Gracie Abrams And The Professionalization Of “Bedroom-Pop”
When Olivia Rodrigo took over the world with “drivers license” at the top of 2021, critics like me scrambled to point out reference points for the trembling piano ballad, which simultaneously felt traditional and in step with the bedroom-pop zeitgeist. But Rodrigo herself did not cite the influence of Phoebe Bridgers, Billie Eilish, or even her self-professed idols Taylor Swift and Lorde. Rather, she said the song was directly indebted to minor, the 2020 EP from Gracie Abrams. “It was so great,” Rodrigo told Pandora. “I was so inspired. I literally just drove around my neighborhood listening to it for like an hour, and I was so moved that I went home and I wrote this song, which I really love, that is very much inspired by her style of songwriting.”
Abrams is not yet Olivia-Rodrigo-famous, but she’s been enjoying a rapid rise of her own. Admittedly, she did not exactly start from the bottom: Her father is J.J. Abrams, the guy who co-created Lost and directed multiple films in both the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises. That knowledge might reasonably cause you to scoff and to slag off Abrams’ recording career as a rich kid’s vanity project. But if Abrams had the connections to march into the heart of the music industry, she also appears to have the talent to hang. She’s become somewhat of a sensation in Hollywood, with endorsements from a long list of superstars including Swift, Lorde, Post Malone, Rosalía, and actor Nicholas Braun (aka Succession‘s Cousin Greg). She’s released songs this year with big-time producers ranging from pop hit-maker Benny Blanco to the National’s Aaron Dessner. And in minor, you can certainly hear the blueprint for the sound that helped launch Rodrigo to superstardom.
Theoretically, Abrams makes bedroom-pop, but that descriptor — which implies not just intimacy and minimalism but a homespun DIY simplicity — doesn’t really work for music this studio-slick. minor is the sound of all those sad indie singer-songwriters of the past half-decade or so being subsumed into the mainstream pop aesthetic once and for all: breathy, quivering vocals, confessional lyrics about heartbreak, plaintive pianos and guitars, the occasional surprise electronic flourish. There’s certainly some Phoebe Bridgers in the mix, so you could argue Rodrigo actually was influenced by Bridgers secondhand. (Bridgers and her apparent boyfriend, actor Paul Mescal, are also among Abrams’ admirers.) But Abrams’ lyrics remind me less of Bridgers’ darkly comic depression dispatches than of a less passive-aggressive Drake. “Hate to picture you half-drunk, happy/ Hate to think you went out without me,” she sings on the loosely dance-y but still deeply melancholy “21.” Her later lyric “I still haven’t heard from your family, but you said your mom always loved me” has big “How Bout Now” energy.
This Friday Abrams returns with This Is What It Feels Like, a full-length that is being billed as a “project” so that she can become more famous before releasing her “debut album.” It continues to mine the sonic and emotional territory heard on minor, broadening it slightly with pivots like the pristinely rustic “Rockland,” on which she recruited Dessner to go full folklore, and the Haim-esque “The Bottom,” a jaunty little self-loathing ditty on which she declares, “I’m going to drag you right down to the bottom.” (Also: “I’m happier when I’m sad.”) The pulsing “For Real This Time” is a better Lorde song than anything Lorde released this year, while “Augusta” taps into a whispery acoustic vibe similar to what Clairo was doing on this year’s Sling. The tone throughout is mostly plaintive, but the vibe isn’t all negative: “Feels Like,” the opener and quasi-title track, finds Abram in a lover’s thrall: “I would do whatever you wanted/ We don’t have to leave the apartment.”
That line is in step with the past few years of anti-social let’s-skip-the-party pop, but it hits different in the long tail of a pandemic that kept people confined to their homes for long stretches. Those phases of lockdown have inevitably had an impact on the shape and sound of pop. For millennials who grew up with the concept of female pop stardom defined by divas informed by hip-hop, R&B, and electronic dance music — Madonna, Janet, Whitney, Mariah, Britney, Christina, Beyoncé, Rihanna, Gaga, Katy, Ariana — it is a bit of a trip to see this hushed, indie-adjacent balladry become such a dominant archetype. With Dua Lipa and Doja Cat among the most consistent hit-makers in the mainstream, it’s not like every pop star is playing small ball, and figures like Rodrigo, Eilish, and Halsey are accenting their bedroom-pop dabblings with blasts of punk and alternative rock. Still, it’s undeniable that the kind of slow, sad minimalism embodied by Gracie Abrams is all the rage right now, particularly among people young enough to sing that they “can’t picture anything past 25.”
Some of the factors influencing this wave were already in motion before COVID. TikTok accelerated the collision of social media with music discovery, translating the kind of homemade videos that have always thrived on YouTube into easily shareable bite-size form. Eilish, who famously records at her family home with her brother, emerged as a transformative figure. Yet it’s interesting to wonder whether Swift — whose folklore became the dominant album of 2020, and whose initial move toward pop involved scaling back the singer-songwriter part of her image — would have pivoted to rustic indie-pop if not for coronavirus. And don’t discount the demand for music that translates easily to livestream format; like Bridgers, Abrams toured the world from her bedroom last year.
