searchsearch
How Tate McRae Turned A "Full Identity Crisis" Into Her Debut Album, 'I Used To Think I Could Fly'

Photo: Lissyelle

interview

How Tate McRae Turned A "Full Identity Crisis" Into Her Debut Album, 'I Used To Think I Could Fly'

Teenage singer/songwriter Tate McRae details how her new album, 'i used to think i could fly,' served as a cathartic coming-of-age journey, and why it's important to be vulnerable in her music.

GRAMMYs/Jun 3, 2022 - 02:17 pm

At 18, it may seem like Tate McRae is just getting started. But a career in music is something she's been working toward practically her whole life, posting her first original song on her YouTube page at just 7 years old. So how did she feel upon releasing her debut album, i used to think i could fly?

"The fact that it's actually here," she said on the eve of its May 27 release, "makes me want to, honestly, puke a little bit."

McRae has never shied away from being brutally honest in her music, which likely contributes to her nerves — but also, her appeal. The Canadian singer/songwriter's breakout single, 2020's "you broke me first," proved that her unabashed vulnerability is connecting. Peaking at No. 1 on Mediabase's Pop Radio chart in 2021, the song now has 1.4 billion combined streams worldwide.

i used to think i could fly continues McRae's candid lyricism while taking her sound from lo-fi to arena-ready, exemplified by tracks like the anthemic "she's all i wanna be" and the punk-leaning "what would you do?" Whether it's a hard-hitting ballad such as "chaotic" or an uptempo jam like the Nelly-sampling "don't come back," each track shows that McRae is ready to be one of her generation's most raw-and-real superstars.

GRAMMY.com chatted with McRae about why it's important for her to be so open, the "identity crisis" that influenced her album, and which lyrics hit her just as hard as they hit fans.

You've said that you treat your song like your diary entries. Do you ever have moments when you realize that this stuff that's really private and personal to you is about to be in the hands of everyone?

I'm a pretty private person otherwise — you know, aside from literally writing my feelings and putting them on the internet. But it is really scary when you think about real people listening to it, [especially] people that I know. It's terrifying because no one wants to ever look that sensitive or vulnerable. But I genuinely think that my true fans are gonna really appreciate the lyrics, and the honesty and rawness of the record.

Did any of the reactions to any of the songs that you've released — especially "you broke me first," since it became so big — inspire the way that you approached this album? 

Actually getting to perform my songs for the first time influenced my writing a lot. Getting to see actual fans sing back my lyrics felt like I can't stand up on stage and preach something that I don't believe. I definitely need to be talking about real shit and real stuff that I really believe in, and I want others to hear too.

Are there any songs on this album that are so personal that you've thought, "Oh s<em></em>*, is this really being released?"

There's this one song called "hate myself." This song definitely put me through a wringer as I was recording and writing it. I feel like a lot of people write from the perspective of blaming the other person because it's the easiest thing to do. But in this song, I point out all of my biggest flop flaws as a person, which is so scary. I mean, I'm just full-on exposing myself to the whole world. 

It talks about how when you care about people, and sometimes when you love people so much, you push them away. And I think that's just a coping mechanism that I do. So that whole song is basically admitting that I push people away that I truly care about, and care about it — and that's really scary that I'm releasing it.

There are several lyrics that cut like a knife on this album. Obviously you've felt all of these lyrics at one point, but are there any that still kind of sting because of how raw and real you were? 

The one lyric that really hurts in "i still say goodnight" is "I couldn't say much/ I was distracted/ You seem so anxious/ Like you had something to hide/ Tell me it's nothing/ I don't believe you/ I know that look you get when you're about to lie." That feeling of staring at someone dead in the eye and knowing that they're blatantly lying to you is so crazy because you can never know if someone's telling you the truth or not. It's all based on your intuition and if you trust them. It's terrifying!

Then there's also this lyric in "boy x" at the end of the chorus, "And when you get bored like you always do/ Tell me that you'll let her go before you look for someone new." It's [about] a wandering eye, when someone's in a relationship and they start looking for other people while they're still seeing someone. I think that's one of the grossest things ever. It perfectly targeted exactly how I felt about the situation.

On the opposite end, is there a lyric that you hear back and you're like, "Damn, I wrote that?"

My favorite bridge on the album is in "hate myself." "So off I go to hurt you again/ I'll shut you out to try and forget/ That I'm the one who's f<em></em><em>ed in the end/ 'Cause, baby, you'll be happier with someone else/ So if I go to hurt you again/ I'll shut you out to try and forget/ That I'm the one who's f</em><em></em>ed in the end/ 'Cause you couldn't hate me more than I hate myself."

