By Kate Sosin, with reporting by Nico LangÂ
Marianne Williamson has forgotten her phone. Sheâ€™s rifling through her overstuffed purse when Wendy, her staffer, comes marching through the glass doors of the airless conference room at the Luxe Hotel in Beverly Hills, iPhone in hand. A minute later, Williamson again asks where the device is before realizing sheâ€™s now holding it.
Thereâ€™s no spokesperson to keep tabs on Williamsonâ€™s talking points, or her conversation with MTV News. No one is on hand to whisk her to her next appointment. She shares that the first time she met Hillary Clinton, she spilled water on herself. She does it again during our interview.
Williamson, an author and spiritual advisor, knows how her demeanor might come off, and she has a name for it: â€œwoo woo.â€ After her performance in the first Democratic presidential primary debate in June â€” during which she promised she would defeat President Donald Trump with â€œloveâ€ â€” plenty of people took the opportunity to cheerfully lampoon her on Twitter as a dippy, new-age mystic, a sentient Yanni CD for our current political crisis. BuzzFeed editor David Mack joked that she â€œthrew the first crystal at Stonewall,â€ while comedian Guy Branum predicted she would be the â€œonly candidate bold enough to propose a witchcraft-based health care system.â€
Williamson has seen the memes. â€œTheyâ€™re hilarious to me, too,â€ she tells MTV News. â€œIâ€™m laughing as much as anyone else is, and I get it.â€
She chalks her performance up to â€œnervousness,â€ and those nerves seemingly followed her to the second debate. She did not qualify for the third.
Others werenâ€™t laughing. They were worried that Williamsonâ€™s brand of new-age self-help glossed over a far more sinister reality: another untested ego evangelizing â€œchangeâ€ without an actual plan. The leftâ€™s version of Trump.
Because who can forget? The President launched his political career via appearances and commentary on Fox News, and by supporting the â€œbirtherâ€ conspiracy theory that targeted then-President Obama. He had no political experience and was known better as a reality TV star and a businessman of dubious success and morality.
Williamson wants to take on Trump, but not with policy. In a climate where candidates have plans for everything and release detailed policy proposals on Medium, Twitter, and Instagram, she is an outlier, in part because she doesnâ€™t bring many traditional proposals to the table at all â€” something she believes is an asset.
â€œDemocratic politicians have been saying to me for years, â€˜I don’t know why we lost [in 2016], we had them on the issues,â€™â€ she says. â€œAnd I’ve said for years, the part of the brain that decides who to vote for, that rationally analyzes an issue is not necessarily the part of the brain that decides who to vote for. There are clearly psychological and emotional issues involved.â€
While itâ€™s true that plenty of voters might not be as plugged into policies as pundits are, itâ€™s more difficult to quantify why someone votes for a candidate. In an August 2015 Des Moines Register/Bloomberg politics poll, six in 10 likely Republican voters said they would trust a candidate to figure out the answers to a given issue once they took office.
For all the policy pages on her website, Williamson doesnâ€™t offer an actionable blueprint. While she has advocated for a reparations plan that would pay up to $500 billion to Black Americans in an overdue effort to rectify the inequities that began with slavery, she has not detailed how a Williamson administration would fund the plan. And her page on criminal justice lays out the ways that Americaâ€™s legal system fails communities of color, but its solutions are murky at best.
â€œIncarceration is often necessary,â€ she writes. â€œBut that does not mean we need to lose our humanity as a culture, nor do we need to ignore the humanity of incarcerated people.â€ She goes on to say she believes in â€œteaching inmates emotional literacy, communications skills, conflict resolution skills, and job training.â€ Thatâ€™s as deep as she gets into policy, which leaves her standing in stark juxtaposition to the majority of Democratic candidates â€” including frontrunners Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden â€” who have pitched extensive policy proposals over the course of their campaigns.
She put out a policy centered on LGBTQ+ issues months before most of the other Democratic contenders. But when asked by MTV News to be more specific about those platforms, she stumbles to define the Equality Act, which would amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to make it illegal to discriminate against LGBTQ+ people on the basis of sexual or gender identity and which she has vowed to support.
