Petite Meller, a 21-year-old Frenchwoman newly signed to Island Records, a division of the world’s largest record company Universal Music, is gathering comparisons to Lady Gaga.
But the vision of kitsch at the Institute of Contemporary Arts brought to mind a different transgressor. If in some gaudy alternative universe the transvestite potter Grayson Perry’s female alter ego Claire were to defy advice by putting her daughter on the stage, then here she was — in blonde pigtails, pantomime-style make-up and scanty hallucinogenic clothing, looking like Little Bo Peep doing Eurovision.
The London-based Meller brings theoretical ballast to her act. A former Sorbonne philosophy student, she talks of unconscious libidinal urges and multiple realities. Her debut album Lil Empire is influenced by African music, orientalist imagery, Eurodance and Lolita, a provocative assembly that somehow translates into irresistibly catchy pop songs. But, like the red-ribboned flat bonnet she wore at the ICA, which kept slipping off her head, requiring remedial attention between songs, the whole package proved harder to secure on stage.
With her pale white skin offset by excessively applied rouge, she was backed by three black musicians in African garb. A map of the world and a mock-up of a canopied tent stood behind them, out of which female Asian dancers in traditional bathing suits or Mongolian outfits emerged from time to time. “I welcome you all to my little empire,” Petite Meller said brightly of the surreal scene.
Her singing voice was rawer than on record, where she sounds pointedly girlish, high breathy tones glinting with something sharper. The staging was also rather raggedy. Whenever Meller seemed to have lit the touchpaper — during “Baby Love”’s hi-nrg disco, say, or the Afropop-tinged dance-pop of “The Flute” — she would prove incapable of maintaining the tempo. The failing was summed up by her frustrating habit of disappearing into the wings between songs, as though engaged in a self-sabotaging act of audience alienation.
Like Grayson Perry, it is unclear whether Petite Meller is validating kitsch or ironising it. The ambiguity works in her recorded music and videos, but live it was more muddled. Her ambitions, and indeed the quality of her music, stretch further than how she came across, namely the kind of exotic curiosity you might stumble upon late at night in a fringe cabaret venue.