You know, nothing’s an overnight success story.
That’s Ryn Weaver, speaking to The FADER earlier last month. She would know: when her song “OctaHate” was posted to SoundCloud and racked up more than 100,000 listens in 24 hours, it didn’t take eager digital detectives long to find out the seemingly unknown singer had a paper trail.
Weaver’s real name is Aryn Wüthrich. She went by simply Aryn when she sung on Cashmere Cat’s “With Me,” and posted three songs to SoundCloud under the name FemFemFem last year, including a cover of Joanna Newsom’s “Peach, Plum, Pear.” A former acting student, her IMDB profile notes that she was in episode of CSI in 2013 (strangely, the same episode that Black Sabbath appeared in) and her headshots are available for viewing on Backstage.com.
It’s not unusual for an emerging artist to go through a number of changes in their musical approach as they figure out what works best for them. It’s just that now all of those changes are out there, floating through cyberspace, readily available for people to piece together.
In other words: no, this wasn’t an out of nowhere success. Yet “OctaHate” also lacked the trappings of a major label new artist push: the glossy video, the big radio push, the MTV VMAs appearance. At a time when it seems like pop stars are needier than ever in fighting for our attention, Ryn Weaver seemed to just unassumingly put her song out into the world and let it speak for itself.
Or did she?
Weaver isn’t the only SoundCloud sensation this year to seemingly vault from parts unknown into the pop conversation. In February, Allie X released “Catch,” an even more deliriously catchy track than “OctaHate.” The song immediately earned raves from Time and Idolator (the latter calling it “the best song of 2014 so far”). A few weeks later the song exploded even further when Katy Perry tweeted it, saying she was “obsessed” with it and labeling it a “SPRING JAM.”
“Catch” fits right in alongside artists like CHVRCHES and Charli XCX in its cascading synth patterns and Allie’s seemingly European-sounding vocals — mainstream-ready but delivered with under-the-radar flair. But Allie Hughes (her proper name) isn’t European; she’s Canadian. Though the Oakville native now lives in L.A., she was previously based in Toronto with a synth pop project called ALX. She was also involved in musical theatre and, most notably, was a finalist on the CBC competition show How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?, which aired in 2008.
While Weaver is relatively candid about her backstory since “OctaHate” was released, Allie X is much more intentional in courting an aura of mystery around herself. She evades interview questions about her previous music projects and only identifies her age as “twentysomething.” Weaver is willing to discuss her famous collaborators, but Allie doesn’t confide how she came to work with producers Cirkut and Billboard, who’ve been involved in hits by Ke$ha, Robyn and Katy Perry. (The answer is likely their CanCon connections: Cirkut and Billboard are both Canucks as well.)
It’s not at all unusual for an emerging artist to go through a number of changes in their musical approach as they figure out what works best for them (and what connects with an audience). It’s just that now all of those changes are out there, floating through cyberspace, readily available for people to piece together. As we approach the close of the social web’s first decade, we’re starting to come to terms with the fact that there’s a digital story for each of our lives — curated or not — that defines how others know and understand us. And as it takes shape, post by post, it becomes harder to rewrite or refocus that narrative.
No wonder, then, that artists like Lana Del Rey or The Weeknd — both of whom Allie cites as inspirations for her image/marketing approach — would play to mystery as a way of redefining themselves. After the evocative clip for “Video Games” became a sensation, it eventually became well known that Lana Del Rey was previously Lizzy Grant, a struggling vocalist whose appearance and image was radically different from the death-obsessed bombshell that people now saw. This led to countless criticisms of her “authenticity” (often distinctly gendered) — as if changing one’s name and appearance is at all uncommon in the culture industries.
But this gets at a key tension in how we deal with the plethora of media circling through our lives at any given moment: with every dose of discovery comes a cynical reaction. We’re growing more and more accustomed to criticizing the intentions of what’s posted on our social media feeds. Is that girl REALLY falling through a table while twerking, or is it Jimmy Kimmel pranking us all? Is that eagle really picking up a baby, or is it a computer graphics project? And are Ryn Weaver and Allie X REALLY out-of-nowhere pop sensations, or secretly machinations of the pop machine?
