Photo: Marcelo Cantu
With 'Dolls,' Bella Poarch Is Speaking Up: "It's My Story And It's Me Expressing Myself"
On her debut EP, Bella Poarch transforms from viral TikTok star to dark-pop queen — and most importantly, she finally gets to speak her truth.
When the world was first introduced to Bella Poarch in 2020, she was a viral TikToker without anyone hearing her voice. Poarch's lip-syncing videos (and undeniable charisma) rapidly garnered a following that exceeds 90 million, making her TikTok's third most-followed star and the top Asian American influencer in the world.
Now, Poarch is ready to take her success beyond TikTok — and let her voice be heard.
The young Filipina star ushers in a new persona as a dark-pop singer with her first EP, Dolls. The six-song project — which features her empowering debut single "Build a B—" — explores a spectrum of raw emotions as Bella continues to reveal her true self to fans.
As Poarch explained to GRAMMY.com, Dolls is a look into the ups and downs of her life. On songs like "Living Hell," she divulges the hardships she endured growing up; on others like the fierce title track, she showcases her creativity while also flexing her strength. It's clear that Poarch has a unique vision that resonates with many, and a goal to create an outlet for young women who may see themselves in her story.
In a candid conversation over Zoom, Poarch got real about her journey to stardom, the inspiration behind her first project, and why she wants to provide much-needed representation for fellow Filipinas.
Before you were a TikTok star, you served in the military, and you've been open about having a difficult childhood. So you've sort of lived a ton of lives, right? Do you think you've reinvented yourself at all? And how has your past impacted the music that you make now?
Growing up in the Philippines and switching to a whole different country taught me a lot. And also pushing myself to join the military taught me a lot. I did live different lives. But I was still the same when it comes to being hopeful and just like, manifesting good things in my life.
It also taught me to be less anxious, because I was very anxious as a kid. I wasn't really talking. My parents were not allowing me to speak whenever I wanted to. Now that I'm able to create music and be vocal about my feelings, I'm glad to be able to share my thoughts and express myself — and to be able to help other people — with my music.
This is your first EP, and a lot of your singles are largely about confidence. Is this a theme that's important to you?
Yes, because I myself struggle with confidence. I am a very shy person sometimes. And I guess it all depends on what I'm wearing and what I look like in a day. Like, you know, if I had my pigtails on, I'm 100 percent more confident than if I had just my hair down.
How did you get into that hairstyle?
Hatsune Miku. She's a Vocaloid. She's anime. I got a lot of inspiration from anime.
That's cool. So is it kind of like an alter ego?
Yeah, pretty much.
"Build A B—" had a pretty huge debut. Did you feel a sort of pressure after that, and how did its success affect you?
I was just really shocked that people were like, loving it. And I was like, "Wow, I'm very proud of myself." Because it was really hard to figure out what first song I wanted to release. And it was very important to me. I was like, "Uh, do I really want [to release a song called] 'Build A B—?'" Like…yes. [Laughs.]
There was a lot of going back and forth. I was just really happy that my fans love it.
What's the story behind "Living Hell" and its music video?
The music video takes a lot of inspiration from my childhood room and how I'm struggling to escape it. And now I'm struggling to escape my childhood trauma.
I've been very open about it with social media and it has helped me a lot. It's hard for me to express my feelings. But it also helped other people that are struggling with expressing themselves.
The room in the music video is yellow — everything's yellow. It's because I grew up in a yellow bedroom with yellow curtains and yellow tiled floors. And I was basically forced into that color. My parents were like, "You're gonna love this color. This is your room color." And I feel like that's them showing me that they had the power.
Over time, growing up in that room, I learned to love it because it's a happy color. Sorry, I'm getting emotional.
There is a lot of symbolism in the music video. I think I will be explaining what it means later on. But when people see it at first, they're probably confused, because they don't really know the inspiration from it — me escaping from my childhood trauma. When you see that music video without that context, you're just like, "Wow, this is art!" But when you really see the full meaning of it, it takes you to a different perspective.
What was your inspiration for making this whole EP? Obviously there's songs that are a little bit emotional, but there are also songs that are more upbeat. How does it all come together?
I think what inspired me the most and to do this is speaking up. Even [in] my journey with TikTok, I wasn't speaking for a whole year — nobody knew what I sounded like. And so they were all just like, "Whoa" when I started talking. They were like, "Wait, she talks?"
