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PinkPantheress, IRL

Dia Dipasupil/FilmMagic
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Photography by Dia Dipasupil / FilmMagic / Collage by Jackie Lay / NPR

On a September night in Brooklyn, the English artist PinkPantheress took the stage to sing a handful of her bite-sized songs about love and heartbreak. In the neon-lit interior of The Weylin, a converted bank building at the foot of the Williamsburg bridge, the crowd that had assembled for a Bose launch party was dotted with rowdy, well-dressed TikTok influencers and corporate suits elegantly dodging their impromptu photoshoots. "I LOVE YOUUUUU!" someone screamed at the front of the audience, with the deafening intensity of a character calling for help in a slasher film, as the artist sang her hit "I Must Apologize."

"You guys are really loud and I love it," she said with a smile in between songs, running a hand through her long caramel hair. "Please sing, it's good." The crowd, most of whom were watching the stage through their smartphones, cheered.

There's a good chance most, if not all, of the people here first heard PinkPantheress while looking at the screens on their phones. The 22-year-old began her career in 2021 as an initially anonymous star on TikTok, her self-produced viral tracks like "Break It Off" and "Pain" pairing samples of classic U.K. garage hits — Adam F's "Circles," Sweet Female Attitude's "Flowers" — with original, earworm pop melodies. Her wildly catchy, introverted love songs tend to clock in at two minutes or less, evaporating in your headphones like a sugarcube on the tongue.

In the whirlwind of TikTok's highly individualized algorithms, PinkPantheress' music managed to make a mark with its early aughts source material (relics from a time that's truly vintage to the artist's generation) and addictive hooks. Little by little, millions of users began posting videos lip-syncing to her songs, staring into their front-facing cameras to make the dramatic emotions she outlined their own. As her songs gained traction on the app, it became clear whatever PinkPantheress was doing had potential outside the FYP; a major label record deal followed, as did a debut mixtape, to hell with it, released in 2021, which included her previous hits. But it wasn't until she released "Boy's a Liar Pt. 2" earlier this year that PinkPantheress' star potential began to crystalize.

An updated version of her 2022 "Boy's a Liar" track, featuring the Bronx rapper Ice Spice and produced by the U.K. artist Mura Masa, the song encapsulated everything PinkPantheress does best: sweet and salty minimalist pop with a deep emotional core at close listen, the chorus declaring "the boy's a leee-ah." Its unglamorous video, the filming of which made headlines even before the collab dropped, featured the two artists hanging out on New York City fire escapes and subway cars. The video and song, which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was one of the most-streamed songs in the country in March, solidified both Ice Spice and PinkPantheress as rising peers. But it also grounded them both as real people — two young women anxiously demanding respect from sneaky, lying boys, rather than memeable ghosts in the TikTok machine.

After that, the doors started to open. This summer, PinkPantheress appeared on the popular Mark Ronson-produced Barbie soundtrack. Next year, she'll open for Olivia Rodrigo on a string of dates that will have her performing in stadiums, to tens of thousands of people, across America. But first, she'll release her debut album, Heaven Knows, a collection of 13 songs that are positioned to take her career to the next level.

At the Bose party, though, she was proving how her current catalog plays IRL. PinkPantheress is a casual live performer, liberally dipping the mic to her excited audience to let them fill in the words, with a vocal track just audible under her live singing. Sometimes she even performs with her handbag on her shoulder, as if en route to her local farmers market, though the accessory was absent here. Her stage presence has attracted criticism; wherever live footage of her exists online, it's not hard to find commenters questioning her ability.

Not that it seems to matter to her fans in person. At the end of the night, she returned to the stage to accompany the last act of the party, Ice Spice herself, for "Boy's a Liar Pt. 2," to a roaring crowd that had clearly been anticipating the song's appearance all night. Just a few days earlier, PinkPantheress had lost the VMA for best new artist to the rapper — but here, singing over the loudly played track, they giggled and bopped around like besties vibing to their favorite song at a house party, rather than performing their own hit with 700 million streams and counting on Spotify.

"It's rookie," is how PinkPantheress describes her current relationship to performing, as she lounges in the meeting room of a Dumbo coworking space the morning after the VMAs. In conversation, PinkPantheress — who still prefers to go by her stage name — is at turns timid and then self-possessed, thumbs glued to her phone as she answers questions and apologetically replies to texts.