â€œThe employment Equality Act?â€ she asks trepidatiously. â€œThat’s housing, isn’t it?â€
Upon clarification, Williamson states her support for it without offering deeper policy details.
â€œThere should be no area, housing, health, employment where someone’s sexual orientation should limit their abilities,â€ she says. â€œPeriod. End of story.â€
Williamson, who is consistently polling between zero and one percent, according to FiveThirtyEight, believes she has been too readily dismissed because she comes in nontraditional packaging: She hasnâ€™t held political office and has made her living in the vague, lucrative world of commercialized spirituality and self-help.
For now, her primary plan is one of self-preservation: She didnâ€™t qualify for the last three debates and itâ€™s not likely sheâ€™ll make the next one in December, but she says sheâ€™s still in the race.
â€œI’m not a victim and I don’t see myself as a victim,â€ she says of her candidacy. â€œBut there are strains of misogyny that run very deep and many of which are internalized by women.â€
It is for this reason, she believes, that women in particular might not vote for her. At one point, there were five other women in the race with her, more than there ever have been during any presidential primary race in American history. When Annie Leibowitz photographed the female candidates for Vogue, she was not included; she later wrote on Instagram that â€œthe framers of the Constitution did not make Vogue magazine the gatekeepers of Americaâ€™s political process.â€
Williamson pushes back against her branding as a â€œdangerous nut wackoâ€ and a â€œgrifter,â€ and points out that the Constitution stipulates the presidency is open to any natural-born citizen over the age of 35, so long as they have lived in the United States for 14 years. She takes those limited requirements at their word, and she views her outsider status as a selling point, even though she is becoming more and more an outlier by the day. (â€œNo American citizen is a political outsider,â€ she says.)
Yet in the months after the Democratic primary race began in earnest, two female candidates have dropped out. Several billionaires are all but self-funding their own campaigns. The most diverse primary race in history has all but winnowed its candidates of color out â€”Â as of publish time, only white candidates have qualified to take the debate stage this month. As the stakes rise and the primaries near, Williamson is still positioning herself as an option to anyone who might listen.
The name â€œMarianne Williamsonâ€ typically evokes one of three reactions in people: They think her history as a Hollywood-made mystic is dangerous at best and sinister at worst, they would give up their first-born for a Twitter mention from her, or they have never even heard of her.
Williamson was born in Houston in 1952, though the Marianne Williamson we know today was made in Hollywood in 1983. The AIDS crisis was decimating the entertainment industry at the time, and Williamson was preaching out of the Philosophical Research Society, a library in Los Feliz that specializes in obscure works and mystical texts. Medicine was failing to respond to the AIDS epidemic, the government vilified the dead and dying, and major religions shunned gay people seeking comfort.
â€œAnd here was a woman, then a young woman at that time, talking about a god who loves you no matter what and how love works miracles,â€ Williamson reflects, a soft Southern lilt in her voice. â€œSo gay men in Los Angeles, in a very real way, gave me my career because they started flocking.â€
Today, she has 13 books, seven which have landed on the New York Times best seller list. Her most successful book, A Return to Love, extols the virtues of a self-help practice called â€œA Course in Miracles.â€ She has served as the spiritual advisor to Oprah.
But her AIDS advocacy, the work she says gave her a career, has also been central to the undoing of her campaign. She has come under fire for encouraging HIV-positive followers to pray about their ailments as a treatment; according to a 1992 cover story in the Los Angeles Times, she said, â€œThe AIDS virus is not more powerful than God.â€ She also wrote in A Return to Love, â€œSickness is an illusion that does not actually exist. It is part of our world-dream, our self-created nightmare.â€
Williamson argues her beliefs have been mischaracterized. She says if she and her followers prayed for anything in â€™80s and â€™90s, it was for a cure for the virus.