Me releasing music and releasing this EP is me coming out and saying, "I have a voice, and the messages of my songs are very important to me because it's my story and it's me expressing myself."
What does it mean to you to be a Filipina American talent right now? I know traditionally there hasn't been a lot of representation, at least in the U.S.
I'm just so proud that I myself can represent the Philippines. And, you know, like, Olivia Rodrigo — I love her.
I'm so happy whenever I hear that someone's Filipino, because I'm like, "Wow, family!" [Laughs.] Because back when I was in the Philippines, living there for 14 years of my life, I didn't really have anybody to look up to in the music side of things — when it comes to things like being a singer and being an artist. There was not a lot of Filipino representation there. Except for Lea Salonga. She sang "Reflection" in the movie Mulan, the very first one. And so she was really the only one that I looked up to.
I know you're invested in uplifting the AAPI community, and you were named to the 2022 Gold House A100 list. Are there any actions that you're taking to support the community? Or is it simply you being yourself and being Filipina that's making a difference?
Yeah, I think just embracing the community — being me, and just doing my best in everything that I do.
Do you have any new goals or anything that you haven't accomplished yet that you're working towards right now?
Performing live. I haven't performed live yet.
Is there a tour in the works, or is it just something that you want to do eventually?
I think we're thinking about doing a tour.
Anything else coming up?
I'm going back to the Philippines soon.
Yeah — it's been 10 years [since I've] seen my country.
Do you have anything fun planned, or are you just gonna go with the flow?
I'm gonna go everywhere!
Photo: Mindy Small/FilmMagic
Black Sounds Beautiful: How Ozuna Leverages His Status As A Reggaeton Superstar To Open Doors For Other Latin Artists
A global superstar and two-time Latin GRAMMY winner, Ozuna’s historic rise to superstardom is helping to bring Spanish language music and Latin culture to the center of the U.S. musical mainstream.
Before artists like Bad Bunny and J Balvin rose into the spotlight, Puerto Rican singer and rapper Ozuna — born Juan Ozuna Rosado Delano — was making mainstream waves with his signature brand of Reggaeton and trap music.
Coming of age in the mid-2010s as part of a rejuvenated interest in Reggaeton, Ozuna topped the Billboard Top Latin Albums chart with his 2017 debut, Odisea — a project that also cracked the Top 30 on the US Billboard 200.
Its track listing featured contributions from J Balvin, Annuel AA, Zion & Lennox and more, and collaboration would quickly emerge as a hallmark of Ozuna's artistry, and a major part of furthering both his own career and the new wave of Latin-based music in general.
Many of Ozuna's biggest hits have been group efforts, such as "Taki Taki," a late 2018 release that featured the singer alongside Cardi B, DJ Snake and Selena Gomez. That song enjoyed success both on the charts and in the streaming world, rapidly reaching 20 million YouTube view and becoming the most-streamed song on Spotify.
Another all-star collab, "China," also hit the top of the Billboard Hot Latin Songs chart the following year, and helped earn Ozuna four Guinness World Record titles, naming him as the artist with the most YouTube videos notching over a billion views, as well as honoring his status as the most-nominated and most-awarded artist at the Billboard Latin Music Awards in 2019.
Speaking to ET Online in 2019, Ozuna pointed to his mainstream collaborations as the reason for his breakthrough into global superstardom.
"After ['Taki Taki'], North Americans went wild, and starting paying attention to Latinos more," he explained. "Before, it was all surface-level. It was like, 'Let's see what these Latinos have going on,' cautiously. Now all the North Americans want to record with Latinos."
Ozuna's global success has never been solely about himself: He sees his career as a chance to advance other artists who share his background to the forefront. "Elevating Latinos is my responsibility," he states, and he works hard to promote younger artists careers in the same way he got his own breakthrough: through collaboration.
"There's so much new young talent," he explains. "Lunay, Rauw Alejandro and Lyanno are some of the artists who I gave a break to the same way Farruko and Arcangel gave me my big break on 'Si No Te Quiere.'"
Press play on the video above to take a look back at Ozuna's career, and keep checking GRAMMY.com for more episodes of Black Sounds Beautiful.
