Get What You Want - JJAMZ

They were basically best friends, Z explained, they used to go out all the time, singing karaoke and drinking their way through LA’s bars. “And one time we were out, and we were at a bar with karaoke, and the line was too long for us to sing, and no girls were talking to us.” So they went home, wrote a song, and made a band.

JJAMZ is the initials of the people who make it up: James Valentine, from Maroon 5, Jason Boesel, from Rilo Kiley & Conor Oberst’s backing bands, Alex Greenwald, from Phantom Planet, Michael Runion, a solo artist, and Z. The origin story is, all on its own, pretty sexy in the imagery it conjures up: the gang of lads, prowling around the bars, trying to sing, annoyed that “there were no skirts to chase”, and Z the bad boy in the centre. It’s an image she quietly lines up for herself when it comes to JJAMZ - gone is the furious wronged woman of Release Me, and in her place Z has deep red lipstick, a longer, sea-tousled hairstyle, and an unapologetically sexual (and possessive) approach.

JJAMZ has a sexy vibe, not a sleazy one, but Z alone in the band sometimes walks the line. JJAMZ itself is, she says repeatedly, the mistress, versus the committed relationships they were all in with the rest of their bands. And “you always like your mistress more than you like your wife,” Z says, smiling. “She’ll do everything that your wife won’t do.”

It’s interesting that it’s playing in a band of boys that Z seems more determined to become some sort of romantic hero. Not in the sense of being nice, but rather being the sexual and subversive centre of the group, the one who has the banter with the audience, the one who becomes the focal point of interviews and performances alike. In JJAMZ, Z uses sex appeal in a way that is similar to male performers like Mick Jagger or even David Bowie, where the allure lies not so much in what you can do to them, but what they’re going to do to you. It’s an aggressive, demanding sort of flirtation that is very obviously about being the centre of attention in a room, and Z forms very clear targets.

Not just in the “Never Enough” video, not only in the stories of chasing skirts or the deliberate inclusion of herself amongst her (presumably) heterosexual male bandmates, not just in the sexual language in which Z talks about JJAMZ. There’s an aspect of queerness in the way Z operates within JJAMZ that wasn’t so present within The Like, a new element that is  there in several small aspects: the way she focuses more on her own drinking, her own ‘laddish’ behaviour, the slow increase of profanity she uses (from professing that cunt is her favourite swear word to the delighted declaration that behind their bands backs, JJAMZ are all just “fucking the shit out of the mistress”), and particularly her stage persona.

And, notably, most of this energy, whether it be flirtatious or furiously pissed off, is focused on girls: “I’m glad it’s all girls in the front row, since I know you can probably see up my skirt,” she announces at one show; at another, when an idiot was tweeting about Z’s skirts being too short and how maybe there was a “guess what colour” contest for her underwear, Z snapped back, “they’re black”. In another interview, she demands, “When are people going to start throwing roses and panties, is my question? … I want people to throw them at us so badly… and bras." It’s not enough to have fans - Z seems to want the devoted, obsessed, and implicitly female attention that male rockstars in their peak get.

It’s a pretty clear move that Z makes; having firmly centred the spotlight on herself in the days of The Like, she is now able to shift within it and take on the attitudes of male sexual aggression that make up an implicit part of the frontman’s appeal.

Importantly, though, Z does it without once rescinding her femininity. She is often heard to boast that she doesn’t even own a pair of pants, and she openly obsesses over mini-dresses and heels. She doesn’t ever fall into the ‘one of the boys’ trap, and is openly dismissive and disdainful of men rather than trying to join the team: “The big differences [to The Like] are that guys really just talk about balls all day. All day. I had no idea.”

There’s obviously a lot more to JJAMZ and to Z’s presence within it beside this shift, and certainly you could argue that I’m deliberately seeing my own narrative here (in which case, yeah, maybe, but I think the signs are there and the clues Z leaves are what I find so fascinating about her as an artist). It’s a newly collaborative project for her, with interesting insights into her artistic approach; it also signals a new aesthetic not just fashion-wise, but with a definite change in location. The Like, while made up of Californian girls and based in LA, was centred more in a time than a place, but JJAMZ is in love in and with LA. The video for “Never Enough” is “LA as fuck”, and though Z has never been shy about her love for the city she grew up in, JJAMZ gives her a vehicle for showcasing and publicly adoring her city in a way that is compelling and richly detailed.

