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Songbook: How Madonna Became The Queen Of Pop & Reinvention, From Her 'Boy Toy' Era To The Celebration Tour
As Madonna fans eagerly await the start of her highly anticipated The Celebration Tour, take a look back at the icon's four-decade legacy that changed pop music forever.
Nearly 40 years later, she's done just that: Selling 300 million albums worldwide, Madonna is one of the best-selling artists of all time. Her 14 studio albums have spawned 12 No. 1s and 63 top 10 hits on the Billboard Hot 100, and she earned a spot in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. But just her nickname alone proves she achieved her goal: the Queen of Pop.
Madonna's legacy is more than her music, too. The seven-time GRAMMY-winner has empowered several generations to own their sexuality and call their own shots; she dared to be different and bending the rules on and off stage, particularly with the merging of sexual freedom and religion. Her fearlessness helped open doors for individuality in pop music and beyond, becoming a star that didn't just rule the world — she changed culture.
As Madonna's self-titled debut LP turns 40 on July 27, GRAMMY.com is revisiting the most groundbreaking, exhilarating, and gasp-worthy moments of her extraordinary career.
The '80s Reign
"Everybody" and "Burning Up," the first two singles off Madonna's 1983 eponymous solo debut, were instantaneous dance hits but failed to crack the Hot 100. Rooted in disco, "Holiday" not only became Madonna's first Hot 100 entry at No. 16, but it also topped the Dance Club Songs chart — her first of 50, a record no other artist holds to this day. It also spawned even bigger hits "Lucky Star" and "Borderline," which reached No. 4 and No. 10 on the Hot 100, respectively.
As "Borderline" climbed the charts, Madonna enlisted the legendary Nile Rogers to craft what would become the best-selling album of her career: Like a Virgin.
Selling over 21 million copies worldwide, 1984's Like a Virgin proved Madonna wasn't just another flash in the pan with a long string of hits, including "Material Girl," "Dress You Up," and her first chart-topper, "Like a Virgin." But her sexual assertiveness is what made the era truly iconic. The sepia-toned album cover featured the then 26-year-old wearing a corset wedding dress, accessorized with lace gloves and a hard-to-miss "Boy Toy" belt buckle.
"The photo was a statement of independence, if you wanna be a virgin, you are welcome. But if you wanna be a whore, it's your f—ing right to be so," Madonna reportedly said about the album's brow-raising imagery. Around this time, droves of "Madonna wannabes" copied her look, which incorporated jelly bracelets, rosaries, crucifixes, lace tights, and giant bow headbands — solidifying her as a fashion icon. (Earlier this year, Like a Virgin was added to the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry for being "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.")
Fresh off tying the knot with then-husband Sean Penn in 1986, Madonna's True Blue featured her first image makeover and veered away from the bubblegum-pop sound she was known for. Lead single "Live to Tell" displayed artistic growth as she seemingly confronts a painful past. ("I have a tale to tell/ Sometimes it gets so hard to hide it well," she sings in the ballad's opening verse.)
In addition, True Blue found Madonna experimenting with new musical styles, including classical ("Papa Don't Preach," which shined a light on teen pregnancy), Latin ("La Isla Bonita"), and doo-wop ("True Blue"). Still, dance-pop is at forefront of "Open Your Heart," as well as sexual innuendos in the accompanying video, which shows the singer performing as an exotic dancer at a peep show.
By the time 1989's Like a Prayer arrived, Madonna had earned the title of "First Lady of Pop," holding her own alongside male counterparts Michael Jackson and Prince. Leading up to the album's release, Madonna was battling a lot behind the scenes — she and Sean Penn filed for divorce two months prior, she reached the age her mother was when she died, and she was struggling with her Catholic upbringing.
In turn, the 11-track LP is considered the first of Madonna's projects to feature deeply personal lyrics and themes, particularly on tracks like "Till Death Do Us Part," "Promise to Try," "Oh Father," and "Keep It Together," the latter of which features Prince on guitar. On the flip side, "Cherish" and feminist anthem "Express Yourself" serve as bright spots on Like a Prayer.
The title track earned Madonna her seventh Hot 100 chart-topper, but it's most synonymous with its accompanying video. The clip depicts a number of controversial images, including Madonna singing in front of burning crosses, which cost the entertainer her Pepsi sponsorship contract (more on that later). "Like a Prayer" set the tone for Madonna's "Justify My Love" and "Erotica" videos, which caused their own controversies for their boundary-pushing imagery.
The Shock Factor
It's impossible to revisit Madonna's catalog without reliving some of the performer's most jaw-dropping moments. From going on a profanity-filled rant on the Late Show with David Letterman in 1994 to kissing Britney Spears and Christinia Aguilera at the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, Madonna is no stranger to shocking the world.
Only a year into her extraordinary career, Madonna stole the show at MTV's inaugural Video Music Awards. Donning a bridal gown reminiscent to the one she wore on the Like a Virgin album cover, the then 26-year-old unintentionally exposed her underwear while reaching for one of her heels that fell off as she made her way down from a 17-foot wedding cake. After the performance, Madonna was told by her manager that her career was over — but instead, it ended up catapulting her into superstardom.
To close out the '80s decade, Madonna was named Pepsi's spokesperson, but her $5 million sponsorship was revoked when the "Like a Prayer" video premiered a couple months later. The groundbreaking visuals depict racism against an interracial couple, stigmata, and Madonna herself kissing a Black saint — but its most provocative scene appears midway when Madonna sings in front of Ku Klux Klan-style burning crosses.
Unsurprisingly, it was largely seen as blasphemous by the Christian community, with the pope calling for Italy to boycott the singer. Though the controversial video cost Madonna her Pepsi deal, it paved the way for artists to merge religion with their art to make a bold statement — seemingly inspiring the videos Lady Gaga's "Judas," Lil Nas X's "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)," and Sam Smith and Kim Petras' "Unholy." (In the same vein, part of Madonna's 2006's Confessions Tour was condemned due to performing "Live to Tell" on a mirrored cross while wearing a crown of thorns, simulating the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.)
Perhaps one of her most scandalous moments, though, belongs to the media frenzy and brilliance that was the "Justify My Love" video. Co-written with Lenny Kravitz, the song itself is raunchy enough to raise a few eyebrows, but still relatively tame by today's standards. "I want to run naked in a rainstorm/ Make love in a train cross-country," she coos over a Public Enemy-sampled drum beat.
Themes of nudity, sadomasochism, bisexuality, and androgyny run throughout the Jean-Baptiste Mondino-directed video, which Madonna defended as a "celebration of sex" after it was banned from MTV. Seizing the moment, Madonna released it as a video single, selling over a million copies at $9.98 — proof that Madonna could flip any potential career disaster into a shrewd business move.
Madonna: Truth or Dare premiered a mere six months later and received mostly positive reviews — though certain scenes sparked backlash, including Madonna performing fellatio on a glass bottle. The documentary chronicled the singer's 1990 Blond Ambition World Tour, but it's often hailed for championing the LGBTQIA+ community since it shows Madonna and her dancers attending a Pride parade and gay men casually discussing sex.
What followed next in Madonna's career was not for the faint-hearted: 1992's Erotica album examines every aspect of sexuality, from S&M and oral sex to the awareness of the AIDS epidemic.