I remember writing this with this producer named Blake Slatkin. It was just me and him in the room, and I had just finished writing all the lyrics, and we were like, "Okay, we need a big bridge." We were standing on opposite sides of the room like screaming this bridge. We were like, "F<em></em>* yeah! This is perfect!" 

It perfectly summarizes the feeling of blaming yourself for everything, but at the end of the day, the reason why this is all so painful is because I pushed you away, and now I'm the one who's getting hurt because you're going to be much happier with someone else and I'm going to watch you live your life and be incredibly happy. And that's going to be the hardest part.

I have to say, for being 18, you're incredibly intuitive about this kind of stuff. I'm impressed. I also feel like that's kind of the nature of teenagers these days. They are really in their feels, and the music that's popular today — yours included — is really vulnerable. Does it feel like that way on the artist's side, that the most vulnerable music is the most popular?

There's generic lyrics and, like, party songs, and everyone can listen to that. But at the end of the day, what people are going to end up going back to is the stuff that they feel in their gut. 

Especially my generation, with social media, and the pandemic happening, and everything that's going on, I feel like a lot of people are bad at talking about their emotions. So a lot of people my age go to music in order to get that outlet — they're like feeding for something that's gonna feel really honest to them. So as an artist, I'm like, "This is the kind of music that I want to listen to, so this is obviously what I want to write."

You've explained that you had a "big identity crisis" in the middle of writing this album, which in part inspired the title i used to think i could fly. Can you elaborate on what you were going through, and how this album helped you through it?

When I first moved to LA, I got put into a bunch of writing sessions with a lot of different people. And I was so confused because I was being fed so many different opinions on who I should be, how I should talk, what I should say and what kind of music I should put out. And I've never been one to listen to people — I mean, that sounds horrible. [Laughs.]

I've just always gone with my own gut, and I've always been like, "No, I'm gonna do it my way." And it was really confusing for a while, because I was like, "Who the hell am I?" And I'm not at home anymore. I'm by myself. I'm meeting a whole bunch of friends who I don't even know if they're my friends. I was going through my first heartbreak. There were so many factors that I was so confused, and I was having a full identity crisis. And then when I started writing music that was like, "Oh, this is how I'm feeling," that's when it started to settle down a bit.

This album takes your sound to another level, with fuller production and more fast-paced, anthemic songs. What were the main catalysts for that?

The aspect of live shows, doing that for the first time, I was like, I want to not have a boring show. I want to put on a show where people are able to scream at me.

It wasn't sprouted from, like, "I want to sound rock-y" or "I want to have this musical instrument in my music." It was very much like, if I was so pissed off one day, I ended up writing a really pissed off song that ended up turning into some sort of punky song. Then I was at Finneas' house and I was so sensitive that day, so we started writing this like really classic piano. The difference in all of my songs is so wide, but I feel like that's what perfectly captures an identity crisis — in a beautiful way.

I feel like there are so many options for what this album could have been called, like Identity Crisis or even just Mood. But I love the sentiment of i used to think i could fly, like the fact that when you're young and naive, you think anything is possible. But there is a point in time, and maybe it's when you're 18, that the reality hits and you're like, you can't fly.

Right. I didn't want this album to have a nothing title. I really do want there to be some depth and darkness in the title because I want people to take me seriously. I want people to know that I am analyzing all of everything over and over again in my head, and I'm not just picking a random title that came out of nowhere.

"Tate McRae Is Deep" is the headline here.

[Laughs] Tate McRae is actually super deep and super intellectual.

As far as getting your sound to this next level on this album, you worked with a lot of major pop players like Greg Kurstin, Finneas, Louis Bell and Charlie Puth. Did any of them in particular feel like they were crucial in getting you to this next sound level?

Yeah, Greg Kurstin. I had been doing a lot of writing sessions where I felt like I was being pushed in a lot of different directions, and he was one of the only guys that I was able to sit in a room and finally talk about — I remember, I wrote "chaotic," and that was one of the first songs that like was a switch in my album. That was one of the first songs that I was like, "Oh yes, this needs to be on my album."

His energy, and obviously, he's so insanely talented. and everything he was producing was so inspiring to me. I just feel like we gelled really well as writers and I love working with him. He's so incredible.

I've heard that for being such a prolific, superstar kind of producer, he's like the most low-key guy.