â€œPeople do visualizations that you’re just seeing your cancer cells destroyed,â€ she tells MTV News, referencing the therapeutic practice that has been shown to improve peopleâ€™s mental health in the face of trauma or illness. â€œThis has been around for decades.â€
She takes issue with being labeled as a â€œquack;â€ as she sees it, she advised people to think positively at a time of fear and darkness. Throughout her career, she has taken a metaphysical book called A Course In Miracles and applied it to any number of popular self-help topics, including weight loss, womenâ€™s empowerment, and finance. Much of her rhetoric advises the reader to look inward. Vulnerable people have a tendency to blame themselves for the bad things that happen to them. Plenty of passages Williamson has written throughout the years affirm that impulse.
Mark S. King, a four-time GLAAD award-nominated AIDS writer and activist, knew Williamson during her Hollywood days. He remembers her message offered something that people confronting the virus desperately needed but couldnâ€™t find anywhere else.
â€œI know this sounds easy or quaint or obvious, but to gay men in the mid-â€™80s who were dying in droves and being rejected by everybody â€” their families, their roommates, the guy that cuts their hair, religion, the government â€” we were feeling forsaken,â€ King tells MTV News, adding that motivational authors like Wiliamson and Louise Hay, who famously claimed she had cured herself of cancer, gave King and other gay men hope at a time where there was very little.
Though King says,â€œThey were with us holding our hands as we lay dying,â€ he notes that now, “we have this troubled relationship with Marianne and what she represented. We welcomed it at the time, but we were so injured.â€
Even so, King thinks Williamson has no business running for president. He rolled his eyes watching during the debates and calls Williamson â€œa little out there for a presidential candidate.â€ He says, â€œAnd it’s too bad because I would hate for people’s last impression of Marianne Williamson to be that hippy-dippy presidential candidate that said all those loopy things.â€
This isnâ€™t Williamsonâ€™s first foray into politics: In 2014, she made an unsuccessful run for Congress in California. Five years and several books later, she announced her bid for the Democratic candidacy on January 29 of this year in a 43-minute speech that was later published in full on her YouTube page.
While an appearance in Julyâ€™s second presidential debate gained some ground for her bid, reports surfaced not long after that suggested that she was anti-science, an accusation she vociferously denies. Critics have pointed out the ways in which she or her past teachings have smacked of both fatphobia and ableism, and she also had to deal with major fallout after telling supporters at a New Hampshire event in June that mandatory vaccines were â€œOrwellianâ€ and â€œdraconian.â€ She later apologized. Two months later, CNN unearthed an episode of her radio show from 2012, in which she gave an anti-vaccination activist space to express unfounded and debunked theories, without pushingÂ back on those claims.
She would rather not revisit the topic with MTV News. â€œThe comment about mandatory vaccines being Orwellian and draconian was sloppy, and I said so,â€ she says. â€œVaccines save lives.â€
She meant to say something nuanced, she tries to explain, but there isnâ€™t much room for that when youâ€™re running for president.
Last week, she issued a Facebook post that defended anti-vaccination viewpoints; she later unveiled a promise to create a â€œvaccine safety commission,â€ which by nature undermines the fact that vaccines are already safe.
â€œWilliamson is no longer dog whistling to the anti-vaccine crowd,â€ NBC reporter Brandy Zadrozny contextualized. â€œSheâ€™s officially become their mouthpiece.â€
Like most of her competitors, Williamson has spent months trying to convince people she is uniquely qualified to be the change she believes this country needs. â€œI spent 35 years being very up close and personal with people in times of crisis and seeking to articulate, to discern, and apply principles of transformation that will take us from process to opportunity,â€ she says. Itâ€™s obvious to her why that work would lend itself to the presidency.
It has been less transparent for many other people, plenty of whom may have even forgotten that she is still in the race if only because she hasnâ€™t technically dropped out. Even so, Williamson is still holding on, though her cash on hand seems to be dwindling, and Rolling Stone noted that, in early November, her campaign sent an email advertising something called the Williamson Institute, which they later called a â€œvendor error.â€
HerÂ businessÂ would make her more money than campaigning, or even serving as President, would. (She told Rolling Stone running for office is â€œthe opposite of a lucrative thing to do.â€) By her account, sheâ€™s holding tight to her belief that sheâ€™s meant to shake up the current political systemÂ â€” and the Democratic establishment at large â€” even if it comes at personal cost to her.