In that sense, at least, This Is What It Feels Like is quite literally bedroom-pop, even if its impeccable sparkle is a long way from the homespun indie-pop that helped to define the style. Ironically, you could sketch out a timeline of the style’s rise over the past decade by tracing the arc from Greta Kline, another child of Hollywood royalty, to Abrams. As Frankie Cosmos, Kline spearheaded a revival of late 20th century indie-pop in all its twee, lo-fi glory, which in turn influenced artists like Clairo, who blurred the line between that stuff and pop in its more recognizable mainstream form. Now we’re to the point where artists like Abrams are emoting over glassy, cinematic production, smuggling indie-pop tones and techniques into old radio-ready forms. This Is What It Feels Like is a pretty solid pop album, and it reveals a central truth about the state of bedroom-pop today: it sounds like it came from a very expensive bedroom.
Ed Sheeran is back atop the Billboard 200 for the fourth time. According to Billboard, = (equals) earned 118,000 equivalent album units, including 68,000 in sales. That knocks Drake down to #2, Morgan Wallen to #3, and Doja Cat to #4. Megan Thee Stallion debuts at #5 with her new mixtape Something For The Hotties, her fourth full-length to hit the top 10. The rest of the top 10 comprises Olivia Rodrigo, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, Lil Nas X, the Kid Laroi, and Moneybagg Yo.
Adele’s “Easy On Me” tops the Hot 100 for a third straight week, followed again by the Kid Laroi and Justin Bieber’s “Stay” at #2 and Lil Nas X and Jack Harlow’s “Industry Baby” at #3. Sheeran’s “Bad Habits” is back up to #4, bumping Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like” down to #5, while Sheeran’s “Shivers” hits a new #6 peak. Drake, Future, and Young Thug’s “Way 2 Sexy” is at #7, with Doja Cat’s “Need To Know” at a new #8 peak and Olivia Rodrigo’s “good 4 u” down to #9. Finally, Glass Animals complete what Billboard calls the lengthiest ever ascent to the top 10, as “Heat Waves” reaches a new #10 peak in its 42nd week on the chart. The previous longest rise was 38 weeks for Carrie Underwood’s “Before He Cheats.”
Post Malone & The Weeknd – “One Right Now”
Given the combined star power here, I expected “One Right Now” to sound way more self-consciously epic. It benefits greatly from just trying to be a killer pop song instead. Basically it’s “Sunflower” infused with the best of Abel Tesfaye’s ’80s synth-pop obsession.
Silk Sonic – “Smokin’ Out The Window”
No surprises here, but the Silk Sonic project continues to be as entertaining as you’d hope. Can’t decide if my favorite lyric is the Chuck E. Cheese reference or “Not to be dramatic, but I wanna die.”
Mariah Carey – “Fall In Love At Christmas” (Feat. Khalid & Kirk Franklin)
I get why Mariah Carey is rebuilding her personal brand around Christmas, but this just doesn’t exude the same yuletide magic we’ve come to expect from her.
Sigrid – “Home To You (This Christmas)”
Sigrid’s holiday-tinted 2019 ballad is blowing up in the UK right now, so she has re-released it with more explicit Christmas branding. I prefer to hear her singing euphoric synth-pop bangers, but this is good too.
Tai Verdes – “Let’s Go To Hell”
At first this seems like some low-stakes fun, nothing special, and then a “The roof is on fire!” chant breaks out. This Tai Verdes guy understands how to write a pop song.
NEWS IN BRIEF
- People are blaming Adele for exacerbating the worldwide shortage of vinyl pressing resources. [Variety]
- The UK TV special An Audience With Adele will air on ITV on 11/21. [Televisual]
- Taylor Swift teased an “All Too Well” (Taylor’s Version) short film starring Sadie Sink and Dylan O’Brien. [Twitter]
- Cardi B will host the 2021 American Music Awards. [ABC 7]
- Avril Lavigne signed to Travis Barker’s record label. [Instagram]
- Their pal Machine Gun Kelly released a signature guitar with Schecter. [Schecter]
- Zara Larsson made over $1 million selling digital merch on Roblox. [BBC]
- Billie Eilish, Kacey Musgraves, and Anderson .Paak will appear on the new season of Sesame Street. [PR Newswire]
- Lana Del Rey broke the record for most #1 albums on Billboard’s Alternative Albums chart. She was previously tied with Foo Fighters and Coldplay. [Billboard]
- Coldplay released a live EP, Live From Climate Pledge Arena, and a Galantis remix of their #1 BTS collab “My Universe.” [Rolling Stone]
- Mariah Carey will be joined by Khalid and Kirk Franklin on Apple TV+’s Mariah’s Christmas: The Magic Continues. [TV Insider]
- Drake shared a low-budget video for his 21 Savage and Project Pat collab “Knife Talk.” [YouTube]
- Lorde released a video for “Fallen Fruit.” [YouTube]
- Lorde also officially released two Solar Power bonus tracks, “Hold No Grudge” and “Helen Of Troy.” [NME]
- Ed Sheeran, Imagine Dragons, Yungblud, Griff, and girl in red will perform at the MTV Europe Music Awards. [MTV]
- Anitta and Saweetie brought “Faking Love” to Corden. [YouTube]