What if a company offered you a better body and a better mind, and all you had to do was call? How much — and what — would it cost you? Would it be worth it? These questions unnerve Nilüfer Yanya, and serve as the framing device for her debut full-length album Miss Universe, out next week, and streaming on NPR right now.
Fictional company WWAY Health guides the album with various spoken, Siri-esque interludes dictated over soothing music. It offers potential — and elusive — relief to its callers between songs. The string-filled, slightly off-center tracks remind us that Miss Universe exists in another world. In fact, they re-contextualize the entire work; songs that might’ve been read as personal or confessional take on entirely new meanings, which was part of Yanya’s intent. In this almost-familiar world, you might turn to WWAY Health in desperation, keying in personal info as you move through their system, because maybe, just maybe, they could make you better, in the same way we all turn to Mindfulness and Goop, and every other wellness brand.
“People are giving more and more of themselves away to these companies… They can access everything. What if they thought to access in your mind?” Yanya, the 23-year-old London-based musician, asks. In person, she ranges from pensive, a hand tucked under her chin, to vibrant, fluttering forward with excitement as she clarifies her ideas — she’s most animated when she touches on companies’ surveillance and resultant paranoia. “You’re not really in control. People see what you’re thinking and hear your thoughts — nothing’s safe.”
The album kicks off that paranoia with “In Your Head,” a deliciously chunky-guitarred bop that explores Yanya’s expansive vocal range. Her deep, growling alto pairs with controlled bursts of soprano, executed with a clean, harsh rage.
Later jazzy tracks like “Paradise” mislead with their dancey rhythms, juxtaposed with darker lines like “In paradise / I’ll pay the price” or “In paradise, I’m terrified / of what we might find.” What seems perfect isn’t, and WWAY Health is always there to tell us that we can be better, healthier, if we just hit the pound key or pay a little more. Today, it’s hardly unbelievable.
“People can get new body parts if they don’t like them so why couldn’t they get new organs? People are doing that, people sell their organs,” Yanya says. “Health has become such a central thing and such a big industry — if you could replace your nose, why couldn’t you replace your heart or brain?”
Such surreality comes in heavy on “Melt,” a brass-heavy, echoey track big on repeated lines but hinging on an un-repeated stanza: “I bet your brain cells won’t last / I bet they cling to the trash / I hope they melt on the way / back to your place.” In the crossroads of drugs and disassociation, bodies keep failing and feelings come on top, even in paranoia-wracked minds. Like the eerie sentiment repeated on “The Unordained,” a vague, ghostly track: “Sooner or later they’re going to erase her / they’re going to erase her sooner or later.”
WWAY Health toys with its callers’ emotions, offering the opportunity to “feel better and probably live longer” on “Give Up Function” but then says the selected function no longer exists. “Please give up or try again,” it offers, until finally it offers only: “please give up.”
“I was thinking about calling the album Giving Up, but my manager and everyone was like: ‘That’s way too negative, are you OK?’” Yanya laughs. “Giving up is OK sometimes. You don’t always need to see things to the end. If it’s not working, why would you put yourself in pain — why torture yourself? … Maybe [WWAY Health’s] on your side. I mean, why were you on that phone line? Go back to your life!”
“Give Up Function” is a heavy dismissal of WWAY Health callers that segues into the album’s final track, the standout “Heavyweight Champion of the Year.” Surprisingly defiant (considering the track it follows), it still ends with heartbreak, with giving up. The song acts as a way station where the body waits but the mind works frantically.
For previous EPs Do You Like Pain, Plant Feed and Small Crimes, Yanya always wrote following a sudden burst of inspiration, and the EPs were at most four tracks (and on the longest EPs, one track, at least, would be a remix). As her first full-length album, Miss Universe entailed a very different writing process, in which Yanya saw herself compelled rather than inspired to write, and facing impending deadlines.
“You have to get into the right mindset straightaway,” she says. “You’re putting so much pressure on yourself.” Every time she finished a song, she’d gasp — she clutches at her chest to punctuate it — and think: this might be on the album. But because she needed to meet a deadline and write more in a period of time than she ever had, “It didn’t really feel like my music for a while, it didn’t feel like my album, I didn’t feel like I liked it, it just felt like something I’d made. I was a bit dissociated from the whole thing.”
It was the spoken interludes, which she wrote after the songs, that helped her “reattach” to Miss Universe. Yanya used beats from Will Archer, a friend and producer of some of the album’s tracks, and overlaid her own Siri-esque voice to form WWAY Health. The resulting tracks serve as an escape, both from conventional album structure and from reality. Companies like WWAY Health, that offer solutions in exchange for pieces of yourself, are the biggest threat to our security and our sense of self; the corporatization of a mental health resource implies this mind-control threat.
“When I finished the album, I realized the mind is the last safe space,” Yanya says. “If you can keep your mind healthy and safe, protected, then you’ll be fine. But once they start going in there — and they’re halfway there — they’ll be able to control you.”