Clairo Walked So Olivia Rodrigo Could Run

It was January 2018 when the question first appeared: is Clairo an industry plant? A Pitchfork article lauding the then 19-year-old musician’s millions of YouTube views for the song “Pretty Girl” seemed to coincide with a generous repositioning of her music on Spotify playlists. I’d been participating in an online group for fans of “lo-fi bedroom pop,” and when I logged in that morning some members were not happy. They felt protective of our cherished Clairo. They distrusted big industry forces. Some of them smelled conspiracy. Just weeks before I’d kicked myself for not getting tickets in time to see Clairo on New Year’s Eve in New York City. Except then Clairo was at the bottom of a bill topped by dreamy indie rockers Beach Fossils and DIIV. This was a different level of success. Whether we chose to celebrate for her or sulk in online chats, Clairo seemed to be moving to a new world.

Until then, her music, a no-frills bedroom production with cheap sounds that could have come directly from an iPhone’s GarageBand app and then proceeded to loop behind unassuming vocals, appealed to people like us: people who appreciated raw and unpolished art. Clairo’s lyrics spoke with diaristic simplicity, at times vulnerable and at times delightfully irrelevant. Soon much of that would change as well. The next year saw Clairo collaborating with Cuco, Wallows, and others—slightly woozy acts that pushed the nonchalant charm of bedroom pop into clean-cut pop realms. But her 2019 debut album, Immunity, set the scale for her future.

Aided by Vampire Weekend-member-turned-hit-producer Rostam Batmanglij (Carly Rae Jepsen, Charli XCX, Haim), the album’s 11 tracks all but abandoned lo-fi minimalism in favor of generously produced synth pop. Immunity still sounded distinctly like Clairo. The core element—those confessional and specific lyrics—remained, and the productions emphasized her playful sound choices (the Vampire Weekend–style harpsichord on “Impossible” conjures thoughts of Cottrill gleefully insisting Batmanglij include the reference point), but now ‘lush’ or ‘sumptuous’ could realistically describe her music.

The industry plant theorists found some fuel though: Cottrill’s father had an extensive history as a marketer around the music industry and connections to Clairo’s Fader record label. How this might explain the viral success of “Pretty Girl” (and subsequent massive success of other early tracks like “Flaming Hot Cheetos” before the industry seemed to buy-in) has never been fully clarified. More fascinating is how an artist known for exceptionally raw and personal music, not to mention low fidelity productions, could be converted into a pop star practically overnight or even the fact that an artist like that has viral potential in the first place. Up till then, bedroom pop had more association with basement shows and barely noticed Bandcamp pages. Clairo opened for Dua Lipa and Khalid, performed at Coachella and Lollapalooza, made appearances on Jimmy Kimmel and Ellen. Clairo had arrived—and brought with her a new brand of truly bedroom born, truly pop scale music.

It was January 2021 when I texted a friend “have you heard this drivers license song?” I got no reply. Of course they had heard it. It was everywhere: TikTok, The New York Times, Pitchfork. Olivia Rodrigo’s “drivers license” became the indisputable song of the year before the first page of the calendar had turned. She welded together the beat-driven, heartbroken longing of Lorde and the post-break-up empowerment of Taylor Swift into a song about being 16 that conveniently doubled as a series of made-for-TikTok video opportunities. And—obviously, importantly—she starred in the Disney+ show High School Musical: The Musical: The Series.

While most latched on to the Swift influence (and most refuse to let go of the Swift influence) or the lyrics’ connection to her alleged Disney co-star relationship, I took most note of a different part of the back story: the video diary demo version that Rodrigo had shared a half a year earlier. The grainy, vertical video looks like any YouTube (cover) or (original song) video that an ordinary person might have posted, though the HSMTMTS channel is a pretty clear giveaway that this is not a normal person. It’s more Frankie Cosmos than Miley Cyrus.

The song’s lyrics, too, tread near the path of Frankie Cosmos and a legion of bedroom pop bands: explicit vulnerability, exacting personal details, admittedly overblown emotions. Like Clairo before her, Rodrigo has morphed these techniques into grander pop structures but the feeling remains. Clairo drops specific names and places (“Sofia,” Mitchell, “Alewife”), Rodrigo zooms in on the Billy Joel song she used to cover with her ex, the older blonde girl he’s with now.

Whatever theories might have existed about Clairo, no one accused Rodrigo of being an industry plant. She was already big industry. She was Disney. Sure, the people behind the “drivers license” release may not have known how monstrously big it would be, but they could likely rest easy knowing it would garner at least Disney big, or High School Musical big attention. Remarkably, even at that scale, Rodrigo and her music—“drivers license” and the following debut album Sour—bear the marks of a new class of musicians.

Clairo may have risen to prominence ahead of, or at least risen further, than many of her peers, but Cottrill was far from the only artist making this brand of reinvigorated bedroom pop. Artists like Beabadoobee, mxmtoon, and girl in red had found similar success in the succeeding years, perhaps due to a shifting perspective where playlists and writers found room for something new, something Clairo exemplified. Like Rodrigo, these artists surely would have existed without Clairo, though an awareness or admiration is quite likely, but they all practice something like a new bedroom pop, something less limited and more progressive.

