I recently saw a video on my Twitter timeline of one of those Tik Tok videos (boy, I sound old) that was making a joke comparing baby boomers (current age range from 55 to 73) to millennials (23 to 38). The topic at hand isn’t important, albeit the punchline being pretty accurate. The video came to an end and my immediate thought was “why didn’t the joke include how a gen z kid (4 to 22-years-old) would react?” As I continued scrolling into an endless abyss of more Tik Tok videos and lots of political content, I realized. Maybe it’s because we have no idea who the modern 20-year-old is. Sure, we see them on our Instagram feeds posting #SponCon and some are even headlining music festivals, but at the end of the day, wtf are they really thinking?
Now, take a second and think about what I’m saying. Some of 2019’s biggest breakout stars are all barely out of their teenage years. Billie Eilish just made her Saturday Night Live debut after announcing yet ANOTHER world tour, selling out arenas at age 17. An adjacently famous artist, Khalid, is only 21 and continued dominating the radio airwaves this year with a headlining tour, also in arenas. Out of the 30-something performers I saw at Lollapalooza this year, the average age of the acts came out to be 24.
As the face of pop music continues to change, so does its age range. Do we really think a 12-year-old is listening to Taylor Swift? Though she is an artist who has consistently held a fanbase with a diverse age group (don’t try to tell me otherwise until you too have seen her in concert for the past ten years), is a child really seeking out an album that typically doesn’t chart and rarely gets radio play besides the two to three official singles released? You get my point.
So what does an internet-born, Instagram-bred 21-year-old look like when she’s also appealing to other 21-year-olds? Well, they look like Clairo.
Clairo (aka Claire Cottrill, a 21-year-old born in Atlanta and raised in Carlisle, Massachusetts) has had an interesting rise to fame that would probably wouldn’t have been possible if she was born any earlier than she was. Cottrill first found interest in music when she was at the age of 13 and started to teach herself guitar from watching internet tutorials. Though she was under the impression that music was not a serious career option, Cottrill continued experimenting with music, uploading her work to Bandcamp while she was in high school and eventually creating a YouTube channel to showcase her music and short films. Clairo started college in 2017 and enrolled in Syracuse University. During the same year is where her journey really begins. Towards the end of 2017, the music video for her song “Pretty Girl” became a viral sensation on YouTube, the track being recorded to benefit the Transgender Law Center. The DIY aesthetic that has been prescribed to Clairo’s music’s origin story starts here.
“I used resources around me which were pretty shitty. I used like a little keyboard that I had and I was really into ’80s pop music,” she said in an interview in The Fader. Clairo stated in the same interview that the “Pretty Girl” video’s popularity was attributed to its posting in “vaporwave-centrick Facebook groups.” If you have no idea what that is, you are not alone. After a Google search, I was led to a Wikipedia definition, calling vaporwave “microgenre of electronic music and an Internet meme that emerged in the 2010s.” As if this couldn’t be more of a Gen Z story.
Thanks to the success of “Pretty Girl,” a handful of major record labels like Capitol and RCA expressed interest in signing Cottrill. She eventually signed a deal with Fader Label. The New York Times reports that Clairo’s deal with Fader Label was made possible due to her father’s connection to Jon Cohen, who is the co-founder of The Fader.
Clairo continued to build an impressive following after releasing her debut EP in the spring of 2018 and touring to support it. She played a handful of festivals, opened for Dua Lipa and went on her own headlining tour. In 2019, Clairo debuted at Coachella, played Bonnaroo and Pitchfork, eventually securing a slot as Khalid’s opening act on his Free Spirit tour over the summer. The whirlwind success led to the release of Clairo’s full length album, Immunity, this past August. The album received positive reviews and currently has a 76% score on Metacritic.
If Clairo’s goal was to step away from the DIY, bedroom pop aesthetic that was so attached to her name, she succeeded with Immunity. Her voice is clearer, physically and conceptually, like she took a step out from her comfort zone and really pushed herself to create something a bit more refined but simultaneously more personal.
I had first seen Clairo perform live this year at Pitchfork Music Festival. She was given the 4pm slot on the main stage on the third day of the weekend, pulling a crowd that was definitely larger than the amount of people who showed up at the first night of two shows at the Metro this past weekend. But that doesn’t matter, because the 1100 people who showed up were there to sing along to every single song.
Like I had hinted to before, Clairo is a 21-year-old singing to other 21-year-olds. While I’m not THAT far off of that age group (I turn 25 this week), the vibe and overall mood of the evening felt unfamiliar to a jaded mid-20-year-old like me. As Clairo and her band made their way onstage for the first night of the Immunity tour, the screams echoing through the bones of the Metro sounded and felt like the current biggest boy band was about to appear onstage. Similar to other performances I have seen this year of fellow gen z performances (Billie Eilish and Girl In Red come to mind), a new era of girls screaming for other girls has arrived, and it’s taking over: big time.
Like I said before, Clairo has succeeded at leaving the “DIY” narrative behind as a chapter in her story and not a continuing theme. However, the way she performs is reminiscent to how she initially started creating music. You know that scene in “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” where she is singing along to “The Tide Is High” in her bedroom, microphone and all? This is exactly what I thought of during moments of the set (sad to say this reference is probably past its prime for the majority of Clairo fans).
She has an interesting way of waltzing around the stage, holding her microphone out to the audience to sing along, seemingly as a metaphor for actually having a dialogue with them. However, dialogue was left out of the equation. As a performer opening their first night of a tour to a sold out crowd in one of Chicago’s most famous music venues, you’d expect her to have a lot of prompts to go off of to organically interact with the crowd. She doesn’t. But maybe this is exactly the reason why she has such an appeal to her fanbase. She gives just enough insight to who she is behind the performer without giving too much away and always leaving the desire to want more. For such a young age, she seems to have mastered that balance already. Have you really ever met a teenager or young 20-something who wants to tell you about their day?
Maybe her draw is also due to her intimate way of singing about things that a crap ton of people her age are also going through for the first time. Whether it’s realizing for the first time that you have a crush on a girl (“Sofia”) or singing about a best friend’s phone call saving your life while you’re on the brink of committing suicide in the eighth grade (“Alewife,”) Clairo’s vulnerability matched with her ability to still draw you in for more makes her one of today’s most interesting artists to watch.
Moments of the performance that garnered the most cheers of the evening include the songs “4ever,” “Flaming Hot Cheetos,” “Sofia” and “Pretty Girl.” The set lulled in moments where she decided to sing about four slow songs back to back to back to back, seeming to make the crowd antsy to dance. However, she brought that energy back with the encore and last song, “I Don’t Think I Can Do This Again,” a track Clairo released earlier this summer with Mura Masa.
I enjoyed Clairo’s performance in Chicago this past weekend, and I know for her fans certainly did, too. But it did leave me wanting more, and maybe that’s literally the entire point.
Clairo’s tour continues into the fall with stops in major U.S. cities before she tours international cities next year. Click here for the tour dates.
All photos were shot by me for Chicago Haze. Thanks for reading!