For our next instalment in our ongoing series, Lucy Fitzgerald celebrates MIKA’s infectiously upbeat debut album Life in Cartoon Motion. While snubbed by music critics, Lucy maintains MIKA’s debut contains a pop optimism and male flamboyance which is yet to be matched by today’s top music figures (with the exception of Jojo Siwa).
Life in Cartoon Motion was the 2007 debut album from Michael Holbrook Penniman Jr. aka MIKA. It was the ultimate soundtrack to my family road trips at age seven. The riotous jollity of the 10-track project united us all: my mum who favoured blue-eyed soul singer Robert Palmer, my dad who vibed solely with folk legend John Prine, my eldest brother who was deep in his Linkin Park phase and my other brother who was content supporting the shameful late 00s period which grime veterans wish they could forget (think Wiley’s Wearing My Rolex). The extent of my musical engagement at this formative time in my life was simultaneous mastery of both parts in legendary breakup ballad Gotta Go My Own Way. In summation, Life in Cartoon Motion was a source of unfiltered merriment that no one could resist, from the world-building ad libs at the start of Grace Kelly to the obscure, wandering monologue of a mature woman at the end of the tranquilising Relax, Take It Easy. I mean, MIKA had the No.1 spot on Now That’s What I Call Music 66, for God’s sake!
Life in Cartoon Motion received a single star review from the Guardian and a 1.5 rating from Pitchfork – criminal! Both publications dismissed the body of work for its over-production and heavy reliance on children’s choirs, portraying the then 23-year-old as a wannabe Queen leading man, with Pitchfork stating: “This chart-topping UK pop debut seems the smug product of Broadway auditions, karaoke sessions and Robbie Williams.” However, I firmly align myself with the viewpoint of Lizzie Ennever, who, at the time of release, wrote in a BBC Music review: “Despite the endless comparisons with the likes of Freddie Mercury and the Scissor Sisters due to his falsetto moments (and there are quite a few of them here), what becomes apparent when listening to Life In Cartoon Motion, is that MIKA is very much his own person. Yes – the influences are clearly there, but there isn’t a hint of an adopted sound or a stolen style anywhere – MIKA is MIKA, and that’s all there is to it.”
Crucially, I never read too far into the meaning of the songs, as I just wanted to come along for the wild ride on this sonic carousel. I am ever so glad that the Genius Behind the Lyrics YouTube videos that accompany most new singles released today, did not exist in 2007, as no one wants to see a man squirm in an attempt to justify the good intentions behind, “You take your girl and multiply her by four. Now a whole lotta woman needs a whole lot more.” Moreover, in my adolescence I maintained a committed relationship with Life in Cartoon Motion, although I vividly recall my fatphobic, middle-aged PE teacher’s tone-deaf selection of the euphoric Big Girls You Are Beautiful as a condescending warm-up song in a core PE class filled with self-conscious 14 year olds in various shapes and sizes.
The reason Life in Cartoon Motion has endured into my adulthood is because I have not encountered anything comparable to its ecstatic dance-inducing, radio-bait simplicity since its release – plus, it reminds me of a more insouciant time. In our current pop landscape, we are starved of such male flamboyance. Beyond the sparkling gaiety of genre-bending Joe McElderry, I can think of no artist who performs with MIKA’s level of gleeful abandon.
Harry Styles, although many-hued in sartorial choices, is not so psychedelic in his sound. Troye Sivan adopts a more melancholy tone, one that seems to come naturally to the nihilistic insta-generation. YUNGBLUD is an androgynous icon but resides in the more pop-punk side of the industry. Nowadays, you need to be the executive music producer on a children’s animation movie to create a tune that is purely high-spirited jubilation – see Pharrell Williams’ Happy (Despicable Me) and Justin Timberlake’s Can’t Stop The Feeling (Trolls). I fear the only person who can carry MIKA’s baton of riotous jollity is Jojo Siwa, who will not let her dying scalp hinder her unrelenting energy.