In 2019, Lizzo played the Austin City Limits Music Festival. Now, she would be one of the bold-name headliners, but she was booked before her positivity anthems like “Truth Hurts” and “Juice” made her famous enough to eventually get mocked on South Park, so she was scheduled for an early evening set on one of the festival’s mid-sized stages. This proved to be a miscalculation of her popularity. By the time her set neared, Lizzo’s crowd was big enough that it swelled into the small-by-comparison camp (including me) waiting for iconoclast Robyn’s headlining performance at an adjoining stage. The mass of people was so large, there were genuine safety concerns.

Something similar is happening with Chappell Roan.

The “Red Wine Supernova” singer and burgeoning queer-pop icon reportedly pulled in larger crowds than headliner Ed Sheeran at last month’s Boston Calling. She was also the biggest story at New York’s Governors Ball, where she came out dressed as the Statue of Liberty. To prevent a Lizzo-like incident, Bonnaroo — arguably the second most influential music festival in the country, after Coachella — moved Roan from a tent to the much-larger Which stage. She’s gotten so big, so fast, that she’s turning down invitations to perform at the White House (although that was also an act of protest against the Biden administration for failing women, trans folks, and “all oppressed people in occupied territories”) and publicly expressing her struggles with her fame.

“I guess I just want to be honest with the crowd,” she said at a recent concert in Raleigh, North Carolina. “I just feel a little off today ‘cause I think that my career is going really fast and it’s really hard to keep up. So I’m just being honest that I’m just having a hard time today. So sorry that — I’m not trying to give you, like, a lesser show. It’s just, there’s a lot… Thank you for understanding. This is all I’ve ever wanted. It’s just heavy sometimes, I think.”

It’s not the kind of thing that you would expect to hear from someone in a profession that demands constant ascension, but little about Roan’s charting-in-dozens-of-countries rise has been predictable.

Born in 1998 in Willard, Missouri, Roan (real name Kayleigh Rose Amstutz) grew up in a strict Christian household, but, as she explained in a 2023 interview with Variety, “I had this part of me that wanted to escape so bad. I just wanted to scream. I snuck out a lot, but I still went to church three times a week, you know what I mean? So it was just this dichotomy of trying to be a good girl, but also wanting to freaking light things on fire.”

Roan found her creative outlet on YouTube, where she caught the attention of Atlantic Records. She was signed at 17 years old, and made her stage name Chappell Roan in honor of her late grandfather (Dennis K. Chappell) and his favorite song (“The Strawberry Roan” by singing cowboy Curley Fletcher). In 2017, Roan released the folk-tinged EP School Nights, but “I just wasn’t ready,” she admits now. “It’s so cliché, but one weekend I was playing coffee shops and the next weekend I was signed to Atlantic Records. It was very, very unhinged… I just genuinely didn’t know what I was doing, and I didn’t feel like I had a lot of help.” Roan felt disconnected from the music she was making, but there was enough momentum that she moved to Los Angeles in 2018. “That changed everything,” she told Rolling Stone. As did a visit to a gay bar.

“Pink Pony Club,” the first song of Roan’s that sounds like it was made by Chappell Roan, not Kayleigh Rose Amstutz, was inspired by a night at Los Angeles institution The Abbey. “I grew up thinking being gay was bad and a sin. I went to the gay club once, and it was so impactful, like magic. It was the opposite of everything I was taught,” she said. The dreamy single — produced by Dan Nigro, who also worked on Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, Sky Ferreira’s Night Time, My Time, and Carly Rae Jepsen’s best-pop-album-of-the-2010s E•MO•TION — made some noise, especially in gay clubs, but it didn’t catch on enough for her label. Roan was soon dropped by Atlantic. This was during the pandemic, and she ended up moving back home to Missouri to save money by working at a coffee shop, among other odd jobs. She was also going through a break-up with a long-term partner. It must have been miserable at the time, but it proved to be a fruitful experience for her songwriting.

Fast forward to 2022. Roan is out of the Midwest and back in Los Angeles, where she lands a publishing deal. She starts transforming herself into “a thrift store pop star,” which allows her to crack her naturally introverted shell and sing about getting freaky and kinky and making the bed get squeaky. The viral Tiny Desk Concert and support from the queer community and The Tonight Show appearances would soon follow. “I think Chappell’s a drag-queen version of me because it’s very larger-than-life,” she explained about finding herself to Vanity Fair. “Kind of tacky, not afraid to say really lewd things. The songs are kind of the fairytale version of what happened in real life.”

Whether real or not, the songs on Roan’s funny, vulgar, and honest debut album, The Rise And Fall Of A Midwest Princess, are undeniable. Opener “Femininomenon” begins with lovely strings before a self-aware Roan asks “um, can you play a song with a fucking beat?” and the bubbly energy jumps from a ! to !!!; the bratty “Red White Supernova” keeps the enthusiasm going with an ode to drinking and smoking and f*cking. Later, on the throbbing “Casual,” Roan asks, “Knee deep in the passenger seat and you’re eating me out / Is it casual now?” She even has her own calling-card dance with “Hot To Go!” The Rise And Fall Of A Midwest Princess sounds like the work of a pop-star lifer, not someone who was making coffee in Missouri two years ago.

Roan is one the biggest success stories of 2024. In June 2023, she was getting 130,000 daily streams on Spotify; a year later, she’s up to 16 million. “Good Luck, Babe!” is expected to hit No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 200 next week, which would give Roan her first top-10 hit, and her social media accounts (Roan’s TikTok is full of gems like this) are showing “explosive growth.”

There are a lot of factors to explain Roan’s rise to the pop star major leagues: her obvious talent, her opening slot for Olivia Rodrigo on the Guts tour, her work ethic, her Lady Gaga-like theatricality, her decision to “stop trying to impress the music industry and start trying to impress gay people.” But the biggest reason is also the simplest: her songs are fun! With big hooks! And melodies you can hum! People want to dance and sing and dress up in pink (Chappell Roan is Barbie for people who watch RuPaul’s Drag Race), and she provides an outlet for a good time. Hopefully for a long time.

Posted in: Pop