You may not have heard of Mika (pronounced mee-ka) yet, but soon enough you may not be able to escape him. The 23-year-old Lebanese-born British singer topped a bbc poll of 130 industry tastemakers as the Next Big Thing for 2007, his music can already be heard on Motorola's RED ads in the U.S., his first video runs on mtv's top rotation, and his face will soon front fashion designer Paul Smith's spring/summer global ad campaign. Not too slouchy given he hasn't actually released a CD yet. Mika's debut single comes out on Jan. 29 in the U.K., but it's already No. 1 in that market by download sales alone.
I loathed him on principle. Let me explain: he's charismatic, confident, talented, tall, young, handsome and has lots of hair. The press release issued by his publicist describes him as "debonair with a touch of degenerate dandy." He describes his sound on his MySpace page as "Beck via Queen and Elton John and a touch of Rufus W.[ainwright]." He appears to be having fun. Did I mention the full head of hair? I'd been given an advance copy of Life in Cartoon Motion, Mika's debut album due Feb. 5, but I'd been reluctant to play it. It's pop, therefore manufactured and disposable, right? What if I like it?
When finally I succumb, I discover that Mika's opening line of the first song and single, Grace Kelly, echoes my dilemma. "Do I attract you?/ Do I repulse you with my queasy smile?" he intones. That remained to be seen, but what follows is an album brimming with grandiose, infectious, hook-laden pop. A sweep through the spectrum from '70s melodies and disco brought up to date with full orchestration, kids' choirs and gymnastic vocals. On Grace Kelly he nods to his Freddie Mercury singing style: "So I try a little Freddie/ I've gone identity mad." He also tries a little George (Michael), Elton (John), Leo (Sayer) and Robbie (Williams) too, with a good measure of Scissor Sisters and Bee Gees but without the name checks. It's catchy. Damn it.
It wasn't hard to spot him in the London TV studio canteen. The place is like the science fiction movie Logan's Run: beautiful twentysomethings wandering around with clipboards who will no doubt be sacked when they turn 30. Even in these environs, Mika stands out. He's wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers, but the jeans and sneakers are bright white and the jeans an even brighter turquoise. He is, of course, charming. "Mixed reactions? Sure, I get them all the time. I'm a Marmite artist," Mika says, referring to the pungent yeast-based spread that Brits put on toast and is marketed on the premise that you either love it or hate it. "I've made a Marmite record and I'm expecting strong reactions either way."
Though Mika wears bright trousers and makes fun music, he's suffered for the right to do so. Born in Beirut in 1983 to a Lebanese mother and American father, he was evacuated with his family a year later, "because the war got really bad." They joined the Lebanese community in Paris before Mika's father, on a business trip to Kuwait in 1990, became trapped in the U.S. embassy for seven months when the Gulf War broke out. A new job after the war meant a move to London, where Mika was bullied at school. "I was called everything from 'childbearing hips' to 'choirboy fag,'" he says. But that didn't stop him from developing his individual style that included, he says, "red trousers and matching bow ties … purple Bermudas that I thought were ever so cool. I always prided myself on the fact that I didn't compromise my personality, even if I did drive other people up the wall."
His music became another type of escape. He took singing lessons and taught himself to play piano; a severe dyslexic, Mika is unable to read music. His first proper gig was, aged 11, in the choir in Richard Strauss's Die Frau Ohne Schatten at London's Royal Opera House. He went on to study at the Royal College of Music. At night, he worked on his pop songs or waited tables to pay the studio bills. Eventually a record company showed interest but only if he did as he was told. "I wrote Grace Kelly as a kind of reaction to that, as a little kind of stick-you to the music industry," says Mika. On it he sings, "Should I bend over/ Should I look older just to be put on your shelf?"
"That's the point that I really decided that musically as well as in my personality I wasn't ever going to dilute anything," he says. Eventually, he struck a deal with Casablanca, which although backed by giant Universal gave him complete control, even of the album artwork. "I was going in with sketches and cartoon characters and showing them to my record company and they were freaking out because I hadn't even chosen my producer," he says. Through his music and those accompanying drawings, Mika has created a 3-D cartoon world populated by surprising characters like Billy Brown: "Billy Brown had lived an ordinary life/ Two kids, a dog and a cautionary wife/ And while it was all going accordingly to plan/ Billy Brown fell in love with another man." Though it's taken a lot of pain to construct, it's still a fun world overall, and Mika built it to his own design. It's also big, sometimes overblown, and there are a few too many ingredients for my liking; too many hooks, styles and voices. But it is serious music. Commercial, yes, but original, and far from my misguided preconceptions. "There is a lot of cynicism around," shrugs Mika, "but it doesn't bother me because it is so easily disproved." I'm still jealous of his hair, though.