Culture

Is Imogen Heap the Most Influential Artist of the Century?

By Ian Olympio

In our modern era of chokers and crop tops, there's no denying the endless appetite for nostalgia in today's youth and youth-adjacent. Thanks to the Internet, we're churning through decades, in search of inspiration and an ineffable sense of the warm and fuzzies, faster than ever. From Lady Bird's 2002 milieu to that Plain White T's TV show, the aughts revival is undeniably underway. As we begin to unpack and re-contextualize this era, one key figure turns up repeatedly. An icon who connects music, film, and TV—who perfectly encapsulates and transcends that moment in time: Imogen Heap.

Yes, Imogen Heap, the English musician/fairy-robot-queen whose songs soundtracked the adolescence of many millennials. While some (the sadly uneducated) might think her impact begins and ends with The OC (which we'll get to shortly), Heap has been shaping culture for the past 15 years. She's the glue that connects Ariana Grande, Taylor Swift, Harry Potter, Garden State, and The OC.

A brief refresher: Heap is a classically trained singer, songwriter, producer, audio engineer, and multi-instrumentalist. While she released her debut album, the Alanis-Fiona-flavored I Megaphone in 1999, much of the world met her as one-half of electronic duo Frou Frou. A couple of years later she struck out on her own again with her best-known work, Speak For Yourself. This album features the iconic singles, "Hide and Seek," and "Goodnight and Go."

At 6 feet tall, with a look that's a bit like Helena Bonham Carter by way of A Wrinkle in Time, she's the epitome of what we would have called "quirky" in a pre-Zooey Deschanel world. This mystical persona is the perfect compliment to her deeply distinct sound. Heap possesses a breathy, ethereal voice which she loves to distort and layer over dizzying digital production. To paraphrase Pitchfork, she's a bit like Sarah McLaughlin meets Bjork, with a dash of Shirley Manson.

Really, Heap is the sound of the new millennium—the juxtaposition of evocative, diaristic lyrics against a digital wall of sound: a glitching, fizzing, bubbling symphony. It's Y2K, it's technological sprawl, it's the yearning for connection in a post-9/11-pre-Obama world. Nestled in her signature distorted harmonies is the head-rushing feeling of spilling your guts out over broadband in hope that it might find an audience on Myspace or Livejournal.

Today, that sound is both familiar and fresh thanks to the number of parallels between the mid-aughts and our current post-11/9 nightmare—mainly the fact that everyone and everything feels fucked. It makes material sense, in retrospect, to look back on the 2000s for comfort and content.

In a crowded musical moment that includes Bright Eyes, The Shins, Feist, and Death Cab for Cuties, Heap occupies a rarified and hallowed space. Her unmistakable sound scores two of the century's moodiest masterpieces. The Frou Frou song, "Let Go," plays during the final sequence of Zach Braff's mopey opus, Garden State, to great cathartic effect. While maligned shortly after its release for encapsulating a now-reviled twee, navel-gazing, proto-hipster ennui, the film merits revisiting just one year away from its 15th anniversary.

In many ways, Braff's first feature was like a beacon of light shining through to a generation lost in a haze of Adderall and Prozac. "Jump in, oh well whatcha waiting for?/It's alright, 'cause there's beauty in the breakdown," Heap sings. And that's just what Braff's character does in the final scene as he rushes through the airport back to the manic pixie dream girl he's just left behind.

If Garden State helped defined cinema in the aughts, The OC did the same for the small screen. The cliffhanger ending of the second season, in which (retroactive spoiler) Mischa Barton's Marissa shoots Trey (her on-and-off-again boyfriend Ryan's brother), is scored by Heap's acapella marvel, "Hide and Seek." The Lonely Island immortalized the scene in "Dear Sister," an SNL digital parody starring Shia LaBeouf. The magic in the bizzare mashup of Heap's looped vocals and a disorienting flurry of gunshots made for one of our earliest and most defining viral videos.