Madonna's alter-ego named Dita takes center stage on lead single "Erotica," one of her most distinctive yet forgotten singles. "My name is Dita/ I'll be your mistress tonight," she declares over a slinky groove with hip-hop and Middle Eastern influences. The racy track and its follow-up single "Deeper and Deeper" claimed the No. 3 and No. 7 spots on the Hot 100, respectively, but the remaining Erotica-era singles didn't chart as high. "Bad Girl," which also appeared in the 1993 film Body of Evidence, peaked at No. 36 while "Fever" and "Bye Bye Baby" completely missed the Hot 100.
Gems like "Rain," "Words," "Waiting," and "In This Life" get buried in the controversy that surrounded the LP, but its impact still reigns three decades later, inspiring more female artists to flaunt their sexuality unapologetically; Beyoncé's "Partition," Christina Aguilera's "Not Myself Tonight," and Rihanna's "S&M" serve as a prime examples.
The Blockbuster Hits
Madonna's acting chops weren't always well received by audiences, but her soundtrack hits came out swinging every time.
Originally recorded for 1985's Vision Quest film, "Crazy for You" marks Madonna's first time releasing a ballad as a single — flaunting her vocal abilities while appealing to more mature audiences. In addition to earning Madonna her second Hot 100 chart-topper, she picked up her first-ever GRAMMY nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance.
A couple months later, "Into the Groove" appeared in the comedy Desperately Seeking Susan, which co-stars Madonna in the titular role and marks her film debut. Backed by synthesizers and drum machines, the song itself showcases Madonna at the height of her popularity, making it that much more special to listen to. Ironically, though, the infectious track never saw the Hot 100; it was ineligible to chart due to her label's decision to not officially release it as a single, out of fear it could overshadow "Crazy For You."
While Madonna's performance in the screwball comedy Who's That Girl was panned by critics, she scored No. 1 and No. 2 hits with "Who's That Girl" and "Causing a Commotion," respectively.
Madonna's acting aspirations continued throughout the decade. Despite starring in back-to-back box office disaster bombs, including Shanghai Surprise, she tried her hand at acting again in 1990 with Dick Tracy. Not only was the Oscar-winning film the box office comeback Madonna needed, but it birthed "Vogue," one of the most iconic dance tunes to ever grace airwaves — despite never appearing in the film.
Topping the charts in over 30 countries, "Vogue" shined a light on a flamboyant style of dance stemming from Harlem's 1960s ballroom community led by Black and Latino gay men. From the spoken section (in which Madonna shouts out "Golden Age" Hollywood stars like Marlon Brando and Bette Davis) to the accompanying black-and-white video where Madonna debuts the now-legendary Jean Paul Gaultier cone bra, everything about "Vogue" is iconic and a cultural moment many artists can only dream of.
Madonna's film soundtrack success continued with 1992's A League of Their Own, 1996's Evita, and 1999's Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. All three films' soundtracks demonstrate Madonna's constant willingness to push herself beyond her own artistic boundaries. On the operatic "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" and "You Must Love Me" from Evita, which earned her a Golden Globe and an Oscar nomination, Madonna explores musical theater as her voice reaches new heights. Meanwhile, the GRAMMY-winning "Beautiful Stranger" revisits 1960s psychedelic pop, hence the Austin Powers theme. Back by a live string arrangement, the melancholy "This Used to Be My Playground" off A League of Their Own is a testament to Madonna's many hats.
Though met with mixed reviews at the time of its early aughts release, "Die Another Day" is now considered quintessential Madonna and one of the highest charting James Bond songs in the U.S. At a whopping $6 million, its accompanying video remains the second most expensive, just behind Michael Jackson and Janet Jackson's 1995 "Scream" video.
The Reinvention Periods
By late 1994, Madonna dialed down her sexed-up image following the release of back-to-back sexually explicit projects, including the controversial coffee table Sex book that featured softcore pornographic images of Madonna herself — along with Big Daddy Kane, Vanilla Ice, Naomi Campbell, and other famous faces.
For Bedtime Stories, she tapped R&B hitmakers like Babyface and Dallas Austin as she explored themes of love and romance versus the sexual freedom heard on 1992's Erotica. Radio-friendly singles "Take a Bow" and "Secret" marked a new musical direction for Madonna that paid off: both showcased some of her finest vocal performances and received glowing reviews from music critics.
But the entertainer's rebellious nature reappears on the criminally underrated "Human Nature" — an answer to the backlash she faced for her hyper-sexualized persona from two years earlier. "Did I say something wrong?/ Oops, I didn't know I couldn't talk about sex/ Did I stay too long?/ Oops, I didn't know I couldn't speak my mind," she sings on the song's bridge before declaring "I'm not sorry."
After enjoying the success of starring in Evita and becoming a first-time mother, 1998's Ray of Light marked Madonna's longest gap in between studio albums at the time — but the wait was well worth it.
Hailed as her magnum opus and her greatest reinvention, Ray of Light saw Madonna at her most creative due to motherhood and her spiritual awakening, as she experimented with techno-pop, electronica, trip hop, Middle Eastern sounds, and mysticism. With each song, the then 39-year-old transforms from Material Girl to Madonna the Artist, as evidenced on the title track, "Frozen," "Drowned World/Substitute for Love," "Nothing Really Matters," "Shanti/Ashtangi," and "The Power of Goodbye." She takes the theme of self-reflection a step further with songs like "Swim," "Mer Girl," and "Little Star," the latter of which is dedicated to her first-born child, Lourdes Leon.
Ray of Light boasts the biggest first-week sales by any female artist at the time of its release — an impressive feat given that the late '90s music scene was dominated by a sea of younger artists, including Backstreet Boys, Lauryn Hill, and Jay-Z. The 13-track LP earned Madonna three more GRAMMYs at the 1999 ceremony: Best Pop Album, as well as Best Dance Recording and Best Short Form Music Video for "Ray of Light."
With the arrival of 2000's Music, Madonna embarked on yet another transformation. In the new millennium, fans were introduced to Madonna the Cowgirl. While the title track sounded like a callback to her earlier dance hits like "Everybody," "Holiday" and "Into the Groove," follow-up single "Don't Tell Me" is notable as the pop icon's first time incorporating country stylings into her artistry.
The album's final single "What It Feels Like for a Girl," which calls out the double standards women face in society, only peaked at No. 23 on the Hot 100, but it remains a fan favorite and still holds its relevance today thanks to its feminist theme. Receiving four GRAMMY nominations across 2001 and 2002, Music's commercial success defied the music industry's limits on aging female entertainers — an issue Madonna is still confronting head-on today.
In 2003, following the 9/11 tragedy amid the Iraq war, Madonna felt moved to put out the politically driven American Life. It was a complete departure in both subject matter and sound, which leaned heavily toward "folktronica," a blend of folk and electronica music. "I'd like to express my extreme point of view/ I'm not a Christian and I'm not a Jew," she raps on the title track.
While Madonna's attempt to make a socially conscious record didn't produce the same payoff as other politically charged songs at the time (including Black Eyed Peas' "Where Is The Love?" and Green Day's "American Idiot"), the 11-track LP, if nothing else, displayed her willingness to take creative risks even two decades into her career.