It's so funny, because everyone always asks me, "Oh, what was the process like working with him? How was the energy in the room? It must have been electric!" And I'm like, "Well…" [Laughs.]

Like, "she's all i wanna be" started as a ballad with piano chords. And I was like, quietly in the corner typing on my computer and wrote this song. I went into the studio and recorded it in full takes, and then I gave him a high five, he said "Good job," and I left. And that was the writing session. There was no discussion of the song, no nothing. The energy in the song was so personal that we were like, "Okay, good job. See you next time."

That's so funny, because that's the song that goes the most hard at your show.

I know, and I was like, whispering it in the corner of the [writing] room.

Did you have any particular moments during the tour where it really hit you that this is your job?

Well, I have really bad impostor syndrome. I have this vision that I'm not supposed to be there. So I'll show up to a venue or something, and I'm like, "No one will show up." It's very hard for me to grasp. 

I went to Detroit and it was my biggest show that I played, and I just remember I released a song the night before or that night, and I was like, "Should I sing this song? It hasn't even been out for a few hours." I started singing it, and the entire place was singing the song. It was like thousands of kids, like a full choir screaming it. I remember getting full body chills and just crying. I was like, "This is wild. How is music doing this?" 

And then also, at Lollapalooza [last year], it was my first big show. I did like maybe three shows that had like 100 people, but that was the extent of my singing performances.

They were really throwing you to the wolves on that one.

I was like, "What is Lollapalooza?" I had no idea. And I walked out on stage, it was like, 20,000 people, I'm like mind-blown. And I didn't realize what had happened with "you broke me first" at the time, because I [had been] like, in my basement at home in Canada. I just remember hearing people scream that song and I was like, "How do people know this? How is that like, random 42-year-old man in the back singing it?"

Your talent as a dancer got you noticed by Justin Bieber and your talent as a singer got you noticed by Shawn Mendes. Who are you hoping will notice you next?

I mean, okay, Justin Bieber, I didn't really do anything with him. It was like a one-time performance that a whole bunch of kids did. 

I mean, you still made it onstage with Justin. Even if he didn't notice you, you still made it there.

If Justin Bieber knew who I was, I would freak out. That would be literally crazy. 

Just tell yourself that he knows who you are.

Yeah, he definitely knows who I am, obviously.

Run The World: Inside Olivia Rodrigo's Stratospheric, Record-Setting Journey To Superstardom

2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Pop

Taylor Swift

Photo: Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images

news

2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Pop

Pop's reach became even wider this year, with newcomers, superstars and global acts all delivering some of the year's biggest hits and memorable moments

GRAMMYs/Dec 30, 2021 - 10:06 pm

It seems there's never a dull moment in pop music. But in 2021, the genre's rising stars and longtime greats all came out swinging, always giving fans something to be excited about.

Taylor Swift and her unofficial protege, Olivia Rodrigo, made for two of the biggest stories of the year: Swift began releasing her rerecorded albums, and Rodrigo had the world listening after she dropped her global phenomenon "driver's license."

Pop expanded its palette this year, too, with K-pop experiencing its biggest year yet and Nigeria proving that its Afropop stars have some serious promise.

On top of all of that, fans finally received some of pop's most-anticipated albums in 2021, making for a year that was truly monumental and memorable. Take a look at eight of the genre's most prominent trends below.

Teenage Angst Took Over

From the moment 2021 began, there was no denying it was going to be the year of Olivia Rodrigo. With the runaway chart and streaming successes of her two biggest hits so far — the teenage heartbreak ballad "driver's license" and the angsty, Paramore-sampling "good 4 u," which both debuted atop the Billboard Hot 100 — the 18-year-old was at the helm of young stars who weren't afraid to get raw and real in 2021.

A sense of vulnerability was the through-line of pop's new wave this year, and it clearly resonated. In addition to Rodrigo's triumphs, Australian breakout The Kid LAROI landed a Top 10 hit with the gut-wrenching acoustic track "Without You" as well as a Hot 100 and pop radio No. 1 with the Justin Bieber-assisted bop "Stay." And if the honest lyrics of his hit singles aren't enough indication, just look at the title of its parent album: F--- Love.

Tate McRae, another 18-year-old, also hit a sweet spot with her peers with her anti-sympathetic breakup song, "you broke me first." The song has amassed more than one billion streams worldwide, also reaching No. 1 on pop radio.

Of course, Gen Z first got in their feelings thanks to Billie Eilish, and she continued to carry her torch in 2021 with the release of her second album, Happier Than Ever. Though the album's jazz-influenced, downtempo nature was a departure from the trap-led sound of her debut, When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, it lyrically stayed right in line with the trenchant honesty that made her a star — and, seemingly, opened the floodgates for her teen successors.

