Chappell Roan Is A Star

Ryan Clemens

Chappell Roan Is A Star

Ryan Clemens

I don’t want to say “phenomenon.” If I say “phenomenon,” I have to immediately acknowledge that Chappell Roan has already twisted that word into something else. One of Roan’s best songs in called “Femininomenon.” It’s the first track on her debut album, 2023’s The Rise And Fall Of A Midwest Princess, and it’s how she opens her live shows. It’s an anthem, and its existence means that I can’t say that Chappell Roan, whose career is currently skyrocketing so quickly that the artist herself can barely keep up, is a phenomenon. Unfortunately, there’s just no other word that accurately describes what’s happening right now. The Chappell Roan situation? The Chappell Roan sensation? The Chappell Roan anomaly? No. is no help right now. Chappell Roan is a phenomenon. Or a femininomenon. Whatever.

Last summer, Chappell Roan was a camp counselor. This summer, she’s a pop star. She’s been working toward this for her whole life, basically. Now that it’s happening, she looks shocked and overwhelmed. Last night, Roan stepped onstage at Brown’s Island, an outdoor venue in the middle of Richmond. She looked out at the crowd — thousands strong, along with more people watching from across the river and others dancing on a bridge above the stage — and said that this was the biggest show that she’s ever played. I’m sure she meant headlining show, that she’s played to more people at festivals or opening-act gigs. But last night’s show won’t be Chappell Roan’s biggest one for long. She’ll probably break that personal record at least a dozen times before the year is over.

Originally, Chappell Roan was booked at the National, a 1,500-capacity room in Richmond. It’s the biggest club-type venue in the area, and it sold out almost instantly. Promoters moved the gig to Brown’s Island, a venue that can accommodate a whole lot more people, and it still sold out way ahead of time. Secondary-market tickets were going for three or sometimes four figures. Other shows on Roan’s current Midwest Princess tour are being moved to bigger venues, too. She’s in that magical space where people are excited to see her, to take part, and to be excited. She’s the right person at the right time, and it’s always a blast to see that story unfold in real time.

It took a while. Chappell Roan grew up on a trailer park in small-town Missouri. Her environment was conservative Christian, but she fell in love with the expressive flash of pop music, and she got out of there as quickly as she could, signing to Atlantic at 17 on the strength of “Die Young,” a self-written song that she posted on YouTube. Roan didn’t realize that she was queer until she moved to Los Angeles. Her time at Atlantic resulted in one unsuccessful 2017 EP and a couple of opening-act spots on singer-songwriter tours. Roan started working with producer and songwriting partner Dan Nigro in 2020, before his other collaborator Olivia Rodrigo suddenly blew up. With Nigro, Roan wrote and recorded “Pink Pony Club,” a fantastical disco jam about a formative experience at a drag bar. The song didn’t immediately take off when she released it in 2020, but it unlocked a new sound and persona.

Atlantic dropped Chappell Roan a few months after she released “Pink Pony Club,” and she worked a series of day jobs — sometimes in LA, sometimes back home in Missouri — while she kept working on music with Nigro. She released more singles independently and eventually signed with Island through Dan Nigro’s Amusement imprint. Her album came out last fall. It’s a great record that doesn’t have a single core sound. Some tracks are almost explosively clubby. Others are torch songs, or lighters-up power ballads, or swirling operatic quasi-pop gems that veer recklessly from singer-songwriter confessions to disco-diva dance-pop and back again.

Chappell Roan’s voice is huge and expressive — the type of maximal instrument that allows for moments of cloudbursting silliness that most of Roan’s whispery peers wouldn’t attempt. She’s got a knack for funny little phrases that rattle around in your head, and those bits make for great live-show shout-along moments. She writes about being young and broke and messy, about making bad decisions and falling in and out of love and lust, in specific, tangible ways. She sounds like she’s really lived that life, which sets her apart from the many ascendant pop singers who got their starts as child actors. That’s not a shot at Olivia Rodrigo, a big Chappell Roan booster, but the contrast jumps right out. Maybe that helps explain why Roan is suddenly surging.

Roan’s album got good reviews, and I liked it right away, but I’ve been coming back to it more and more in the time since it came out. Some of that is just circumstantial. My daughter has become a big fan, which means that it’s on all the time in my house. The songs themselves are growers, and Roan and her team have timed everything just right. Earlier this year, she opened the first leg of Olivia Rodrigo’s arena tour. She also played a viral Tiny Desk Concert and a standout Coachella set. Last month, she built on all that momentum with the release of the standalone single “Good Luck, Babe!,” which sounds a little like Wham! and which has become her first Hot 100 hit. I don’t think “Good Luck, Babe!” is anywhere near Roan’s best song, but it’s still a jam.