Photo: Marco Piraccini\Archivio Marco Piraccini\Mondadori via Getty Images
How Rihanna's "Work" Reinvigorated Dancehall
Released in 2016, "Work" was a triumphant return to the Caribbean sound Rihanna had stepped away from upon her mainstream arrival. For the GRAMMY-nominated hit, Rihanna embraced the use of Patois as well as a sexually defiant, empowered point-of-view.
Rihanna’s single "Work" announces itself the same way steam rises. It bubbles, gulps and bellows upward until it reaches the surface; we're already hot and sweaty by the time her voice arrives. The Barbados singer’s trance-like repetition of the word "work" grinds itself against the dancehall sound that first made her famous.
Released in 2016 as the first single from her eighth studio album, ANTI, "Work" was a return to roots. The track harkened back to the Caribbean musicality and pronunciation of her debut album, which had been slowly fazed out in favor of more pop-driven albums Good Girl Gone Bad and Rated R.
With "Work," Rihanna brought dancehall culture and pathos into the mainstream, continuing the work of fellow Caribbean singers like Carroll Thompson, Ginger Williams and Donna Rhoden. By boldly using a Caribbean and Jamaican-influenced song as the lead single on ANTI, Rihanna made a political statement as much as a musical one. "Work" can be read as rejection of the whitewashing of her work and of the Americanized image created for her by Def Jam.
Rihanna was at a career high when "Work" was released, and the return to her origins pushed her to new heights. The song reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 — the first dancehall track to top the chart since"Rude Boy" in 2010 — and later earned nominations for Record Of The Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance at the 59th Grammy Awards.
Written by Jamaican American artist, PartyNextDoor and produced by Kingston, born Boi-1da, "Work" takes production cues from mid-90s Dancehall hits, the Beenie Man and Mr. Vegas collaboration "Badman Nuh Flee" and Sean Paul’s "Fit and Legit." Boi-1da employs hand-claps, auto-tuned harmonizing, muffled piano and flute, as Rihanna shouts into the void. When added to samples of the late-90s hit "Sail Away (Riddim)," "Work's" chorus, verse and bridge bleed into a single, pulsating orgy of sound.
The single was initially met with suspicion by American audiences, some of whom were confused by the simplicity of the song's bare-bones composition and use of Patios, a West African-influenced creole language spoken in the Jamaican diaspora. This dialect can be heard in many modern rap songs, and Rihanna incorporated Patios in singles such "Rude Boy" and "Man Down."
Her use of Patios was a step away from the manufactured, white-washed image created by the major studio machine and a return to her roots — all while continuing to embrace her sexually defiant, female point-of-view. In "Work," Rihanna's voice is steely and unbothered, yet vulnerable and present. The chorus’ monotony borders on a parody of the rinse and repeat pop "Work" inspired and elevated.
Rihanna makes clear her Caribbean intonation, delivering the lyrics to "Work" in a leisurely, laissez-faire style. What many white critics confused for simplicity or obscurification, Rihanna is simply singing for her people in the Afro diaspora. As Rihanna told Vogue of the song, "I felt like if I enunciated the words too perfectly, it would just not be the same attitude or the same sass... This song is definitely a song that represents my culture, and so I had to put a little twist on my delivery."
"Work" can be loosely translated as a Jamaican patois for sex and this insider understanding drenches the song in a steamy subtext, making Rihanna’s repeated use of "work" a personal yearning for intimacy. The word "work" melds into itself, becoming a wordless amalgamation of sex and sweat, and the more Rihanna repeats herself, the more empowered the song becomes.
Read More: The Women Essential To Reggae And Dancehall
Throughout Rihanna’s career, she has asserted herself within the praxis of power. Songs like "Bitch Better Have My Money," "S&M" and "Rude Boy" show the singer consistently in control, delivering lyrics as raunchy and robust as Jamaica's Ranking Slackness, who penned infamously double-entendre odes.
As Jamaican music scholar Frederick R. Dannaway wrote, "woman’s sexuality is a powerful force, and is slightly feared, from the days of Nanny Maroon who repelled bullets with her pum pum." Rihanna has known this since she released her first single, "Pon de Replay," a dancehall track with a title taken from Bajan Creole, the spoken language of Barbados.
In "Work," Rihanna connects to dancehall’s legacy of sexual innuendo and erotic lyricism. That PartyNextDoor claims to have written the single as a break-up song shows the level of ambiguity and complexity Rihanna brings to the vocals.
