By Lennox Reeder
If you, as a queer femme, could only listen to one album from 2023, Chappell Roan’s first full-length album The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess would make an excellent choice. Chappell seamlessly weaves together the sounds of disco, country, and 90s pop to craft a discursive concept album that invokes sexuality and heady young adult contemplation through hip-shaking beats and catchy lyrics. It’s a contemporary sapphic pop manifesto excoriating the paternalism and queerphobia choking America. Sexually liberated, free of the constraints of performative gender norms, Chappell Roan offers ballads of heartbreak, love, and young adult exception every bit as rousing and necessary a künstlerroman as The Simple Life or A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
This concept album is brief, only forty-nine minutes total, and is equal parts new material and old singles/EPs from Chappell Roan. Not an atypical format for an artist’s first album, here the concept seems to trace the journey of a young person moving from the Midwest to California, and their cycle of leaving a good-for-nothing man and falling for women. It certainly feels Reedie. Roan’s performance has been often described as “drag” and the campiness of glamour comes through in a number of ballads on this LP, notably “Coffee,” “Super Graphic Ultra Modern Girl,” and “My Kink is Karma.” “Coffee” spins around the line “It’s never just coffee” as it relates to seeing a former partner, featuring Roan’s delicate vocals and a piano line that would make seventies Elton John twinkle. Meanwhile, Roan shows off her deft understanding of dance tracks with singles like “Femininomenon” and “HOT TO GO!” The former is just the song for femmes and themmes seeking the fullness of queer expression, as it calls us to step beyond the needs of men, while also containing a catchy booty-shaking beat. The latter is Roan’s instructive dance number, with a very seductive hook sure to get even the most firmly planted wallflower into the groove.
Art is subjective and my review is not meant to be a commentary on artistic vision or process, just the connections I see between this music and other music. That having been said, I think that Chappell Roan is a fantastic artist and the perfect musician for this particular moment. Most of the music on this album is essentially androgynous in subject, we’re unsure who the “you” is in many of the love songs, and there are lots of cheeky turns of phrase like kissing his girlfriend. The thing that gets me most, worth 3 points on this review, is her approach to subject matter like being queer in a small town. If you take songs like “Pink Pony Club” and “California” together, you can see a negotiation between duplicitous subjectivities. In “Pink Pony Club” we get a direct address to “you all” back in Missouri (Roan’s home state) not being left behind as the singer transcends the world she once knew by dancing at the titular Pink Pony Club. This sense of escape into or through performance is not only common for performers of all stripes but is an endearing refrain for people who were closeted due to social geography and are attempting to shed that skin. That “Pink Pony Club” does so while entertaining with Prince-esque guitar licks and vulgar pop styling leans, in my opinion, toward the sexually liberatory pop of the eighties and nineties.
It’s significant that Chappell Roan would invoke earlier moments of pop that were oppressed because of their liberated sexuality because she does so while making fundamentally tasteful music. The double entendre inseminating “After Midnight” comes out swinging on “Naked in Manhattan.” That may keep the song from getting radio time, but it’s not for the radio, it’s for girls who “both have a crush on Regina George.” In a time where queer identities are increasingly feeling a reactionary boot on our necks, it can be difficult to find positive explorations of queer sexuality in art. What Chappell offers, therefore, amidst the Britney sound and the resurrected country strings stirring under tracks like “California” is the freedom to be. It helps that every song on this no-skips album speaks to the maturing sensibility of a 20-something, which tracks like “Kaleidoscope” speak to.
The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess has a track for every member of the alt friend group. Fans of rock and shoegaze can appreciate the chugging bass of “Casual” while Lana Del Rey fans can interrogate the leering darkness of tracks like “Kaleidoscope.” The album’s closer, “Guilty Pleasure” shows off Chappell’s obsession with, and deep understanding of, zoomer aesthetics with a distinctly Enya sound that is sure to bring the whole squad together. I think “My Kink is Karma,” “Naked in Manhattan,” “Picture You,” and “After Midnight” are the highlights of the record, each tuning into another portion of the Chappell Roan mashup of Britney Spears, Lana Del Rey, and Lysistrata. “After Midnight” explores shame, bravery, and reimagining self, on top of a catchy beat full of loose string maneuvers and clever verses like “That’s my type of fun/ That’s my kind of party/ Your hands on my body.” It’s a track dripping with liberation, “I love a little drama” and a funky lyrical syncopation reminiscent of James Taylor. “My Kink is Karma” is like a 2020s Peter Gabriel track, Chappell lilts this ballad across a pulsing drum machine, cleverly twisting her ex’s downfall into a headbanger of monumental proportions. If you could only hear one track on this album, this wouldn’t be a bad choice. When Chappell Roan opens up and really belts toward the last third of the track it’s utterly intoxicating, the kind of thing you can’t help but yell along with. That track perfectly slides into her slow dance number, “Picture You,” which uses an instrumental you might catch on a Nirvana album to put on a queer Kacey Musgraves-adjacent number. Totally metamodern and intoxicating. “Naked in Manhattan” is a remarkable jaunt through imagery and reference, touching on classics like Mulholland Drive (which came out a year before I was born.)
This album earns nine and a quarter stars from a potential ten from me. It’s lushly mixed, evocative, and unafraid of trying something new. If you want to put something on to impress your friends, dance in your room, or put on makeup before going to Pool Hall, this is the album for you. Roan’s understanding of contemporary instrumentation, from the drum machines that define many of the tracks, to the complex synths on songs like “Femininomenon” evoke Weyes Blood and therefore Harry Nilsson. It’s an involved and orchestral way to arrange pop, something that goes hand in hand with the emotional maturity and sexual awakening interpolated across the album concept. The intense campiness of tracks like “Red Wine Supernova” is in perfect accord with the luxe melancholy of the sad-girl single “Kaleidoscope” precisely because Roan is an artist in touch with her moment. The challenge, therefore, for an artist like Roan will be staying relevant as the 2020s progress. I think her collaboration with producer Dan Nigro (Notable for his continued work with Olivia Rodrigo) on tracks like “Pink Pony Club” is an example of her natural affinity for more ostentatious or normative pop. That track, glipping with glamour and oozing pizzazz, is perhaps the draggiest on the album. It’s a total bop that helps glue together this no-skips experience. Fans hoping to see this live will find Chappell opening for Olivia Rodrigo on the upcoming GUTS tour and a solo tour. If you can only catch one artist live this fall, make it Chappell Roan — something tells me you won’t be disappointed.