Dirt: The bedroom pop revolution
Billie, Taylor and the rise of the home recording as big business.
Hannah Ziegler explores the cozy new trend in music production
When Billie Eilish and her brother/producer, Finneas, won their first Grammy in 2020 for her multi-platinum debut album When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?, Finneas declared: “We just make music in a bedroom together. We still do that ...This is for all of the kids who are making music in their bedroom today. You’re going to get one of these.” Overzealous? Perhaps, but let’s cut to Olivia Rodrigo, who at this time was mere months away from securing her driver’s license — a teenager’s rite of passage turned vehicle to stardom (broken hearts = broken records). Before all the red lights and stop signs, the Disney actor poured her heart out at her bedroom piano, and later, in her SOUR comrade Dan Nigro’s home studio. The place you dream and cry in is clearly conducive to producing some of today's biggest music — but bedroom pop hasn't always had this kind of reach.
Bedroom pop is defined loosely as DIY, lo-fi music, in which the typical bells and whistles of glossy, polished pop productions are largely absent. Much like other genre jargon, its meaning has become mangled amidst a musical landscape blurring category lines, and 2010s album reviews that used the term to describe practically anything fuzzy and easily digestible. While artists like Daniel Johnston and Jad Fair, and later Ariel Pink and Mac DeMarco, have balanced cult followings and critical acclaim with modest record sale success over the last few decades, DIY musicians coming up recently have been propelled into superstardom (proving you can be a Pitchfork and general public darling) thanks to the magic of — you guessed it — streaming.
Logistically, COVID-19 essentially determined bedroom pop’s dominance over the past year. Taylor Swift notably recorded her quarantine-era albums folklore and evermore almost entirely in her bedroom. “You can’t go into studios now because they’re all closed, and I’ve never recorded anywhere else,” Swift confesses at the beginning of Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions. “I know that other people do this all the time so it’s actually not that special but I’m freaking out over it.” She proceeds to show off her bedroom-turned-studio, filming the set-up MTV Cribs-style. Surprise album drops are nothing new (we all remember where we were when Beyoncé released her eponymous visual album), but never has one recorded in a bedroom found this kind of success. Folklore was streamed on Spotify 80.6 million times from bedrooms worldwide within 24 hours of release, breaking the record for the biggest debut album by a female artist.
Others, however, have been loyal to the bedroom studio long before they were confined there. Take Clairo: her 2017 single, “Pretty Girl” was recorded on GarageBand and subsequently went viral after being posted on YouTube. The 22-year-old, who had humble beginnings making SoundCloud mixes under the moniker DJ Baby Benz, is slowly inching towards the pop-star level of her peers, having recently teamed up with Jack Antonoff on her latest single “Blouse” and trading backing vocals with fellow Antonoff collaborator, Lorde, on her latest single,“Solar Power.” Sidenote: Antonoff had a traveling bedroom exhibit a few years back, clearly valuing the impact a bedroom can have over one’s identity and sound, which makes sense considering the tender songs he tends to produce. You simply don’t make songs like “Liability,” without spending your formative years staring at a ceiling and wondering what it all means.
What may have previously been considered selling out is simply a natural career progression, so long as the artist maintains their DIY sensibilities. In a New York Times profile of Clairo from 2018, her then-manager Pat Corcoran declared, “There are major-label artists that are getting pushed by the biggest companies in entertainment — Sony, Warner Bros., Universal — and they can’t even accomplish what she’s done from her bedroom.” Think of talented pop stars of yore, like Britney Spears and the Spice Girls, who were plucked from obscurity and subsequently thrust into studios with a revolving door of producers, expected to turn out personal yet playful bops. What an album recorded from Britney’s Mississippi home would sound like, we will never know, but factory-produced pop simply isn’t cutting it for hyper-aware consumers right now. We want to know where the cheese was made.
Above all else, what would bedroom pop be in the year of our Lorde, 2021, without TikTok? A video sharing platform whose algorithm favours choreographed dances and lip syncs in bedrooms has made itself a home for bedroom pop to thrive; it’s symbiotic. Tracks like beabadoobee’s “Coffee,”“supalonely” by BENEE ft. Gus Dapperton, and the sapphic girl in red earworm “we fell in love in October” have seen an organic farm (social media app) to table (streaming app) transferral (obsessed with comparing pop music to produce as you can tell), solidifying spots on coveted Billboard charts. Much like TikTok itself, bedroom pop has the power to transport you to new worlds while you continue to exist in your own. Songs’ diaristic lyrics invite listeners, in the words of Blood Orange, to “Come into my bedroom!”, à la an Architectural Digest home tour, shattering the frosted glass windows of yesterday’s pure pop illusions. It’s a house party and everyone is welcome.
All this is to say, bedroom pop can really be whatever you want it to be — a powerful ballad soundtracking a teary drive in the rain, or a Descartes-inspired track for stomping to the bus stop. Comedian Ziwe, who has said she dreamed of one day becoming a pop sensation, could even be considered a bedroom pop star, having gone from filming her infamous “Baited” Q&A’s in her bedroom on Instagram Live to securing an original Showtime series featuring original songs.
As Finneas states in a tour of his tiny home bedroom studio, “There’s a crazy intimacy, I think, to what we’re doing. There’s such a kind of private feeling to what we’re doing, because we’re not at a recording studio where different people are there everyday. It’s our house and it’s where we live and where we have experienced everything.”
So purchase a synth off eBay and find inspiration within your own four walls; you might just win a Grammy one day.— By Hannah Ziegler