Rihanna begins the song by showing her discontent with her current lover, echoing PartyNextDoor’s break-up intentions, "Dry! Me a desert him / Nuh time to have you lurking." She feels used by her lover, who only sees her as a sexual conquest. But by the second verse, she expresses vulnerability, admitting her own mistakes in the seemingly toxic relationship, "Baby don't you leave" and "If I get another chance to / I will never, no, never neglect you / I mean who am I to hold your past against you."
Not everyone is up to the task of Rihanna’s table-setting skills. Drake fails to deliver as the song’s guest rapper, who tries to appear nonchalant with his slow, "rolled-out-of-bed" delivery. Rihanna could have easily made this a solo single, but her year's worth of Drake dalliances make the rapper the perfect foil for her lyrics' intended target. When his verse arrives, Rihanna has gone from disgruntled damsel to passion’s inevitability.
That "Work" is both infectious and unknowable, simple yet complex, is indicative of the identities attached to Millennials and continued by Gen Z. With "Work," Rihanna created her definitive masterpiece of a long and storied oeuvre. That her greatest hit is a Caribbean riddim, only adds to Rihanna’s rich legacy as her generation's ambassador and innovator in Caribbean music.
Photo: Chelone Wolf
Herbal Tea & White Sofas: Koven’s Katie Boyle Explains How Having A Picture Of A Happy Dog Backstage Makes Her A Better Performer
As one half of the EDM duo Koven, Katie Boyle’s tour rider includes items that keep her in a positive headspace — and one nostalgic British snack from childhood weekends with her dad.
Koven bandmember Katie Boyle recently added one important item to her tour rider, and it's not a favorite snack or drink of choice: It's a photograph of a dog enjoying life.
While keeping a photo of a dog backstage might seem like a quirky choice, Boyle explains that it actually goes a long way toward helping her put on the best show she can.
Because when you're gonna perform, you need to be in a positive, outgoing, energetic state of mine, and it's not always possible," Boyle explains in the newest episode of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.
"And this is just something that — come on, look at that! It just makes you feel better," she continues, holding up a closeup photo of a smiling pit bull. "Look at that picture of a dog being happy. It just makes you instantly happy. So that's why I've recently added it."
In the snacks department, Boyle says she tries to ask for "basic" items that will be easy to procure: Chips, dip and peppermint tea, the latter of which she says immediately puts her in a calmer headspace.
But when she can, she loves to snack on Monster Munch, a baked corn snack that hails from her native UK. "I don't know if they have them in a lot of places, so I try not to demand them too much," she relates.
Monster Munch is more than a tasty snack to Boyle: It's got a big nostalgia factor, stemming back to the weekends she used to spend with her dad as a child.
"One of my earliest memories, I used to go to my dad's on a Friday night, and because he was, like, weekend dad, he would let us go to the shop and just buy all the crisps and chocolate that we wanted, basically," the singer recounts. "And I would always get Flamin' Hot Monster Munch."
To hear more about Boyle's love for her favorite childhood snack — plus more details about her must-haves on the road — press play on the video above.
Keep checking back to GRAMMY.com every Monday for more episodes of Herbal Tea & White Sofas.
Photo: Little Jack Films, Alysse Gafkjen, Courtney Sultan, Bobby Cochran, Bethany Johanna
Country & Western's New Generation Is Defiantly Of The Moment: Meet Charley Crockett, Colter Wall, Sierra Ferrell, Bella White & Others
A diverse and talented new generation of singer/songwriters are steeped in the genre's oldest stylings, but telling stories of a modern America struggling with its identity. GRAMMY.com explores what this movement says about country music — and America.
Seismic shifts in music — the kind that reverberate across the social landscape to reveal something essential about the moment, that challenge a dominant narrative, or herald the start of a new era — often rumble the ground for a while before the cultural gatekeepers start to feel it. When the shaking can no longer be ignored, the movement is recognized, and a consensus forms that something important is happening.
Follow Charley Crockett around for a few days and it's hard not to conclude that, well, something important is happening. The itinerant songwriter grew up shuttling between Texas and New Orleans, and calls his music "Gulf & Western" — crisp, hard, insightful songs that blend old country and folk, blues, Tejano, Texas swing, and Dixieland. Crockett is selling out shows everywhere he goes. And the audiences pouring in are from across the cultural spectrum.