In a meta reference to itself, the Season 3 finale of The OC scored the tragic death of Marissa Cooper to Heap's cover of "Hallelujah," the same song which closes the first season—though the seminal Jeff Buckley version was originally used. As Ryan Atwood, Chino's answer to James Dean, carried Marissa's body from a flaming roadside wreck, millions of adolescent hearts broke around the world.

With the series turning 15 earlier this year, hordes of fans eagerly dove back into the show and its classic soundtrack. Many of them, I would imagine, wondered where exactly Heap had gone. Following her mid-2000s breakthrough, she put out another album, started a family, and invented the Mi.Mu Glove: an innovative pair of wireless gloves that allows users to create sound from a wide variety of instruments by simply moving their hands. That's all before we get to 2018, a landmark year for the enigmatic icon.

If you were lucky enough to experience all five hours of Harry Potter and The Cursed Child this year, you might have been struck by the positively Heap-ian quality of the music. That's because she revisited old tracks and wrote some new ones to create the score for the Broadway juggernaut, which won six Tonys (including Best Play) this year. The show's producers sought her out, convinced that her sound possessed perfect blend of whimsy and gloom to bring JK Rowling's world—another major hallmark of the aughts—to life in breathtaking fashion. (The soundtrack to the play is dropping this November).

The Boy Who Lived wasn't the only former teen idol digging through Heap's catalog, however. At the tail-end of the summer, pop diva Ariana Grande released her fourth album, the long-awaited Sweetener. The EP's best track, according to many critics and this writer, was a stunning cover/remix/interpolation of Imogen Heap's "Goodnight and Go." On an album masterminded by Max Martin and Pharrell, two of the most prolific pop producers of the past twenty years, this slice of early millennium, indie-electro-pop was a surprising addition to many. Not to veteran Arianators (the chosen term for Grande stans), however.

Grande has long called Heap her favorite artist and her greatest influence. A little cyber-sleuthing brings up intimate, early YouTube covers of Heap tracks by an 18-year-old Ariana. The "Into You" chanteuse would later cover "Hide and Seek" on her 2014 Honeymoon Tour while wearing Heap's Mi.Mu Gloves. With Grande's predilection for layered harmonies, vocoder (see "Dangerous Woman") and electro-bangers, Heap's influence on her sound is undeniable.

"Goodnight n Go," then, is a truly perfect melding of Grande's aesthetic with her idol's. She throws in a new hip-hop flavored verse and a skittering trap beat while keeping the original chorus, bridge, and several elements of the kinetic and shimmering production. The angelic harmonies and otherworldly high notes that flourish the track's outro are the perfect homage to Heap's ethereal sound.

Grande, however, isn't the only modern pop powerhouse to show her love for Heap in a major way. Self-proclaimed snake queen Taylor Swift closed out her blockbuster,"true pop" debut, 1989, with "Clean," a cathartic track co-written and produced by the folktronica star. With Heap's unmissable vocals layered in the background and a plinking symphony of obscure instruments, "Clean" is at once undeniably hers and a tribute to Heap's sound.

Swift was so determined to work with her idol that she recorded the song in Heap's circular, London home in between sold-out shows at the O2. The two artists—the only women credited on the album—split writing and producing credit on the track, while Heap engineered the entire session. Heap is, in fact, the first woman to win a Grammy for engineering her own album. That's why it's so fitting for their track to close out the album which served as Swift's declaration of independence. It also makes perfect sense that Grande and Swift, two artists who came of age at the turn of the century, would hold Heap so close to their hearts and jump at the chance to re-contextualize her sound while at the height of their fame.

As we hurtle towards the end of this tumultuous decade, we'll be doing a lot of reflecting on the 2000s with a good bit of critical distance. Reflecting on the past 15 years, it's clear to see how Imogen Heap's forward-looking has shaped popular culture and continues to inspire artists today. Her Mi.Mu gloved finger perpetually on the pulse of tomorrow, Heap is currently on a 40 city world tour, her first in eight years, "promoting a fair and flourishing future for the music industry." Don't miss your chance to catch her dazzling stage show and to witness history as it's written.

Ian Olympio is a New York-based writer and filmmaker. Follow him on Twitter for more hot takes on pop culture.

Photo via Getty


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