But this is what I want to focus on, as we start to think about JJAMZ: Z putting her guitar away, for now, taking up the microphone to prowl around on stage, saunter her way up to her bandmates, and then grin down at the crowd, holding them in the palm of her hand. Speculating, interested. Smiling.

Never Enough - JJAMZ

“‘Never Enough’ is a song about friendship [and] sisterhood,” Michael Runion said, when Rolling Stone premiered this music video.

Uh, yeah, okay.

I think the music video for “Never Enough” is a story that every queer girl recognises. It’s played out beautifully and tragically, an entire relationship in the space of a day, and it fits the song perfectly - not just because both tell essentially the same story, but because that early warning of “I thought I could keep up/you proved to be too much” means that even before the terrible happens, you know it’s going to happen. The music video casts itself as nostalgic before the downfall - there’s no visual cue that it’s a flashback, a history of a day or relationship that can never be returned to again, but it’s too perfect, too rosy, and that chorus is a promise that everything is going to fall apart.

The video isn’t explicitly about a lesbian relationship, but it is, definitely, about a love story between two girls. Z teams up with Brie Larson (yep, that Brie Larson) and the two wake up in bed together, cook together, take a bath together, and then embark on a series of dates - to the beach, to the hills, to a pool, to a party. They giggle besotted at each other, they chase after each other, they write Z + B in the sand. 

It would be a mistake to think of the love story as teenage in the way that other music videos are clearly cast (see: Katy Perry, Taylor Swift, One Direction). These are the days you remember as a queer girl in your early 20s: when things somehow align, when the stars are in the right position and there are long, aimless days filled with nothing, or absurd adventures, and another girl by your side. Maybe she’s your girlfriend, maybe you’re sleeping with her and don’t know what it means, maybe she’s just your best friend and no one has ever, ever loved their best friend like you do right now. “Never Enough” is not about an easy relationship to understand: it’s about being young but feeling like you should have things figured out, that you should be an adult by now. It’s not a song about teenage infatuation - it’s about the first adult love, the first time you realise that being a grown up doesn’t mean you’re out of reach of that all-consuming, powerful feeling, like your universe has quietly realigned itself around someone new. Z herself describes it as that “honeymoon excitement”. You don’t know why you love them so much, and you’re confused as how to express it, but god, you do, you do, you do.

And, inevitably, it falls apart, cannot remain that untouched whole love, no matter how many times Z comes back again. At the party, Z kisses a boy, rides away on his motorbike, while Brie sits in miserable dark corners, goes home drunk and tearful, sits eating a slice of pizza on the pavement while people step over her. This, too, is familiar: we don’t see Z’s side of the story, just Brie’s heartbreak, and it’s the same feeling, that selfish misery where it’s all you can see and feel, where it takes up your head, where you’re betrayed but not sure why or how exactly, and not sure whether or not you’re allowed to express that betrayal.

It’s telling, I think, that JJAMZ, where Z would be most performatively and publicly queer, where she would most deliberately and definitely position herself alongside old male rock legends, launched themselves with a video like this. I’m going to introduce you to JJAMZ properly in the next entry, but for now, look at this music video, that party scene; Z hurling herself into disaster with a girl she loves all wrong, while the boys in her band look on, wary and observant. It’s a pretty apt image for what will come.

Track

Don't Wanna - The Like

Don’t Wanna (live) - The Like

In early 2011, The Like cancelled their remaining shows and posted on their MySpace that they were going on an indefinite hiatus. There was never a real announcement, but in 2012, on a radio show promoting JJAMZ, Z explained, “There [were] a lot of things, we’re all still friends, it didn’t end badly, and we might still make music in the future. It was just after the last record cycle we were kind of done with it, and we wanted to do some other things for a while. Tennessee and I were in a band together for ten years, and keeping a girl band together, you know, our first bass player quit, we had two new girls. Keeping a girl band together… is not easy.”

More recently, Z posted a picture of the four of them on her Twitter. Considering that JJAMZ is in the midst of recording their second album, I think a reunion for The Like in the near future is unlikely - but I’m won’t be surprised whenever they do rear their heads again.

This last track, which only exists as a live version, gives us a nice nod in a direction they might be taking. It’s a new stage for The Like: still undeniably a girl group song, the 60s sweethearts have gotten a little bit tired of taking everyone’s shit. The harmonies have a new, leering quality to them, the bopping verses sound suddenly like taunts. Tennessee’s drums are coming out louder, harder, Z’s almost tearing her voice, not bothering to hide the anger behind jaunty pop tunes anymore, and the “take my breath awaaay” at the end of those choruses doesn’t sound romantic in the slightest.

