Seeking Clarity About Clairo
A new kind of pop star: In a musical landscape full of false messiahs billing themselves as game-changers, it’s easy to scoff at the notion, but truly transformative figures come along more often than you’d think. How many musical inflection points have been sparked by a magnetic persona who synthesizes a bunch of trends and ends up setting off new ones by virtue of their very existence?
We’ve certainly seen no shortage of such artists in recent years, with pop culture accelerating into hyperspeed and disparate tributaries merging with increasing frequency. Many of the names racking up insane streaming numbers right now represent new archetypes. Billie Eilish seamlessly blends Lorde and Lana and Tyler and SoundCloud rap into goth hypebeast trap-pop. Post Malone turns sing-song pop-rap into a soupy new kind of meat-and-potatoes classic rock. Rosalía stylishly converges flamenco with reggaeton and Latin trap and cutting-edge R&B. Lizzo is an unstoppable rapping, singing, twerking, flute-playing whirlwind. Even when the influences are obvious, you feel like you’re hearing some new chapter in pop music — an impression that solidifies as more and more listeners rally around the artist in question and legions of imitators begin to arise.
Clairo is this kind of character. Claire Cottrill, a Massachusetts native on the brink of 21, has spent the past two years building up from a viral YouTube presence to a full-scale music-industry onslaught — a transformation completed by her debut album Immunity, out tomorrow. Ever since her 2017 breakout hit “Pretty Girl,” a GarageBand bedroom-pop track with a homespun webcam video to match, she’s been a world-straddler. Whereas some artists distill their inspirations into sleek new forms, Clairo blurs them to the point of mirage.
It’s true of her music, which finds common ground between the twee indie-pop of Beat Happening and Moldy Peaches and R&B-inflected mainstream fare from Brandy to Britney. And it’s just as true of the circles she runs in. Recently you could find her touring arenas with young adult-contemporary prince Khalid and duetting with indie rock sensation Snail Mail at Pitchfork Music Festival, where Clairo herself was anointed with a mid-afternoon set. For a while she was managed by Chance The Rapper’s manager, Pat Corcoran. She has collaborated with PC Music affiliate Danny L Harle, genre-flouting breakout star Cuco, and skillful UK pop-R&B producer SG Lewis. She ended up on a Matt & Kim song alongside Kevin Morby. Rostam, the former Vampire Weekend member who also rides the borderline between indie rock and mainstream pop, co-produced Immunity with Clairo and recruited contributions from the likes of Danielle Haim, Ariel Rechtshaid, and Dave Fridmann.
Like Greta Kline of Frankie Cosmos, to whom her early lo-fi recordings were often compared, Clairo has rich, well-connected parents. Her father, Geoff Cottrill, is a marketing executive who has worked for giants like Procter & Gamble and Coca-Cola and has been notably involved with Converse’s Rubber Tracks recording studio, Starbucks’ record label Hear Music, and MusiCares, the charitable arm of the Grammys. So when “Pretty Girl” blew up and Clairo began attracting high-profile attention from the media and the music industry alike, some (including me!) were suspicious that powerful forces behind the scenes might be manufacturing the illusion of DIY success. Clairo’s rapid rise seemed especially sketchy given that her songs struck me as bland and inert.
Yet “Pretty Girl” was originally released on a compilation from The Le Sigh, a decidedly underground taste-making publication spotlighting female-identifying and non-binary artists. Her music was quickly embraced by fans of vaporwave, the chillwave-adjacent microgenre retrofitting ’80s and ’90s mood music into surreal capitalist satire, which is I guess how her face ended up on a onesie for infants. Regardless of whether Clairo ever qualified as a so-called “industry plant,” she has clearly forged a connection with her audience. Online and onstage she presents herself like a Lana Del Rey who has subbed out old Hollywood glamour myths for a distinctly Gen Z sensibility, and like Lana, she’s become not just a recording artist but a cult of personality. The clamor around her is loud, enthusiastic, and genuine.
Some were enchanted by the unvarnished authenticity of “Pretty Girl,” the way the song and its proudly unpolished video rejected the male gaze. “I could be a pretty girl/ I’ll wear a skirt for you,” she sang drowsily over peppy keyboard chords and a chintzy drum machine. “And I could be a pretty girl/ Shut up when you want me to.” At Pitchfork, Quinn Moreland called it “the sound of a young woman realizing her own worth, and if you don’t find that even slightly moving, to paraphrase The Virgin Suicides, you’ve obviously never been a teenage girl.”