â€œNot that they’re not wonderful people, because they are actually,â€ she says of her Democrat competition. â€œBut we need a disruption, a serious power disruption at this point, that will not be achieved only by external change.â€
Williamson is still hoping to appeal to Democrats, sure, but also the American public at large. That is complexified by yet another element of our political sphere: Ours is a country that treats celebrities like royalty. It would be easy for her to wield influence as a spiritual advisor rather than a politician â€”Â perhaps even easier than the months-long slog of running for office.
Dr. Sam Nelson, chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Toledo, points out that there is a long history of celebrities running for office, but usually they were war heroes, like President Dwight Eisenhower. Before Ronald Reagan was president or even governor of California, he was an actor; Arnold Schwarzenegger, Cynthia Nixon, and the wrestler Jesse Ventura have all made forays into politics to varying degrees of success.
â€œTrumpâ€™s win kind made a lot of people think that he can be president, so can I,â€ Nelson tells MTV News, adding, â€œDifferent voters certainly weigh experience more heavily than others.â€ He points to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who has served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, for seven years; comparatively, other candidates have experience at the federal level going back decades.
She attributes the rise of Trump to the idea that he gave people something to believe in, to get excited about. â€œDonald Trump is not just a politician, he’s a phenomenon, and I don’t personally believe an insider political game will defeat him,â€ she says. She believes his campaign wasnâ€™t about the platform he presented â€” indeed, his racist, xenophobic rhetoric and false promises likely mobilized a core strain of supporters more effectively than any policy he ever presented. â€œDemocrat frontrunners arenâ€™t prepared to inspire people in the way Trump inspired his base,â€ she says.
â€œRepublicans have the elitist policies, but sometimes an oddly more egalitarian relationship to its own constituency,â€ she says. â€œThe Democrats have the egalitarian policies, but sometimes almost a more elitist relationship with its own constituency.â€
Early research, however, indicates record-level voter enthusiasm. Both Democratic and Republican-targeting research firms predict unprecedented turnout in 2020, with more diversity among voters than any election in American history. And as enthusiasm for Williamson wanes, her better-polling contenders continue to rise. Sanders drew the largest campaign crowd of any rally on October 19, where Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed his presidential bid. Warren has been labeled the â€œone to beatâ€ by plenty of people, including her opponents, ifÂ their targeting of her at the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate served as any indication. And Biden benefits from outright name recognition and decades of public service, as well as a perceived proximity to his former boss â€” even if he says he asked Barack Obama not to endorse him.
But while Williamsonâ€™s entire career has positioned her name as the brand, she believes that the brand of her candidacy goes beyond that package.
â€œIt’s not about me being the phenomenon,â€ she insists. â€œIt’s, are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready?â€ She is pointing at people in the room who arenâ€™t there, people she imagines joining her movement. â€œAnd I believe we are.â€
This is Williamsonâ€™s bet: that a Trump-weary electorate will embrace a candidate without a road map. So far, they arenâ€™t buying. The current president has veered so erratically from one policy to the next, even releasing hateful and unsubstantiated plans on Twitter before his administration received word, that for many people now, the idea of more uncertainty is just as unpalatable as the current option. Even if you never interrogate Williamsonâ€™s mysticism, the idea of voting by faith alone can be too much of a risk.
Janelle Monáe Leads The Revolution In Stirring ‘Turntables’ Video
YouTube “We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.” That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic…
“We are in the middle of a revolution right? What’s a revolution without a song and a song without a revolution.”
That’s the question the Grammy-winning artist Janelle Monáe posed to Entertainment Weekly when describing her latest single, “Turntables.” The song was released on and flips between cleverly rapped lines about “liberation, elevation, education” and a harmonic refrain with clear gospel influences. It’s Monáe’s take on a contemporary protest song, a call for a political sea change, in the vein of, say, Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” or Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.”
Courtesy of Atlantic RecordsAnd on Tuesday (September), Monáe released a moving music video — or, as she calls it, an emotion picture — that solidified that message. The visual opens and closes with the singer walking along the beach in a beige trench coat and military cap. At times, she can be seen singing into a retro microphone before an American flag; in others, she moves through staged breakfast scenes, with a family reading through newspaper headlines as they mouth her lyrics. The visual flashes through archival and contemporary footage depicting inspirational figures past and present: Where one scene shows the model and activist Jillian Mercado at a photo shoot, another depicts a conversation with lifelong activist Angela Davis.