It’s 60s pop infused with garage rock; it’s also, interestingly, written by the (no longer) new bassist, Laena Geronimo. I doubt that there will ever be a world in which Z hands over complete creative control of a band, but the fact that they’re playing this at all is maybe a hint that Z’s learned something from her hinted inner turmoils before Release Me. It’s something that will become clear, too, in her newly collaborative project JJAMZ.

But she’s still front and centre on vocals, and I saw the band play this live: Z dark-eyed and snarling, stamping along and shouting into the microphone. The Like struggled continually in their effort to be taken seriously, both in terms of getting an article written about them that didn’t interrogate them about their beauty products and outfits, and in actually performing: “When we walk onstage I watch an entire room of people say, ‘Yeah, right.’ But by the end, winning them over and crumbling their preconceived notions is a reward in itself.”

Judging by this song, though, The Like might have had enough of having to win people over in the first place. It isn’t enough to play nice and be seen as the leader of a retro girl group anymore; Z needs to be seen as a rockstar on her own, stepping forward and snatching her dues. When her guitar string breaks at the end of this song, she’s done with caring what the audience thinks of her. “You know what, fuck it! I don’t need a low E!”

I’m not enough of a fashionista to get into the ins and outs of Z Berg’s evolving style (you’d need my buddy Jamie for that, who runs a pretty excellent Z Berg blog and helped me out finding a bunch of these photos) - let’s just admire some key bangin’ looks, mannn, and let Z talk for herself a bit about the way fashion shapes and fascinates her, and the role it plays in her music. There’s something brilliant about the way Z shapes herself to suit each musical phase of her life, but it was never so fully or perfectly realised as with Release Me, where she launched herself into that sixties star with her whole heart.

"I think fashion and music are very similar," she’s said, “both art forms are an attempt to express one’s self and try to communicate your vision with the world… It’s important to us that the aesthetic match the music and the entire package is a representation of ourselves, our vision, and our wish to apply order and beauty to the chaos of modern life.”

And man, did they commit. A cursory Google image search will show you how for more than a year of touring and promotion, The Like basically wore a uniform - coordinated outfits, beehive hair, intense eye make-up.

“Your look should be as interesting and put-together as your sound,” Z said.“You are creating an entire world of art.”

But there’s something of Bowie and Mercury in her, too, in the need to be as flamboyant and over the top as possible, in her whole-hearted embrace of all the campiness of the 60s pop genre. “Sometimes I look in the mirror and go, Hmmm…. Do I look just like a cartoon superhero right now?”

It was a pretty brilliant time - but hey, look at that last photo. Get ready:  it’s nearly time for JJAMZ-era Z Berg, and a whole new level of taking on male rockstars. It’s goodbye to the short bob and the eye make-up.

"If you’re blond, you can’t wear much eye makeup if you wear red lipstick. I’ve chosen darkness. I’ve gone over to the lipstick side.”

In The End - The Like

Part of the Lone Rockstar myth is how they stand apart from their band. Elvis Costello, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan - they all had bands, who may have been more or less involved in the public eye, who faded when compared to that handsome and fraught frontman. The Beatles had the ongoing power struggle, The Rolling Stones had a lesser one, and part of the struggle was not just about creative leadership but about the cultural need for someone who stood forward, someone who both shouldered responsibility and was the focus for audience fascination.

It’s pretty clear that from the beginning, Z was the lone rockstar, the “mysterious letter girl” who talked the most and left the most questions hanging - constantly intriguing, always the cool one, the one who flirts and keeps you wanting. And then her band quietly broke up, and she stitched them back together and found new people to believe in her, from fill in bass players to Mark Ronson, and wrote two songs: “Narcissus In A Red Dress”, a a bitter, furious warning about crossing her, and another one that doesn’t get noticed very much, a cheerful, desperate song about trying and failing to make people believe in her own myth.

"No one’s safe or sacred now," she admits, and then, bitterly in a nod to a bridge: "Time to give up the way I stand my ground/stand my ground.”

lemon-and-primrose raised a good point in response to my last post, that Charlotte was still part of the band when “Narcissus” was written. I’ve seen a couple of different ideas of when exactly Charlotte left the band, some pointing to a late and some to an early departure, but it’s definitely a fair call, and it’s certainly likely that Charlotte could still have been there when Z wrote “Narcissus”. What I’d argue, though, is that it’s clear from a variety of sources that the last few months of The Like v1.0 were tense and unhappy for all involved, and it’s not unimaginable that Z would write a song about Charlotte while Charlotte was still with them - in any case, I think the song has definitely been given enough weight and effectively ‘been through enough’ since then to be at least partially about Charlotte now. While Z might always have been the implicit leader and there may not have been an actual “feud”, by the time Release Me came out she’d stepped forward to be the focal point of the band in a more performative and possessive way. This, along with the utter absence of the two appearing to cross paths since in a very incestuous social scene, is what makes me fairly certain that it was an unhappy period, one that is reflected in “Narcissus”.

