The Miniature Songs And Massive Emotions Of PinkPantheress’ Heaven Knows
The thing you have to understand about PinkPantheress’s Heaven Knows is that it contains a (synth) harp-filled song about an unrequited crush metaphorically murdering her, called “Ophelia.” The album has lots of songs about dying for love, actually, with the musical palette to match. Dramatic quasi-Gregorian chants introduce the romantically fatalist “Capable Of Love”; dramatic quasi-organ and melted hearts populate opener “Another Life”; dramatic quasi-panpipe and Linkin Park piano loops permeate the aptly titled “Feelings.” This variety of teenage melodrama should feel familiar to anyone whose Internet browser has ever autocompleted the URL “xanga.com” or anyone hoarding leftover makeup from a high-school emo phase. And if that’s you, PinkPantheress was like you too, as she told Alternative Press: “Emo lyrics are just so theatrical and camp and over the top. It’s never just, ‘I’m having a bad day’ — it’s, ‘I’m gonna dieeeee!’”
These huge emotional stakes might seem a bit surprising coming from an artist whose defining trait in a lot of listeners’ minds is being small. Then-aspiring singer Victoria Walker famously got her start on TikTok as PinkPantheress – a tossed-off moniker based on something she heard once on a British game show. She got big by going tiny, recording songs paced more like snippets; her idea of longform was 2021’s 18-minute “lickle mixtape” To Hell With It. Heaven Knows is longer than that, but only one song hits the archetypical 3:30 pop song length. Every track sounds like a craft miniature of whatever genre it’s pastiching – often British electronic genres of the early ’00s. And PinkPantheress’ voice, while flexible and vulnerable, is undeniably rather small. It should be noted that lately everyone’s song lengths are becoming shorter on average, a trend that predates PinkPantheress learning the word “pantheress”; that voice teachers often call pianissimo the hardest volume to sing well; and that the brevity is the point, as producer Mura Masa told NPR: “You wouldn’t say to Rothko, ‘Why didn’t you make it bigger?'” The contrast is also the point: a tiny voice, singing tiny songs, about feelings that crush you dead.
PinkPantheress’ rise to off-platform stardom parallels, in a funhouse-mirror kind of way, British dance darling Katy B. Both are British artists who rode underground UK hits to stardom: Katy sang over dubstepper Benga’s “Man On A Mission,” and PinkPantheress flipped D&B producer Adam F’s “Circles” and Sweet Female Attitude’s garage classic “Flowers” on, respectively, “Break It Off” and “Pain.” (That titling again!) Both eventually brought in pop megaproducers to re-enact their throwback sound – a significant chunk of Heaven Knows was produced with Greg Kurstin, sounding utterly unrecognizable from his Adele days.
The analogy isn’t perfect. Katy was an alumna of the prestigious BRIT School, while PinkPantheress was an internet-first operator who set out to deliberately game the FYP recommendation algorithm. As an internet-first artist, her influences skew more global than Katy’s. For every interpolation of a strictly British song – pop-punk band McFly’s “Five Colours In Her Hair,” singer-rapper Example’s “Kickstarts” – there’s a K-pop quote, like a de-goofified insert of a lyric from f(x)’s “Ice Cream” – or an outright American homage, like the G-funk intro of “Feel Good” or bed-creaking Jersey club beat of “Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2.” But on the big things, Katy B and PinkPantheress are kindred spirits. Both are beloved for their everygirl personae: the girl in the club who could be you, in her feelings in a relatable way. “Disappear” or “Go Away” could be sister songs to “Bury Me” and “Mosquito” (which has the most ‘I’m gonna dieeeee!’ of PinkPantheress’s emo lyrics; it’s like a low-self-esteem “7 Days.”)
But PinkPantheress takes the romantic angst even further. While her career initially seemed to be leading up to empty, lightweight nostalgia exercises, Heaven Knows bursts with the kind of teenage emotion that, at the time, feels like the weightiest matter in the world. Most of the album is about being either low-key or high-key devastated by people whom she may or may not have ever spoken to. Sometimes, as in fangirl infatuation anthem “True Romance,” she most definitely has not. Other times, she only halfway has: “Capable Of Love” captures the feeling of a first doomed internet crush better than anything I’ve experienced since Nina Freeman’s game Cibele. To up the immersion, Walker expends a lot of space on the physical sensation of languishing. “I can’t sleep enough without you, I can’t eat enough without you,” guest Ice Spice’s quotable moment of vulnerability, sounds less startling after hearing PinkPantheress variations on it on seemingly every other song. While her anguish isn’t entirely about guys – the devastating “Feelings” is about being terrified that you’ve peaked young, knowing there’s no way off the mountain but down it – she fixates on that subject enough to produce a consistent vibe.
