Have you wished to be 17 again? I didn’t know I would get the experience, but I got a taste of what it was like to be 17 again last August when I went to see ionnalee live in the Music Hall of Williamsburg. A preface is necessary.
ionnalee (read yona-li) is the solo monicker of Jonna Lee, a Scandinavian electronic pop artist who rose to prominence around 2011-12 with an audio-visual project of electronic pop tunes under the duo iamamiwhoami. For both their debut and sophomore records, each album was accompanied by a music video for every single track, released to Youtube every two weeks or so. I’ve mentioned iamamiwhoami along with other Scandinavian pop music acts such as Robyn, The Knife, Fever Ray, and Björk in a previous piece, but something I perhaps never greatly emphasized was that their iconoclastic music makes me feel like I’m 20 stories tall. And aside from the bliss I experience listening to this music other reasons I love electronic pop music made by these Scandinavian acts, and iamamiwhoami especially are that the music is about both mood and sound, the lyrics ask you to ponder on your humanity, and the cherry on top being that it’s music you can almost always dance to.
And I’ve come up on each of these artists separately and at different times. I think for many young queer boys, Björk comes first. It was certainly my case, and in recent conversation I said she was my “patron saint” in music – but she’s a veteran act. And what I mean by that is that for as much magic as her music possesses, I began to listen to her work far too late into her career to experience the excitement of the early-career releases when artists like her are cycling through one imaginative phase after the next and you don’t know what to expect for the next project.
The luck of the draw with iamamiwhoami is that I caught them just at the start of their second album cycle. I had enough time to catch up to the first, and quickly enamor myself with this woman’s work, who over the course of nine or so music videos dances through a journey of self-discovery (or as close to a plot as I could identify). She encounters hairy yeti people and dances with them, is kidnapped by them, pushes them away, manipulates them into coming back to dance with her, then destroys them. She later treads on foot through a parking garage, a forest, a desert, a mountain, a bedroom closet, and the inside of a black cube. Her outfits change, but they’re all variations on a set of white lingerie and tube socks.
Much of my senior year of high school was spent listening to her music specifically, watching those music videos specifically. My first debit card purchase at 17 was that sophomore album “Kin” and I’ve held this music close for a very long time. You get the point.
This was 2011-2012 for me. Years later after releasing the album BLUE in 2014 under the iamamiwhoami name, ionnalee released her first solo album under her new alias in 2018. This new project “Everyone Afraid to be Forgotten” went immediately into heavy rotation for me and not soon after the album release, ionnalee announced she was going on tour.
It isn’t hard to know you’re in line for the artist you’re there to see when you take a good look at the people waiting in line ahead of you. In this case the crowd of slim 20-30-40 something gay men immediately set the tone. It isn’t that all people who listen to ionnalee look the same, it’s more that the kind of artist she is is bound to attract the kinds of gay boys that they are (a blog post is not a great way to provide context into the kind of statement I just made, but if you were there you would understand).
And it isn’t that I only go to music concerts like this alone, it’s more that to the day there haven’t been friends who share in this music with me, not the kinds I would want to take to a concert like this with me, not the kinds I would ugly dance, and ugly scream, and ugly cry in front of. The music isn’t particularly confessional but it lets me be myself, and these aren’t the emotions I want my colleagues or casual friends knowing I have, or seeing me have. That August night I had no desire to sacrifice my unguarded bliss in favor of performing self control in front of someone with similar music tastes.
Unguarded I was. And from moment one it was clear ionnalee was there to perform her heart out for us, so it was only fair as a member of her audience for the night to give back that same energy in kind. She played mostly new material, which shone in the live setting, providing airtight songs like “Work” and “Blazing” much needed room to breathe. She also included songs from the iamamiwhoami catalogue as well, weaving in classics like “O” and “Y” from her debut album Bounty and “Fountain” and “Chasing Kites” from the sprawling BLUE album. The tears didn’t come in until a solid 5-songs + interlude in when the songs “T” and “Play” came in.
“T” is its own epic from the Bounty album. The song whose music video corresponds to ionnalee revealing her identity to the audience. Though it’s a standard 4:30 minutes this song is a display of power for its entirety. It measures its fire power and packs a punch. The song’s visuals are also iconic in that they popularized the foil crown as a visual reference amongst the fans to call back to the artist and her music. There were at least two guys in the crowd that night wearing foil crowns, and I immediately turned to the one behind me when this song came on and screamed as he and his friend screamed. It was unspoken, it was ingrained. “T” is one of my favorite songs in ionnalee’s catalogue as iamamiwhoami and the excitement it brought to hear the song live was only greater when she played the next song, “Play.”
“Play” is my favorite iamamiwhoami song. An indescribable amount of happiness is contained in this song, and in me when I listen to it. This song is about the the pleasures of giving oneself up to someone else’s desire and to also let go completely and dance. This song compels me to dance each and every time and like it says I give in. It’s so unassuming, so full of heart, so soul-fulfilling that it felt like ionnalee was playing these songs back to back just for me, just to make me happy. It was a one-two punch I did not see coming and that overwhelmed me fantastically. From the moment the familiar synth line that opens the song came on I started crying, and I cried from start to finish and finally shed my shell.
Listening to my two favorite songs back to back in a crowd of people who were like me, and who probably felt like me made me feel more alive that night than I had in a long time. Despite ugly crying and swaying my arms side-to-side like a dummy I felt like every bad emotion I experienced never happened, that I hadn’t grown up and that I was 17 again, a teenager uncovering a treasure – discovering a music that would define his transition from end of High School to the start of College. It was like I was given a ticket to the euphoria of peak adolescence, before my first big break-up and every other adult issue followed suit.
I just existed in the music for those 6 minutes and I was thankful for Pop music in a way I had never been before.
And of course the melodrama eventually wore off, the dust settled, and I wiped away the tears because, after all, these were just songs. But the where and when made it worthwhile. And the experience of being there listening to my favorite music, surrounded by people who I can only imagine felt just like I did was important and I will cherish this live concert in a way I’ve cherished few. At the same time I would hate to soil this memory by holding it in such high regard that the next time I see ionnalee in concert I’ll feel like the next time won’t live up to the tears and catharsis of the first. I’ll just have to see what happens this coming April when she visits the US on tour once again. ■