Nilüfer Yanya Isn’t Afraid to Confront Herself on “Miss Universe”
The British singer-songwriter’s debut deals with mental health and coming to terms with the limits and manipulations of our wellness industry.
Though it started as a movement encouraging us to focus and recharge, our collective obsession with self-care has since morphed into something of a monster. On her debut album Miss Universe, Nilüfer Yanya satirizes and unpacks the ways in which we suppress painful truths in order to maintain comfort. The twenty-four-year-old London-based musician created a self-care protagonist named “Miss Universe,” the voice of the (fictional) organization We Worry About Your Health (WWAY Health). The 24/7 care program “worries about you so you don’t have to,” as she puts it, subduing symptoms of paranoia, anxiety, and all-around unhappiness.
The storyline that surrounds her zapping, intricate rock songs questions the commodification of mental upkeep. “They’re saying they care, but they don’t really care, and they’re just trying to sell you things that you don’t need,” she tells me. “It’s always sold to you as a product. They’re promising you something that doesn’t exist, in a way. They can’t promise a different version of your life. This is your life.”
Over the phone, Yanya’s voice is calm, almost sleepy; she’s contemplative and considerate, sustaining clouds of pause in order to better formulate her thoughts. It’s a far cry from the Miss Universe character she vocalizes on her album, who is controlled, detached, and irreverently artificial—all qualities that stray from empathy.
Miss Universe is the spokesperson for sparkling security and antiseptic sanity, neither of which are instrumental in real personal health. “I had this idea, words in my head, these phrases: ‘Hello World, Goodbye Miss Universe,’ or ‘Goodbye Miss World, Hello Universe,’” she says. “I just kind of arrived at Miss Universe. I liked how it’s addressing everyone, in a way. But then the weirdness of beauty pageants and that culture—it’s just surface. We find that thing weird, but really that’s what we’re doing a lot of the time.”
The album nosedives into heartbreak verging on the fringes of insanity. These songs are dipped in Yanya’s tear ducts, flung across the room in the rage of denial, and finally folded neatly upon a cool bed to rest. Yanya is aware of her autonomy on “In Your Head,” but struggles to grasp control over the next few songs: “I can do what I like / I’ll never know what it means / Some validation is all that I need!” Her voice bounces between airy falsetto and a stiffened squeal. It’s the type of rallying call that WWAY Health preys on people with.
“They’re promising you something that doesn’t exist, in a way. They can’t promise a different version of your life. This is your life.”
In a way, Yanya is dismantling the mythology of self-care. Images of angels and paradise pepper the album, but not in the benevolent sense we might imagine. “We attach meaning to these words, but what do they really mean? What is paradise?” she asks. “And if it exists, why aren’t we in it? If it doesn’t exist, then why not? What does that suggest about our present state? If angels exist or don’t, what are we? There isn’t anything original about that, I just like the imagery and visual ideas.” Similarly, self-care isn’t really self-care on Miss Universe, if we’re giving ourselves over to some artificial pageant queen. Instead of talking about the complex and nuanced issues involved in mental health, we glamorize a simple solution.
Unsurprisingly, as the album progresses, the credibility of WWAY comes into question—as does Yanya’s stability. Images of brain cells melting, clinging to the trash (“Melt”) and lying in a pool of someone else’s blood (“Tears”) accompany poignant moments in the album’s latter half. She’s not avoiding sentiments that are vengeful or graphic. “I think the last few are more expressive,” she says of the later tracks. “They’re angry, but also more calm, in a way.” The emotions are finally liberating themselves. “You’re not trying to solve things. You’re just aware and accepting of those feelings.”
During one of the album’s most raw, subdued tracks, “Monsters Under the Bed,” self-awareness and the perceptions of other people butt heads. “They all think I’m not okay / Such a shame, never felt so good,” she sings. Yanya tells me that’s the oldest song on the record. “I don’t know how it ended up on the album. It makes sense, but I didn’t plan to [include it]. I was a different person when I wrote it, and it’s kind of crazy it’s on there. I like that, as well—that the younger me is on the album.” She explains how it was revised for a documentary her sister was making about their grandmother who suffered from mental illness. “I wrote it from her perspective, or was trying to write it with her mind,” Yanya says.
Though she is critical of how we “view mental illness or unhappiness as things that need to be solved,” the singer also understands that it’s a difficult and oftentimes taboo subject to broach: “Even when you’re in a safe place, there’s a sense of what you feel day-to-day, and what is normal to talk about with your friends and family and colleagues,” Yanya says. “Then there’s stuff that goes on in your head that’s not necessarily real, but it’s still real because it’s happening in your head.” While Miss Universe might suggest you push aside your mental strife or pretend it doesn’t exist, Nilüfer Yanya wants you to acknowledge it, full-steam ahead. FL