. I was super into the hardocre energy they had. Their shows were unlike anything I had ever experienced, they were so electric — people were going crazy, moshing, jumping on stage and stuff. There was a lot of punk energy, but their fashion was, like, Victorian-mod-goth-punk. It was super extreme, which I think was one thing that people caught onto quickly. They were a band with a look and a vibe. I was also into the groups that they were influenced by, like all the ‘60s psychedelic music and girl-groups and Phil Spector and all of that stuff. I’ve been a fan of that stuff since I was a little kid, but getting into The Horrors really reignited interest in it all for me.
Their music videos were super cool too — I used to make fan videos of their songs. That’s when I started to learn how to play the keyboard. That’s also when I started making my first songs on GarageBand, by myself in my room in high school. The Horrors were on Myspace, so I uploaded my music to Myspace and I made all of these friends on the internet who were also fans of the band. So, there was a community of fandom there too. It makes me really happy to see my fans today having something like that. The word “stan” was not used back then the way it is now, but I was a huge stan and I was a part of a community of fellow stans. So, I feel like I relate to my fans now. I also know how important it can be to have artists to look up to, for younger fans.
Also, I’ve always loved Alice Cooper. I just love stuff that’s performative and over-the-top. It also had that dark energy but didn’t take itself too seriously. I was also into Ed Banger, Justice and that whole scene, in terms of electronic music. I was also a big Daft Punk fan… that’s actually what got my love for electronic music started. I loved how they sampled a lot of ‘70s and ‘80s stuff while also giving it a fresh spin with a hardcore vibe and eletronic sounds all while still retaining a pop element. I was also a big Dan Deacon fan back in the day. His shows were really inspirational to me, especially the fan participation. As a little kid I was a big Beatles fan. I loved their movies too. I loved that their artistry extended way beyond just the music, they kinda became characters. That definitely stuck with me. I also liked Stones Throw Records, like Quasimoto, MF Doom and Madlib. I liked the weird, pitched vocals and the samples. I also love J Dilla. It’s crazy that I’ve never mentioned these influences before… I feel like I usually focus on the rock ones. But, yeah, Donuts is one of the best albums ever made. I was also a big Crystal Castles fan.
Oh, and I had a Janelle Monáe moment right after high school — I still love her, but that’s when my love began. It was huge, actually. I was always into wearing suits and stuff, but seeing her wear that suit in the “Tightrope” music video in 2010 was really big for me. Then, I got to see her open for of Montreal (another big influence) when I was in college and that was really cool.
Read American Songwriter’s review of My Agenda here. Watch the music video for “Gentleman” by Dorian Electra below: