Take note: there is a new princess holding court in the pop queen kingdom. Skipping around the stage in her ‘50s floral prints, letter jackets and disarming mop of a faux-hawk, Betty Who is over six feet of uncalculated, fresh-faced charm—and she’s coming for the crown.
But she won’t be going about it in the autocratic (albeit deliciously vicious) style of predecessors like Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé or Lady Gaga—demanding the adulation owed them and declaring supremacy over all other rivals. Betty Who doesn’t seem interested in contending. She gushes over all of today’s female pop icons in equal measure, if perhaps keeping a special place in her heart for Katy Perry (who she’ll be touring with in Australia this fall). She doesn’t really try to be edgier than she is. She loves chick flicks, skinny leather pants and Marilyn Monroe. Her own music is, in essence, entirely listenable—a skillfully crafted gumdrop dream. In conversation, she speaks earnestly, seemingly unencumbered by fears of sentimentality. “No matter how bad, I don’t think you should try to forget an experience—ever,” she says. “I think you should always hold on to it, because it totally changes you.”
When I am talking to Betty, I am reminded unexpectedly of something that Joan Didion once wrote about Joan Baez. “Above all, she is the girl who ‘feels’ things, who has hung on to the freshness and pain of adolescence, the girl ever wounded, ever young.”
To be clear, I’m not remotely likening Betty Who to Joan Baez, and it’s probably a comic gaffe to even place the two artists beside each other in the mind of a reader. Still, the statement stands. Betty Who, above all, “feels things.” And, even if somewhat inadvertently, the Australian pop star crash-landed onto the music scene last year by lending her voice to one of our time’s principal political issues: gay marriage. In 2013, a sob-inducing video went viral of a man proposing to his fiancé by way of a flash mob dancing to Betty’s first single, “Somebody Loves You.” The song became a gay anthem, she sang at Spencer and Dustin’s wedding in Salt Lake City, and has been a beloved mascot for gay marriage ever since.
Now, after her hugely successful EP The Movement, Betty Who is releasing her first album, Take Me When You Go. The album is a synth-pop, ‘80s-hued romp on a hot summer night, reminiscent of Robyn and Katy Perry—but with Adele-esque lyric soulfulness. There are plenty of songs to blast with the top down—“High Society,” “Runaways,” “All of You”—and if you’re looking for a soundtrack to jump around in your underwear to, you won’t be disappointed. But perhaps less likely on a high-octane LP like Take Me When You Go are some of the slower, more meditative songs—which seem to capture Betty at the height of her intrinsic pathos. “Missing You,” about Betty’s current boyfriend (and her personal favorite on the album), is a trance-like reverie on the visceral longing felt in the absence of someone loved. “California Rain” is honest, relatable and insightful, with lyrics like, “How many times will I find solace in the worst of you, because I do… I love it when you’re lonely, that’s when we feel the same.”
Betty’s work is unabashedly emotionally driven, and it’s refreshing to find that her ardor spills over into conversation. She is sincere and eager to provide insight into the inspiration and experiences that went into her songwriting. “The whole record is based on four different relationships. I drew many of the songs from relationships that don’t so much affect me in my everyday life now, but made such an impact on me that they really changed the way I respond to relationships, for better and for worse. Relationships can leave you with trust issues, but you may also figure out that you have to love yourself more than you do, so that you can receive the love that you want to get.”
At one point, I mentioned that “California Rain” seemed as if it were written from a place of great intimacy, but also with some of the distance and finality that comes with retrospection. In reply, Betty said: “I kind of have this ability to recall emotion and be totally consumed by it—even though I know it’s fine because it’s been so long… with ‘California Rain,’ for me, that song was very far out. It was really about a lot of different relationships. I had a string of people in my life who I think definitely loved me in some way, but didn’t love me in the way that I absolutely needed to be loved. That song is kind of saying—you can’t just come to me when you miss me, or when you’re lonely, because I’m lonely all the time. So when you’re fine, you forget about me….I’m finally realizing that you won’t marry me one day, and you won’t change your mind. If you didn’t know immediately that I was the person you wanted to be with, then I don’t want to be a second choice. I don’t want to be your backup plan.”
Amen, sister! Now go be the next big thing.