Halfway through his set last Friday at the Hollywood Palladium British would-be pop superstar Mika unveiled "Touches You," one of the shiniest tracks on his slick new album The Boy Who Knew Too Much. "I wanna be your brother, wanna be your father too," he propositioned the packed dancefloor, "never make you run for cover even if they want us to/ I wanna be your sister, wanna be your mother too/ I wanna be whatever else that touches you."
That, in a nutshell, is one of Mika's biggest problems. He wants to be a huge star really, really badly. He has everything going for him: he's extremely good-looking, has a remarkably cultivated physique and good taste in the 70s and 80s oldies that he relentlessly plunders for his songs, and he unashamedly makes gay pop though he also cultivates a degree of ambiguity for the little girls' sake.
But ultimately Mika doesn't really know what he wants to sell you -- like an expensive prostitute at a five-star hotel, he can be whatever touches you. And he really, really wants to know, as he famously sang in his breakthrough small hit "Grace Kelly," why don't you like him, why don't you like him.
Don't get me wrong, the large audience he drew at the Palladium -- mostly very young (high-school young), mostly girls, but also a number of gay men and boys -- was having a great time dancing, wearing balloon animal headdresses, and singing along to the catchy tunes from "The Boy Who..." and its predecessor, the Perez Hilton-endorsed "Life in Cartoon Motion." Mika thanked them for their support, though he followed the appreciation with a frustrated dig at his US record label (the revived Casablanca Records within the Universal umbrella) for failing to make his career go supernova.
And this is the other big problem with Mika's act: he oscillates between a persona who wants to stay in his bedroom in his underwear dancing to happy pop music on his headphones surrounded by stuffed animals and other trappings of childhood, and a raging Messiah complex where he leads fat girls, outcasts, and other people less good-looking and privileged than him into some kind of vague revolution against "them," the people who want to make his adopted siblings and children "run for cover."
Like in a very gay vaudeville version of "Hamlet," you could actually feel the frustration and neurosis of this unhappy prince through his entire set. From the prologue, where Mika's number one fan Sir Ian McKellen (you old dog!) plays a newscaster on TV announcing a space launch gone wrong (do any of the gold-shoed girlies recognize the actual footage of the Challenger explosion used to represent Mika's tragedy?), to a wink to Ziggy Stardust, to Mika stripping to his undies, the whole show bounced between despair and exhilaration.
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But Mika didn't want to be in the Hollywood Palladium. He knows and is told incessantly that he belongs in the Hollywood Bowl or the Rose Bowl, or any other massive arena with Fergie and Gaga and all the other international brand names. This ambition is not merely the usual pipe dream of everyone you meet in this town. Though sometimes derivative to the point of pointlessness, he does have solid material ("Touches You" is a better George Michael song than anything GM has come up with in years), he can do Queen-meets-the-Bee-Gees-in-the-body-of-a-Dave-LaChapelle-boytoy better than anybody in the business, and his mid-set ballads are no worse than whatever Elton John and Lloyd Webber are feeding Disney these days.
"We are not what you think we are," he mantra-like repeated to himself and the world on Friday, "we are GOLDEN, we are GOLDEN." Nobody's arguing with that. But not many are buying either. And if Mika keeps protesting too much, to use the distant mirror of the 70s he so adores, he might unravel like Jobriath instead of soaring like Elton.