The Dance Floor Classics
While Madonna got her start in New York City's club scene, her dance reign went into overdrive with the 1987 arrival of You Can Dance — which contains new track "Spotlight" plus a handful of remixed tracks off her first three studio albums. For You Can Dance, Madonna enlisted veteran DJs, including John "Jellybean" Benitez and Shep Pettibone. At a time when remixes were still uncharted territory, the club-ready LP remains the second best-selling remix album of all time and is considered the first album by a mainstream artist to be solely dedicated to the art of the remix.
While dance music lies at the core of Madonna's discography, her work shifted toward more of an adult-oriented sound after You Can Dance, beginning with 1989's Like a Prayer. After nearly two decades of musical experimentation, Madonna returned to her dance roots in a big way with 2005's Confessions on a Dance Floor.
The album's lead single "Hung Up" — built around a prominent sample of ABBA's "Gimme! Gimme! Gimme! (A Man After Midnight)" — smashed records when it skyrocketed to No. 1 in 41 countries. Its follow-up singles "Sorry," "Get Together," and "Jump" fared better internationally, but the LP's commercial success kicked off the 21st century's disco revival that later influenced the likes of Dua Lipa's Future Nostalgia and Lizzo's "About Damn Time."
In 2007, Confessions on a Dance Floor won a GRAMMY for Best Electronic/Dance Album, and its accompanying Confessions Tour took home another GRAMMY for Best Long Form Music Video the following year.
With contributions from Justin Timberlake, Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, and Nate "Danja" Hills, 2008's Hard Candy is one of Madonna's lowest-selling albums, despite housing the massive hit "4 Minutes" (a collaboration with Timberlake), which reached No. 3 on the Hot 100. "4 Minutes" also earned Madonna her 37th top 10 single, making her the artist with the most top 10 entries at the time. Other standout tracks from Hard Candy include "Give It 2 Me," "She's Not Me," "Devil Wouldn't Recognize You," and "Miles Away," the latter of which was inspired by her then-husband Guy Ritchie.
The Legacy Continues
Around the time when Madonna was crafting her 2011 directorial debut W.E., she was laying down the foundation for her twelfth studio album MDNA, which arrived the following year.
Out of the four singles released, "Give Me All Your Luvin'" (featuring Nicki Minaj and M.I.A.) is the only song to enter the Hot 100, though "Girl Gone Wild" and "Turn Up the Radio" became her 42nd and 43rd No. 1 dance hits. The guitar-led ballad "Masterpiece," which also appears on W.E.'s soundtrack, won for Best Original Song at the 2012 Golden Globes.
Despite not being released as a single, "Gang Bang" quickly emerged as a fan favorite while receiving criticism from those who said it glorified violence. Inspired by Quentin Tarantino's films, the aggressive song's lyrics depict a woman who murders an ex-lover: "And I'm going straight to hell/ And I got a lot of friends there/ And if I see that b— in hell/ I'm gonna shoot him in the head again/ 'Cause I want to see him die," she sneers on the bridge.
Madonna's next two LPs, 2015's Rebel Heart and 2019's Madame X, didn't generate any massive hits, though Rebel Heart's "Living for Love" and "B— I'm Madonna" are the most recognizable. The latter's accompanying video features cameos from Beyoncé, Katy Perry, and Miley Cyrus, to name a few. Both albums, however, spawned an additional six No. 1 dance hits for Madonna. With a whopping 50 No. 1s on the Billboard Dance Club Songs chart, Madonna cemented her status as the dancing queen.
At the top of 2023, Madonna announced her upcoming Celebration Tour to commemorate her 40th anniversary since her debut. With 45 stops spanning from Detroit and Los Angeles to Amsterdam and Barcelona, the Celebration Tour was scheduled for a July 15 kickoff before getting postponed after the 64-year-old superstar's recent health scare.
As the tour name suggests, Madonna is ready to honor the hit-filled legacy she's built. "I am excited to explore as many songs as possible, in hopes to give my fans the show they have been waiting for," she said at the time of announcing the tour, which is her first dedicated to her greatest hits. When the megastar makes her glorious return to the stage later this year, she'll remind the world of her relentless spirit — the same one that made her a North Star for nearly every female entertainer on the charts today regardless of genre.
Madonna has supported gay rights, pushed sexual freedom, implemented religious imagery, and reshaped feminism at a time when it wasn't trendy to do so. All the while, she never has apologized for her "rebel heart" — solidifying her legacy as the true Queen of Pop.
10 Ways Cher's "Believe" Changed Pop Music
As Cher's GRAMMY-winning hit celebrates its 25th anniversary, blast "Believe" and dig into the many ways it became one of pop's all-time classics.
The incomparable Cher had already achieved iconic status long before she dropped the title track from her 22nd studio effort, Believe, at the tail end of 1998. After all, this was an artist who'd forged one of the most successful pop duos of the '60s, scored a record-breaking trio of number ones in the '70s, and reinvented herself as an MTV goddess in the '80s. Not to mention her contributions outside of music: the hit variety shows, Broadway runs, and Hollywood moonlighting — the latter of which saw her win an Oscar.
But the success of "Believe" was still unlike anything else Cher had achieved during her illustrious 35 years in the business. It reached No. 1 in 21 different countries across the globe (including a four-week stint at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 in the U.S.), sold 11 million copies, and cleaned up at everything from the International Dance Music Awards to the Ivor Novellos. For a good 12 months, it was practically impossible to avoid hearing its dance-pop beats, lovelorn lyrics and, of course, that famous robotic vocal effect.
But "Believe" didn't just significantly impact Cher's already glittering career — it also changed the face of pop music as we know it. From inspiring other divas to get their groove on to pioneering a piece of now-ubiquitous studio technique, take a look at 10 ways "Believe" impacted pop.
It Smashed Multiple Chart Records
It would almost be quicker to list which chart records "Believe" didn't completely obliterate. The song spent 21 weeks atop Billboard's Hot Dance Singles Sales, and was still in the Top 10 a full year later. It was also crowned the year-end No. 1 on both the Dance Club Songs and Hot 100 charts. And it produced the longest-ever gap between chart-toppers on the latter — 33 years and seven months, to be exact — as Cher's first No. 1 on the chart came in 1965 with her Sonny Bono duet "I Got You Babe."
"Believe" was just as successful across the pond, beating George Michael, U2, Culture Club, and Alanis Morisette in a famous five-way battle for No. 1. And with 1.8 million copies sold, it's still the U.K.'s highest-selling single by a female performer.
It Inspired Several Divas To Dance
Cher had initially resisted Warner UK label boss Rob Dickins' idea to pursue a dance direction, reportedly arguing that the genre wasn't conducive to "real songs." It's unlikely many of her peers took much persuading, however, after witnessing the monumental success of "Believe."
In fact, pretty much every pop diva on the other side of 50 seemed to take to the dance floor over the following 12 months: see Diana Ross' "Not Over You Yet," Tina Turner's "When the Heartache Is Over," and Donna Summer's "I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)." Madonna (Confessions on a Dancefloor), Kylie Minogue (Tension), and Cyndi Lauper (Bring Ya to the Brink) have all since proved middle age and dance music needn't be mutually exclusive terms with entire albums tailor-made for the clubs.
