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On Mandy Moore’s new music, and the things we get wrong about female pop stars

What we misunderstand about women in pop music is often the same thing we misunderstand about life

Mandy Moore arrives at the Los Angeles premiere of “Ralph Breaks the Internet” at El Capitan Theatre on Monday, Nov. 5, 2018.
Jordan Strauss, Invision

I never thought I’d eagerly await a new Mandy Moore album. Yet here I am, in 2019, eagerly awaiting a new Mandy Moore album. Life comes at you fast.

Moore’s first original music in a decade, the song “When I Wasn’t Watching,” was released last week. And uh, yeah, the song is good — like, surprisingly really good.

Now, I’ve never seen “A Walk to Remember” or a single episode of “This Is Us.” And I couldn’t name you another Mandy Moore song if I tried. (Having been a teen in the early 2000s is the only thing putting me in her fan demographic.) But “When I Wasn’t Watching” has grabbed and kept my attention. The song exemplifies an important lesson of pop music, of art and of life in general: Everybody needs somebody.

Moore’s husband, Taylor Goldsmith, is a phenomenal songwriter who fronts the indie folk-rock band Dawes. He and Moore co-wrote “When I Wasn’t Watching,” which is produced by another great musician, Mike Viola. Goldsmith’s and Viola’s respective sensibilities shine through here.

It would be easy to hear “When I Wasn’t Watching” and think it’s a Dawes song with Moore singing lead. The band’s DNA is there: breezy retro California rock vibes, agile melodies, articulate lyrics, a chorus that subtly soars. That it lacks the overwrought, over-processed quality of most current mainstream pop makes that conclusion even easier. Moore is clearly taking a page from her husband’s book, right?

Well, yes. But that’s only a partial truth. After a few more listens, I realized Goldsmith is relying on Moore’s strengths, too, in a big way. By co-writing with a pop star, Goldsmith avoids his own worst impulses: the excessively clever, overly wordy songwriting that sometimes weighs down his band’s material. Moore helps Goldsmith get out of his own way. That point is crucial.

With pop stars — particularly female ones — there’s a common notion that they need a male “expert” to help them reach their potential; that they need someone more skilled, more experienced, more proficient, more talented, to make up for their deficiencies. Moore’s new music shows that the inverse is equally true. Some of the most critically acclaimed female-fronted pop of the last few years leverages a similar type of collaboration. Carly Rae Jepsen’s 2015 album “Emotion” was produced by experimental R&B darling Dev Hynes (known by his stage name, Blood Orange). “Emotion” was the most well-reviewed pop album of 2015. Then there’s pop music’s current critical wunderkind, Maggie Rogers: Her new debut album, the highly anticipated “Heard It In A Past Life,” was co-produced by Vampire Weekend’s former lead guitarist and acclaimed indie artist Rostam Batmanglij.

Now, if Hynes released any version of his Jepsen collaboration as a Blood Orange album, it would be considered his greatest work. And in an alternate universe, where any song on Maggie Rogers’ album was instead on Batmanglij’s, music critics would hail it as a “revelation” or a “tour de force” or any other cliche they love to use for their favorite artists. I don’t believe Hynes or Batmanglij have it in them to make this kind of pop music by themselves. Everybody needs somebody.

I recently finished journalist Robert Moor’s book “On Trails: An Exploration.” He details the many ways that trails manifest — in hiking, in the internet, in the world’s oldest fossils, etc. — while making a broad case for collaboration. Yes, there are a few trailblazers in this world, but most of us are trail-makers in a different way. Trails usually improve when they’re well-traveled. By walking a trail, we tend to make it better for those who come later.

As I think about interdependence, and the ways we conceptualize it, I believe we often misinterpret one party as being more dependent — and therefore less valuable or powerful — than the other(s). Within pop music (and, I think, within life generally), the best of it ultimately works because talented people come together, sacrifice some of their preferences, accept their own shortcomings and rely on other people to fill the gaps. Who we are individually is rarely good enough. But maybe we were never supposed to be.