“I don’t go on TikTok,” says PinkPantheress when asked whom she pegs as future TikTok stars. It’s surprising, to say the least. Few musicians have utilized the platform as expertly as she has over the past three years. What started out as a bet with a friend to prove she could crack its algorithm — “I told her I could make a viral video if I wanted to. And then I did,” she remembers — wound up launching what has turned out to be a fruitful career IRL.
“Once I figured out the algorithm, I was like, ‘Well, surely this would be able to blow up the music, too,’ ” she says. The 22-year-old English musician (who goes by various pseudonyms in lieu of her real name) is sitting in a midsize meeting room at the 1 Hotel in Brooklyn’s DUMBO neighborhood, where the décor — black leather, bare metal and treated wood everywhere — is working hard to make nature feel modern, but she looks effortlessly cool in baggy denim and a comfortable tank top. She’s polite and cordial, even though it’s clear she would rather be doing anything but an interview. “I was like, ‘Well, I might as well just try and see what happens. And even if I don’t get anyone listening to it, at least it’s out there and not just stuck on my laptop.’ ”
The songs that were hiding out on her laptop quickly found an audience. Her brand of drum’n’bass-meets-’90s pop/R&B tapped right into the heart of the zeitgeist, resonating with a generation of kids who don’t know life before the internet, smartphones and social networks but are downright tickled by the idea of a more analog lifestyle.
“When I posted my first song, people were commenting saying it was really good. And I saw people using the sound — like 200 uses in a day or something,” PinkPantheress says. “At that point I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ Imagine you have a song that you didn’t think anyone was going to listen to, to suddenly way more people than you expected listening to it.”
Uploaded three years ago on Christmas Day, the song was the Michael Jackson-sampling “Just a Waste,” and it showcased what has become her trademark style: throwing a disco ball drenched in despair into a blender to create something deceptively fun. But while PinkPantheress loves sampling, she’s weary of relying on its easy pleasures. “I always like to think that I’m adding something to [the sample], which is, like, relevant enough that suddenly it’s a new song. I just think too many songs these days are just an interpolation,” she says.
With hordes of new fans clamoring for more, PinkPantheress uploaded “Pain” in January 2021, a song that would have fit in perfectly with the Euro alt-pop invasion of the late 1990s. At only a minute and 39 seconds long, it’s really more of a ditty than a song — but manages to perfectly convey forlorn teenage love.
“Just a Waste” and “Pain” showcased a young, gifted songwriter, one who could succinctly capture and clearly telegraph universal feelings to make listeners feel as if she might be reading their DMs. Early on, unrequited love dominated her music. The feeling of “having someone that you’ve always wanted to see romantically but you’ve never managed to be able to and stuff like that,” she says. Now that she’s getting more famous, though, her music may soon have a more optimistic glint. “I guess the more I create music, the less I want to be stuck in that world.”
Born in Bath, England, to a Black Kenyan mother and a white British father, PinkPantheress was raised in Kent with her older brother. She took to music at an early age, learning to play piano and forming a rock band with a few friends while in grammar school. She spent most of her free time watching music videos and interviews on YouTube. By the time she got to college, she started making electronic music and experimenting with musical software to create her own productions.
To try out her songs, she wrote and produced for her friend MaZz. “I think, objectively, the songs were good songs,” PinkPantheress says. “She was kind of the [voice] and face for my writing.” But, like many talented songwriters, PinkPantheress soon “wanted more control over how I sounded.” She registered for SoundCloud under the name of her favorite Steve Martin movie and began uploading songs.
Nothing caught on — but when she took to TikTok in December 2020, seemingly overnight, she became an indie pop darling. “Pain” broke onto the U.K. Singles chart in August 2021 and peaked at No. 35. Later that year, she signed a deal with Parlophone and Elektra Records and released her first mixtape, To Hell With It. As booking offers came in for PinkPantheress — who had yet to perform live — her management at Upclose took things slowly, opting for smaller shows that allowed her to build an audience rather than going for festival stages.
“I remember my first few shows after my mixtape was out at the end of 2021 and [my management] were making me do rooms of like 100 people and 150 people,” she recalls. “The biggest room I did was probably 800. I remember thinking, ‘Why are these rooms so small?’ ”
“It has been superintentional,” says Jesse Gassongo-Alexander, PinkPantheress’ co-manager, when asked about helping her build a fan base after finding so much success online. “It was always a case of putting in the hard work and taking the slower route to build a foundation that is solid that’s going to allow her to stay here for a while.”
Her story resembles that of another young female artist who managed to parlay massive online success into real-world results: rapper Ice Spice. On paper, PinkPantheress and Ice Spice may seem like photo negatives of each other — one’s a brash rapper from the Bronx who has no problem putting herself in the spotlight; the other’s an introverted singer who prefers the solitary pursuit of songwriting to industry glad-handing — but to PinkPantheress, they’re more alike than different. So much so that she offered Ice a spot on the remix to her hit song, “Boy’s a liar Pt. 2,” earlier this year.
“I feel like I don’t have that many peers that exist in a similar space to me,” she says. “I’m not talking about levels. I’m talking about internet space. I think a lot of people see me as being this, like, internet cutesy teen-pop girl. I feel like she was one of the newcomers whom I got drawn to because, even though she does drill and rap, it still feels like she’s in the same cutesy world to me. And she’s Black too, and that was a big important part of it to me. I prefer to collaborate with other Black artists.”
The song became an instant hit, her biggest so far, debuting at No. 14 on the Billboard Hot 100 after going viral on TikTok. For many in the United States, “Boy’s a liar Pt. 2” was the first time they had heard PinkPantheress. It got her her first BET Award nominations (best collaboration, BET Her Award), landed her an MTV Video Music Awards nod (best new artist) and ultimately peaked at No. 3.
Many believe she’s a lock for her first Grammy nomination thanks to the song — if she had to guess, probably for best pop duo/group performance. She’s taken aback and amused when told about the drama that has surrounded the Grammy Awards’ classification of certain albums by Black artists — even more so when she learns how disappointed Justin Bieber was when his album Changes got the nod for best pop vocal album instead of best R&B album.
But even without a Grammy nomination, she can count this year as an unequivocal success. In addition to her biggest single yet, she appeared on Barbie: The Album — as good an “I’ve arrived” moment as any. But still, even as her career explodes, it’s surprising to hear that TikTok has taken a back seat.
“I didn’t leave it behind. I still post on it,” she says reassuringly. “I love using it to post my own videos, but I do not watch videos on there. Because like a year ago, I would scroll and I’d see too many TikToks about me. I was like, ‘I can’t do this anymore.’ ”
Makes sense. Her management team trusts her to make the best decisions for herself. “I think she has shown how globally intelligent she is by being one of the earlier trendsetters,” Gassongo-Alexander says. “Coming from TikTok and appealing to a wider audience and then knowing how to retain that wider audience.”
How does PinkPantheress plan to keep growing that audience? By keeping on keeping on, it seems. She’s uninterested in sacrificing her core audience at the altar of pop stardom. Thankfully, her music is naturally easy on pop fan ears. “What I’ve realized is that my natural way of writing is more pop-friendly than anything,” she says. “So even though the beats can be kind of alternative, I still write in a very standard structure. And I make sure all the lyrics are tangible. And because of that, I think that it has made the [music] that I’m doing very accessible to mainstream audiences. But my biggest fear is having people hear me do a [song] and recognize that I’m doing it for the wrong reasons.”
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