What rings true without is a hopeful cry for change and for equality, and a recognition of those who have been leading that fight for decades. Monáe wrote “Turntables” for the new Amazon Studios documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, that shines a light on voter suppression, particularly through the lens of Stacey Abrams’s failed bid for the Georgia governorship. “Right now, I am focused on turning the election in our favor,” Monáe told Entertainment Weekly, “and I hope this song can inspire those who are on the ground doing the work.”
Joe Keery’s Reinvention, Mxmtoon’s Carly Rae Jepsen Collab, And More Songs We Love
Getty Images/April Blum The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new? Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by…
Getty Images/April Blum
The search for the ever-elusive “bop” is difficult. Playlists and streaming-service recommendations can only do so much. They often leave a lingering question: Are these songs really good, or are they just new?
Enter Bop Shop, a hand-picked selection of songs from the MTV News team. This weekly collection doesn’t discriminate by genre and can include anything — it’s a snapshot of what’s on our minds and what sounds good. We’ll keep it fresh with the latest music, but expect a few oldies (but goodies) every once in a while, too. Get ready: The Bop Shop is now open for business.
St. Vincent ft. Yoshiki: “New York”
St. Vincent, the intuitive musical goddess that she is, must have sensed our collective need for another quarantine ballad. Enter “New York [Feat. Yoshiki],” a classical arrangement of the standout single from 2017’s Masseduction. An added string section courtesy of Yoshiki, a Japanese multi-instrumentalist, beautifully complements the song’s original piano instrumentals. What more can I say? “New York isn’t New York / Without you, love” just hits different in the middle of a pandemic. —Sam Manzella
Djo: “Keep Your Head Up”
Last year, Joe Keery (of Stranger Things fame) released a glossy solo album under the moniker Djo. It was titled Twenty Twenty, and its sparkling arrangements ended up being quite far removed from the overall vibe of 2020 the year, but who could fault him for his optimism? Keery has also long been a contributing member of Chicago psych band Post Animal, but Djo is simply Joe — and latest “Keep Your Head Up” feels like several Joes ripping open a vortex in the funk-time continuum. This is a groove, peppered with buzzy synths and icy falsetto and an honest-to-god sax part. It’s akin to Todd Terje doing Tame Impala, a lightheaded cocktail rush that feels both clubby and bedroom ambitious. Positively galactic. —Patrick Hosken
Mxmtoon ft. Carly Rae Jepsen: “OK On Your Own”
When Mxmtoon’s Maia said she recorded “OK On Your Own” for the girls and the gays, she wasn’t kidding. The mellow bedroom-pop bop soundtracks a journey of self-reflection after a breakup, complete with the soft ukulele instrumentals that put the 19-year-old singer-songwriter on the map. Is it revelatory? No, but with pop icon Carly Rae Jepsen lending her sugary-sweet vocals to the second verse, it doesn’t have to be. Now I’m just waiting for “Party for Two.” —Sam Manzella
Video Age: “Aerostar”
Pleasure Line, the third album from emerging indie pop quartet Video Age, delivers perfectly escapist ’80s new wave vibes for when you need to get outta 2020 for just a moment. “Aerostar” is its punchy center, a hip-twisting, shoulder-shuffling groove that delivers quirky robot dance commands (“Slide to the left, now! Shimmy to the right!”) over hoppin’ funk synths and a kickin’ drum machine. It all harkens to a simpler time, one where dance floors were actually a real thing. Oh, the ’80s! —Terron Moore
Ruel: “As Long As You Care”
About a year ago, Australian middle-part heartthrob Ruel told MTV News that for him, “songwriting is exaggerating to an extent.” On his latest, the technicolor, soulful “As Long As You Care,” his exaggeration is so seamless, you’d be forgiven for believing the 17-year-old is actually a time traveler. The neo-soul groove he rides propels everything upward, even as the sound cheekily looks backward. “As Long As You Care” has one amazing hook, coupled with sonic candy that makes his upcoming third EP, Bright Lights, Red Eyes (out October 23) one to watch. —Patrick Hosken
Alycia Bella ft. Boogie: “Cue the Sun”
Something magical happens two-and-a-half minutes into “Cue the Sun,” the exploratory new collab between striking R&B voice Alycia Bella and rapper Boogie. After piping in the aural equivalent of stage smoke via jazzy piano and gorgeous vocalizations — “It feel like being lost in the right direction” — Bella’s song enters a more sparkly realm for Boogie’s recitations. By the end, you’re lighter, like your mind’s been cleared of all the cobwebs. Cue the sun. —Patrick Hosken
Carly Rae Jepsen
Michael Love Michael’s XO Is A Service To Their Queer Ancestors
Ross Days It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case…
It can be tempting, as a writer, to compartmentalize, to define by a set of fixed words or parameters. Pinpoint the detail about your subject that most interests you — an unexpected gesture, a prime soundbite pulled from an interview — and flesh it out into a full story. But in the case of the New York-based artist Michael Love Michael, who last month self-released their debut album XO, it’s simply not possible, in part because they do so much.
