Why Chappell Roan is your dream girl’s dream girl – and 2024's breakout artist

With musical and aesthetic parallels to Lady Gaga, this midwest princess has had an impressive and improbable rise

Published June 29, 2024 12:00PM (EDT)

Chappell Roan poses for a portrait in her dressing room at the House of Blues in Chicago, IL, on Thursday, October 5, 2023. (Mary Mathis for The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Chappell Roan poses for a portrait in her dressing room at the House of Blues in Chicago, IL, on Thursday, October 5, 2023. (Mary Mathis for The Washington Post via Getty Images)

In August 2023, Chappell Roan released a music video for her 1980s electro-pop throwback “HOT TO GO!” Set in Springfield, Missouri — she grew up in nearby Willard — the clip centers around a choreographed dance in which she spells out the song title with her arms. 

Clad in outfits such as a sparkly blue leotard and matching eyeshadow, Roan does the moves with drag queens and bored teens, and even (adorably) teaches her grandparents the dance. But in many scenes, she earnestly acts out “HOT TO GO!” by herself — at a gas station, at a mini-golf course, in front of a giant fork — as if she’s singlehandedly trying to manifest success. 

Mission accomplished. Earlier in the year, opening for Olivia Rodrigo set her up for some massive milestones. In recent weeks, Roan performed in front of staggeringly huge crowds at New York City’s Governors Ball Music Festival and Bonnaroo. At Kentuckiana Pride, throngs of people lined bridges overlooking the performing area to catch a glimpse of Roan — and, yes, do the “HOT TO GO!” dance, which is also wildly viral on TikTok. 

And these days, when you Google Chappell Roan, the search engine asks, “Do you mean ‘your favorite artist’s favorite artist’?” It’s a nod to some of her stage banter at Coachella — which in turn was inspired by an iconic saying popularized by drag queen Sasha Colby, “your favorite drag queen's favorite drag queen” — but also a testament to her increasing pop dominance. Roan is a queer icon from a deeply red state who manifested her way out of her hometown by being herself and believing that her songs were great even when nobody else did.

As we reach mid-year, Roan is unquestionably 2024’s breakout artist. From a quantitative standpoint, Billboard crunched numbers and noted that her weekly on-demand streams have increased more than 20-fold in six months, from 2.51 million for the week ending Jan. 4 to 68.36 million the week of June 20. Her 2023 album “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess” currently resides in the Billboard album charts Top 10, while her latest single “Good Luck, Babe!” is in the Top 20 of the Hot 100.

Roan’s music possesses many touchstones — Kate Bush, Florence and the Machine, Lana Del Rey, Tori Amos . . . but feels contemporary and unique.

This ascent is as impressive as it is improbable. Roan released her first major label effort, the “School Nights” EP, in 2017 and toured as an opening act for Declan McKenna. (Footage from that tour includes her warbling the Cranberries’ “Dreams” as crowds rudely chatter over her.) She was subsequently dropped from her label in 2020 after releasing current hit “Pink Pony Club,” a yearning ballad about leaving small-town Tennessee and finding a home dancing at a California gay bar. Even after Roan found a new label home and released “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess,” her fortunes didn’t turn around right away: The album initially failed to chart upon its September 2023 release. 

We need your help to stay independent

That “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess” took a while to catch on is no slight on Roan’s music. In fact, the album is a sassy, campy breath of fresh air indebted to punkish new wave dance (“Femininomenon”), brash electroclash and house music (“Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl”), synth-speckled melodrama (“My Kink is Karma”), and torchy ballads (the Lana Del Rey-esque “Picture You”). Roan’s music possesses many touchstones — Kate Bush, Florence and the Machine, Lana Del Rey, Tori Amos, the early-2010s empowerment pop movement — but feels contemporary and unique.

At times, Roan’s explosive rise recalls the meteoric ascent of Lady Gaga. Back in early 2010, Mother Monster booked a theater and small arena tour that ended up becoming a massive underplay because it coincided with “The Fame Monster” taking off. There are certainly musical parallels between the upbeat dance-pop and melodramatic piano ballads favored by both women, while Roan has also been covering Gaga’s “Bad Romance” live.

And both women embrace the use of personas in their art. Gaga was deeply inspired by the David Bowie’s shapeshifting identities, while Roan told Vanity Fair her Chappell Roan persona is the “drag-queen version of me because it's very larger-than-life. Kind of tacky, not afraid to say really lewd things.” Later, she added that this persona allows her to “be whatever I want” and “has really allowed me to explore parts of myself that I wouldn't have if I hadn't chosen this specific path.” 

Among other things, that includes her queerness. “It allows me to feel really safe exploring those aspects of myself,” she continues. “I’d never be able to do that if I took myself super seriously with pop. I think that the project has allowed me to be a part of the queer community in a deeper way because I'm not observing from the outside anymore. I feel like I'm in it. I am the queer community – it's allowed me to just feel queer, feel like a queer person and feel freedom in that.”

Her songs are rooted in self-discovery and yearning for community.

Indeed, “The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess” is an explicitly queer album about queer experiences. “It is the storyline of a girl who moved from a small conservative town to a city and had an awakening of this world she never knew existed,” Roan told Teen Vogue about the album’s theme. “Which includes queerness, which includes heartbreak, which includes falling in love, which includes the city and clubs, and it's the world of Chappell Roan.”

Lyrically, the album deals with the ignominy of a relationship where one person is being strung along (“Casual”) or revels in revenge fantasies (“My Kink is Karma”) or flirts with other women (the self-described “campy gay girl” song “Red Wine Supernova”). Fittingly, Roan’s lyrics are full of delicious details (watching “Mean Girls” and having a crush on Regina George in “Naked in Manhattan”) and pointed lines (“People say I'm jealous, but my kink is karma,” “I heard you like magic/I've got a wand and a rabbit”). 

At times her vocal delivery is stream-of-consciousness, leading to songs that feel like she’s an omniscient narrator. But her songs are rooted in self-discovery and yearning for community. For example, “Pink Pony Club” represents more than just a club; it signifies the idea of acceptance and finding a place where you belong. Throughout, Roan’s vocals are urgent and sincere, which strengthens the connection (and empathy) between her and her fans.

Fittingly, her concerts have become fashion extravaganzas, with crowds dressing up in elaborate costumes and Roan herself going all-out paying homage to Divine or the Statue of Liberty. But Roan is also dedicated to giving back: On her fall 2023 tour, she donated portions of proceeds to the nonprofit For The Gworls, which supports Black trans people, and she has drag queens open her shows.

The retro synth-pop gem “Good Luck, Babe!” is poised to be her biggest single yet. A brutally honest song directed toward a woman who’s not being honest with herself about her sexuality — instead of admitting she’s gay, she’s now in a loveless marriage — it’s an emotional ride. Roan’s vocal delivery is cutting and matter-of-fact but also devastated — a testament to her ability to bring nuance to pop music. It’s Chappell Roan’s world; we’re just lucky enough to live in it.

By Annie Zaleski

Annie Zaleski is a Cleveland-based journalist who writes regularly for The A.V. Club, and has also been published by Rolling Stone, Vulture, RBMA, Thrillist and Spin.

MORE FROM Annie Zaleski

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Chappell Roan Commentary Lgbtq Music Queer