Those looking to be cynical about Weaver and Allie had a decent amount of ammo to work with. Consider, for example, how their songs were shared on Twitter. While marketed as autonomous agents of their own accord, we all have a lingering sense that pop stars are part of a calculated promotion system. Do we really think Justin Bieber and his friends helping break Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” in the U.S. with a black-and-white viral video was of their own accord? No — it was almost certainly an idea conceived by Bieber and Jepsen’s manager Scooter Braun. Katy Perry may genuinely love “Catch,” but she’s also friends and colleagues with the song’s producer — just like how Jessie Ware, who enthusiastically shared “OctaHate,” often works with Benny Blanco.
Then there are the support systems that one needs to get songs into the hands (and blogs) of key influencers. “Catch” was released through Neon Gold Records, a boutique label that’s had a role in kickstarting the careers of Ellie Goulding, HAIM, Icona Pop and Charli XCX — the sort of client list that when its team pushes you a track, you probably want to listen to it. The Daily Dot did a bit of digging into Weaver’s background and noted her PR firm is Sacks and Co, who works with the likes of David Byrne, Julian Casablancas and Emmylou Harris. Their argument is that you don’t get a new song onto Stereogum just by posting it online and seeing what happens: “Can we take Ryn Weaver’s meteoric rise at face value?” they ask.
The short answer to that is “no” — but, at the same time, there’s plenty to suggest that this isn’t music industry business as usual either. Speaking with Billboard magazine, Allie X explained she had sent around “Catch” to major labels before its release and they weren’t interested. It was only when her producers took to promoting her song themselves that ears perked up. Likewise, Weaver took to the comments section of Stereogum to defend challenges to her authenticity:
“hehe that would be nice to have some major label money. Actually, i met benny [Blanco] at a party a year back and showed him my sound cloud . . . [Benny] had already been working with cashmere cat a bit… and he showed michael some of my music that I had produced and written on my own … and we all kinda just started to make some music.”
This could all be bullshit — but in an age where pop producers are as strong (or stronger) a force as they ever were, it’s rather believable. Emerging producers are always looking for talented vocalists, writers and musicians who can elevate their game and give them the kind of collaboration that sets them apart. And these days they have the clout, connections and social media presence that they can do so on the periphery of the typical trappings of the industry.
That, to me, is the real story here. But there’s still something enticing about the mystery component, isn’t there? Lana Del Rey may be finally coming into her own musically with Ultraviolence, but she’s never been as interesting as during those three minutes watching “Video Games” for the first time, presenting a fully-formed mystique that worked best when it left us wanting. It could never last, of course — certainly not in a culture where every enticement of the new or unknown is immediately met by a horde of Internet commenters eager to drown it in inconvenient detail.
The question of why this “mystery pop” is so enticing isn’t an easy one to answer. On the one hand, I’m drawn to this analysis by film and television culture’s teasemaster of the millennium, J.J. Abrams, which he shared in the issue of Wired he curated a few years back:
"Perhaps that's why mystery, now more than ever, has special meaning. Because it's the anomaly, the glaring affirmation that the Age of Immediacy has a meaningful downside. Mystery demands that you stop and consider—or, at the very least, slow down and discover. It's a challenge to get there yourself, on its terms, not yours."
He’s not wrong that mystery has a certain novelty in the digital age — but I worry it’s not because we like it, but because it confounds our desire and ability to get what we want when we want it. And our reaction, then, is not to celebrate the mystery but to break it down, deconstruct it and ultimately claim supremacy over it. Allie X and Ryn Weaver are, in some respects, fighting a losing battle. But I admire their commitment to it — especially in Allie’s case.
“It’s necessary to believe in yourself to the point of delusion,” Allie X told Noisey recently. That’s especially important if you’re leaving “yourself” intentionally mysterious.