"Taylor's Versions" Caused a Frenzy

Nearly two years after Taylor Swift announced that she'd be re-recording her first six albums in order to regain artistic and financial control, the first two albums arrived in 2021. And boy, did Swifties have a field day.

The country starlet turned pop superstar knew exactly what her loyal legion of followers would want, releasing remakes of fan favorites Fearless and Red this year. Upon the April release of Fearless (Taylor's Version), the album had the biggest opening day for an album on Spotify in 2021, garnering 50 million global streams on its first day and subsequently debuting atop the Billboard 200.

Yet, it was Red (Taylor's Version) that became a phenomenon, becoming the most-streamed album in a day from a female artist on Spotify with nearly 91 million global first-day streams (breaking the record she previously set with 2020's Folklore). The album's immediate draw owed partial thanks to a 10-minute version of her beloved power ballad "All Too Well," which took on a life of its own. Along with becoming a short film that Swift debuted in New York City and earning the singer her eighth No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, it also blew up the Twittersphere with scathing (yet amusing) tweets about the song's supposed subject, actor Jake Gyllenhaal.

Among Red (Taylor's Version)'s many other feats, the 10-minute, 13-second version of "All Too Well" also became the longest song to top the Hot 100. With four re-records still left to release, who knows what kind of records Swift will break next?

Black Women Took The Genre By Storm

While 2021 wasn't necessarily a breakout year for Doja Cat or Normani, it was the year that both stars came into their own — and, ultimately, reinvented the pop star ideal.

After teasing her pop sensibility with her 2020 smash "Say So," Doja Cat struck pop gold again with the SZA-featuring "Kiss Me More." The disco-tinged hit was just one of the many A-list collaborations on Doja's hailed album Planet Her, which has accumulated more than 3 billion streams since its June release and debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200.

On the opposite end, Normani — who got her start in pop girl group Fifth Harmony and saw her first two solo hits (2018's "Love Lies" and 2019's "Dancing With a Stranger") take over pop radio — reminded listeners of her versatility in 2021. Following an empowered team-up with Megan Thee Stallion for the Birds of Prey soundtrack, Normani recruited Cardi B to help bring out her R&B side on the sexy slow jam "Wild Side," which earned the 25-year-old singer her first hit on Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (in the top 5, no less).

Two artists who did have breakout years were Beyoncé protegee Chloë and German singer/songwriter Zoe Wees. Chloë, one half of R&B duo Chloe x Halle, released her debut solo single "Have Mercy" to critical acclaim, putting on showstopping performances of the song at the MTV Video Music Awards and the American Music Awards. Wees closed out the AMAs with a powerful rendition of her poignant song, "Girls Like Us," the follow-up to her viral hit "Control."

Artists Loudly Proclaimed Their Sexuality

As acceptance becomes more prominent within mainstream music, stars are latching on to the new era of being open about however they identify.

Though Lil Nas X came out as gay in 2019, his sonic proclamation came in controversial form with "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)." The video for the flamenco-dripped track — whose title references the 2017 gay romance film Call Me By Your Name — depicted biblical and Satanic scenes in racy fashion. Despite resulting in backlash from religious groups, the song and video's bold statement served as an impactful one for the LGBTQ+ community — as Lil Nas put it himself, pushing for "more acceptance, more open-mindedness amongst humanity as a whole."

Demi Lovato (who announced they are non-binary in May) featured a song about their sexual fluidity on their seventh album, Dancing With the Devil, released in April. The wavy "The Kind of Lover I Am" declares "Doesn't matter, you're a woman or a man/ That's the kind of lover I am" on its rolling chorus.

Bringing back one of pop's first sexual fluidity anthems, Fletcher interpolated Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" for her own single "Girls Girls Girls," which marked "the freedom and the celebration I've been craving my whole life," she said in a press release. One month later, she teamed up with Hayley Kiyoko (who has been dubbed "Lesbian Jesus" by her fans) for "Cherry," a flirty sapphic jam.

K-Pop's English Infusion Blew Up

Thanks to the likes of BTS and BLACKPINK — and now countless other groups — K-pop has made its way into the U.S. pop market in a major way in recent years. As it has continued to boom, more and more artists are releasing songs that are completely in English — and the genre is arguably bigger than ever.