It Finally Gave Cher A Grammy
It seems hard to believe that Cher had to wait until the turn of the millennium to pick up her first GRAMMY. The pop veteran had previously been nominated alongside then-husband Sonny Bono in the Best New Artist category in 1966. The pair also received a nod in the Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group in 1972 for "All I Ever Need Is You," the same year Cher was recognized as a solo artist with a Best Female Pop Vocal Performance nomination for "Gypsys, Tramps and Thieves." But on all three occasions, Cher went home empty-handed.
The star finally emerged victorious in 2000, however, when "Believe" won Best Dance Recording. (The song and same-named parent LP had picked up nods for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Album, respectively, too). Peter Rauhofer was also crowned Best Remixer of the Year for his work on the track under the guise of Club 69.
It Paved The Way For An Exciting '00s Hit Factory
Nine different people, including Cher herself, are given songwriting/production credits on "Believe." But the most interesting behind-the-scenes name is Brian Higgins, the man who penned an early version of the track a full eight years before it was released. A virtual unknown when the finished product finally arrived, Higgins would go on to shape the following decade of British pop music thanks to his pioneering work as part of the production powerhouse known as Xenomania.
Best-known for guiding the career of their ultimate muses, Girls Aloud, the team also carved out weird and wonderful singles for Sugababes, The Saturdays, and Alesha Dixon.Pet Shop Boys, Kylie Minogue, and Saint Etienne were just a few of the more established names who turned to Xenomania for hit-making assistance, too.
It Made Cher Relevant Again
Cher looked to have been consigned to heritage act status before "Believe" came to the rescue. She'd only scored one U.S. Top 10 hit in the 1990s ("Just Like Jesse James") and that was at the very start of the decade; her last studio effort, covers album It's A Man's World, had peaked at a lowly No. 64 on the Billboard 200. But Cher isn't known as a comeback queen for nothing. The Believe campaign not only saved her from the musical wilderness, but it also kickstarted the most consistent, if undoubtedly sporadic, chapter of her career.
Indeed, although "Strong Enough" and "Song for the Lonely" are her only Hot 100 entries since (No. 57 and 85, respectively), 2001's Living Proof, 2013's Closer to the Truth, and 2018's ABBA tribute Dancing Queen have all reached the top 10 of the Billboard 200. And while Cher was always a powerful live draw, the Believe era took things to new heights: 2002's long-running (and misleadingly-named) The Farewell Tour, grossed $200 million across a whopping 325 dates to become the highest-grossing concert series by a female artist at the time.
It Proved Age Ain't Nothin' But A Number
Bette Midler, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner had all previously reached the top of the Hot 100 in their forties. But no female artist had ever achieved such a feat until "Believe" came along. Cher was aged 52 years and nine months when the dance-pop anthem took her number one tally to four in March 1999. And while the annual return of "All I Want for Christmas Is You" saw a 53-year-old Mariah Carey surpass this milestone in 2022, Cher can still lay claim to being the oldest chart-topping woman with a newly released song.
The star will have to score a fifth, however, if she's to break the all-time record: Louis Armstrong was three months shy of his 63rd birthday when he knocked The Beatles off pole position with 1963's "Hello Dolly."
It Introduced The World To Auto-Tune
According to Pitchfork, a remarkable 99 percent of all contemporary pop music utilizes the pitch-altering recording technique known as Auto-Tune. And that's pretty much all down to The Cher Effect. Although designed to subtly correct a wayward vocal, the producers of "Believe" decided to make it blatantly obvious that studio trickery had been at play, transforming one of pop's most easily identifiable voices into that of a wobbly android.
Cher had to fight to keep the song's unique selling point, telling unconvinced label bosses they'd have to remove it "over my dead body." And her instinct proved to be right. The pioneering use of Auto-Tune was undoubtedly the catalyst for the song's phenomenal success, ultimately paving the way for everyone fromLil Wayne andT-Pain toDaft Punk andBlack Eyed Peas.
It Became A Pop Culture Fixture
You know a song has entered the nation's consciousness when it's been parodied by Matt Stone and Trey Parker. But South Park's incomprehensible version of "Believe," which appeared in season 3 episode "Two Guys Naked in a Hot Tub," isn't the only way in which the chart-topper has permeated pop culture over the past 25 years.
It was also given the spoof treatment by MADtv, has become a lip-sync battle regular, and featured in the star-studded medley in Eurovision: The Story of Fire Saga. More recently, it was mashed up with "The Muffin Man" by Adam Lambert for a That's My Jam performance that went viral.
It Brought Back Crying At The Disco
Cher had asked many questions through the medium of pop during her illustrious career: "Am I Blue?" "Does Anybody Really Fall in Love Anymore?" "How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?" But it was undoubtedly "Believe" on which she posed her most pressing. "Do you believe in life after love?," she sings in the famously Auto-Tuned chorus, a clever turn of phrase which set the song up as the '90s answer to "I Will Survive"; follow-up single "Strong Enough" would go even further by essentially borrowing its string section.
The "crying at the disco" anthem had largely fallen out of favor since Gloria Gaynor's heyday. But "Believe" proved once again it was possible to pour your heart out and throw some shapes at the same time. Robyn ("Dancing On My Own"), Pussycat Dolls ("Hush, Hush"), and Madonna ("Sorry") are just a few of the artists who appeared to be taking note.
It's Become A Part Of The Modern American Songbook
What do tween collective Kidz Bop, punk rock supergroup Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, and Swedish synth-pop songstress Anna of the North all have in common? They've all put their own spin on the dance-pop masterpiece that is Cher's "Believe." And they're not the only ones, either.
In 2023, DMA's rendition wascrowned the all-time best cover to emerge from Aussie radio station Triple J's feature Like a Version.Manchester Orchestra,Lucy Dacus, and Jessie Ware have all interpreted the smash hit in their own distinctive ways over the past 18 months, too. And it's become a talent show staple thanks to ballad versions by the likes ofAdam Lambert,Jeffery Austin, andSheldon Riley. Should the Great American Songbook ever get modernized, then "Believe" is a shoo-in.
Photo: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for BAM
11 Iconic Concert Films To Watch After 'Taylor Swift: The Eras Tour'
The concert film seems to be having a moment. From the Talking Heads to Queen, read on for 11 concert film experiences that will help keep the party going.
A lavender haze has descended upon movie theaters across America.
Taylor Swift’s filmed version of her historic Eras tour is the movie-music event of the year, dominating the box office becoming highest grossing dometic concert film in Hollywood history after a single weekend. Byt the time the Eras credits roll, you know all too well that you’re going to want to keep the party going.
Luckily, there are a breadth of artists whose musical singularity is reflected on the silver screen. Swift's major influence notwithstanding, the concert film seems to be having a moment in recent years: Pop stars such as Lizzo (Live in Concert), Selena Gomez (My Mind and Me) and Lewis Capaldi have released popular concert films.
Homecoming: A Film by Beyonce (2019)
When Beyoncé headlined the Coachella Music and Arts Festival — the first Black woman to do so — in 2018, she didn’t just perform; she delivered a tour de force extravaganza that spurred a whole new moniker: Beychella.