Each arrived with their own sounds, styles, and influences, such that ‘bedroom pop’ hardly functions as a label, and to link them as a genre or conscious movement would be a misnomer. What connects them are traits that each seems to have arrived at independently, though likely from similar forces in the world around them. They often come from success on YouTube with videos shot on laptop or phone cameras, they present intimate details of their lives and inner emotions, and even after increasing popularity they continue to incorporate lo-fi or homemade aspects into their music. By no coincidence, all of the artists listed above gained success by the age of 20. None are male.

Their relation is more coincidental, at least as coincidental as one’s cultural and historical context can be. The themes they address relate to a world that is no longer merely rife with technology or a world reliant on technology to make connections, but a world where connections develop within technology. Where the debate of putting your information online has become irrelevant. Where the conversation no longer marks which social media reigns supreme but how many of the different social media platforms you use.

If Gen Z seems to have risen to cultural prominence unusually early, consider how rapidly the world—cultural and otherwise—has progressed. How hit songs moved from playlists to TikTok. How your parents, uncles, grandparents all have Facebook accounts. How classes and careers moved online in an instant last year. Gen Z has grown up immersed in this world and has the most capable hands to effortlessly speak to the moment. They understand as well as anyone the pains and discomforts of being tied to a device, whether for social capital, a video lecture, or a late-night email from your boss that most definitely must be responded to within half an hour.

Beyond that, these artists understand the culture. To be brief: they’re cool. They don’t just have a TikTok, they get TikTok. Their internet presences endearingly blend sincerity and irony without compromising either. Their aesthetics futurize the vintage-obsession of alternative cultures past with fewer norms and restrictions, statement pieces and intentional looks abound.

The visuals match with an emphasis on the digital media techniques that overnight became standard expectations of younger generations. Realistically, the skills taught are often basic and rudimentary, with the learner left to teach themselves or bask in the ridiculousness of the new “knowledge.” So, Clairo’s early artwork looked like throwaway iPhone photos. girl in red began with the modern classic of an image cropped over another image to create a massive border and place the center image in a new context, adding the feelings that the photo might not show. Later girl in red moved to instax-style photos and, for her debut album, abstract digital painting. Digital artwork, whether painting or drawing, remains common along with sloppy edits, collaging, and grainy everything. Even with Rodrigo’s blockbuster status her debut features a clearly edited portrait of herself with stickers placed all over her face.

These artists often show a similar musical development too. From simple or acoustic beginnings (mxmtoon started with ukulele, Rodrigo her piano, Clairo the minimalist lo-fi) they grow to incorporate those early sounds into unabashedly modern arrangements. Most of them still include guitar—generally with a watery chorus effect or ‘90s-inspired distortion—and apply amateur recording techniques, outtakes, and ambient sounds to charming effect. It’s pop music, but it hasn’t abandoned the values of DIY that swirl around the musical world today. Trying to clarify their genres, though, would produce a range of results. Rodrigo falls (mostly) into pop, Clairo takes direction from ‘80s synths, Beabadoobee leans more punk, girl in red almost fits as emo, mxmtoon makes electronic-twee? If Millennials grew up learning the art of blending genres together from playlists, Gen Z no longer has to redraw the lines in the first place, and these artists reflect that. The dividing lines follow mood, time of day, a specific person.

Unlike the most ambitious of the bedroom pop acts, these artists tend to usurp more traditional roles for rising stars. Most bedroom pop artists either remain committed to the lo-fi and undeveloped aesthetic or, even with greater pop dreams, tether themselves to the tokens of the style—unending irony, wobbly-sounding everything—and become genre artists. Artists like Clairo bevel out their ironies into something more self-aware, so that the “Pretty Girl” video becomes not just a parody but a commitment to transparency and a willingness to be ordinary. mxmtoon has spoken of a reluctance to continue her current musical path into her 30s. And while Rodrigo seems to be a Smiths fan (peep the Queen Is Dead poster over her shoulder in a video of “Gross” or watch for the band in her playlists), she doesn’t display any early signs of Morrissey’s self-righteousness or grandiosity. Yet, this new group evades the constructed and tightly controlled images and sounds of pop stars at large, maintaining a genuine sincerity.

If Clairo was an industry plant, the planters must have been thrilled. Her music proved appealing on a mass scale. At time of writing, she boasts more than 11 million monthly listeners on Spotify. The success of Cottrill, and each proceeding act, likely helped prop open the door for more artists with relatively amateur-sounding roots. Beabadoobee opened for Clairo; Chloe Moriondo cites girl in red as an influence. More so, the rise of these artists marks a paradigm shift, a passing of the torch to a new generation of values, but also to artists intent on maintaining their voice, expressing themselves honestly and vulnerably, and creating less clinically pop-polished sounds.

Rodrigo’s debut gives reason to believe she’s one of their kind. From the crunchy opening track “brutal” to the stripped-down acoustic guitar on “enough for you,” she demonstrates tastes beyond the obvious pop spectrum and indulges herself in ruminating on the effects of a failed relationship and its impact on her own identity and emotions. Her arrival as an artist all-but-destined-for-success that still demonstrates these changing values shows the openness of the industry. In truth, no one artist deserves credit for attracting such wide attention, but we all might consider ourselves fortunate to witness the shift in what, and who, can qualify for pop stardom.

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By Cameron Carr

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