Less than a year after BTS first dabbled in English-language singles with 2020's smash "Dynamite," they delivered the biggest hit of their career with the smooth sensation "Butter." The song debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, where it stayed for 10 non-consecutive weeks — a streak initially broken up by their third English-language hit, "Permission to Dance."

BLACKPINK saw two of its members go solo in 2021, Lisa and Rosé, who each issued English-language singles of their own. Lisa's "Money" and Rosé's "On The Ground" both landed on the Hot 100, respectively garnering more than 375 million and 255 million YouTube views alone.

Several other acts released notable English-language tracks, with SEVENTEEN and TWICE each putting out their first: "2 MINUS 1" features SEVENTEEN members Joshua and Vernon, and "The Feels" became TWICE's first top 20 hit on the Billboard Global 200, where it reached No. 12.

Read More: 5 K-Pop Songwriters & Producers Who Defined 2021: SUMIN, Teddy Park, ADORA, RM & SUGA

Pop Became More Global Than Ever Before

South Korea isn't the only far-flung country having a moment. In fact, Nigeria is arguably one of the most fruitful geographical founts of music — particularly thanks to the recent Afropop explosion.

Wizkid — who first saw global success with his Drake collaboration, "One Dance," in 2016 — earned his first Billboard Hot 100 hit as a lead artist with the R&B-tinged single "Essence." The song features fellow Nigerian singer Tems, making history as the first Nigerian song to break the Hot 100 top 10. The sultry track caught the attention of Justin Bieber, who hopped on a remix and declared it the "song of the summer."

Bieber also enlisted Nigerian star Burna Boy for his widely praised LP, Justice, one of the singer/rapper's many pop-driven appearances in 2021, including Sia, Jon Bellion and John Legend

Two other rising Nigerian acts, Joeboy and Fireboy DML, saw their Afropop takes resonate this year, too. Joeboy's "Alcohol" inspired a viral TikTok craze, and the success of Fireboy's "Peru" landed a remix with Ed Sheeran in December.

Elsewhere, Latin still proves to have a profound impact in the pop world. Puerto Rican newcomer Rauw Alejandro's irresistibly catchy "Todo De Ti" made its way to mainstream radio, as did Maluma's global hit "Hawái," the latter thanks to a remix with The Weeknd. And Pop queens Christina Aguilera and Selena Gomez also honored their Latin roots: Aguilera dropped two singles, "Pas Mis Muchachas" and "Somos Nada"; Gomez released her first Spanish-language project, Revelación.

In the streaming world, Bad Bunny — Spotify's most-streamed artist for the second year in a row — and BTS (No. 3 on Spotify's year-end tally) proved that Latin and K-pop are equal contenders to pop powerhouses like Taylor Swift and Bieber, who were No. 2 and 5, respectively.

Superstars Joined Forces

Sure, every year sees star-studded collaborations. But with artists having unprecedented downtime in 2020 and into 2021, some iconic pairings were born.

Ariana Grande and The Weeknd — no strangers to working together — scored their first Hot 100 No. 1 with a remix of The Weeknd's "Save Your Tears." Another Grande collaborator, Lizzo, teamed up with Cardi B for her latest single, "Rumors."

One of the most unexpected (and brilliant) partnerships came from Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak, who joined forces for the '70s funk-inspired duo Silk Sonic. The pair dropped their silky debut single, "Leave the Door Open," just one week after announcing their joint project in February, and unveiled An Evening With Silk Sonic in November.

Veterans recruited some of pop's newer voices, too. Australian icon Kylie Minogue dueted with British electropop star Years & Years on "A Second to Midnight," a track from her reissue album, Disco: Guest List Edition. She also featured Dua Lipa on the album on a song titled "Real Groove."

Lipa co-starred with another legend, Elton John, on the chart-topping (and "Rocket Man"-sampling) hit "Cold Heart (PNAU Remix)." The single was part of John's jam-packed collaborative album, The Lockdown Sessions, which also featured Charlie Puth, Stevie Nicks and Stevie Wonder, among many others.

Long-Awaited Albums Arrived

Silk Sonic appeased those eagerly waiting for Bruno Mars to follow up his 2016 Album Of The Year-winning LP, 24K Magic, as the duo’s material featured plenty of signature Bruno power hooks and slinky melodies. But those still longing for a solo Bruno Mars record may have at least been satisfied by the other 2021 arrivals.