Shot over two nights, the Netflix film Homecoming includes a discography-spanning retrospective and memorable performances of "Run the World," "Single Ladies" and "Formation." Layered in ware nods to the Historically Black College and University experience, legends like Nina Simone and dazzling array of choreography, wardrobe and vocal chops.
The New Yorker later hailed it a "triumphant self portrait" and "a spectacle of soul." Directed by Queen Bey herself, Homecoming took home the golden gramophone for Best Music Film at hte 62nd GRAMMYs.
Stop Making Sense (1984)
The filmmaker Jonathan Demme is known for classics like Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia, but he was also a major force in concert films. Among his achievements in this field is Stop Making Sense, his 1984 portrait of David Byrne and his Talking Heads.
Filmed at the peak of the band's popularity and following the release of Speaking in Tongues (which featured "This Must Be The Place" and "Burning Down the House,"), Stop Making Sense is a cult classic, from its array of hits to the band’s massive suits which became their calling card.
The film was re-released in theaters last month. "I'm kind of looking at it and thinking, who is that guy?," said David Byrne in a recent interview with NPR about watching his younger self. "I'm impressed with the film and impressed with our performance. But I'm also having this really jarring experience of thinking, ‘He's so serious.’"
BTS: Yet to Come in Cinemas (2023)
While the GRAMMY-nominated South Korean superstars BTS may be on a break — Jung Kook recently announced that he will release his debut solo full-length- bask in the glow of the K-pop and their rollicking concert film earlier this year. In the film, Jung Kook alongside Jin, RM, Jimin, V, J-Hope as they smoothly perform their calvadace of hits, including "Butter" and"Dynamite" in a 2022 performance for Busan, South Korea’s rally to host the 2030 World Expo.
The boys are actually no stranger to the genre, with Yet To Come marking their fifth concert film in addition to BTS Permission to Dance on Stage — Seoul: Live Viewing and 2020’s Break the Silence: The Movie among others.
Madonna: Truth or Dare (1991)
With off-stage footage shot in black and white and performances in vivid color, this early '90s classic depicts Queen Madge at the height of her power. Taken from an actual game Madonna and friends play towards the end of the film (to scandalous results), Truth or Dare showcases the breadth of Madonna’s superstardom up until that point with performances of classics like "Holiday" and "Like a Virgin" with its artfully-shot juxtaposition of performance and documentary footage a trailblazer in the concert film genre.
"The surprise of Truth or Dare is just what a blast Madonna is," wrote the Guardian on the occasion of the film’s 30th anniversary. "Nastily funny, openly horny, undisguised in her contempt for anyone she deems less fabulous than herself and her blessed collaborators."
Justin Bieber: Never Say Never (2011)
Way before Swiftmania, there was Bieber Fever. In the wake of Justin Bieber’s explosive rise, Never Say Never interspersed performances with snapshots of his journey from humble Canadian roots to global pop force to be reckoned with.
Helmed by Jon M. Chu (who’d go onto direct blockbusters like Crazy Rich Asians and In the Heights), Never Say Never is a time capsule of a younger, more innocent Bieber and his early earworm bubblegum hits. Until Swift's Eras is tallied it’s the top-grossing concert movie ever released in the USA.
Prince: Sign o’ the Times (1987)
This iconic concert film was once hard to come by; after its theatrical run, Sign o’ the Times was only issued on VHS and eventually went out of print. But thanks to the magic of streaming, one can now easily transport oneself back to the '80s and enjoy the magic that is Prince.
Directed by the artist and using his acclaimed 1987 album Sign o’ the Times as a jumping off point (the album itself was a 2017 inductee into the GRAMMY Hall of Fame), the film reminds viewers of the Purple One's magnetism. Under an array of colorful lights and performing to a raucous crowd, the icon may have died in 2016, but Sign o’ the Times serves as a deft time capsule of his royal talent.
Katy Perry: Part of Me (2012)
As Katy Perry was in the midst of releasing her acclaimed album Teenage Dream, the pop singer had the foresight to chronicle the ensuing pandemonium.
"I feel like it was, like, a big wave coming," she told ABC upon the release of Katy Perry: Part of Me, the 2012 concert film that documented her blockbuster California Dreams tour. "I thought to myself, 'Well, I think this is going to be a moment. Maybe I should catch it on tape. I'm either going to go completely mental, completely bankrupt, or have the best success of my life."
Fortunately the later wound up occurring, with the subsequent film a celebrity-packed (featuring everyone from Lady Gaga to Adele) hit-filled ("Teenage Dream" and "California Girls") look into the life, times and music of the star.
Queen: Live at Wembley ‘86 (1986)
Songs like "We Will Rock You" and "We Are the Champions" fit right in on Wembley's massive stage, with the concert film depicting the thundering live versions of those classics. Relive those heady days with this film which showcases just what made Mercury and his band rock icons, and huge ones at that.
"Mercury was indeed a born ringmaster," wrote CNN in a piece about their status as stadium savants. "There was no alienating affectation, no wallowing in sentiment... Queen consciously wrote their songs as vehicles for theatrics."
Summer of Soul (2021)
Back in 1969, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight, Nina Simone and B.B. King joined forces for the Harlem Cultural Festival, a mostly forgotten multi-week legendary summit. That all changed when Roots frontman Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson obtained a treasure trove worth of footage and directed this stunning film, aptly dubbed Summer of Soul, which brought the event back to vivid life and subsequent acclaim including a GRAMMY Award for Best Music Film.
"It was gold," Thompson told Pitchfork of his process of sifting through the footage to create what would become a passion project. "If anything, it was an embarrassment of riches. It was too much. I kept this on a 24-hour loop for about six months straight. Slept to it. Traveled to it. It was the only thing I consumed."
Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids (2016)
Also directed by Jonathan Demme and released before his 2017 death, Justin Timberlake + The Tennessee Kids showcases Timberlake's popular 20/20 Experience World Tour and litany of solo hits including "Sexyback" and "Suit & Tie."
"I don’t think anything can compete with live performance," admitted Demme to Rolling Stone before his death in 2017. "You can’t beat it. But we strive to provide the most exciting interpretation of that feeling, as filmmakers. We can provide a roving best seat in the house. We can linger on closeups. We can follow the dynamics of the music. I love shooting music."
The Last Waltz (1978)
One of the earliest projects of director Martin Scorsese’s career was helping edit the monumental film version of Woodstock in 1970. But as that decade progressed and the auteur became known for narrative features including Mean Streets, he revisited his roots by directing The Last Waltz. A trailblazer in the genre, the film captures the last performance of The Band featuring frontman Robbie Robertson alongside a range of guests including Bob Dylan, Ringo Starr and Eric Clapton. Filmed on Thanksgiving Day in 1976, it’s a time capsule of the day’s biggest acts at the height of their artistry.
"It's a picture that kind of saved my life at the time," Scorsese told an audience at the Toronto International Film Festival during a 2019 screening. "It's very special to me. Forty years on, it's very special to a great number of us."
Photo: Aysia Marotta
Noah Kahan's Big Year: How The "Stick Season" Singer Became A Folk-Pop Hero
On the heels of announcing an arena and stadium tour for 2024, Noah Kahan revisits some of the biggest moments that have led to it, from going viral with "Stick Season" to collaborating with Post Malone.