Those career moves all worked to get Chappell Roan’s name in front of people, but some well-timed shows and a hit song aren’t enough to make a career or even a moment like the one that she’s having right now. That takes more. Chappell Roan has the songs to back up the hype, and she’s also got the backstory, the personality, and the lore. She’s set guidelines, for instance, for any fans that she might meet; we’re supposed to know not to call her by her government name or to trauma-dump on her. The individual live shows on her tour all have themes and moodboards, which give fans a chance to get in on the dressup games. The theme for the Richmond show was Pink Pony Club, and there were a lot of sequined cowboy hats in the crowd. Under my daughter’s supervision, I had to go out to Target the night before the gig and buy something to wear, since I didn’t own anything sufficiently pink. (I got a Mean Girls shirt, and I think I pulled it off OK.)

In a lot of ways, Chappell Roan was built for TikTok. Lately, there’s been a trend of people speculating over the physical mechanics of what Roan describes on her song “Casual”: “Knee deep in the passenger seat, and you’re eating me out.” (My best guess: Everyone involved is just really short and also willing to tolerate discomfort.) “Hot To Go!” has an ultra-simple “YMCA”-style dance, and not even security guards can resist taking part. It’s fun to see thousands of people doing those moves en masse.


chappell roan at browns island richmond you will always be famous!

♬ original sound – sami📼🦋

In Richmond, it was pretty clear that Chappell Roan’s current live show was designed with smaller rooms in mind. Her all-woman touring band is just guitar, bass, and drums, with backing tracks handling all the keyboard bits and backup vocals. The small LED screen behind her flashes lyrics and images of fireworks, though the songs call out for actual fireworks. The hooks are arena-sized, and the crowds are getting there, but the production is still playing catchup. Roan has a larger-than-life on-record persona, and she looks amazing onstage. She’s got this giant mane of red hair that flips all around and blows in the wind, and she moves with real energy. But when she talks between songs, she still seems a little shy and mumbly. Most pop stars put theatrical emphasis on all their stage patter, but Roan just doesn’t seem like she’s used to addressing huge crowds like that. She’ll get there. She’ll have to.

Chappell Roan clearly puts a ton of effort into making sure that her live shows are big, welcoming events. Rather than bringing an opening act on tour, she books local drag performers in every city. (My daughter and I got there too late to see the drag show last night.) Before the Richmond show, Roan also did a meet-and-greet with puppies and volunteers from a local dog shelter. In the middle of the solo piano-ballad “Coffee,” Roan thought she saw someone passed out in the crowd, and she stopped the show until she knew that the person was OK. In the recent past, I bet Roan didn’t have to worry about the safety of her fans, but that’s one of the responsibilities that comes with pop stardom.

I wish I could’ve seen Chappell Roan in a closed room with a cranked-up soundsystem. The logistics of outdoor shows in big cities mean that there’s a cap on the volume, and that leaves them vulnerable to annoyances like the guy standing near me who wouldn’t shut up all night. But the show was still a blast for a lot of reasons. The biggest factor, loudmouth or no loudmouth, was the crowd. Most of Chappell Roan’s songs are still brand-new to most of us, but people greeted those tracks like old favorites, whooping at opening notes, jumping around when the beat dropped, belting choruses into each other’s faces.

Chappell Roan’s tracks are full of call-and-response moments, and she’s got the Taylor Swift thing where her bridges are the best parts of her songs. When those climactic moments arrive, the audience reacts. I tend to prefer Roan’s danciest songs — the gleefully trashy “Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl” is my favorite — but the ballads come off bigger and more majestic in person. “Casual,” in particular, could be a damn Fleetwood Mac song. It sounds colossal.

On Twitter lately, the great writer and musician Jaime Brooks has recently been making the point that the stuff we now call “hyperpop” should really be known as electroclash, since it fits in with a grand lineage of ironic, knowingly artificial art-kid music that goes back to the Y2K era. In a lot of ways, Chappell Roan fits into that category. In her records, I hear echoes of Peaches and Scissor Sisters. Roan’s music can be funny and self-aware, but it can also be achingly sincere in ways that recall the stadium-status stars of today. She’s really striving for mass appeal. She knows what it’s like to be a misfit small-town kid who can find escape through glitz and glamor, and she wants to reach those kids. Right now, this moment, that’s happening, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness.

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