But “Narcissus In A Red Dress” is still caught up in the fight, in all of Z’s hurt pride. She moves on afterward in “I Can See It In Your Eyes” to the girl she’s hurting without meaning to (through the safer medium of a boy, anyway), seems to glory in her weird little LA scene in “Fair Game”, and it’s easy to forget about that hard, hurting little song slipped into the beginning of the album. The Like are a band who sing about heartbreak and have a lot of fun doing so - it’s easy to forget that the process of making the album, by all accounts, wasn’t fun at all.

And then: “In The End”, another love song to the girl she left behind, a love song to the band she’s got now and the frontman she wants to be.

It’s a song that you have to race to keep up with, a jumble of images in her characteristic shorthand, nods to large, sweeping ideas condensed down into pop phrases. There’s that Medea influence sneaking out: “The moon it moves in cycles and we’re subject to its will, its whims; the tide, the time, the age, the law, run back and forth from idle dogs.” Quick snapshots form a whole that you can never quite see, Z almost tripping over them in her haste to be done and go back to being cool and untouchable.

There’s a fierce promise in it, too. “This is the end of stagnant days,” she sings, because she has to, because all of recording Release Me was a desperate scramble to get something done in the tiny window of opportunity they had.

The things that people miss in condemning The Like as products of their fathers who had everything handed to them are the times that Z Berg raced around trying to save herself and her band as it tumbled down around her ears. There’s a certain tight-handed grasp that’s evident in The Like’s music and their press, particularly around the second album. It almost didn’t happen, but Z really, really wanted it to - and this song feels like a race to say so, to prove how she did it, that she made shitty decisions and lost a friend and can be a hard and frightening person herself and it was super hard, and she did it anyway. Here’s the album, here’s the tour, here’s the band, she did it, she pulled them through. That organ that follows up each “in the end” is a shrug or a lopsided grin, kinda, whatever, she’s done, she did her best, here’s hoping it turns out okay.

The best bit about The Like’s indefinite hiatus after Release Me is that in 2013, quietly and without much fanfare, they got together and played a show. A couple of weeks ago Z posted a picture of them hanging out. The best bit about The Like is that I feel pretty sure we’ve not seen the last of them, that the girl who wrote “In The End” is still ruthlessly invested in that band, and all the hard work it entails.

Yeah, you got me, yeah, yeah, I’m not so good, yeah, damn it, let’s go play a show.

Narcissus In A Red Dress - The Like

"Narcissus In A Red Dress" would be pretty clearly about Charlotte Froom, the bassist who forms an integral part of that first trio and then is swept aside with barely a word in The Like’s second incarnation, even if it didn’t have the line "you clever little charlatan" (Charlotte-an? eh? geddit?). “One minute she’s your best friend/the next you watch her take your place” is a nice nod to the power struggle inherent when someone challenges that dynamic frontman that Z was implicitly in the early days of The Like and very explicitly by the time Release Me came out. It’s only a pity that Froom’s ensuing musical projects - she went on to play in Taylor Locke and the Roughs, with the dude from Rooney - were never that interesting, and that she never became a rival frontwoman so we could have our own Lennon v McCartney situation. We never get Charlotte’s side of the story, just Z’s judgment: “No matter how good your impersonation of me ever grows/deep down you know your insides never change/but people love it, vapid and shameless, simply lacking taste.”

It’s an angry song, but it’s also undeniably a tragic one, and as - if not more - brokenhearted than the other songs on the record. When Z sings about guys betraying her it’s with either a firm compunction that soon they are going to pay for it - “if I could kick his head in, fickle little boyfriend, I’d be satisfied” - or wryly amused and laughing at her own foolishness - “he’s not a boy that you can tame, don’t let it taunt you.” The 60s vibes of Release Me can be found not just in that crisp live sound, the organ and cheerful backing vocals, but in the straightforward way that Z tells most of her stories. Lyrics are simple and catchy, and she takes clear to enunciate, every word in her husky voice rounded and savoured.