Six years in the making, Adele’s 30 finally landed in November — and, unsurprisingly, became the top-selling album of the year in just its first three days. The LP has now sold more than 1 million copies, and spawned the singer’s fifth Hot 100 No. 1 with the poignant lead single, “Easy on Me.” Beyond accolades, 30 sees Adele at her most vulnerable — as she's said herself, it centers around her divorce from entrepreneur Simon Konecki — which resulted in her most raw and powerful work yet.

Considering Ed Sheeran’s extensive touring schedule that had the singer/songwriter on the road until the end of August 2019, it was almost hard to believe it had been four years since his last album. Surely some Sheerios felt the agony, but it was worth the wait: =, Sheeran's fourth studio album, offered 14 new tracks that expand on the star's signature talents, from heartfelt falsetto to boot-stomping melodies.

In what felt like the day that may never come, Kanye West delivered his tenth album, Donda, in August. The project had seen multiple postponements since its originally scheduled release of July 2020, but perhaps that's because the final product has a whopping 27 songs. While the album leans more into West's hip-hop roots, its impressive roster of guest stars — from The Weeknd to Watch the Throne cohort JAY-Z — offered any kind of Kanye fan something to enjoy.

After such a whirlwind year, one big question stands out as we enter 2022: what's next?

2021 In Review: 8 Trends That Defined Latin Music

The Psychology Of "Sad Girl" Pop: Why Music By Billie Eilish, Gracie Abrams, Olivia Rodrigo & More Is Resonating So Widely
Billie Eilish performs at the 2022 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for ABA

feature

The Psychology Of "Sad Girl" Pop: Why Music By Billie Eilish, Gracie Abrams, Olivia Rodrigo & More Is Resonating So Widely

As Olivia Rodrigo, Tate McRae and more of pop's current leading ladies continue to pour their hearts out in song, three music psychology experts assess what makes their vulnerability so connective.

GRAMMYs/Jul 13, 2022 - 07:48 pm

Olivia Rodrigo probably never imagined that a drive through the suburbs would become a rallying cry for anyone who's ever mourned a relationship. But when she released her debut single, the racing power ballad "drivers license," in January 2021, suddenly she had the biggest song in the world.

"drivers license" broke streaming and chart records upon its release, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and inspiring memes across social media. While it wasn't exactly uplifting —  Rodrigo vividly details the devastation of trying to move on from an ex, and laments the milestones they were supposed to celebrate together — the song became universally celebrated, sending listeners into a nostalgic haze of first heartbreaks. Everyone was screaming, crying and dancing at the same time. 

"drivers license," one could say, is the latest centerpiece of "sad girl" pop — the specific aesthetic of artists who write songs through a dreamy, yet raw lens of rage, pining, heartbreak or rejection. The music itself creates a spectrum of emotions where you might want to sway at one point, but scream like Zach Braff and Natalie Portman at the rock quarry in Garden State at another.

Though Rodrigo is one of the stars at the center of "sad girl" pop, it had been percolating long before the explosion of "drivers license." After all, artists like Fiona Apple and Alanis Morrisette were the poster girls for it in the mid-to-late '90s. But one could argue that this iteration of "sad girl" pop found its roots in the 2010s, thanks to artists like Lana Del Rey, whose palpable aching and loneliness became inescapable anthems like "Video Games" and "Summertime Sadness"; Taylor Swift, whose first crossover success Red spawned the still-heart-wrenching fan favorite  "All Too Well"; Robyn, who created the ultimate crying-at-the-club banger "Dancing on My Own"; and MARINA, care of the depressed-Barbie era of her album Electra Heart. 

Even with all of its origins, "sad girl" pop didn't truly begin to form its own sort of subgenre until Billie Eilish and her whispery, gloomy music emerged in 2016. Others have steadily begun following suit: Sasha Alex Sloan emerged with a debut EP aptly titled Sad Girl two years later; Gracie Abrams' intimate, diaristic tracks served as major inspiration for Rodrigo (who later recruited Abrams as a tour opener); Tate McRae has turned her insecurities into aspirational, sad-pop anthems like "she's all i wanna be."

While "sad girl" pop isn't exactly new (most music trends are cyclical, of course), the way that people are clinging to it is. "There's a cliche about pop that it represents a retreat from reality, an escapist fantasy world where listeners get to leave their fears and anxieties in a vision of Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' or fun.'s 'We Are Young,'" says Nate Sloan, host of Switched on Pop and assistant professor of musicology at USC Thornton School of Music. "But modern listeners — especially young people — are pushing back against that paradigm, celebrating artists like Billie Eilish, Halsey, and girl in red, who don't shy away from the troubles of the world but sublimate them into their music." 

