The Los Angeles-based music duo Magdalena Bay builds highly curated, unmistakably upscale pop sounds for an era of Internet stardom. The singer Mica Tenenbaum and the engineer Matthew Lewin write, produce, direct, and edit their songs and videos together, balancing posh music with a cheeky online presence. Having now workshopped their music for half a decade, becoming more confident in their songcraft, they’re starting to optimize the process.
For all their flair, Tenenbaum and Lewin didn’t begin as pop artists. They met in high school, in 2011, at an after-school music program in North Miami, Florida, performing in separate bands. They started dating and creating together. Tenenbaum joined Lewin to make prog rock in a band called Tabula Rosa. Tenenbaum sang and played keyboard. Lewin played guitar and mixed and produced the records. The music was more than competently composed. The title track from the last Tabula Rosa album, “Crimson,” ends with a winding twenty-minute epic of cascading guitar solos and piano arpeggios. Tenenbaum’s voice is clean and uncompressed, unmodified and pure in tone. College separated them. Tenenbaum went to the University of Pennsylvania, where she spent her time performing with a women’s sketch-comedy troupe; Lewin went to Northeastern, to study the music business. They reunited one college winter break, looking to start a new project. What began as an experiment in craft, and a bit of an art joke, quickly shifted into a full-time gig making real pop music. Having never seriously considered pop in their teens, they thought making it would be easy.
When Magdalena Bay formed, in 2016, there were several artists already warping pop’s dimensions, and a few of them became the group’s blueprint: the high-functioning, electronic pop of Grimes, the eased-up, poised art-pop of Chairlift, and Charli XCX’s dive into the consumerist, hyperbolic PC Music art collective. Pop is often disparaged for its factory-like song production, and although that is still the norm, these contemporary pop artists were emphasizing the personal in their work. Until recently, Magdalena Bay was a completely D.I.Y. operation run out of the duo’s apartment. They didn’t get the feel of pop right away: the early stuff, while proficient, seems nearly A.I.-generated in its flavorlessness. With more practice, the songs became fuller. Eventually, their music reflected time invested in the Internet, incorporating online sounds and rhythms. On their 2020 EP “A Little Rhythm and a Wicked Feeling,” they laid the foundation for their musical future—as a tagline on their TikTok puts it, “Synthpop straight from the simulation 💋.”
Their polished music is backed by a cross-media plan. The group’s mini-mix series channels the VHS-degraded quality of public-access television and the antics of the Surrealist comedy that spoofed it in the early twenty-tens. A version of one of the songs, from their single “Killshot,” went viral on YouTube last year when it was edited in a popular format for the platform: with the music slowed to a crawl, as a soundtrack to images from anime. Magdalena Bay smartly released an official version a few months later in response. (In one of their TikTok videos, Tenenbaum gives a rundown of the entire situation that is as goofy as the situation itself.) A lot of the group’s social media functions in this way—extramusical content that is phantasmagoric, promotional, or self-referential, pulling the viewer back into the music’s orbit. Their Web site alludes to the static pages of Web 1.0, when domains felt like isolated realms constructed with handmade HTML. Being very online isn’t just part of Magdalena Bay’s appeal; it’s inherent to their world-building. Through an interactive program, they have set out to establish their own pocket dimension.
Their début album, “Mercurial World,” is easily the best, most lustrous, most carefully considered music they’ve made. Lewin has said that the album, in part, reflects the “madness” of their quarantine isolation. “We live together and make art together; this immerses you in our creative, insular universe,” he said. The music is magnificently self-contained, despite drawing from several generations of pop style. If hyperpop, the micro-genre defined by its absurdity, makes a dizzying, incoherent yet euphoric mess of its many components, then Magdalena Bay takes a more sophisticated and streamlined approach, pulling from similar source material to push in the opposite direction, creating something congruous, orderly, and chic. The kitsch quality, the garishness, the overwhelming amplitude is replaced with subtlety and ornate detail. Songs such as “Hysterical Us” and “Secrets (Your Fire)” blend the animating neon luminosity of Miami’s beachfront party strip, Ocean Drive, with the brisk, top-down funk of the West Coast.
The enchantment of “Mercurial World” comes from its thoroughly synthesized sound. The duo’s crash course in pop generated a hybridized, sugary product. They have cited figures of every era—Madonna, Fiona Apple, Britney Spears—as influences, connections that are more felt than articulated. But this music also exists in a landscape carved out by artists such as Rina Sawayama and Poppy, where the art seems to be interfacing with broader Internet culture. There are more latent elements, too: the pastel hues of the most shrewdly arranged K-pop; the sparkle, rush, and graphic color of video-arcade mania; and modern indie pop’s turn toward technique. As Tenenbuam’s singing surges from a scratchy half whisper to a wail on “You Lose!,” the track forms a screen of buzzing noises made out of Pac-Man squelches, elastic synths, and hammering drums.
Tenenbaum’s voice is at the core of all of these glowing, synthetic songs. She always seems to give a song precisely what it needs, with her vocals touched up just enough to fit the aesthetic—be it the faint echoes in “Dawning of the Season” or the hallucinatory hisses throughout “Dreamcatching.” From the title track onward, her singing is gently piped into the crevices of these fancy productions, like ornamental frosting on specialty desserts. In the muted chamber pop of “Prophecy,” Tenenbaum sounds nearly cherubic, conjuring the innocence of turn-of-the-millennium teen pop. “When you’re lying next to me / I don’t need no make-believe,” she murmurs. A song later, on “Follow the Leader,” she sings like a virtual idol navigating a night-club simulator. Inside the sharply designed “Mercurial World,” her vocal performances give the music its illusory feel and its canniness. “I don’t want to tell you everything about me / I don’t wanna feed more oxygen to / Your fire,” she sings, on “Secrets (Your Fire),” and that same quiet sense of mystery is what allows the music of Magdalena Bay to occupy its own dream space.
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