April 5, 2024

Chappell Roan 18
Get it Hot
An Essay by Jenna Mahale
Does anyone really want to be a popstar anymore? Yesteryear icons like Rihanna and Lady Gaga seem to have divested, pivoting to movie projects and other entrepreneurial exploits. With members of the reigning guard increasingly phoning it in (see: Beyoncé’s overwrought, adversarial “Jolene” cover, or any selection of imagistically puzzling lyrics from Taylor Swift’s latest mega-sized, repetitious record, such as “I’m an Aston Martin that you steered straight into the ditch”) the thrills of contemporary pop are often just as manufactured as they feel. The truth is clear: it’s much easier to make your millions shilling haircare or lingerie or boutique weed or liquid blush than to try and convince the world (let alone those pesky critics) of your latest artistic vision. It’s a burden that no one wants to shoulder anymore, and who could blame them really? Contracted album cycles are demanding, treacherous hamster wheels; touring is draining, unforgiving, and far less financially viable than it used to be. Fame isn’t fun anymore, especially now social media makes it plausible for almost anyone, and then you inevitably get woman’d, so what’s the point anyway? 

Enter Chappell Roan. Decrying situationships, the orgasm gap, and fugly jeans, among other things, the 26-year-old musician speaks to certain cultural truths through the stories on her debut album: that the online dating industrial complex has largely failed to make its users happy; that existence is both a marvel and an utter embarrassment; that men really, truly fucking suck. Magazines gush over her “genuine star power,” heralding “the future of pop” and the “cosmic shift” in the industry she seems to have brought about. In large part this refers to her achievements in sapphic songwriting: the combination of joy and humor she brings to her lyrics feels novel, especially for a queer artist. 

Though Chappell Roan began as a more somber project, employing moody synths and earning comparisons to Lorde, the artist deliberately set out to make her debut a “party album” with “live audiences in mind,” hoping it would provide “an opportunity to have fun for a couple of hours in a room where everyone else wants to have fun.” “I just want to be Hannah Montana,” she told Vulture in August last year. There are certainly echoes of Miley Cyrus’s Disney pop diva in her project – a penchant for effervescent confessionals and (differing degrees of) wild, kaleidoscopic outfits, but most importantly the superhero-ish separation of selves. Kayleigh Rose Amstutz has made it clear that she can’t and won’t be Chappell all the time: "I'd be absolutely exhausted."

But while figures like Reneé Rapp and Billie Eilish might appeal as louche lesbianic personalities — Rapp with her R&B-inflected truisms (“I just want some recognition / For having good tits and a big heart”); Eilish with her signature light-touch vocals, and tongue-in-cheek turns of phrase with a newly sapphic bent — Chappell’s charm is less cool, more wholesome and esoteric. She’s a working class hero who offers something more earnest for audiences to latch onto and wields, it has been argued, a comprehensive, multi-generational appeal. She comes across as very genuine, in the vein of the down-to-earth popstar like Hannah Montana before her, though there’s a scrappier quality there. Maybe it’s the swearing, or the fact she was high on shrooms for her Pitchfork interview; but somewhere in between the lipstick-stained teeth and the deleted TikToks is an underdog that not even Azealia Banks could root against.

The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess (2023) delights in artifice as much as it does brutal emotional honesty. Chappell is in turns bratty, horny, contemplative, vengeful, adoring, hysterical: a twirling, fabulous ringleader. Her stage manner is all high energy and brash confidence, and her use of gang vocals introduces a conversational dimension to the material not unlike a Greek Chorus: sometimes the voices that echo back are megaphone chants from Chappell’s cheering pep squad, her affable roommates, or a winking inner monologue. 

Take “HOT TO GO!” a furious come-on in the shape of a syncopated pep rally. The song begins with a count-in and comes with cheer-inspired choreography that encourages the audience to engage with their whole body. Racing, arpeggiated synths run under an equally buoyant melody. A down-but-not-out, quasi-villainous version of Chappell (“I’ll take this city!”) punctuates this with demands: “Call me hot, not pretty!” she cries. “You don’t have to stare, come here, get with it,” she calls out to the object of her affection. It’s another underdog play: she wakes up “alone, staring at [the] ceiling” yet leaves the club triumphant, ushering her conquest-to-be into a cab. The tension throughout is rooted in a sort of sexual humiliation, but also Chappell’s willingness to prostrate herself. “Baby, don’t you like this beat?” she asks, desperate, then shows her cards: “I made it so you’d sleep with me!” 