As the former culture editor at Paper magazine, the 32-year-old “Cancer-Leo cusp,” who grew up between Chicago and Gary, Indiana, crafted celebrated profiles of such disparate musicians as Paramore’s Hayley Williams and cyborg sensation Poppy, while also serving up weekly playlists packed with the best bops from Megan Thee Stallion, Yves Tumor, and beyond. One day, it seemed they were stomping a runway in New York in a leather tank top and a cherry pout for the queer designer Willie Norris; the next, they were escaping to a farm to study permaculture at an undisclosed location “out West.”
XO, by design, rejects easy categorization. The collection, which was produced in under a year in collaboration with Michael’s longtime creative partner Rich Dasilva, fluctuates dramatically between glittering power-pop — as on the synth-heavy “6 Jaguars,” which dissolves at the bridge into a biting rap (“They call me bitch if they don’t like me… Does that tell you who I’m voting for, honey?”) — and lush, emotional ballads. Michael’s voice boasts a similarly wide range, whether as a groaning whisper in a spoken-sung segment closing “The Hatred,” or as a looping, crystalline falsetto as they perform as their own backup singer on “Blueberry.”
Their first comprehensive artistic statement, Michael tells MTV News, was intended to dispel any notion of essentialization, particularly as a Black, nonbinary artist making their mark in the industry (in June, they left Paper, citing its treatment of its Black staffers). “I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way of me saying that I have multitudes,” they say. “I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person. And I’m also fierce.”
Ross DaysMTV News: Did you record XO while you were on the farm, or was that all done before?
Michael: I basically worked on it from April until late July, so there was part of it that was finished here, but most of it was done during quarantine in New York, four or five tracks. I started recording my vocals on my iPhone and my computer, and I’m really happy with how it all turned out, because, at least in my opinion, none of it sounds like it was done at home. It has a uniformity, and it sounds kind of expansive in a lot of ways.
MTV News: I really connected with the song “Blueberry,” and there was this sound on it that reminded me almost of a dulcimer, though I couldn’t quite make it out. Given that much of it was produced at home, was there a lot of live instrumentation on this?
Michael: So there’s acoustic guitar, there’s whistling, there are actual finger snaps, and then the rest is electronic. So then there’s kind of the 808 bass drone and there’s that sound, which is like a fake electronic guitar. But I’m glad you like “Blueberry.” “Blueberry” is very, very sweet and comes from a sad place.
MTV News: Would you tell me about it?
Michael: OK, so “Blueberry” is about an unrequited love. When I was a teenager, I had this really intense crush on this guy who was closeted and involved with this girl as a way to kind of conceal, as we all do when we’re going through that journey. But we always had a connection, and it was very kind of the teenage lust kind of factor. And then, after high school, he went to the Iraq War and died.
