Why This 10-Year-Old Pop Album Is Still So Important

Photo: Courtesy of Island Records.
When I look back at the movies, shows, and music I liked in high school, almost all of it is embarrassing now. But if there's one thing from those awkward years that I'm not ashamed of, it's my love for pop singer Mika, whose debut album, Life in Cartoon Motion, was released in 2007. I first discovered Mika when my cousin was driving my sister and me to see Shrek the Third. (Unlike Mika's album, that film has not stood the test of time. Or any test, really.) I thought "Love Today" was out-of-this-world fun, and I immediately bought the CD — yes, it was a physical CD back then. The album topped charts in the U.K., even if Americans hadn't yet caught onto Mika's brilliance.

For someone like me, accustomed to whatever was on the small-town Southern radio at the time, the album was unlike anything I'd ever heard. And while I may not have realized it then, Life in Cartoon Motion would become a lot more than a fun CD to listen to in the car. The messages behind Mika's music helped shape who I'd become as I internalized them during those formative years.

At first, I was drawn to the album because of its upbeat songs. The first single, "Grace Kelly," was so weird that it was impossible to explain to any of my friends, although I definitely tried. I knew pop music as including artists like Gwen Stefani and Avril Lavigne (I know), and this was a different ballgame entirely. The chorus of "Lollipop" was made to sing along to, which is likely part of the reason it was eventually covered in 2015's Pitch Perfect 2.
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Once I convinced friends to give the album a try, they consistently demanded we skip "the slow ones" when listening to it in the car. But the songs that weren't the fun, nonsensical hits were what solidified my love of Mika. I was drawn to the slower-paced "Any Other World" and "Happy Ending," which, going off the lyrics alone, are pretty depressing songs. The one that most affected me, though, was "Billy Brown."

I didn't know anyone who identified as gay until I got to college. At the small-town Catholic homeschool group where I attended high school, there weren't any gay students, or at least none who could come out to their religious parents. The word "gay" was used as a synonym for "bad" to describe inanimate things; it wasn't a tolerant place. Knowing very few people who weren't Christian, straight, cisgender, and white, I had no frame of reference for Billy Brown's character.

The song tells the story of a man who seems to have the perfect nuclear family, with two children and a doting wife. But his life is turned upside down when he realizes he's in love with a man. As ashamed as I am to admit it, feeling empathy for that character was one of my first introductions to inclusivity and acceptance, before meeting people with different backgrounds when I left home for college. "Billy Brown" inspired me to learn more about sexual fluidity, and for that, I'll be forever grateful.
In his own life, Mika was cautious to avoid labels, particularly after the release of his first two albums. In 2009, he told a Dutch magazine, "I consider myself label-less because I could fall in love with anybody — literally — any type, any body. I'm not picky." Then, in 2012, the singer told Instinct magazine, "If you ask me am I gay, I say yeah... it's only through my music that I've found the strength to come to terms with my sexuality beyond the context of just my lyrics. This is my real life."
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As Mika's popularity grew and he released more music, his subsequent albums were a marked change from Life in Cartoon Motion. There's still the positive, cheery sense of whimsy in many of his songs — 2012's "Celebrate," which features Pharrell Williams, is a real banger.
But the not-so-happy tracks became darker, too. "All She Wants," from 2015's No Place In Heaven, seems like the perfect uptempo background music for a party, until you realize it's about a mother who refuses to accept her son's sexuality. Not all of the depressing songs are about identity; there are plenty of heartbreaking tracks about lost and unrequited love that anyone can relate to. As of late, I've found myself frequently turning to No Place in Heaven's "Hurts." It's a moving anti-bullying anthem, but to me, the lyrics also capture the pain of friend breakups.
Over the past decade, it was comforting to come into my own while growing up with new music from an artist I admire so much. His songs tell different stories than my own experiences — and the last thing I want to do is co-opt his narrative — but they really did shape how I see the world. I found a voice that wasn't forced on me by institutions with political agendas that claimed to be motivated by religion. And inspired by Mika, I found joy in other pop artists, like Lady Gaga, who, like me, has struggled to reconcile her religious background with her social beliefs. But most importantly, he taught me to listen — to other people, to their experiences, and, sometimes, to their music.

Life in Cartoon Motion
helped me embrace both being weird and being basic; I'd like to think the album recognized its own camp, which elicited a 1.5-star Pitchfork review in 2007. If there's one overarching theme to Mika's music, it's that life is worth living, no matter who you are — other people's opinions be damned. I appreciated that message 10 years ago, and I appreciate it now. And I hope Mika will keep sharing his experiences, and bringing joy and awareness across the world, for many years to come.

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