Their music, in turn, helps them cope with their own "lived realities." It's equal parts celebration of the artist and found community for someone who, in a world away, relates.

Which is why the rise of "sad girl" pop feels synonymous with the current state of the world. To varying degrees, we've all endured the trauma of a pandemic that hasn't ended, particularly the mental and emotional toll of isolation and anxiety that has transpired. There's also been the weight of police brutality, school shootings and the impending death of democracy for people to bear. Finding comfort in nostalgia — especially within pop culture — was natural for many.

Some retreated to the music, TV or films they listened to when they were teenagers, while others sought relief in music that evoked the feeling of being young and carefree. It's also why recent vulnerable, melancholy pop tracks became such a balm — and ultimately solidified the power of "sad girl" pop.

But the group that seems to be drawn to this niche pop aesthetic are teenagers. It makes sense: Gen Z is coming of age at a time when there's less of a stigma around discussing mental health. Celebrities and artists are arguably more open than ever about their struggles — Shawn Mendes, for instance, has often shared his battle with anxiety, sharing a super honest message with fans in April; Selena Gomez opened up about her bipolar diagnosis in 2020, and launched a multimedia company dedicated to mental health this year.

And it isn't just young women dominating this niche area of pop. Male artists like Conan Gray, Dean Lewis, Jeremy Zucker and Lewis Capaldi are delivering bedroom pop anthems ranging from angsty to wistful, overall unafraid to showcase raw vulnerability. Their music has proven to similarly resonate, with Capaldi's pained breakup ballad "Someone You Loved" hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 2019 and Dean Lewis' "Be Alright" reaching No. 1 on Billboard's Adult Pop Songs chart that same year.

Read More: How James Bay Found The Courage To Be Vulnerable For New Album 'Leap'

"Shame is gradually being removed, so people are talking more about their feelings and their mental health — and audiences can relate to it," says Jodi Milstein, MA, LMFT, LPCC, music therapist.

When their emotions are reflected back to them in a song by a public figure, sometimes that's the key to getting help and seeking therapy. "A lot of times, we can't tell people, 'you need to do this, this and this to feel better.' We just have to set an example," Milstein explains.

Gen Z is much less filtered than other generations, and more candid about their own mental health struggles, as a 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association and a 2019 report by the American Psychiatric Association showed. And it's not uncommon to see them pouring their hearts out on TikTok or Instagram. But their connection to hyper-vulnerable music is also the result of where they are in their lives. Because their brains are still developing, they "tend to have a more difficult time modulating their emotions," says Sloan.

"At the same time, they feel things more deeply than adults might, especially music," he continues. "Studies have shown that the developing brain creates strong neural pathways between music and emotion in the teenage years, so that the music we listen to at that phase of our lives tends to stay with us, no matter how far we get from that period.".

Despite the lyrics — or even the mood — of the artist, "sad girl" pop is no different than other subgenres of music. "What's true of 'sad girl' pop is true of all music: it's essential to try and hear a piece of music as expression, not fact," Sloan adds.

In other words, girl in red may be singing about depression in "Seratonin," but it doesn't mean that the listeners themselves are depressed. They could be, but they could also find catharsis or joy in hearing someone detail a similar experience. And at a young age, especially, there's so much power in being seen and heard by a song.

"Several studies have shown that when listeners listen to sad music, they can experience [it] as if it was kind of empathizing with them," says Jonna Vuoskoski, associate professor in music cognition at the University of Oslo. "Music is almost like a virtual friend."

But while the music is resonating, there is a flipside to "sad girl" pop. The label, which has helmed the conversation around this music, can be diminishing to the artists who are pouring their feelings into these songs. Despite all of the aforementioned artists whose vulnerability has helped their listeners heal, filing music under "sad girl" writes off a person's — particularly a woman's — emotional trauma as something not to be taken seriously.

It can also glorify the idea that it's "cool" to be sad, which is rarely the intention of these artists. When it comes down to it, their songs are about as personal and vulnerable as one could get. They're creating deeply moving material — and an importantly deep connection with those who listen.

"They're speaking up for themselves — they're setting limits or setting boundaries," says Milstein. "On Instagram and Tik Tok, people get on there and will say, 'Hey, this happened to me, and I'm not gonna deal with this anymore.' People have been more expressive. You see other people actually talking about [this] stuff, which before you didn't see that."

From Abrams to Rodrigo, these artists aren't singing about their insecurities and pain for cachet: They're simply young women (and men) trying to navigate young adulthood. What they're sharing is courageous — and should they decide to move out of the "sad girl" box they've been placed in, we should be ready to grow with them.

