"You know it is a machine. There are the same song writers, the same producers getting the bulk of the work," Niré Alldai says. She's a lifelong L.A. resident and recent Virgin Records signee, and sits across from me in a café in West Hollywood, attempting to explain the inner workings of the pop music industry.
"It's very difficult to take a chance, because if you do and its unsuccessful, you're on the chopping block," she goes on, adding that Alldai isn't her real last name. (She won't disclose it.) Today, her hair is twisted up into an extravagant avalanche, emblazoned with reds and greens and purples. She's rocking sparkling blue eye shadow and jewelry so profuse it seems to be weighing her down. Her outfit is a loud hodgepodge of designer influence and thrift store finds. "I definitely had to turn it up a notch," she says about her sense of style. "With so many people trying to do the same thing, you have to stand out."
Despite her relative obscurity, Alldai has helped craft successful pop songs for almost a decade now as a writer for Dr. Dre, Mary J. Blige, Keri Hilson and others. "I know the rules of pop music," she explains. "There's definitely a formula for what works and what doesn't." Her music seems to be a clear extension of her major label pedigree. It's pop music in its purest, most sugary form: easily digestible, not too heavy and, above all, fun to dance to. She's not trying to make music that takes itself too seriously. "I want people to get it easily," she says. "I don't like to dwell too much on anything worrisome, or negative, or sad."
Unsurprisingly, her debut album, slated for release later this year, is loaded with club-ready tracks focused on dancing and partying. Four-on-the-floor thumps and fluffy synth pads intermingle with auto-tuned vocals on "Inside Out." "Hella Bad," with its white noise swells and hard style bass lines, sounds like it would be right at home on a Dance Dance Revolution machine, and "STFU and Party" -- with its chorus of "Shut up and party, yeah/ We came to party, yeah"-- isn't exactly cerebral.
So she's not doing anything groundbreaking. That's fine, everyone needs some sugar in their musical diet. But one gets the sense she's not making the music she wants to make, and therein lies the tragic part of Niré Alldai's story. She recounts her tumultuous decade in the music industry, years spent shopping her homemade mixtape around town, trying desperately to get writing work from anyone and everyone, trying to score a hit just to get her foot in the door.
She explains how she went from grungy punk chick with rancor and disregard for the establishment, to the first in line to be the next big thing. "Before I started trying to get into the right circles, I was anti-label, I was like 'fuck the label I'll do my own thing,' and I was making this obscure kind of music. I was happy doing that, but..." At this point she stares me dead in the eye with a heartbreaking look of resignation.
"It takes a lot of money, and a lot of time, and it just didn't work out, so I had to take what people already know and already like and find a way to make it my own."
Or course, music, just like copy toner or blue jeans, is a business. A business where no quarter is given, a business where you can lose everything taking a chance on an artist, a business where the bottom line matters. It makes sense, then, that the extravagant clothing, the systematically designed music, the image and the name are all part of the Niré Alldai business model -- part of her elevator pitch. A decade of hung up phones and slammed doors have resulted in a perfected pop machine, who knows the rules, who knows how to work the system.
After all, as she notes: "You can't blame them for the fact that everything sounds the same. Everyone's just trying to feed their kids."