In July 2019, Noah Kahan made a promise to his fans via Twitter: "I prolly won't sell out Madison square garden, or even all the shows on my tour but I'll keep writing songs for you all for as long as you'll have me."
Four years later, he's made good on his word about continuing to write songs. But he's also proved himself wrong; not only has the Vermont-born star sold out his entire 2023 tour, but 2024 will see him play a sold-out Madison Square Garden — twice.
While Kahan himself asserts that he's always had a "very dedicated" fan base — whether from his days of posting to SoundCloud and YouTube or since he signed with Republic Records in 2017 – he admits he still finds it hard to process the level to which it's grown. "It's f—ing unbelievable," he says. "It feels so fake that it's almost like, the more time I spend thinking about it, the more abstract it becomes."
His humility is a large part of his appeal (as well as his sense of humor, both on Twitter and on stage), which carries into his folk-pop music. It's matched with extreme vulnerability, as Kahan has been open about his struggles with mental health. Even one of his biggest hits has revealing lyrics: "So I thought that if I piled something good on all my bad/ That I could cancel out the darkness I inherited from Dad," he sings the second verse of "Stick Season."
"Stick Season" became Kahan's breakout song in 2022, first making waves on social media — catching the attention of stars like Zach Bryan and Maisie Peters — and earning him his first radio hit. Its namesake album earned Kahan top 5 spots on Billboard's Top Alternative Albums, Top Rock Albums and Top Rock & Alternative Albums charts in October 2022, but it was the 2023 deluxe edition that really showed his trajectory: all 18 tracks debuted on Billboard Hot Rock & Alternative Charts, making him one of only five artists to ever land 18 songs on the chart in one week.
Kahan's disbelief in his success is only going to continue into the new year, as his 2024 tour will also include L.A.'s Hollywood Bowl and two nights at Boston's Fenway Park. At this rate, he's seemingly on his way to Taylor Swift-level stardom — though, as he jokes, three-hour shows will never be in the cards: "From a physical health standpoint, this is as big as it can get."
In the midst of his Stick Season Tour, Kahan reminisced on the wild ride he's been on for the past 18 months. Below, he details seven of his most career-defining moments to date.
Watching "Stick Season" Blow Up
I wrote the song in 2020 and I posted the first verse and the chorus [on social media] the next morning. It was kind of an awkward time, because I had another album coming out right after that video was posted [2021's I Was / I Am] , and I had to promote that, and people were like, "What about that other song?" I'd be at shows and people would be like, "Play 'Stick Season'!"
I started to play it live, which is really what stoked the fire in terms of us realizing that it could be a big song. I played it in Syracuse, New York — and we hadn't posted any snippets besides what I would do on my Instagram Lives, or I'd perform it here and there on social media. Everyone in the room knew every single word to it. That was the song that got the biggest reaction all night, and it was a song that wasn't even out yet. That definitely opened my eyes to the desire for that song to be out in the world.
A lot of my set at the time was more pop-leaning, and this song is definitely more folk-leaning. I could really see the desire for sing-along folk anthems after that performance. [I remember] talking to my team and being like, "I think this song is gonna be around for a long time."
It gave confidence to something that I had been trying to do for a long time, even subconsciously. I think I was always making folk music, and I would always gravitate toward those songs, but a part of me would be like, This isn't who you are, you make pop. So I would stay away from it.
It took this one song — and playing it the way that I wanted to, and having people really respond — it opened my eyes to the audience that I didn't realize was there. It also opened my eyes to that confidence in myself that really comes through in this kind of songwriting. It let me look at folk music and storytelling as a bigger focus in my life instead of something that I did for fun or in the privacy of my home.
Seeing The Success Of Stick Season
When I was a kid, I would write my name on a blank CD, and I'd put it next to my Green Day CD, and I would pretend that we were the same. For a second it feels real, but it's really not.
Seeing my name on the charts and in conversations with all of these incredible famous artists, it kind of gave me the same feeling where I felt like, This just can't be real — I must be back in my childhood bedroom writing my band name on blank CDs. Because this doesn't happen to people making folk music, really. I was just kind of stunned into disbelief to the point where it took people reminding me that it was happening to actually process it.
I was in love with everything about the process of making this album, and honestly, that was enough for me. I felt so fulfilled. The organic nature of how it all came together felt so real to me, and it felt so important to me. And doing it in Vermont, and having the record be about Vermont and New England — it really felt like the album I've been waiting to make my whole life.
I think my fans could see how much it meant to me, and it meant the same to them. We kind of shared this real emotional attachment to this album together.
It just felt like a huge change in the way my life was gonna be. It meant that I could make music that fulfilled me that would fulfill others. I guess you could say it reinvigorated my faith in music in a lot of ways.
The chart success, and the radio play, and the co-signs from other really great artists and songwriters was incredible and overwhelming. I still haven't really processed it all.
It definitely changed my life and put me into a place where I'm selling out shows, and there's lots of people that want me to work with them. It feels so nice, because it all came from following my heart — in the least cliché way.
Playing Boston Calling
It started to feel monumental when I got there. It's, like, three minutes away from my house, which is crazy. So I took a van from my house and I started walking around the festival, and it felt like I was Justin Bieber — people were chasing me around the festival and screaming.
It was one of the first times I've played in Boston since the deluxe [version of Stick Season] came out, and it was the second festival of the tour, so we were not expecting this crazy reaction. We get on stage and the crowd is just a sea of people. It looked like the crowd for a headliner, and it was only, like, 6 p.m.
We had a really good performance — objectively, we kind of crushed it — and all the fans were losing their minds, and then later, I went on stage with the Lumineers, which was so insane. It just felt like this moment of this hometown crowd really coming out in full force, showing their support and showing the world that I had this kind of fan base. I felt like I was kind of stepping out into a new world in a lot of ways when I got on stage.
Singing "Homesick" was pretty incredible. It has a line about the Boston [Marathon] bombers, and we were literally right next to Watertown where the Boston bombers were caught. And hearing like 40,000 New Englanders sing "I'm mean because I grew up in New England" was incredible — it made me tear up watching videos the next day. Seeing all those people connect over this common understanding of who we are, and that region, all at once was really, really special. It was just such a Boston moment.
Ever since then, it was kind of just crazy show after crazy show. And every hometown show has been so unbelievable. It was kind of the start of the madness.
Headlining Red Rocks
A show that felt particularly special was Red Rocks. Having gone from being an opener there to a headliner in a little less than a year was really special for me. The growth was so evident.
The crowds at Red Rocks are in this trance of community and love — it felt like the crowd was connecting with each other, and watching that happen was really incredible. Every single person there had a smile on their face. I think that everybody there had an amazing time, and that made me so happy.
Another thing that I've loved about all the shows, but Red Rocks in particular, is that some of these songs are filled with painful feelings and thoughts, and things that, for me, required a lot of vulnerability. And when the crowd is singing every single word, it just means that a whole crowd of — in Red Rocks' case, 9,900 people — are just being vulnerable, and yelling it out loud.
That's the greatest gift a musician can ever get — watching people express themselves and free themselves from any kind of shame at a show. That's what I try to do with my music, and I feel like I saw thousands of people shedding their guilt, their fear and their shame, and singing the lyrics.