"I honestly think that when you are a woman, especially a Black woman in the industry ... you are expected to be a groundbreaking, Beyoncé-style singer, or someone that can break out and dance," she says, pointing out that it's hard for her to sing live exactly as she does on track, where her voice often has a synthetic, Vocaloid quality. "I know I can't do those things. I still try and give it my all when I perform. Unfortunately, I guess it's not for everyone. I've always said this is why going mainstream is quite tough, because you're then having to cater for people who don't really understand."

For an artist who has largely built her artistic identity online, that move comes with new challenges: forgoing total anonymity to record music videos and make red carpet appearances, for example, or performing music live that arguably exists in its best form recorded. Those growing pains aren't unusual for a new musician in 2023, when the industry has increasingly favored discovering and signing artists who appear and garner audiences on digital platforms first.

But what's unique about PinkPantheress is that, in contrast to many peers and predecessors who have successfully parlayed an online presence into major label opportunity, her approach to songwriting has always seemed influenced by — and suited to — the limitations of the platforms she blew up on. Her compact early tracks possess an endlessly replayable quality, which paired perfectly with TikTok's short videos and auto-looping interface. Rather than approaching it as an obligatory stop on a promotional cycle (as many artists reluctantly do), or luring listeners to other platforms with clipped promises of songs that deflate once you hear the full thing (such musical catfish are rampant on TikTok), PinkPantheress found success within the constraints of the app.

The artist first began posting songs to TikTok after finding her music wasn't getting the traction on SoundCloud that she was looking for. Lil Nas X, an artist who savvily took advantage of the app's fast-moving memes, was an inspiration, but no jokey trends nor dance challenges accompanied the rise of PinkPantheress' work. Instead, the artist used the app as a sort of testing ground, posting a snippet and then, once it gained steam, moving to make the full-length version.

She may not need TikTok anymore to prove she can make a hit, but PinkPantheress now stands at the precipice of what could be a much bigger career, where her music is likely to meet a wider audience in larger venues. With Heaven Knows, she is explicit in her intentions to rise to the occasion.

A touch of gothic horror, inspired in part by bands like My Chemical Romance and Linkin Park, looms over the project, with most of the tracks circling themes of death, loss, love and the collision of all three. "Ophelia," co-written with indie pop producer Danny L. Harle, begins with a swell of baroque, harp-driven instrumentals and describes being murdered. It ends with the sound of water bubbling and overpowering PinkPantheress' vocals, as if she's drowning like the Hamlet heroine. On the downtempo "Internet Baby," she coolly reminds the listeners who needle her online constantly for unreleased music that fandom can quickly turn overfamiliar.

"When songs of yours go viral and people like them, I felt over time — as much as people love my music and stuff — like people only thought I was capable of doing one thing, or like I had a ceiling of what I could do in my bounds as an artist," PinkPantheress says of the album's wider array of subject matter, which she notes is purposefully more mature than her previous work. "I guess I'm trying to get people to understand that as much as I can do a 'Boy's a Liar' song, I can also do a really pensive track."

If the goal is to showcase that PinkPantheress can graduate beyond the sample-heavy, simple electronica of her early work to more original and slickly produced music, Heaven Knows does that artfully. The album features new collaborators including Harle, Cash Cobain and Greg Kurstin, plus features from Kelela and Rema. Where her initial reliance on samples was born from circumstance — a lack of resources to enlist producers, and a preference for writing and getting her music out quickly — here you can hear the artist and her co-producers using every tool available to build out her universe without losing what made her unique in the first place. While touches of the fast-paced retro dance genres that were her cornerstones run through the album, surprising layers of guitar rock and cinematic string sections appear more often. "Mosquito" and "True Romance" layer breakbeats with crunchy, acoustic '00s pop, while "The Aisle" plays like a funky nu-disco track in the vein of Modjo's "Lady (Hear Me Tonight)." The single "Capable of Love" culminates in a dramatic collision of electric guitar and drums that wouldn't be out of place on an Evanescence record.

That song runs 3 minutes and 43 seconds, an eternity in PinkPantheress' universe. The question of whether to scale up to longer songs came early in the process — after all, the reality of how short her tracks are has become a meme in itself ("THIS BETTER BE LONGER THAN A MINUTE IM NOT KIDDING" reads one far from outlier comment on a recent TikTok preview of "Mosquito"). But for the most part, the criticism has never stuck. "It's almost like a natural, bodily function of mine to write them how I think they should be written," she says. "And it just happens to be that they're short."

