Chappell Roan is the newest pop star who is quickly rising through the ranks, and charts. I’ve had her debut album: “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess” on repeat for months now. I simply cannot get enough. She is confident, queer, and bold: her voice has the power and range of Renneé Rapp, Alicia Keys, while her lyrics are sexually charged and intensely catchy, reminiscent of Charli XCX and Kim Petras. Her pop songs make you feel like you’ve just seen off a bottle of wine and you’re about to go and see a drag show. Her ballads, however, make you want to curl up and reminisce on your string of failed situationships (this is an entirely objective characterisation of course).
But to what can this emotional intelligence, lyrical playfulness, and distinct identity as an artist be attributed to? Chappell Roan is the over-the-top alter-ego of Kayleigh Rose Amstutz. She is hyper-confident, hyper-sexual, and hyper-active. Kayleigh Rose Amstutz was born and raised in the immensely conservative Willard, Missouri. At 17, she was signed to Atlantic Records. She began her music career writing and producing in Los Angeles with Dan Nigro, most well-known for producing Olivia Rodrigo’s chart-topping, debut album ‘Guts’. Chappell Roan felt on top of the world, signed before even finishing high school. Her single, ‘Pink Pony Club’, is a show-tune-inspired pop ballad, written after Roan visited a gay club in West Hollywood for the first time. The song brilliantly encapsulates the feeling of a small-town girl in the big city: “And mama, every Saturday/I can hear your southern drawl a/thousand miles away…saying/God, what have you done”. After its release in April 2020, Chappell was dropped by Atlantic after it underperformed. She felt her dream had been killed moving back to Willard, working to save up and move back out west. She gave herself a year to try and make it. Once back in LA, she continued to work with Dan Nigro, and was signed to Amusement, his imprint at Island Records.
Her debut album is both a romanticisation and lamentation of a young person’s discovery of sex, queer culture, freedom, and love. In an interview with Vulture, Roan described her music as being born out of a commitment to “stop trying to impress the music industry and start trying to impress gay people.” She is unapologetically queer, and being dropped has not deterred her from solidifying this as integral to her brand. The album feels like a reclamation of her teenage years: she is now able to celebrate herself and also be celebrated by others.
Her album cover pulls inspiration from the world of burlesque and drag, but also reminds us of homecoming, of high school. It is reminiscent of the days of VEVO, and when the VMAs were iconic. The tracks do the same thing: “Red Wine Supernova” explores the thrilling novelty of a queer hookup from a drunken, carefree perspective. She takes us through a land of make-believe: ‘Well, back at my house/I got a California king/okay, maybe it’s a twin bed/And some roommates, don’t/worry we’re cool”. In the “supernova” of this song nothing matters, and she allows her audience to imagine, or reminisce, the best parts of falling in love for the first time. That is certainly impressive. Yet, on Causal, she laments over the modern nature of relationships: “Knee deep in the passenger seat/and you’re eating me out/Is it casual now?” The song entirely reverses what Roan achieves in “Red Wine Supernova”: despite both songs being overtly sexual, “Casual” makes it jarringly unromantic and visceral. In “Casual” she is begging for the strings to be attached, while in “Red Wine Supernova”, the fun is in the fact that they are not.
“Red Wine Supernova” has all the shiny pop allure of Katy Perry’s “I kissed a girl” but from a genuine queer perspective, not one of fetishization. She told Vulture, “The only Grammy I want to win is album packaging.” Perhaps in wanting to win this Grammy, she wants recognition for her tenacity as an artist. She knows who she is, and “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess” is testament to this. She is creating near-perfect pop music, with herself at the centre: the rejection made her stronger, and this album is one major comeback.