Similarly, the initial lyrical mode of “Good Luck Babe!” is reflective, appeasing, confessional: “Guess I’m the fool,” she concedes by the song’s third line. But the power dynamics are shifting — redemption is always around the corner with Chappell Roan. “Think I’m gonna call it off / Even if you call it love,” she decides. The single’s cover art features the artist in a deep red gown, wearing an escoffion-like headpiece and a wide prosthetic pig’s nose. She is both Highness and hog, the princess and the frog, at once desired and rejected. 

Sianne Ngai’s theorisation of the ‘zany’ can help us understand what makes Chappell so endearing. In her 2012 book Our Aesthetic Categories, Ngai defines zaniness as “an aesthetic of action,” finding its origins in a 16th Century commedia dell’arte stock character, the zanni, a nomadic worker who takes on many roles very quickly in a “chaotic swirl.” This category is defined as one that muddles the boundaries between leisure and labor. It maps onto modern pop stardom well in this respect — though many ‘passion project’ occupations come with a requisite blurring of work-life-balance, the popstar is made itinerant by the necessity of touring and pushed into alternate roles like social media marketer or fashion influencer in order to bolster career momentum. 

Though the latter may not be the case for Kayleigh (“I am not trying to be a chic bitch … Nothing turns me off more than frickin’ luxury brands.”) she has spoken about working simultaneously as a nanny, barista, and TV production assistant, as well as looking into training as an aesthetician in order to fund her stage career; even on a more metanarrative level, Chappell’s aesthetic transformations — into a glittering pink butterfly at Coachella in April or, at this year’s Governors Ball, going from a yassified Statue of Liberty to bejeweled yellow taxi cab — are definitively zany. 

Her drag-influenced visuals play on tropes of femininity, mythology and Americana: she is a stony-faced beauty pageant queen for the album cover, glowering over a pale pink bouquet of ribbons and satin roses; a ponytailed alien touring Hollywood in the “Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl”’ video, even donning a modded motocross set in the torturously brief Spotify visualizer for “Femininomenon” — a pair of bejeweled Daisy Dukes peek out from beneath neon-colored chaps: “I LOVE MY CRAZY WIFE” reads the patch on her left hip. 

The Chappell Roaniverse draws on icons of fantasy and girlhood, things like mermaids, rainbows, cowgirls, and Halloween. What is never part of it, she has said, is peacefulness. (The danger of the zany, too, is a kind of “ceaseless busyness.”) The project functions like an amoeba with a ferocious appetite, colonizing and assimilating motifs to grow and push the referential world of this explicitly gay space larger and larger still. Chappell inserts herself at the pageant, in the diner, on Hollywood boulevard, hitting the road atop a hot pink dirt bike. In doing this, she situates herself within a proud American tradition, such that her presence constitutes a playful and stylish queering of each space. 

But she’s been careful about lending this power where it could be abused, recently revealing that she turned down a performance request from the White House: “We want liberty, justice and freedom for all,” she told audiences at Gov Ball, after dedicating the brutal “My Kink is Karma” to the woefully conservative Democratic institution. “When you do that, that’s when I’ll come.” 

Perhaps this gets at the core of what fans value most about Chappell Roan, putting her craft, lyricism and theatrics aside: she keeps it real. She cares about the queer community in vocal, tangible ways that put money in their pockets, and is open about discussing her difficulties with fame and overzealous fans. For the better part of last decade, she struggled to find herself and her sound, and was finally able to begin to explore relationships with women after a hard-won move to Los Angeles. Despite getting dropped from Atlantic Records she persisted, continuing to trust and invest in her vision, slowly working to build the glimmering world of her drag persona. And it worked beautifully. As in the immortal words of Kim Cattrall’s Samantha Jones: “First come the gays, then the girls, and then the industry.” What more can I say? It’s a femininomenon.

Jenna Mahale is a journalist and critic whose work has appeared in many outlets including i-D Magazine, The Los Angeles  Review of Books, The Cut,and The Atlantic.