There are lines about going off to war but also being brave and being who you are. There’s this line about purple hearts beating wild with red, red blood — the idea of a Purple Heart for bravery, while also referencing the bravery it requires to be out as yourself. There’s also the idea that both of us are sacrificing something, my jealousy and my self-reflection, and the blueberry gates became a place I would go in my mind when I would think of him. I wanted to find a way to talk about having a closeted relationship full of young lust and love, and to speak about what’s involved when two people sacrifice parts of themselves to make things work that can’t work, ultimately.
MTV News: What are some other songs on the album that feel special for you?
Michael: This is almost like my second coming out, as an artist and sharing my music with everybody. Even though I’ve been making music since I was 16, I’ve never actually had the courage until now to release anything. “XO” is my favorite track, because that’s the thesis of the project. It’s about overcoming some of my own personal demons to love myself enough to realize I had something to share and something to say, like a love letter to a damaged former self.
“Mother’s Day” is another one that I really love, because it’s kind of strange and cryptic. This one is more about people’s relationship to all things maternal, how you have to be a reciprocal give-and-take dynamic with whatever those things are, whether that’s the earth, someone you look up to who is a femme person or a mother figure. It has echoes of my own relationship with my mother and my grandmother. There’s a line about planting a garden — “Every Mother’s Day, I plant a garden for you / Every Mother’s Day, I water your flowers that bloom” — and that was something I used to do for my grandmother as a kid.
MTV News: Do you have a good relationship with your mom and your grandmother?
Michael: With my grandmother, yes. With my mother, that’s something that’s very much in process. It’s a tricky song. It’s really complex, obviously. But I love it for that reason, and I love that I feel like I’m learning how to be really good at writing about things that are personal broader and nuanced ways. I can be descriptive and I can also not be descriptive, and all of it’s intentional. It kind of reminds me of a St. Vincent, Brian Eno vibe. It feels kind of stompy, crunchy, stadium rock or something.
MTV News: What made now feel like a good time to release an album and share this project?
Michael: It was something that I didn’t intend to happen. I was happy with just having some demo recordings and maybe an EP released on SoundCloud, and then I had friends who really encouraged me to think bigger. Also, I had my own aspirations that I buried because I was trying to be realistic and I was trying to hold down full-time jobs and I was trying to be sort of a traditional careerist, and it’s just like, no bitch. Don’t dull your own shine, don’t gaslight yourself just because society gaslights you.
And so, that’s what kind of really motivated me to kind of come out with it all, and I just feel really grateful for the ability to have unlocked this avenue of creativity. Even for this to happening, for us to be talking about my album for MTV is fucking cool. Everything is luxury now, I just get so excited about everything else because creativity begets more creativity. So I don’t take any of it for granted, it’s so fucking cool.
MTV News: Yeah, I can really relate with feeling vulnerable in sharing something creative.
Michael: This is an exercise in proving something to myself. I really do believe, if you see something missing and you have the capacity to provide or be that missing link, then do that. If you feel empowered and you feel like you can and you have the resources and the energy, do that. Where queer voices are sort of becoming less and less marginalized, people want to hear what it is we have to say. Remember that there are so many people who fought and died for so much of the freedom that I and many of us take for granted. Part of being a person with a voice and sharing it is also being in service to your ancestors who came before you.
MTV News: In listening to XO as a whole, there are songs that are very soft and almost indie-leaning in a way, and then you also have these songs that are very fierce and very hard. I wondered what your intention was, or were you expressing different sides of yourself?
Michael: Well, I love that you picked up on the contrast, because that was the exact point. I definitely wanted to present duality. It’s an introduction to me as a musician and, hopefully, if there ever were any expectations, it surprises, maybe it shocks. Maybe it’s exactly what people expect — I have no fucking idea. I called it XO because I thought of X-O as sort of an expression of contrast, because it’s like hugs and kisses are sort of opposite things, but then so is the idea of being open and being closed.
I think Black, queer people can sometimes just be lumped together in sort of this really offensive, monolithic way, and it’s just a way saying that I have multitudes. I’m a complex, fully realized human being. So it was important for me to show a hard edge and a softer, gentler side, because at the end of the day, I am a very tender, spiritual, sensitive person, and I’m also fierce. The Cancer-Leo cusp is really that, it’s very that.