"It's such a, sort of, almost naive concept — like, 'Well, the quicker the song is over, the quicker we get all the information and we listen to it again,' " says Mura Masa, who has several writing and production credits on Heaven Knows. "I don't think it's a valid critique of her work. You wouldn't say to Rothko, 'Why didn't you make it bigger?' " At one point, the producer says, he advocated for Heaven Knows to begin with as short a song as possible — "less than a second." Though that novelty idea was ultimately abandoned, the artist's preference for short songs is also an extension of how PinkPantheress views songwriting and production, dividing tracks into distinct sections rather than following typical song structures. ("I feel like I just get bored of songs so quickly," she says.)

"A lot of the times when we're writing, I'll say, 'OK, so we've had a verse and a chorus. So we'll have another verse, and then we'll do the chorus again,' " Mura Masa says. "And she'll sort of balk at that and be like, well, we already heard that part, why not let's have a new part. And it makes me feel like a kind of antiquated writer. I'm like, 'Well, that's kind of the way you do it, isn't it?' "

"It's all about feeling," says Sam Gellaitry, who co-produced and co-wrote the Heaven Knows track "Blue" and previously worked with PinkPantheress on his 2022 track "Picture in My Mind." "I feel that's more and more common with more modern artists: There's not such rigid structure to making a song, it's more of exactly how it feels and where your thoughts take you."

The songs on Heaven Knows don't have the fleeting quality of her early work, but the limits of TikTok have still made a lasting mark on PinkPantheress; if anything, she says, the app has made her a better writer. "It's almost like how Vine forced you to be funny in six seconds," she says, referring to the short-lived video app. "[With] TikTok, it's like I only have this amount of time to write a good hook, so make sure the hook is good. Then once you have a good hook, the rest of the song is the rest of the song. A hook of a song is really what it's about."

It's a brazen philosophy, one that seems born from an online attention economy that requires anyone, artist or otherwise, to truncate big ideas and emotions to capture a distracted audience in the shortest amount of time — all of which might make songwriting traditionalists squeamish. But PinkPantheress' approach to her form — her laser-focus on hooks, an ear that gets bored of songs quickly, her "get to the point" self-editing — has never felt, to borrow her words, like "shallow business-mindedness," a deliberate sacrifice of artistry to suit trends. It feels like a genuine byproduct of being a 22-year-old person who has spent their entire life online, learning to communicate and self-represent in varyingly limited degrees of characters, minutes and images in fast-moving feeds. PinkPantheress is a true internet artist not because of her online genesis and virality, which so many artists before her have had, but because she writes music, naturally, on the internet's terms. And in a world where "online" and "offline" life are constantly blurred, those terms increasingly feel like the ones that govern all our communication.

The question that emerges from PinkPantheress' career at this moment may not be whether or not she will continue to adapt to meet the music industry's current, more traditional definitions of stardom and songwriting, but if the music industry will adapt to meet her where she and her music already exist. When I call the artist a month later in October, she's in London, preparing to fly out to Los Angeles to attend some writing sessions "for a few people," one of whom is a pop star whose name she declines to give. "She's actually quite a big pop star though, so it's quite fun," she says. "I'm really excited. ... I've never written for anyone in a room before. But yeah, I'm really excited because she's mega."

PinkPantheress is still figuring out what her ideal future in the music industry looks like. She wants to be a writer, what she calls her main love, but she also wants to be a singer, despite the associated discomfort of performance. "Just to keep it plain: I really love being a singer, but honestly, my main love is writing," she says. "When people try and people tell me, 'You're not a great performer,' or, 'She needs to improve,' I'm always like, 'Babe, I don't even really want to do the performing.' I'm more of a writer. I want to be like Rick Rubin — the female Rick Rubin."

But for now, she isn't completely giving up a more traditional path to pop stardom. When I ask PinkPantheress, in our very first conversation, how it feels for her music to keep moving beyond TikTok, for her to gain a new audience, you can almost picture her peering out over a thrilling but daunting abyss. "It's scary," she admits, "and at first I didn't like it." But she says that she's coming to see it as a blessing.

"I feel like I know a lot of internet artists that people do not know outside of the internet, and I never wanted to be in that position. I always wanted to be like, you could ask your cousin or your mom and they'd know who I was. And it's weird because I'm at that point now, and even I don't feel that big," she says.

"I'm happy about it, though," she adds. "I'm really happy. At first I wasn't, but I am now."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Hazel Cills
Hazel Cills is an editor at NPR Music, where she edits breaking music news, reviews, essays and interviews. Before coming to NPR in 2021, Hazel was a culture reporter at Jezebel, where she wrote about music and popular culture. She was also a writer for MTV News and a founding staff writer for the teen publication Rookie magazine.