We were playing the song "Maine," and there's a line that's like, "If there were cameras in the traffic lights, they'd make me a star," and I remember looking up at the crowd — that line is really about knowing that you have something special, but not knowing if anyone can ever see it.
I remember singing that song and that line, and I looked up to the crowd — 9,,000 people, that's four times bigger than everyone in my hometown — screaming that line back to me, and I cried. I couldn't believe where I was in my life.
And I still can't, but there are moments that I get numb to all of it and there are moments when the absurdity of it all slaps me in the face. That was definitely a moment where I felt just shocked by where I had gotten to, and how things have grown.
Launching The Busyhead Project
The Busyhead Project is an endeavor to raise a million dollars for mental health awareness, and these organizations that are doing so much for fighting the stigma and supporting people who suffer around North America. We wanted to start this organization because I have spent a lot of my career thinking and about my own journey with mental health, but I always felt like I was not doing enough, or just kind of providing lip service.
I never wanted to feel like I was accessorizing it or commodifying it. So I wanted to do something that felt boots-on-the-ground, tangible, [and] would make a real difference. We set out with a goal to raise a million dollars [for these organizations], and we're getting really close. [Editor's note: As of press time, The Busyhead Project has raised $977,055.]
I think it just comes down to putting your money where your mouth is. Like, I'm playing bigger venues and I sell merch — I'm starting to make money, and part of my philosophy on wealth and making money is that you're supposed to use it to help other people.
I don't need a lot for myself. I live on a diet of sunflower seeds and bananas — I'm literally eating both of them right now — so I wanted to give back as much as I can. It's really that simple; trying to raise money for people that really need it, and organizations that are doing miraculous work. We're definitely not going to stop at a million — I hope not, because that would be kind of lame. [Laughs.] If we can raise more money, we should raise it.
When I was a kid, I would look up "Artists with depression" or "Artists on medication." I didn't find a lot of 'em, but when I did find somebody, it would feel like I was, like, saved by God or something. That became like religion to me, to see that someone who was in the music industry was also struggling with what I was really struggling with as a kid. I want to provide that for some kid making music out there.
Breaking Onto The Hot 100 (And Collaborating With Post Malone) With "Dial Drunk"
The chart is kind of, like, the one thing from movies about the music industry that signify when the band is doing well — like The Rocker, or Rockstar, where it's like, "Oh my god, the music's on the charts!" And they're doing a montage where the chart spins, and they're on a magazine cover, you know what I mean? And what's always followed by that is a horrible downward spiral, so I think when I saw the song charting well, I was like, Oh God, this is where my career starts to go bad.
But I was really excited, and it was super cool — and, again, one of those things that's hard to actually understand from a human level.
It was also really nice because I always feel like the last thing I did is the best thing I did, so after "Stick Season" was a big success, I was like, I have to have another song! And I was touring so much, and I was on Zoloft, so I was feeling emotionally kind of numbed-down. Writing this song was kind of a wake-me-up from what was going on.
It was kind of a personal victory in a lot of ways — I challenged myself to make something new, and I did, and then it had this massive success. It felt like I can get through anything and do this again if I have to. It reminded me that what was happening in my career wasn't lightning in a bottle, but a real reflection of an audience being hungry for my music.
So then when Post Malone started recording his verse in the song, I felt like I was in a fever dream. I felt like it was gonna elevate my career to a new place, and I think it did.
He's always been an inspiration to me in the way he approaches music. I literally just reached out to him on DMs randomly one day, I was like, "Bro, I think you might like this song, we should do it together." He responded two months later, like, "Yeah, I f—ing love it!" It felt really natural.
We sat cross-legged and drank beers at the show in Massachusetts that I went out with him [to perform "Dial Drunk"]. It was so Post Malone — we talked about adult diapers and The Dewey Cox Story. He was just so funny and fun to be around.
Announcing An Arena & Stadium Tour For 2024
They had been talked about for a while when we were starting the tour in the spring, but they never felt real — I always kind of think, That'll happen later. At the point that I'm doing those shows, I'll feel like I belong in those rooms.
Having these shows scheduled is truly surreal. I just don't know how we're gonna sell that many tickets. [Laughs.] I think I'll believe it when I'm in the room — like, Madison Square Garden, to me, has always felt like just where Paul McCartney goes, and I can't believe that I get to be having my name on the marquee.
I told my managers on the phone when they booked Fenway, "I'm actually going to retire after this." [Laughs.] There's really no way to describe what that means to someone from New England.
As someone who grew up loving the Red Sox, going to Fenway Park all the time with my friends — getting drunk and stealing somebody's seats, and screaming at the opposing players over the dugout — that place has meant so much to me and so many people in my life. And the fact that I'm going to be one of not many people that have headlined that venue is just the craziest f—ing thing in the entire world. It feels like there's no other higher peak than playing songs about New England in the mecca of New England.
There was, like, a limit to my dreams when I was a kid — what I could do for a living and how big it could be. I'm trying to have my 8-year-old self be proud of me. I don't think he could even imagine where I'd be now.
I'm so proud of the people I work with, I'm so proud of myself, because I have really worked hard for this, and I've sacrificed a lot of things in my life to make music happen. To get to this place, it just feels like all those hard decisions were worth it.
I'm grateful for all the people that have supported me, and the people that have taken time out of their day to believe in my music when I couldn't believe in it. I'm just happy to feel like I belong here.
Photo: Aaron Marsh
Teddy Swims Is Letting Himself Be Brutally Honest On 'I've Tried Everything But Therapy'
As the world continues to discover the magnitude of Teddy Swims' soulful voice, he realized the power of opening up and letting go with his debut album, 'I've Tried Everything But Therapy.'
Four years into his career, Teddy Swims made a promise to himself to be more honest. With that in mind, he decided to be unflinchingly real with his debut album title: I've Tried Everything But Therapy.
While the title may be true for now, Swims is incredibly vulnerable. Across 10 tracks, he divulges the raw emotions of heartbreak, from reeling over what could've been in opener "Some Things I'll Never Know" to leaning into new love — while still in repair — on closer "Evergreen."
"It's the most honest I've ever let myself be," Swims, born Jaten Dimsdale, says of the album. "I'm proud of it, and I'm proud of myself. And it's a f—ing relief to just get it off my shoulders."
For someone who bares his soul in his music, both lyrically and vocally, it's rather surprising to think that he wouldn't be the type for therapy. But now that the album is out, his next step is seeking professional help — another promise he made to himself upon choosing the candid title.
In the meantime, Swims is already seeing the impact of being more and more open in his music. "Lose Control," the album's lead single, has earned Swims his first entry on the Billboard Hot 100 and first solo radio hit (in 2022, his Meghan Trainor collab "Bad For Me" reached No. 15 on Billboard's Adult Pop Airplay chart). But perhaps more notably, his powerful vocal runs on the song's dynamic chorus are stopping listeners in their tracks. As one YouTube commenter put it, "Man has a voice that speaks to the core of your soul."
Just before the album's arrival, Swims talked with GRAMMY.com about how I've Tried Everything But Therapy has helped him understand the impact of wearing his insecurities on his sleeve — and how his bewitchingly soulful voice ties it all together.