Rostam, meanwhile, became obsessed with Clairo’s brisk “Pretty Girl” follow-up “Flaming Hot Cheetos,” even arranging it for an orchestra and inviting Clairo to perform it with him. In a new Paper profile, he comments, “I think Claire has a subtly devastating singing voice. She sings with a lot of clarity and references a handful of vocal styles at once, but it’s effortless for her. I also think she has a deeply original songwriting voice. That line ‘girlfriend or girl that’s a friend’ seems simple, but there are layers to it. Her lyrics are deep.”
I’m still not sure I’m hearing the profound genius that separates Clairo from acts like Wet and Dizzy, who’ve utilized a similar palette in service of watery, emotive indie-pop. I certainly wasn’t hearing it during Clairo’s set at the Pitchfork festival, where she gave a poised performance of not-particularly-dynamic songs. On a day when Robyn and Black Midi and JPEGMAFIA and Charli XCX delivered electric displays, such an unremarkable offering suggested intimate YouTube indie-pop might not translate to a large outdoor festival stage. When Clairo picked up a guitar, it was fascinating to hear her sound morph from pop to indie rock without losing its wispy essence, the audio version of an optical illusion. But all the songs were dull regardless of which side of her aesthetic she leaned into. To quote a track from Immunity, “You wanna feel somethin’/ But I don’t feel nothin’.”
Speaking of the album, it makes a much better case for Clairo’s charms. Like many of today’s popular acts, her music is more vibey than visceral, more concerned with emotional expression than physical impact. Yet Clairo and Rostam reportedly worked to make sure the drums knocked on every song, a decision that breathes life into music that might otherwise have fluttered and sputtered to nowhere. “Impossible,” for instance, marries Clairo’s signature breathy reflections (“And you know that I can’t hold back all of these worries that I have had”) to a vibrant rolling snare drum plus guitar and keyboard flourishes like the ones Rostam used to pepper into Vampire Weekend songs. The lovelorn, shoegazy “North” certifiably slaps. The also-lovelorn “White Flag” shimmers tumultuously as she asserts, “I know you’re stressed out/ But you know in small towns, what goes around comes back around.” The measured smolder of opening track “Alewife” is accented with plaintive piano chords and smartly punctuated with drums that seem to be thwacking somewhere off in the distance.
It’s impressive how many directions Clairo and Rostam were able to bend her aesthetic without ever compromising her identity, a goal Clairo pointedly outlined in the Paper interview. “Closer To You” — which breaks its trance with a startling command to “Shut up!” — successfully transposes the Clairo sound into the realm of Auto-Tuned trap music. “Bags,” perhaps her most beloved single since “Pretty Girl,” mutates the sound of reigning indie rockers like Soccer Mommy into crystalline pop. “Sofia,” a song about her first forays into queer romance, was supposedly informed by both Robyn and the Strokes, a hybrid that works much better than you’d expect. A children’s choir emerges out of nowhere on the spacious, twinkling album closer “I Wouldn’t Ask You.” Like many songs on Immunity, that final ballad is buoyed by lyrics like “Wish I could get past insecurity,” perhaps a clever reference to the concert barricades Clairo has been seeing more and more of.
I did not expect to like Clairo’s album, especially after being so disappointed in her live show. But with Immunity, all the work she has been putting in is clearly paying off. As a 35-year-old straight white suburban dad, I am not necessarily Clairo’s target audience, but her album goes a long way toward helping me understand why a generation obsessed with chill playlists and collapsing binaries and unfiltered self-expression finds her so captivating. It is a reminder that underneath all the contextual particulars that can make someone feel fresh and important, every transformative pop artist has one thing in common: Good songs.
“Old Town Road” makes history this week, becoming the longest-running #1 single in the 61 years since Billboard launched its Hot 100. Lil Nas X’s viral smash has now spent 17 weeks atop the chart, 16 of them alongside Billy Ray Cyrus on the official remix. The song thereby surpasses 16-week champions “One Sweet Day” by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men and “Despacito” by Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, and sometimes Justin Bieber. With powerful social media savvy and a seemingly bottomless well of strategic remixes at his disposal, it will be very interesting to see how long Lil Nas X can stay on this horse.
Since there’s nothing much to compare this to, Billboard has rounded up some other notable Hot 100 records related to maximal #1 achievement: The Beatles have the most #1 singles with 20, and Mariah Carey has spent the most combined weeks at #1 with 79. And when Billboard assembled a cumulative all-time Hot 100 for the chart’s 60th anniversary, Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” came out on top.