"We're breaking through. I got young kids, old timers, s—tkickers, good 'ol boys, hippies, LGBTQ all right up in front," Crockett says after a sold out performance in Kalamazoo, Michigan. In one week in September, he opened for Willie Nelson in New York and played Farm Aid. Now he's headlining a coast-to-coast tour and a European run in support of his new album, The Man From Waco, which dropped Sept. 9.
When asked his thoughts on his surging popularity, Crockett says he hears the same two things all the time: "Number one thing they say is, 'I'd given up on country music until I found you.' Which is really sad to be honest. And two, they say, 'I didn't know that I could like country music.'"
Crockett is part of a diverse and talented new generation of singer/songwriters who are steeped in country music's oldest stylings and traditions, but telling stories of a modern America struggling with its identity. Their songs feel both timeless and strikingly original — defiantly of the moment.
Alongside Crockett, Colter Wall is the most widely known artist in this new cohort. The 27-year-old cattle rancher from Saskatchewan has nearly 2.5 million Spotify followers. His music appears on the popular ranching drama "Yellowstone" and on the playlists of Post Malone, Lucinda Williams, and Jason Momoa. All of his releases have been critically acclaimed for their exquisite songwriting, musicianship and old-soul depth. He is a living monument to the genre, making his way across the landscape and timeline before our eyes — and ears — leaving behind music that sounds both everything and nothing like what he recorded before. Two new singles, released Sept. 21, are the latest time capsules.
Other artists are breaking through too. West Virginia's Sierra Ferrell is an otherworldly vocalist, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist making a seductive blend of country, bluegrass, and jazz who came up busking on the streets of New Orleans and Seattle. Vincent Neil Emerson is a Texas artist heavily influenced by his tragic upbringing, his Choctaw-Apache heritage, and his early days playing honkytonks in Dallas' Deep Elem. At just 22, Bella White is a songwriting prodigy and emotional alchemist.
It's difficult to put a precise label on this music. By classic definitions, it is both country and western, so perhaps it's best to dust off the term used by Billboard in the late '40s and 1950s, when music from Texas, California and points in between nudged its way into a genre that up until then had been largely Southern. But as Craig Havighurst of MiddleTennessee's WMOT radio says, "Genres are marketing categories. Music organizes itself in communities." He's right.
This revival of traditional country and western music is made up of a community of artists and fans, and it's playing out alongside, and at times intermingled with, other communities supporting a parallel surge of new folk, bluegrass, and old-time mountain music.
So far, the revival has not been embraced by the mainstream country music establishment. Most people you talk to say it's "too country for country," an admission of how far the pop country sound has traveled from the genre's founding ingredients. But in the six years since Sturgill Simpson took the industry to task for "pumping formulaic cannon fodder bulls—t down rural America's throat," an entire ecosystem of independent labels and music platforms has sprung up to support the music, giving it a chance to reach broader audiences, and foster that sense of community.
Independent label LaHonda Records was started by Connie Collingsworth and Travis Blankenship in 2019–as the revival was beginning to coalesce–to put out Vincent Neil Emerson's first record, a collection of jewels that established labels wanted to release the "traditional way," which would have meant waiting a year or more. The two friends hoped their complementary skillsets and work ethic would be enough to do right by Emerson. The album, Fried Chicken and Evil Women, struck a chord and LaHonda has since established itself as one of the movement's centers of gravity. In just three years, the label has also released records by Colter Wall, Riddy Arman, and the Local Honeys.
The community has spawned a litany of supportive entities. Gems on VHS and Western AF are two digital channels posting performance videos by artists from this music community. Both sites see themselves as archivists, preservers of history and seed banks for future generations to draw from. In the meantime, they're acting as vessels for discovery and gathering places — a Grand Ole Opry for a new generation. W.B. Walker's Old Soul Radio Show and Kyle Coroneos' website Saving Country Music are playing similar roles, as is a vibrant festival circuit.
The timing of this revival is a story unto itself, and key to understanding why the resurgence is such an important cultural development. Country music first rose to commercial prominence during the Great Depression, when America was in transition, and crisis, and millions of people sought solace from the uncertainty by tuning their radio dials to the familiar music. In the late '60s and early '70s, when the nation was again sharply divided and in transition, the music circled back in a revival that got branded as "Outlaw Country."