How Tate McRae Turned A "Full Identity Crisis" Into Her Debut Album, 'I Used To Think I Could Fly'

Global Spin: Katerine Duska And Leon Of Athens Premiere "Babel," A Bilingual Tale Of A Love Lost In Translation
(L-R) Leon of Athens, Katerine Duska

Photo (L-R): Ria Mort, Thanos Poulimenos

video

Global Spin: Katerine Duska And Leon Of Athens Premiere "Babel," A Bilingual Tale Of A Love Lost In Translation

Frequent songwriting partners Katerine Duska and Leon Of Athens grapple with a relationship full of miscommunication in this emotional duet, which they debut with a powerful Global Spin performance.

GRAMMYs/Nov 29, 2022 - 06:00 pm

"Can I love you a little more clearly?" Katerine Duska and Leon of Athens sing in the emotional chorus of their new song, "Babel." "Can we get it right? Can we talk another night away?"

In this episode of Global Spin, the two pop singers — and frequent songwriting partners — effortlessly trade off between Greek and English in a compelling performance. But as beautiful as the bilingual, harmony-driven duet may be, "Babel" chronicles a fraught relationship where, ultimately, the love gets lost in translation.

"Babel" brings the two lovers back to where they started: Frustrated and failing to see eye to eye, but still invested in one another. That narrative pairs with an equally passionate, string-filled sonic backdrop in this song, which Duska and Leon of Athens premiere on Global Spin.

The song's visual component further underscores its message. Duska and Leon of Athens perform the song from a bed, surrounded by candles and rippling water. As they wrestle through their disagreements — both lyrically and physically — the two artists make an attempt to find tenderness, but their best efforts dissolve into frustration and disconnection.

The bilingual duo have co-written several times in the past, and they're no strangers to performing together, either. Their first duet, "ANEMOS," came out in 2019; a year later, the pair released another collaboration, "Communication."

Press play on the video above to get a first look at the latest collaboration between Katerine Duska and Leon of Athens, and keep checking GRAMMY.com every Tuesday for more new episodes of Global Spin.

ReImagined: Brand-New Irish Duo Where The Waters Meet Debut With A Shimmering Cover Of Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes"

Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Akon And Teemanay's Favorite Tour Meal Is So Iconic That It Has Its Own Festival
(L-R) Akon and Teemanay

Photo: Matteo Vincenzo (right)

video

Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Akon And Teemanay's Favorite Tour Meal Is So Iconic That It Has Its Own Festival

Over plates of Nigerian jollof rice, global superstar Akon and Afrobeats mainstay Teemanay explain the finer points of this staple West African dish — which is also their staple meal on the road.

GRAMMYs/Nov 29, 2022 - 05:00 pm

When it comes to music, R&B giant Akon and rising Afrobeats star Teemanay (aka Young Icon) have a lot in common. Not only are they both from West Africa — Akon's family roots are in Senegal, while Teemanay hails from Nigeria – but the two teamed up on the four-song EP Konvict Kulture Presents Teemanay, which came out on Akon's label earlier this year.

The two acts have similar tastes when it comes to food, too — though they might disagree on the finer points. Jollof rice, a staple throughout West Africa, is a dish that both artists grew up loving, even though they hail from different countries within the region.

"For a meal, if they have jollof rice for me, I will give them an extra 15 minutes of free performance," Teemanay jokes in the newest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.

"So the rice is actually smoked, almost like when you cook barbeque," Akon details, explaining what it is that makes this particular dish so special. "When you look at jollof, it ranks in the top five of those things you just can't forget. It's a part of the meal, every meal."

The dish is so essential that Akon hosts an annual Jollof, Music & Food Festival in Atlanta, which features a lineup of music and food trucks. But the pinnacle of the event is the jollof cook-off, in which recipes from different countries compete to see which region creates the best version of the dish.

"This year, Senegal won. But we kinda expect that, because Senegal is really the creators of jollof rice," Akon proudly explains, as Teemanay shakes his head in disagreement.

"I'm in a very aggressive, fighting mood right now," Teemanay shoots back with a smirk. "Nigerian jollof is the best jollof in the world."

Whichever regional version they prefer, Akon and Teemanay can agree on one thing: There's no better post-show meal or tour bus snack out there than jollof rice. 

Press play on the video above to watch the two stars duke it out over their favorite jollof, and keep checking back to GRAMMY.com for more new episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.

Love Burna Boy & Wizkid? Listen To These 5 African Genres