To be clear, the vibe rules. And all Walker’s overwhelmingly emo setup leads to a satisfying payoff when she breaks through the feeling ceiling. “The Aisle” and “Nice To Meet You,” while still self-deprecating, radiate codependent joy – joy that’s contagious enough to even make Central Cee’s verse about getting caught cheating sound positively charming. The big outlier is, naturally, the big single, where PinkPantheress breaks out of it all. “Boy’s A Liar Pt. 2” engineers a mutant earworm of a chorus dedicated to the radical proposition that men should stop expecting women to be flawless. Mura Masa provides a chipper beat that gets out of her way when it needs to, and Ice Spice deploys her usual charm. Walker reportedly thought the original song was “crap” and took a while to come around to the remix. I’m glad she has; the catharsis with which it closes Heaven Knows is needed and earned.
Dua Lipa - "Houdini"
Does the “Judas” thing of building a song around a historical figure you sort of suspect nobody involved has more than shorthand knowledge of, and also the “Judas” thing of being three times bigger and hookier than it needed to be. Dua Lipa sings the hell out of this, and just when it seems like he’s coasting, Kevin Parker wakes up in the fourth quarter to crank the song into turbo.
Stray Kids - "LALALALA"
The K-pop boy band goes martially massive on this onslaught of a single, their first to crack the Hot 100. Mentioning everything in here would comprise an entire column in itself, but I’m particularly thrilled about the tolling bell hook and near-orchestral doominess on the chorus. I’m a complete mark for any pop song that sounds like its true spiritual home is on a Warcraft soundtrack.
Tate McRae - "Greedy"
The most famous pop star from the Canadian version of So You Think You Can Dance channels her inner Britney quite literally, via a Sasha Fierce-esque alter ego. Solidly midtempo, “Greedy” doesn’t really sound like Britney at all, although “I would want myself” is a very “If U Seek Amy” kind of line. But she commits to the bit in the video, packed with nostalgia-pleasing Darrin’s Dance Grooves choreo – even if, again, it doesn’t quite match the energy of the song, or honestly 2023 pop music in general.
Lexie Liu - "Delulu"
On the topic of romantic angst: I’ve liked almost everything that rising Chinese star Lexie Liu has released, but the post-ghosting drama of “Delulu” is yet another revelation. Liu throws herself into a bilingual, frantically vocoded panic spiral over a brutal, pitiless sequencer line. And on the topic of Britney, “Delulu” sounds very much like a Blackout cut – no alter ego necessary!
Kevin Abstract - "Running Out"
One of the poppier tracks from Blanket, the first post-Brockhampton album by the face of the late collective: propulsive, Alex G-ish, and sneakily affecting. Also, I can’t decide whether this deliberately invokes “All The Small Things” or whether it’s just that easy for a pop-punk verse to sound like it’s doing that.
Doja Cat - "Agora Hills"
The prettiest track Doja Cat’s been a total edgelord over in some time. Whoever figured out how to clean radio edit this deserves a Pulitzer.
Tyla - "Water"
The South African singer-songwriter is amassing deserved radio play off this immaculate single, a particularly slinky crossover out of the house music subgenre amapiano. I know it’s an obvious comparison, but “Water” really does sound like being poolside at the most exquisite spa.
Allie X - "Girl With No Face"
Cool Halloween Laura Branigan costume! In all seriousness, how many under-the-radar bangers has Allie X released at this point?
Jungle - "Palm Trees"
“We can literally do whatever the fuck we want,” the British dance act told Rolling Stone, which I guess explains why they’ve released a single called “Palm Trees” during the frozen wastes of November. A great psychedelic groove of one, too. It feels like there should be more Bee Gees homages than there are.
DJ Sabrina The Teenage DJ - "Say What You Mean"
The rising British producer with the fantastic band name turns her impending heartbreak into a strobing and pristine synthpop anthem. You’ve heard hundreds of tracks like this, because every one of them is practically perfect.