If Betty Who was always a question, the 30-year-old pop artist finally has some answers.
“Your twenties are for life to live you,” she says, reflecting on the way she’s grown, both personally and creatively, in the past decade. Having burst onto music at only 22 when her early single, “Somebody Loves You,” became the soundtrack to a viral gay marriage proposal, Who would go on to navigate the industry with a foundation — and expectation — for constant, explosive success.
Of course, that path will never be linear. Through signing with a major label and swiftly leaving it behind, releasing projects that hid Who’s insecurities to project a more sexy, feminine identity than what’s actually true to herself and touring three albums around the world to a fanbase that really shows up, Who has arrived at one goal: “I don't want to make choices out of fear,” she says. “I want to make choices out of strength.”
BIG! is the manifestation of that mission. Her next project, due out this fall, is the biggest Betty Who statement she could possibly make, and was done so by abandoning all pressures to zero in on what’s completely honest. First, “Blow Out My Candle,” introduced an era of unapologetic self-confidence with a chorus of gymnastic proportions. “You can blow out my candle, but you’ll never put out my fire,” she sings.
Today, Who follows that up with “She Can Dance,” yet another euphoric synth-pop taste of BIG! that tells her life story with diaristic lyrics about struggling in New York and pushing through career disappointments. By the bright and sunny hook, though, Who shakes it all off and celebrates that “she can dance, dance, dance, even when it’s raining, when the sky was falling down.” It’s arguably her most intimate single to date and will certainly resonate far and wide.
Watch the PAPER premiere of Betty Who’s “She Can Dance” music video and learn more about her next chapter, below.
I’d imagine that now is an exciting time for you because you’ve been working on this music for so long and people are finally hearing it.
They say you have your whole life to write your first record and quarantine felt like my whole life all over again, so I feel like that's a bit true of this album too. I've spent basically two years in my home agonizing over what it should be and how it should feel and what I want to say and what the point of it is. The existential side of it felt a lot more painful this time around, I think probably for everybody, but I've hit my stride. The first month of putting stuff out, like when we started to do album photoshoots and videos, I was super emotional. I cried the whole first weekend and we made the first video for “Blow Out My Candle.” I was releasing and letting go of my expectations. I'm just trying to get healthy and change my relationship to my work because if I'm not enjoying it, then I'm not doing it right.
From what I’ve heard and seen, the work does feel the most effortlessly Betty Who of anything you’ve released in your career so far.
I wanted to walk away from making all of this art and say, “It looks like me, it sounds like me.” I'm just trying to figure out who I am and I'm using my art as a way to do that. As I was making the music for the record, it started to answer questions for me about myself that I didn't have answers to and it's been a really crazy evolution and time in my life. And so, it's funny that it looks effortless from the outside. There has been an unbelievable amount of effort that has gone into trying to make this stuff feel the way and look the way that it does, but I'm really proud of it.
When you're a brand new artist just entering music, it’s easy to say things or create imagery or make songs that don't 100% feel like you. Once you get through all of that, though, you find that the easiest thing is being yourself, which sounds like “Blow Out My Candle” and “She Can Dance.”
I just turned 30, so in pop years I'm 75 years old. I think your twenties are for life to live you. You're on a roller coaster and your hands are up in the air. You're keeping your arms and legs inside the vehicle at all times and trying to survive. And then I feel like I turned 30 and all of a sudden it was like they handed over the keys to the car to me. And now I'm like, “Am I driving? Do I get to do whatever the fuck I want to do?” And then the question is, “Well, what do I want to do?”
From the way I wrote these new songs to the way we produced the album to the way we're mixing it, literally every part of making this creative body of work, the choices that were made all come from the same place, which is, I think I've been doing it wrong for a long time and I really want to feel like I did right by myself this time. I don't want to make choices out of fear, I want to make choices out of strength. I don't want to be insecure, I want to be the most secure about the things I know I can be secure about and let go of all the shit that I am insecure about because I'm not as good at that as other people are and not let that be a problem.
When we're younger, we think we know everything. It takes years to realize that you don't really know anything. Once you realize you don't know anything, there's a freedom in that self-discovery.
