Conan Gray was christened teen pop’s newest patron saint as early as 2018, when his EP Sunset Season was released. Tracks on the project such as “Crush Culture” and “Greek God” displayed dreamy production paired with yearning, sardonic lyrics that resonated with teenagers, his target audience.
Rising to public attention in the era of Olivia Rodrigo, Sabrina Carpenter, and Billie Eilish, Gray was one of the few standout male voices in a female-dominated teen-pop landscape, giving him further allure as a future new superstar. With the release of his debut album Kid Krow, Gray struck gold with TikTok hit “Heather,” a light acoustic song lamenting a crush loving someone else, while tracks such as “Fight or Flight” and the single “Maniac” also held their own. These songs would foreshadow his future pop-rock-leaning tracks about love gone sour. Songs like “Affluenza” harkened back to Sunset Season’s washed-out aesthetic charm with sickly lyrics about teen life and privilege gone sour.
In 2022 came twelve-track album Superache, which turned towards more ballad-style writing alongside emotional and raw thematic elements. The ballad “Memories” racked up hundreds of millions of streams, and “Family Line,” one of Gray’s most personal songs, documents his varied and sometimes fractured relationships with his immediate family. After his 2021 co-sign with Taylor Swift alongside personal friend Olivia Rodrigo, Gray seemed on the cusp of a major pop stardom breakthrough.
In 2023, however, Conan Gray’s music made a marked shift, both sonically and stylistically. While his previous projects were marked by the production of Dan Nigro, a faithful collaborator of Olivia Rodrigo’s, Gray began to work with storied and exclusive producers Max Martin and Ilya Salmanzadeh, starting from his new era’s lead single “Never Ending Song.” Between the two of them, Martin and Salmanzadeh are known for pop classics such as Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” Ariana Grande’s “Into You,” and Britney Spears’ “Oops...I Did It Again.” Alongside his new producers, Gray began to employ an 80s throwback sound, rife with synths and deeper vocals.
On one hand, this new style appears to be a welcome shift for Conan Gray, pushing the boundaries of his comfort zone. Singing in the lower register, he shows a different side to his vocal abilities and plays with production far removed from his usual choices. On “Never Ending Song,” he sings about infatuation with a new lover being akin to a song that never ends. On “Killing Me,” he returns to classic lyrical themes about a fickle ex, but does so with a production style that feels almost like a merger between A-ha’s “Take On Me” and The Weather Girls’ “It's Raining Men.” These singles seem to be ramping up for an upcoming album release. Even the visuals of this era have changed, with a teardrop star symbol and dark blue/neon color scheme serving as recurring motifs.
However, public reception of this new era seems less visibly positive than previous ones. “Killing Me,” his most recent release, is currently Gray’s tenth most streamed song on Spotify, and online conversation on his music also appears to be muted compared to previous album cycles.
For one, the more mature sound on these newer tracks could be alienating a younger audience that appreciated his work when it clung closer to modern pop sonics. On the other hand, the revival of throwback pop (a la Dua Lipa’s Future Nostalgia and the Weeknd’s After Hours and Dawn FM), may have been a trend that died in 2020. Whether or not Conan Gray is able to convert his current work to commercial success appears to hinge on whether he is able to impress with visuals and promotion, as well as whether his album diversifies its sound enough to be palatable to a more modern pop audience.
Gray's new project Found Heaven is scheduled for release on April 5th of this year, with support from other teen favorites such as Tate McRae, Noah Kahan, and Gray’s personal friend Olivia Rodrigo. Among the vast sea of projects releasing in the first half of 2024, this album will have to draw listeners in both artistically and commercially if Conan Gray wants to claim his spot as a major popstar in the mind of the public. The jury is still out on whether this project will be able to do either.