While all music has the power to empathize and heal, this music has always been a barometer measuring the depths of America's shared anxieties, a leading indicator marking our hardest times, and a tonic to treat the pain.
"People find comfort in familiarity, in simplicity," says Dr. Lucy Bennett, an assistant professor of music, media, and culture at Cardiff University in the U.K. "They turn to the traditional, to things that evoke the past. Living in a technologically advanced society as we do, with so much misinformation and not knowing what to trust, there's a yearning for truth and authenticity. This music isn't faked. We can feel the sincerity."
Bennett notes that this current revival isn't a U.S.-only phenomenon — the music is popular across the Atlantic, too — though part of the music's appeal is its emphasis on place. Drawing on tradition, these artists are adept at telling emotionally resonant tales that are deeply rooted in their home regions. In these songs, we feel the connection — not just to their home, but to ours as well.
No one in this generation embodies that tradition better than Colter Wall. Back in 2016, when he was 21 and first garnering attention, he played at an installment of the Skyline Live series in Nashville, and earned a standing ovation from those in attendance, which included Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris. After the show, Harris encountered Wall and asked him, in awe, "Where did you come from?" Those present weren't sure if she meant geographically, or something of a more ethereal, spiritual nature. A man of few words, Wall answered either interpretation of the inquiry by simply saying, "Canada."
Listening to Wall's catalog is to immerse yourself into the towns, ranches, traditions, history, and ethos of western Canada. It is to spend time at the Calgary Stampede, in Speedy Creek, Manitoba, with the Rocky Mountain Rangers, to tune your ear to Ian Tyson and the other great country and western artists of the region. It is to understand a different kind of love story.
Indeed, this revival has a decidedly Western tilt to it. Bella White grew up not far from Wall in Calgary. Riddy Arman is in Montana. Kassi Valazza was born in Arizona but is now part of the Portland music scene. Margo Cilker has roamed the rural parts of eastern Oregon and Washington, as have Seth Brewster and Kate Eisenhooth, the duo who make up Buffalo Kin.
"Yellowstone" Music Supervisor Andrea von Foerster believes the inherent sparseness of Western art is also a factor driving interest in this music. She and show creator Taylor Sheridan use music from this cohort in part because of its austerity. "We have very busy lives. Every instant feels overscheduled. This music is the opposite of what we're living," she says. "Our show has the same appeal. Most people don't get to live in these kinds of lazy landscapes and open spaces. It's a quiet in the storm. It's restorative. In times of turmoil, you don't look for bells and whistles, you want bare bones."
It could also be the astounding songsmanship that's drawing in these audiences. Sonically, and stylistically, there are wide variances between these artists. But one thing that unites them all is their songwriting command. Maybe it's what happens when an entire generation, on top of whatever personal trauma they had to endure, were forced to come of age through a string of civilization's brutal failures — 9/11, school shootings, the opioid crisis — but were given Townes van Zandt as an artistic influence. A thousand poets bloomed. When I ran the van Zandt hypothesis past Vincent Neil Emerson, he agreed: "Yeah, it would be like painters discovering a whole new set of new colors."
The truth is, the digital age makes it possible to draw upon just about anyone as an influence, and that's apparent with this cohort too. Despite their relative youth, there's a deep understanding of the country music's niche stylings, sounds and regionalisms. As a result, a new canon is being created alongside the old one, filled with extraordinary songs that are raw, sparse, honest, gut-wrenchingly sad, punchy, hopeful, bare, good-natured, and that feel as if they're rising up out of the ground, infused with something ancient and holy.
Rodney Crowell, a contemporary of Townes van Zandt and one of the Texas songwriters who helped drive the Outlaw revival, believes this new generation is going about it the right way. "They're sticking to their guns. It reminds me of what Guy Clark used to say: 'Focus on being an artist and the rest will take care of itself.'"
The word that most often comes up when talking to people about the appeal of this music is "authenticity," the great yearning of our time, and musically speaking, something fans aren't finding in mainstream country. Anthony Mason, senior culture correspondent for CBS News, and one of the establishment gatekeepers to first recognize this movement when he profiled Crockett back in April says, "There is something pure and genuine and accessible about the music. You can't help but respond."
