It’s sexy, it’s sensitive, it’s sparkly!
It’s also been six years in the making. Twenty-five-year-old Kayleigh Rose Amstutz, known professionally as Chappell Roan, released her debut album The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess (2023) on Sept. 22—exactly six years after releasing her first project School Nights (2017). Artistically, Roan has grown tremendously since then. As its bleak black-and-white cover suggests, that angsty EP was sullen to its core; though Amstutz’s haunting vocals were beautifully rich, there was not one ounce of fun to be found.
Cut to today, where her artistry is virtually unrecognizable from those earlier days. With a flare for the bedazzled and extravagant, Amstutz has swapped her sadness for sequins. On The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess, Chappell Roan—a stage persona Amstutz considers “a drag-queen version” of herself—is liberated in every sense of the word: unapologetically queer, flirtatious, and joyful. Even when tackling sorrowful themes of heartbreak and homesickness, she never lingers there too long. While many might assume that a pop star’s maturation necessitates a mellowing from lighthearted pleasure to more “grown-up” melancholia, Roan reverses this narrative, recognizing that her hard-won happiness defines who she is more than the despair of her teenage years.
An integral stepping stone in our Midwest Princess’s origin story is fictionalized in the stunning “Pink Pony Club.” This song recalls Roan’s first experience at a gay bar in West Hollywood after leaving her hometown of Willard, Mo. “All of a sudden I realized I could truly be any way I wanted to be, and no one would bat an eye,” Roan shared in an interview with Headliner Magazine. The first few twinkles of tickling ivories instantly transport us to a piano bar. Lyrically, this safe haven—renamed the Pink Pony Club—is fondly memorialized as well: “And I heard that there’s a special place / Where boys and girls can all be queens every single day.”
After a timid, blushing pink first verse, the song’s galloping chorus describes the protagonist taking the reins of her own life. Though this small-town dancer revels in the chance to inhabit a space where her gay identity and passion for performance are celebrated, the bridge reveals that she still reflects on her hometown affectionately. Similarly, “California” sees Roan soulfully crying for her hometown over drums that pound like sprinting footsteps: “I miss the seasons in Missouri / My dying town.”
Roan’s fun-loving confidence shimmers throughout the album as she dabbles in humorous yet suave flirtation. The playful seduction on “Red Wine Supernova” sees Roan’s singsongy voice bunny-hopping over a grooving backing track. Where this track is slick, “HOT TO GO!” is downright silly, utilizing a giggly, cheerleader-style shout chorus bolstered by smushy synths and a peppy hi-hat to recreate the feeling of screaming at the top of your lungs from the bleachers of a high school football game.
Don’t let the ritz and the rhinestones fool you; Roan’s highly theatrical performance doesn’t prohibit her from establishing deep connections with her audience. She replicates the feeling of dancing at the Pink Pony Club for her listeners, creating safe spaces for free expression. By dauntlessly embracing whimsicality as an indivisible element of her personhood, Roan invites her listeners to embrace the bolder parts of themselves that they might feel the need to keep subdued, if not altogether hidden.
Even when Roan’s positivity wavers, she remains courageous as she confronts heartbreak head-on. We see this in the remarkable back-to-back tracks “Coffee” and “Casual.” The former is a tender ballad where Roan’s wistful, wailing vocals shine, describing an on-again-off-again relationship and the difficulty that comes with trying to detach from someone who has become a routine, anxiety-inducing obsession. Coffee is a perfect metaphor for Roan’s feelings towards her lover: she’s bitter, yet addicted.
On the other hand, “Casual” perfectly captures the tiresome tongue-biting of being trapped in a situationship with uneven emotional investment. Despite Roan’s embarrassment at being “a loser … still hangin’ around,” the chorus reveals she’s not at fault for falling too deep; from her perspective, her lover’s claims of “casualness” are miserably unsupported (“Two weeks and your mom invites me to her house on Long Beach / Is it casual now?”). In a revelatory moment, the songstress removes her rose-colored glasses, and the song’s dreamlike production floats the listener right into Roan’s headspace as her self-loathing mounts in the crushing bridge. Though devastating, “Casual” is a masterclass in catharsis—as Roan finally gets these confessions of private longing off of her chest, we exhale along with her. In the aftermath, a teary-eyed Roan simply reapplies her mascara, readjusts her tiara, and persists onward.
Like “Casual,” both “Kaleidoscope” and “Naked in Manhattan” also explore themes of redefining relationships, albeit in wildly different styles. “Kaleidoscope,” a stripped-down piano ballad and Roan’s only solo writing credit on the album, omits the flashy colors its title invokes. Here, Roan toes the line between friendship and romance before shakily retreating to platonic ground. Roan’s soothing, pillow-soft upper register sweetly reassures her friend of their strong bond, regardless of their boundary breach: “It’s never just a shape alone / Love is a kaleidoscope.”
“Naked in Manhattan,” though considerably more jubilant, is also rooted in reassurance. While the rest of the record sees Roan celebrating her sexuality without fear or reservation, this song depicts the nervousness that frequently accompanies a first queer experience. Nevertheless, with coquettish lyrics and a bouncy, high-spirited musical accompaniment, Roan reassures her lover, “I know you want it, baby you can have it.” Her artistic versatility is on full display on these two tracks—regardless of the tempo or tone, her storytelling remains delectably compelling.
Chappell Roan has no interest in sprinkling in a few easygoing songs intended for passive streaming across her tracklist—instead, she curates collections of anthems that demand your full attention upon every listen. With Roan set to open for pop darling Olivia Rodrigo on her GUTS world tour in 2024, her star will only continue to rise, and I, for one, will be cheering her on every step of the way—in my mini skirt and my go-go boots and all.
VOICE’S CHOICES: Casual; Red Wine Supernova; Coffee; Pink Pony Club