Gayle and the rise of meta-pop

Major labels often like to brag about the creative agency given to their artists, but earlier this year a number of prominent musicians found reason to complain about the oppressive influence of their corporate overlords. “All the record companies ask are tiktoks and I got scolded today for not trying hard enough,” experimental pop and R&B artist FKA Twigs told his fans, in may. (She did so on her TikTok page.) A few days later, smoldering pop singer Halsey had a similar complaint about the pervasive pressure to use the platform. Halsey had an unreleased song ready to be released and wrote, “My record company says I can’t release it unless she can fake a viral moment on tiktok.” (The label responded at the time, saying simply that its belief in Halsey was “total and unwavering.”)

Florence Welch, of Florence and the Machine, performed a similar act of meta-resistance by using her TikTok to protest the fixation of her label on the platform. “The label[s] begging me for ‘lo fi tiktoks’ so here goes,” Welch wrote alongside a demo video of herself singing a cappella, in March. Her voice was gloomy and wobbly, and she ended the video with a smirk, apparently indicating that the performance had an aspect of self-parody. Her intention didn’t seem to matter to her fans, who adored her and gave her a little viral moment. “So that backfired on us,” Welch later wrote, in a caption. Complaining about TikTok promotional requests became, for a brief period last spring, an incredibly effective tool for self-promotion. The labels themselves couldn’t have devised a better mechanism to drive listeners to these artists’ pages.

A micro-generation is a lifetime in pop music, and the differences in disposition between artists like Halsey and FKA Twigs and their successors are quite stark. Last summer, an avid seventeen-year-old TikTok user and singer-songwriter named Taylor Gayle Rutherford (stage name: Gayle) sent out a call to her TikTok followers for song ideas. She received a request to write “a breakup song using the alphabet” from a user, who turned out to be a marketing employee at Atlantic Records. A few weeks later, Atlantic released a piece of Gayle perfectly adapted to the request, called “abcdefu”. What first seemed like a healthy game with fans on TikTok suddenly seemed more complicated. (Atlantic denied it was done as a marketing ploy.) Written with the help of two Nashville songwriters, the chorus of “abcdefu” makes explicit the boyish appeal of pop songwriting – l anguish of adolescents through a nursery rhyme. “ABCDE, FU,” Gayle sings. “And your mother and your sister and your job. . . Everyone but your dog, you can all get screwed. Although the song was peppered with F-bombs, it seemed easy for radio programmers to swap out “eff” in the censored versions.

Bridging the sonic gap between the lo-fi acoustic covers found on YouTube and the pop rock anthem of the radio, “abcdefu” has become one of the most ubiquitous songs in the world. And Gayle has become emblematic of a recent evolution of female pop stardom that dates back to Lorde’s early days in the early twenties. During this period, gone is the veneer and relentlessly optimistic femininity; came acts bruised, brooding and rough around the edges, and more indebted to indie music. The cornerstone of this anti-pop philosophy was a sense of global artistic agency. No one took this approach to more productive ends than Billie Eilish, whose gothic sensibility and dark fantasy songs helped redefine teen pop when her debut album, “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go? “, was released in 2019.

Cycles of influence and nostalgia shift quickly, and many newly minted stars like to talk about Eilish as if she were a former anti-pop stateswoman rather than a peer. An even more recent example is Olivia Rodrigo, the former Disney star who broke through last year with her debut album, “SOUR,” a passionate and cheeky breakup record that channeled the energy and instrumentation of pop punk of the first two thousand. Grief, in Rodrigo’s hands, became a way of feeling emboldened rather than diminished. “Good for you, I guess you worked on yourself / I guess the therapist I found for you, she really helped,” Rodrigo utters over a low bass line at the start of “Good 4 U ‘, sounding like she was talking through clenched teeth.

This naughty pop punk flavor is now everywhere. Like “SOUR,” Gayle’s debut EP, “a study in human experience volume one,” released last March, lives at the intersection of the confessional and the confrontational, the bratty and the daring, the grungy and poppy. “You don’t want to be friends, you’re just horny,” she sneers on a song called “You’re just horny.” You can hear similar courage in the work of Leah Kate, another TikTok native whose constant self-promotion has garnered admiration. Marketing was once an unsavory by-product of the industry left to record labels, but it’s now an essential skill for new talent. Alexis Ohanian, the co-founder of Reddit, discovered Leah Kate’s music through Indify, a music data startup he had invested in. He entered into a business partnership with her and praised her propensity for self-promotion. His sense of digital media may have overshadowed his music, which is masterfully catchy. One of his recent singles, “10 Things I Hate About You,” is a punchy, sulky pop-rock nugget that feels pre-made for a teen romance movie soundtrack. “Your friends must suck if they think you’re cool, a sloppy drunk obsessed with his Juul,” she purrs. Two of her releases, titled “Life Sux” and “What Just Happened?”, might have you wondering how Alanis Morissette would have used TikTok in her heyday. (If the algorithms work the way they’re supposed to, they should have introduced Morissette’s music to artists like Gayle and Leah Kate by now.)

In August, Gayle released a new single, “indieedgycool,” which will appear on her upcoming EP, “A Volume Two Study of Human Experience,” due out this month. The song is an over-the-top take on ’90s grunge. On the track, Gayle describes all the stylistic pitfalls that young women, inundated with influences and expectations, face at the start of their musical careers. “I think I’m original and everyone’s copying me / I wore necklaces and I wasn’t even born in the 90s / I love Tame Impala, I don’t know what that means”, sings- she poked fun at the ahistorical nature of contemporary music taste. “Everyone likes a girl who does what she wants,” she sings. It’s a nifty little song that shows how the anti-pop of five years ago has given way to something closer to meta-pop, proper to a culture that’s constantly inward- same. It suggests an attempt by Gayle and musicians like her to move beyond the idea that their careers were simply engineered by industry forces.

Many commentators were quick to point out that in MTV’s early days, musicians viewed the music video format as a cheap marketing tactic. These early criticisms eventually died out as the music video became an art form in its own right. If TikTok stakeholders are lucky, the same will happen with viral clips online. Generational differences don’t seem to matter much either. Complaining about TikTok and eagerly using TikTok both seem to benefit. . . Well, TikTok. Withdrawing completely is the only form of challenge left, though it’s mostly futile. Those who lament the hollow predictability of an engineered music career on TikTok seem to forget that human clutter tends to creep in regardless. Earlier this year, Gayle announced a North American tour titled “Avoiding College.” Last month, just weeks before the start, she said it had been cancelled. The reasons she cited were completely sincere. “I’m learning how to grow up and live this new life to the best of my ability,” she wrote, before adding, “still not going to college :).” ♦

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