Many of us probably wrote music while we were locked away in our childhood bedrooms, toiling in front our computer’s webcam and scribbling down emotional poetry. Broadcasting these diary entries to an audience of just ourselves, these creative moments tend to remain tucked away as digital files and forgotten as we age. But what happens when these pieces of content become more than just pastimes for the creative teenager?
Such is the tale of Claire Cotrill (also known as Clairo), now 21 years old but only edging 19 when she was having a particularly rough day. Rather than pocketing her negative experience into the forgotten, she decided to detail it through song lyrics and teenage video editing before uploading it to YouTube. Such became “Pretty Girl”: a three–minute track of Cotrill dancing and lip syncing in an aloof manner with iced coffee and animal figurines for props.
The website’s algorithm worked its magic, and the cheeky clips garnered millions of views. Those who listened to the song understood the feeling of having to change themselves for someone else—they found something to help them through their own bad days. Cotrill’s moment of vulnerability was received as a glimpse of genius, and she has continued to prove herself over and over with each project.
This past August, she released the critically–acclaimed album Immunity and received praise for the music’s intimacy through simplicity. It acts as a time capsule of youth and loneliness—what it’s like to sit next to someone pretending you’re not falling in love with them, reconnecting with someone and realizing your relationship is past its due date, growing up without noticing until it’s too late.
Although her audience may have been given to her through a fickle YouTube algorithm, she's earned it over and over again with pure talent—Clairo has built up her career through being unapologetically herself and letting others flock to her. Controversy arose about how she received help from her family friend to get signed to The Fader's record label. However, at this point, she had already received a fair amount of public attention and offers, as she publicly noted online in 2017. She stands as the modern idea of the “do–it–yourself” artist, manifesting her musicianship by being her own brand. But she isn’t the only notable example of this phenomenon, as the Billboard 100 is laced with many similar stories.
Lil Nas X, whose song "Old Town Road" holds the new record for the most weeks spent at #1 on Billboard, revealed that last year he was sleeping on his sister’s floor with no money and hoping music would pan out into something more than a passion. Like Clairo, he went viral, and is now streamed at parties and on platforms everywhere. Blurring the lines between genres with his music—as many notably advocated that “Old Town Road” should be considered country—Lil Nas X is redefining the traditional path to stardom in the music industry that we see in movies such as A Star is Born. Instead of praying to get discovered by someone important and then connected to a network that will hopefully get you noticed, being a do–it–yourself artist means relying directly on the public to put you on top, cutting out the need for a middleman.
How is this departure from relying on the traditional music industry changing music? It seems to be giving us a layer of authenticity that was not seen with Disney’s child actors–turned songwriters, or artists picked up by major labels and then hand–molded into industry stars. Not to say that the immediate pursuit of a record deal is disingenuous, but it does not harbor the same honesty as, for example, a pair of siblings writing and producing an entire album from their childhood home (as Billie Eilish and her brother Finneas remind us).
There is no longer a strict barrier between the artist and the audience, as the artist is able to portray themselves on social media and through their work without interference. When one chooses to post their content online, the potential audience is infinite; other artists like Omar Apollo and Cuco have used this phenomenon to build a relationship with their audience by posting independent tracks on websites for fun.
Online media is oversaturated with content, which, at times, may make it harder to find the next "big" thing. The concept of virality acts as a filter to show us what's worth paying attention to. Unlike other sources of popularity, such as radio time or interviews, it gives the consumer their own collective ability to pick and choose who deserves to be on top—which might be even more daunting.