Monday, June 20, 2011

HEAR THIS: Manika Won't "Let You Go"

On the eve of my 24th birthday, I was fortunate enough to be one of the few bloggers invited to a private showcase/single release party for an up-and-coming singer of the teen pop variety. 17-year-old Las Vegas-native Manika (Muh-NEE-ka, not to be confused with 80's phenom Martika) is an aspiring pop ingenue in the vein of contemporaries like Miley Cyrus or Selena Gomez before her. Her debut single, "Just Can't Let You Go", featuring Young  Money rapper Lil Twist (yes, of the Lil Wayne gravy train), was recently made available for purchase on iTunes. As you can probably guess, I was more than thrilled to tag along to the rather swanky Ace Hotel here in New York to see what the fuss was all about.

The promotional hook:
"Bringing a fresh, edgy vibe to mainstream pop and unafraid to boldly speak her mind, 17-year-old vocal powerhouse Manika delivers her upcoming debut single, "Just Can't Let You Go". Working with some of music industry's highest caliber management, songwriting and production talent, Manika was discovered by Frank DiLeo and vocal performance coach CeCe Sammy."

If you don't speak music industry hype, never fear. I'm here to extrapolate on just why your ears should be perking up. Before I get to Manika's actual performance, here are some important boiler points regarding why you should be paying attention.
  • Much of Manika's career is being guided by Frank DiLeo, a mainstay over at Epic Records during their early 1980's hayday, including during the time of Michael Jackson's Thriller. DiLeo served as Michael's manager throughout much of the higher points of his career, as well as with Taylor Dayne and Jodeci. He also played Tuddy Cicero in a little film you might remember called "Goodfellas".
  • Manika is co-managed by CeCe Sammy (in attendance at the show), who served as a vocal coach on the UK's "Pop Idol" ("American Idol" for the Brits), and has worked with Charlotte Church and S Club 7/S Club Juniors (read: 2/5 of The Saturdays before they were The Saturdays).
  • Her debut single (and indeed much of her upcoming album) is produced by Kizzo, responsible for the guilty pleasure electropop that is Eva Simon's "Silly Boy" amongst others. Evan "Kidd" Bogart (Ashley Tisdale's "He Said She Said", Blake Lewis' "Surrender", Brandy's "Right Here (Departed)", Cheetah Girls "Fuego", Demi Lovato's "Got Dynamite", Kristinia DeBarge's "Sabotage", etc. etc.) is also attached to her album project.
Hence, my enthusiasm for the showcase, and eagerness to see what this Manika project was all about. To be completely honest, the single itself wasn't thrilling me walking in to the showcase (other than the fact that she appeared to be able to play guitar), but I'm a sucker for teen pop when it's done right (obviously, don't you all know me by now?), and with all of above cards up the proverbial Manika sleeve, it was hard for me to resist the call to arms. The song is catchy to be sure, in a generic Radio Disney kind of way, and there's nothing wrong with that. In truth, upon first listen, she reminded me of a 2011 version of, say, Hoku or even Mikaila (remember "So In Love With Two?" If not, you should get familiar -- ten years old now and still one of my faves.). Check out the official video for the single below.

After viewing Manika's album showcase set live and in person, it's easy for me to see the dichotomy between her poppy promotional package and the artist that is Manika lurking underneath her shiny surface. While the first single suggests the Manika project to be very much the frothy kind of bubblegum we've come to expect from teenagers in the pop realm (and indeed, "Just Can't Let You Go" would sound right at home on just about any Disney Channel television program or show, and why shouldn't it be?), clearly there's more to Manika that I'm sure many will give her credit for.

Rather immediately, I was struck by her image. She's a gorgeous girl, and was done up well to suit a more (pop-) rocker image. She was dressed in an all-black outfit, complete with a leather jacket, boots and a fierce pair of pants with artfully ripped holes decorated with hanging chains (Dear Manika -- I sincerely adored those pants!). Her makeup was dark but tasteful, well intentioned for a stage show. Similarly, her two backup dancers were also dressed in pop rocker gear, outfits that wouldn't look out of place in your average high school. 

While comparisons to ("Start All Over") Miley are sure to come, not just with her music but with her image, I have to say they are somewhat off the mark. Manika was very carefully styled so that she looked the part of pop rocker, but also looked age-appropriate. None of her on stage moves were soaked with unnecessary sex and raunch. She very much wielded a kind of go-girl confidence whilst performing. In this marketplace, this is incredibly commendable, and I'm proud Manika is broadcasting herself from the jump to be a strong role model for not just young girls, but for all young women -- especially considering she is so young, and plays her own instruments and co-writes her own material. Call me cynical (because I kind of am), but I found her very refreshing.

Her set was short and sweet, and included a surprisingly sweet cover of Alanis Morissette's "Hand In My Pocket". The majority of the fare was uptempo sugary pop ("Let You Go" was played relatively early in the set, sans Lil Twist, much to one of my Plus Twos disappointment), but occasionally, homegirl would pull out her own guitar and strum along to the more edgy cuts, allowing a little more range in her sound. In addition to the single, "Woo Hoo" (I'm suspecting this is a Kidd Bogart co-write) was also a fun highlight.

While her entire set was enjoyable, if you had to pick an "X Factor" moment when watching Manika, that moment when it all clicks and you understand why she has so many influential people in her corner, it didn't get better than her closer cut, "My Way", which highlighted her guitar playing. (Imagine my chagrin when I got home and furiously tried to YouTube the song and came up short -- sob!) We all know much I love my pop, and given she's still a teenager, I'm sure she enjoys the dancier cuts quite a bit, but I found her expression much more believable and captivating when she was holding the guitar. For this reason, I think the initial listen of "Just Can't Let You Go" might be a little misleading in terms of where she could potentially go as an artist.

Team Manika were definitely on their game, as this performance was incredibly intimate -- performing live in front of a small handful of people in dark, close quarters. Whilst performing, Manika seemed to be most at ease and rightfully so. Even prior to her set, posing for promotional photographs and the like, she knew just what to do, how to pose, how to smile, and it's clear that she may be in the very early phase of her career, but is no newbie to how things work in a professional environment. In between material, when she would introduce songs or thank the taste makers present for their support and time was when it was confirmed she really is a green, teenage artist, but what slight nervousness she gave off was endearingly charming.

In summary, Manika is at the point of her career that I find most interesting -- before the glamor the hyper intensity and the cynicism. When she performs, you can see she does it because she really loves it, and she truly enjoys it. The music she makes is believable teen pop, and the sheer fact that she's capable of running in the same kind of circles as the Disney Channel A-Girls and play her own instruments and write her own material with such big names right off the bat could be a harbinger of what's to come. I'm definitely looking forward to the upcoming record (especially "My Way"!), and can't wait to see what the future for Ms. Manika. In this industry, it's all about who you know and having a little bit of luck in your back pocket, and obviously she has both going for her with the team she's surrounding herself with.

Many many thanks Kelly and Stache Media, as well as Sony/RED and Manika herself for a great night and an exciting introduction to yet another young artist with great potential! All performance photos in this article were taken by Melismatic. For additional, professional photography from this event, provided by the artist, click here.

Manika's debut single, "Just Can't Let You Go", featuring Lil Twist, is available for purchase now on iTunes.

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