Not so when she’s singing about girls. When the betrayal comes not from some boyfriend who didn’t know how good he had it but from a girl, with all the complicated relationships Z has with women entailed in that, Z’s lyrics twist around each other, complicated and complicating. The puns in Narcissus rub shoulders with literary allusions and run on sentences, and - like “In The End”, another curiousity on Release Me - at times Z seems to be struggling to keep up with that driving beat. “Vanity on parade, vacant, frantic, and strange, fraught with heart and desperation” - and then Z gives up and admits the real hurt of the song: “guess I loved you in vain.” 

In “Narcissus” we see Z bewildered and rejected, Z thrown over and trying to declare herself above it. It kind of works. She definitely comes off with the upper hand, both in the crystallised moment of the song and afterward - I mean, it’s not Charlotte Froom week, and whatever spotlight she was trying to steal from Z doesn’t seem to have materialised. But by the end she’s stumbling, unsure of what she wants - "blinded by your own reflection/let the lights protect you now" coming up hard against "all the king’s horses and all the king’s men/couldn’t bring you back again”. When she says, at the very end, with all the tearful fury you get when your teenage best friend doesn’t love you anymore, “I know, I know,” it’s hard to believe her. I’m not sure she believes herself.

Release Me (acoustic) - The Like

When my friends and I first found The Like, they were emerging from a weirdly quiet period. Charlotte Froom was suddenly, conspicuously missing. There was a hastily found replacement bassist, Reni Lane, for their tour with the Arctic Monkeys, and four new demos on their MySpace: one old enough that a grainy video of Charlotte dancing to “He’s Not A Boy” could be found on YouTube, one that was, uhm, kind of obviously a vicious song about her. Another demo was “Release Me”.

I think “Release Me” is both the title track of The Like’s second album and my favourite song of theirs for pretty obvious reasons - it plays to their strengths. In the acoustic version above, you can hear all of the things that make Z such a powerful musician: that rich, husky voice with the range that dips deep and scared and then high and sweet, the way it seems to contain a sob held within it, her ability to infuse very simple lyrics with a deep down desperation: “nothing ever changes/people never change/so passion turns to sheer compulsion/and love it turns to hate - I!”. The rhythms and harmonies in “ho-ping some-day soon our day will come - and it never does" are simple and done exactly right to make you catch your breath and feel almost as bad for him as you do for her. That low, longing chorus, the plea that stretches onto the end, the song that gives you the courage that she doesn’t have. The acoustic version of this song is beautiful. And then they made a pretty smart move, and turned it into a pop song.

Release Me - The Like

There ya go, man: the title track of The Like’s most famous, most successful, and best album is a raucous and delighted song about a really boring dude. There’s no use in feeling sorry for him anymore, because the song they could have turned so easily into a mopey little ballad is jubilant and dancing, self-deprecating and beaming at the would-be suitor, Z Berg shrugging her shoulders because he almost measured up, just, you know. Aw well.

I wish I could write better about this song, but it shrugs free of any of my attempts to romanticize it - Z isn’t even letting herself be romantic, you think she’s going to let me get away with it? It’s not a sentimental song anymore, it’s played in a way that is true to the song - Z desperate to escape this guy, to break free - and revelling in how dumb and brilliant this whole situation is, Z Berg jamming and on top of the fuckin’ world with how much she doesn’t like this guy.

It’s a pretty clear indication of The Like’s new sound - gone are the languid vocals and complicated metaphors, gone the fuzz of instruments. The Like had announced themselves with Release Me as a GIRL GROUP, in a way that they perhaps hadn’t dared with Are You Thinking What I’m Thinking. They’re a girl group in a throwback to the most famous girl groups of all time (including the Spice Girls, probably) - the 60s Motown scene, with Z’s new list of heroes: The Supremes, The Shangri-Las, Dusty Springfield, Ellie Greenwich. Tellingly, when an interviewer asks who her “favourite girl bands of all time” are she recites this list and adds: “The Beatles, The Stones, The Beach Boys.” In a way, she’s throwing herself in with those male frontmen I mentioned by throwing them in with her heroes, the female musicians of the sixties - I mean, they should be so lucky, you know?

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27 Days - The Like

Tomorrow we’ll be talking the dramatic shift in The Like’s line up and their musical direction, along with wild speculation about whatever the fuck happened with Charlotte Froom. For now, a last song before bed for you all: a surviving song from The Like’s first ep, I Like The Like, the very first song that Z played to Charlotte and Tennessee (aw!), released in 2002. That means that growl is 16 year old Z Berg. Enjoy.