How does this album feel different from what you've put out before this, whether it's lyrically or sonically, or even how you feel mentally based around the process?
I feel like this is maturity. I can listen to these songs and I feel proud of them.
Everybody kinda doesn't like their own voice, you know? But I feel like I belong on those songs, and nobody could say what I needed to say the way I could say it. I feel like I'm saying something that I need to say and get off my chest in an entirely different way than I ever have.
I'm kind of an emotional toddler. I'm getting more of a grasp on what I want to say and how to say it, how to talk about my feelings more. I feel like the more I do it, the longer I do it, the more honest I become, the more I get out of the way of things. I'm learning to get out of the way and let the creative flow just be what it is now.
Going into writing this album, like, what were you going through? And did you have a goal in mind about what you wanted the album to be?
I really didn't know at the time. In the last four years, I've written maybe four or five hundred songs. I didn't write it knowing that it was an album, or write it knowing that this was going to be the album; but more so, when it started coming together, it just felt like things fell into place.
I realized that I've been circling around the same feelings and emotions for a very long time. It's always about — I was in a very toxic relationship, and I have been a lot in my life. This is me kind of learning that I can be loved, and that I am beautiful, and I deserve love. That's kind of what the struggle is and always has been.
The album title is interesting to me, because so many artists compare songwriting to therapy. But has songwriting always felt like therapy for you?
Songwriting can be therapeutic if you have a feeling that you need to get out, and you write that feeling down, and you get it out. But what I tend to do a lot in my life, I'll write it down into a song, and then I'll write it into another song from a different perspective. And I'll write it down 100 different ways, in 100 different perspectives, to the point that it ends up that that small problem has now turned into the biggest problem in my life, because I've thought about so many different ways.
Instead of being more therapeutic, [songwriting has] been more of a way of highlighting what I'm going through, sometimes way too much.
The title itself was kind of a promise to myself that I would go to therapy when the album comes out. I think it's something that everyone can benefit from, especially me. But there's still something about me — maybe it's a generational mindset, like, I'm not crazy, I don't need that, or maybe there's answers to questions I don't really want to ask that I'm gonna get.
I like my coping mechanisms. I like how I am and who I am when I do cope. So there's a part of me that's afraid that I'll have to change.
But I made a promise to myself, put a deadline on myself where I'll go and I'll seek help, and I'll try. It's also me being honest and open about that, to you and to everyone, that I'm like, "I need help, that's okay." I'm gonna ask for help, and that's a liberating and equally terrifying thing.
The nice thing is, there has been a lot more public acceptance of mental health in recent years. How have you felt that change since you started releasing music, and how has it impacted your songwriting?
I think what's so great about our industry these days is that I'm not held to the same standard as, like, Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson, where I have to be such a star, and you don't know anything about me. These days, as an artist, I get to be absolutely insecure and absolutely terrified, and it's what makes my artistry beautiful. And people that feel the way I feel can look at me and say, "That guy's so insecure, and he's so scared. But he's doing it, and we want him to win."
I don't want to swallow my insecurities. I don't have to wait until I feel like I'm worthy of love to put myself out there. Every bit of insecurity, and everything that's going on in my life, I'm allowed to just wear it and put it on for everybody to see. That has helped me in more ways than me trying to be anything I'm not.
You've said that for a long time, you worried about giving too much of yourself in your music, but seeing people connect to the music has made you realize it's actually making a difference. When did you start realizing that?
I am very lucky — every show we do, I have a meet and greet where I can talk to 100 people, and they tell me things that have changed their life, ways that I've affected them, and the ways that I've touched their lives.
I also want them to know that I'm just that fat kid from Rockdale County, Georgia, and still feels like that. And they make me be able to be honest and have an outlet to turn my trauma into something positive in me.
I feel like I learn it more and more every day that I am in a safe space, and I've created a safe space for people, and I become safer in that all the time. And I'm becoming more honest with myself, with them, in the safe space. It's just sacred, you know?
Was there a song of yours that kind of opened that up for you, because of the way that people connected to it?
I've had a few like that, but "Simple Things" that I released on one of my EPs is still a song I sing all the time. I thought the verses were only specific to my life and what I was going through — that was the first time I was honest, and I wrote from only what I was going through specifically to my life, and that connected and did more for people than anything I did [previously].
You've said that you're insecure, but would you consider yourself an introvert?
I think the more that I do this, the more I become one. I used to be the biggest extrovert in the world, but the more I do this job, the more I have to be social, I feel myself becoming more of an introvert.
Well, I brought that up because so many artists consider themselves introverts, when you are pouring your heart out in music that is then heard by thousands, if not millions, of people. Has that dichotomy ever crossed your mind?
Yeah, but that's kind of why I think I've become more introverted, because I gotta figure out what's still mine or if there should be anything that I should hold to myself. That is the question: What is still for me, or should there still be anything just for me?
That's so interesting to think about — I've never really thought about the battle that an artist can have when they share so much. Because it's like, at that point, you're so exposed, how are you even supposed to function as a private person in any regard?
Yeah. You figure it out, you let me know. [Laughs.]
It's cool that you're feeling so proud of this album, though, because I'd say that means that you haven't gone too far.
It's the most honest I've ever let myself be. And I don't feel exposed — I just feel like I said what I needed to say.
I've heard that I've Tried Everything But Therapy is coming in multiple parts and this is just part one. Is that true?
Yeah, we're planning on part two, but I don't know what that looks like yet. But I want to put out more music. And I think I want to come from a different place of what I've learned from how I've healed. I just don't feel like this story's done yet.
But you said you're going to start therapy after this album releases — so you're going to release a part two of I've Tried Everything But Therapy after you've been in therapy?
Yeah, I guess that doesn't make sense. But it will!
It would be kind of interesting to have part two be the response to therapy after you have done it.
Yeah, exactly. That's the vibe. Maybe we just go straight to part three and skip part two altogether.
Before you even released part one, people were going crazy over "Lose Control" because of how soulful you sound on it. When did you realize you had such a captivating voice?
It wasn't really a realization — I was bad for a long time. But I love this, and I wanted this, so I worked hard to become good at it. I wanted to be the best I could at it, because using my voice means everything to me, and I want to know how to do everything I can with it.
Well, you're doing something right, because people are exclaiming about it left and right. I saw a comment on one of your Instagram posts that said, "I just threw my shoe across my damn office, you better sing!" Do you feel the power of your own music?
I know, technically and dynamically, I am a good singer. When I listen to myself, I can't say I can't sing, because it's all there. Any singer or vocal coach could tell "That kid knows what he's doing. He can sing his ass off."
But also, there's part of me that still doesn't like my voice, too, just like anyone else. And I think that might be why I became so good at it. Because I want to hear it and be like, "Well, you can't tell yourself you ain't good, 'cause that was f—ing — that takes skill." I've learned enough to know that I can't tell myself I'm bad. [Laughs.]
And I have to say, I've been impressed with all of the people you've posted singing their own versions of "Lose Control."
People can sing! And people have been writing verses to it too. The love on it has been so rewarding.
I feel very justified [that the music] is connecting. I feel like it's already helping. I feel very humbled, appreciated and loved.