For many music fans, it's the sad songs that provoke the most powerful response. After years of trying to understand why listening to sad music didn't make people even sadder — something psychologists call the "sadness paradox" — we now know that sad music can relieve a depressed mind. In this light, the music of this revival could be considered urgent care.
Fluent in the language of mental and emotional health, this generation has produced a litany of deeply resonant and sophisticated pain songs, where stories of addiction and grief, suicide, loss and longing are not masked with niceties or polite euphemisms.
When I complimented Bella White on her strength as a writer of pain songs, she laughed and said, "I only write pain songs." Just 22, she demonstrates a remarkable amount of wisdom in her first record. "People my age had to navigate scary things, and we got grown up fast." Her song "Just Like Leaving," for its preternatural self-awareness, is one of the revival's anthems. "Well maybe I just like hurting/Building up walls and then ripping them down with my own disposition." In these unsettling times, perhaps the most universally relatable insight in the song, or any song, comes when she sings, "The bars on my window didn't leave me safe at night."
There's a desperation in lines like that, and across songs such as Wall's "Sleeping on the Blacktop," Margo Cilker's "Kevin Johnson," songs that are more like cries for help, pleas to a world drained of its caring and empathy. At times the desperation shows up as contempt, moral disdain for a system that has failed them so often, like Crockett's "Are We Lonesome Yet," and Emerson's "Letters on the Marquee." If you believe songs can be allegories, listen to Colter's Wall translation of "Big Iron" and imagine the Arizona ranger as a modern-day insurgent, or social movement, sent to topple a power structure, deliver justice, and free people from their fears.
Yet also present in this music, alongside the heartache and rage, is a resilience, a weary confidence that a better, uncloudy, day is ahead. Vincent Neil Emerson's "The Bad Side of Luck" warrants its own consideration as a generational psalm, especially knowing Emerson's heartbreaking personal story, which included losing his father to suicide and a younger brother to a house fire. Listening to him narrate lines such as "I was ashamed to say that I am somebody's son" and "I wasted my time waiting for change" — it is impossible not to feel the weight of sorrow. Until he concludes, "But I came out clean, and there ain't too much I regret," and "Sometimes what you get, ain't the same as the things you expect, so I guess I'll keep fightin' on the bad side of luck till I'm dead."
Maybe that's why the audiences keep growing, why people who don't normally associate with each other are gathering together. It’s three chords and the truth for the volatile 21st century. The music allows us to linger in our pain, which beats being numb, and somehow, measure by measure, line by line, it eases the hurt. And it reminds us, and bolsters us, in spite of the anguish, to keep going.
"It's been a long time coming," Shooter Jennings said of this movement. "It's really inspiring and cool to see it working. We're not even at the peak yet." Shooter is in a unique position to assess its status. Not only is he a country music scion — the only child of Waylon Jennings and Jessi Colter — but as an artist he was part of the Red Dirt wave in early 2000s, a musical community helping keep the independent country scene alive during a time when, as he put it, "the landscape was pretty empty."
Today, among many other musical hats he wears, he's producing albums for this rising generation, including for Jaime Wyatt and Kelsey Waldon, and is confident in the direction they are headed. "The country music establishment is soon going to be tasked with a choice. Either get on board and open up the old format, or the old format is going to die. Because these artists don't need it," Jennings says.
Given the infrastructure that has been constructed around them, not to mention a social media and streaming environment that didn't exist in earlier eras, it seems entirely plausible that the movement will continue to grow organically. Earlier in September, Sierra Ferrell won Emerging Act of the Year from the Americana Music Association, a prize that went to Charley Crockett a year ago. All these artists are young and will keep honing their craft, and because of their achievements, more will be coming up behind them. A weary population will continue to need it.
But even with the momentum—and favorable conditions ahead—this generation is intent on defining its own success metrics. Crockett says he now gets calls from people in the business telling him that he can sell out stadiums.
"As if that's what I'm wanting to hear. It's absolutely not," he says. "There's a lot of people selling stadiums out right now that I don't think people are going to remember very much in 20-30 years. Willie Nelson was never the biggest country artist, never, not even at the height of 'Red Headed Stranger.' Bob Dylan was never selling out those stadiums. But all these years later, who are we talking about? Who are we remembering?"