All Hail Our Pop Music Savior

From recording vocals to vaporwave beats in her bedroom to selling out shows worldwide, pop sensation Clairo has come a long way. And now she’s pop music’s final hope

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Claire performs at the El Rey in Los Angeles on April 11, 2019. Photo credit: Flickr user Justin Higuchi. (https://www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/)

Two years ago, Claire Cottrill was a full-time college student who made her way from her native New England to Santa Ana’s The Observatory to perform as a special guest in a concert line-up curated by Tyler, the Creator. She was tiny ⁠— no taller than 5’3” ⁠— and wearing a huge fur coat that draped off her petite body with a coolness and comfort that would never make you guess this was her first west coast show.

Just a few months before performing at The Observatory, Cottrill, stage name Clairo, was graduating high school in the small town of Carlisle, Massachusetts, and preparing to attend Syracuse University in the fall. At the time, she was still relatively underground. Though she had amassed a dedicated following on her SoundCloud throughout her high school years, Clairo was riding off the success of “Pretty Girl,” her homemade synth hit that reached mainstream audiences after it went viral nearly overnight.

Clairo’s rise was meteoric, greatly in part to the YouTube algorithm that made “Pretty Girl” a hit. While Justin Bieber became a YouTube star after being noticed and mentored by Usher, Clairo’s ascent was more like a product of the platform itself.

Beyond her angelic vocals and the lo-fi acoustic guitar distortion thanks to a crappy MacBook microphone, an essential for indie cover artists on YouTube, there was a breeziness about her ⁠— an effortless look in her soulless-in-the-best-way eyes – and a New England upbringing that a California girl like me dreamed about: the culture of Ivy League prep and teenage autonomy in a Vampire Weekend-esque musical landscape.

Clairo got her start posting cover videos on Facebook under the name “Claire Cottrill Music.” She soon began posting her songs, both covers and originals, on YouTube and SoundCloud in 2014.

To some people, it seemed as though Clairo had come out of nowhere, and upon “Pretty Girl” going viral, she was met with immediate skepticism. Internet critics, especially a YouTuber named HYPESAGE!, pushed the narrative that Clairo was an industry plant whose rise was, in fact, meticulously planned from the get-go. The YouTuber “revealed” her dad to be Geoff Cottrill, a prominent marketing executive with close ties to the music industry, yet a quick Google search could have told you what he had sensationalized. What resulted was a major backlash, mostly from males, that despite her DIY ethics and years-long SoundCloud portfolio, she was just a rich kid with resources.

From its roots, alternative music has always gone hand-in-hand with the anti-establishment movement. Many of the people aiming to discredit Clairo and her art subscribed to this, depicting her online presence as nothing more than an “Internet girl” persona. Early criticism of Cottrill was reminiscent of the bashing The Strokes had experienced early in their career when press got a hold of the fact that members Albert Hammond Jr. and Julian Casablancas had met at a Swiss boarding school and had direct connections in the entertainment industry, in spite of their grind in the New York rock club circuit.

In an interview with Beats 1 on Apple Music, Clairo explained that her dad had introduced her to Jon Cohen, co-founder of FADER, the label to which Clairo is signed, but “in no way was [my dad] responsible for my career.”

“I used a connection that I should’ve used and I used it at the right time,” she went on. Just as The Strokes came around at the right time to bring rebirth to New York’s rock movement, and even redirected the zeitgeist of rock back up from its slump, Clairo reached fame at the peak of the bedroom pop trend that brought artists like Cuco and Gus Dapperton to the mix.

While the short-lived movement seemed almost male-centric, spawning dozens of Mac DeMarco sound-alikes, Clairo was at the forefront, providing the genre with a feminine edge. And unlike many of her bedroom pop counterparts, Clairo’s lasting impression will be by reinventing what pop means to young audiences, bringing authenticity back instead of buying into the pop machine.

Regardless of label representation, Clairo’s online presence was brewing for years beforehand in SoundCloud’s indie undercurrents. Her first song to actually blow up was “Bubblegum,” a saccharine song about young love she wrote at 15. A few of her YouTube covers had gone softly viral before “Pretty Girl,” too, such as her acoustic rendition of the jazz standard “My Funny Valentine.”

Since finding success with “Pretty Girl” in mid-2017, Clairo has been paving her own way as an unconventional pop star, giving Gen Z a strong voice within the music industry. Her rise from being dismissed as the princess of the fleeting bedroom pop genre to becoming a pop powerhouse with a live band is inspiring to say the least.

In 2018, she opened for stars like Dua Lipa and Charli XCX on their respective tours and released her debut studio EP, “diary 001,” which consisted of feel-good vaporwave pop, and even had a rap feature. While it was generally received positively by critics, something about the EP didn’t feel totally settled in – to me, it felt like part of Clairo’s identity was lost somewhere in it, like Lady Gaga’s forced pop hits in “A Star Is Born.”

Whereas 2018’s “diary 001” felt half-baked, her debut album “Immunity,” co-produced with Rostam Batmanglij, former member of Vampire Weekend, and released this past August, feels more reflective and genuinely “Clairo”⁠—Cottrill herself has dubbed it as a letter to her 15-year old self. When it comes down to it, Clairo’s roots are in early ‘90s dreampop bands such as Cocteau Twins and The Sundays and soul legends like Roberta Flack and Al Green, and you can hear it in the way she phrases her lyrics and fills the voids. Upon the release of the single “Bags,” Clairo described the sound as the “music [she’s] always wanted to make.”

The first track, “Alewife,” is a haunting recount of her suicide attempt as a teenager, while “Sofia” is a queer love song with a lo-fi guitar riff reminiscent of The White Stripes that can best be described as crunchy.

“Immunity” is a study in resilience, and that is why it resonates with so many people, especially young women. People see themselves in Clairo; she’s the antithesis of the manufactured pop princess with unattainable ⁠— well, everything ⁠— churned out in the early 2000s music industry’s conveyor belt. Clairo gives Gen Z a contemporary artist to relate to, to look up to and to reflect on the shared experiences of youth with, whether it be through coming out as bisexual on Twitter or keeping it real with her fans and cancelling her tour as she deals with a bout of depression.

Though she hasn’t received mainstream radio play, Clairo is anything but underground. Keep an eye on her ⁠— she’s the burgeoning, young freckled face that the pop industry needs.