Back to this week’s chart: Billie Eilish’s “Bad Guy” spends its seventh nonconsecutive week at #2. Shawn Mendes and Camila Cabello’s “Señorita” climbs back to #3, and Khalid’s “Talk” to #4. Lizzo’s “Truth Hurts” hits a new #5 peak, while Sheeran and Bieber’s “I Don’t Care” falls to #6. Holding steady at #7, #8, and #9 are Post Malone and Young Thug’s “Goodbyes,” Jonas Brothers’ “Sucker,” and another Post Malone song, “Sunflower” with Swae Lee. And rounding out the top 10 is another Mendes track, “If I Can’t Have You” — the first time Mendes has landed concurrent top 10 hits. Other artists to do it this year include Drake, Ariana Grande, Halsey, Travis Scott, and — as we see this week — Post Malone.
In the shadow of this week’s historic Hot 100, the Billboard 200 albums chart feels like an afterthought, but there is movement in the top 10, albeit not up top. As Billboard reports, Ed Sheeran’s No.6 Collaborations Project is #1 for a second straight week with 78,000 equivalent album units and 16,000 in sales. The last album to spend multiple weeks at #1 was Juice WRLD’s Death Race For Love back in March.
Beyoncé’s The Lion King: The Gift debuts at #2 with 54,000 units and 11,000 in sales. It’s her ninth top 10 album as a solo artist and third in 2019 alone following the live album Homecoming and her 2016 opus Lemonade, which surged back up the charts after being released to non-Tidal streaming services. She’s the second artist to land multiple albums in the top 10 this year following Future, who did it with The WIZRD and his Save Me EP. The rest of the top 10 comprises albums from Billie Eilish, Lil Nas X, J. Cole’s Dreamville crew, Chris Brown, Lizzo, Khalid, Post Malone, and — entering at #10 with 23,000 units and 12,000 sales — Nas’ The Lost Tapes 2. It’s his 13th top 10 album.
Big Sean – “Single Again” (Feat. Jhene Aiko & Ty Dolla $ign)
How powerful is therapy? It inspired the guy who released “I Don’t Fuck With You” to release a breakup song extolling the virtues of self-improvement(!), featuring his ex(!!). Dude seriously rapped, “What have you done for yourself? What have you done for your mental health?” And he didn’t even follow it with goofy tryhard bars about an assquake or what have you. (The song’s also decent.)
Gryffin & Carly Rae Jepsen – “OMG”
Gryffin’s production is pretty boilerplate, but “OMG” is a decent song, and Jepsen’s little vocal tics and nuances remind us why she’s one of the most beloved singers in pop.
Ava Max – “Freaking Me Out” & “Blood, Sweat & Tears”
The “Sweet But Psycho” singer seems to be veering away from early Lady Gaga tributes, which is mostly a good thing. Even if her new material has a less distinct identity, at least it’s not somebody else’s identity. And these two new tracks today suggest she’s finding her way toward somewhere interesting. I like the wordless bridge in “Freaking Me Out” in particular.
Icona Pop – “Next Mistake”
Charli XCX’s former “I Love It” collaborators have signed to Ultra and are going full dance-pop, which was a wonderful decision judging by this magnificent ’90s-vintage house banger.
Noah Cyrus – “July”
Usually Noah Cyrus is annoying and this song is not. A win!
NEWS IN BRIEF
- Thom Yorke to Billie Eilish: “You’re the only one doing anything fucking interesting nowadays.” [Twitter]
- Justin Bieber shared a photo of him with Kanye West and producer Ray Romulus, leading fans to speculate about a forthcoming collaboration. [Billboard]
- Taylor Swift will receive the first-ever Icon Award at this year’s Teen Choice Awards. [Twitter]
- Swift also stars in a new Capitol One commercial. [YouTube]
- “Boyfriend,” Ariana Grande’s new single with Social House, is out tonight. [Twitter]
- The 2019 Global Citizen Fest lineup will bring Queen + Adam Lambert, Pharrell Williams, Alicia Keys, and OneRepublic to NYC’s Central Park. [Global Citizen]
- On Tuesday Cardi B’s Indianapolis concert was postponed 30 minutes before showtime because of a security threat. [USA Today]
- Looks like Charli XCX and Sky Ferreira filmed a video for Charli track “Cross You Out.” [Instagram]
- Lana Del Rey shared pics from the double video shoot for new songs “Fuck It I Love You!” and “The Greatest.” [Instagram]
- BTS star in an anti-bullying video for UNICEF. [YouTube]
- Lil Nas X was CEO of Twitter for a day. [Twitter]
HOLD ON, WE’RE GOING HOME
CUT MY LIFE INTO PIECES, THIS IS MY LAST RESORT 🎶 https://t.co/AJI0fDRovw
— Papa Roach (@paparoach) July 29, 2019