It's a life experience thing, not just a music thing. The first album, you know nothing, so it's your best and everybody always is like, “Your first album is still my favorite,” and there's a part of me that loves that and also fucking hates that. It's like, “No, I was 18. I didn't know anything. I know so much more now. You should like the stuff more now.” But when you're a young person, you don't know any better, so you're just living and it feels so vital. You spend so long trying on all of these different things to be like, “I wish I was like that, but I'm not. Maybe I am a little bit like this. What can I take from this?” You're gaining experience points and adding patches to the jacket. Then finally you arrive at a place where you're like, even though the imposter syndrome is still there and I know I should still feel like I'm inexperienced, somehow I am a professional all of the sudden and people can just trust me to get something done.
That's how I feel about hosting a TV show, The One That Got Away. I have zero qualification for this. My resume? Empty for this thing other than a spunky attitude and readiness to succeed. Literally faking it till you make it. So filming the TV show really taught me something about my experience in music because I went in knowing nothing and had the most incredible month of my life shooting this TV show that had zero stakes for me, because I wasn't at the creative helm. I'm like, “Why can't music feel that way?” And it's like, because I have 15 years of trauma and expectations and hopes and dreams and 10,000 hours spent on this thing. Of course, the stakes feel so high and scary. If the stakes are low, maybe it's more fun. So I'm trying to get into that groove where I'm like, “Who cares? I'm having the best time. Things are gonna go wrong. They always do. Welcome to life. Let's just have fun actually, finally.”
"I don't want to make choices out of fear, I want to make choices out of strength."
Your fan base is a real community and there's a catharsis in the work that you do that has always been there, but now it feels like that's really being pushed through the music and in a very conscious way as well.
I don't totally understand how it happened. I do feel like I was given a gift, which is my community of fans who have been showing up for me in this very cult-y way that I always feel so grateful for because I look around at so many artists and we're all struggling in our own ways and trying to pad out different parts of our careers. Maybe my social engagement isn't as high as you would expect it to be, but I go out and I sell 3,000 tickets in New York City on my last tour in 2019 a month before the show.” I have a community of people who will come and spend a night with me, which is what I really want. I want to impact people in person. I love to be in a room. I love to feel energy and share a night of live music. It’s one of the most beautiful human experiences any of us can have together.
And so I don't totally know how it happened, but people have always shown up for me in that way, whether it was 50 people in New York in 2013 or 3,000 people in New York in 2019. One of my favorite experiences is watching people in the audience not watch me, but look at each other and sing the words to each other. It makes me really goosebump-y. All I want is for you guys to come and be together with each other. I'm here to provide service. I want to entertain you guys. This isn't really for me. I want to give you this and I want you to share it together. So I was trying to write music that felt like it would be played in the front seat with your best friend and you're screaming the words to each other. I've been trying to tap into what that community feels like and I'm trying to write songs to service that specific energy now, which feels a lot different than looking around and being like, “Oh my God, if I don't have a hit single, I'm gonna die.” It's a totally different experience and this one is way more fulfilling so far.
TikTok virality and streaming numbers are interesting because it could be in the millions, but no one actually shows up to an artist’s live show. I’ve seen it happen a lot and it doesn’t mean they’re good or bad, it’s just a different objective.
I have a very small social footprint, but then we fuck live. We tour, like, a girl tours. So it's really interesting how separate those two devices are and how difficult it is to be really successful at both. Something I like about myself is that my whole identity and life does not live or die by social media. I like that about me and that's okay if that hurts my career, I think I'm cool with that. I would rather be fulfilled outside of the internet than be famous on the internet and then be miserable in real life.
Long-term, that is a much healthier perspective, for sure.
When I'm doing something and I'm like, “Why do I hate this? Why am I miserable right now? What do I really want?,” the answer I keep coming back to is: I just want to go on tour. That's what I do, it's my first love. In most things, in marriage, I'm like, “I don't know how to do this, we're just figuring it out, babe.” The one thing that I would bet my life on is that I know how to put on a good show.
Which is very much the message behind “She Can Dance.” You really are such a good dancer. Is that something that you always knew you would grow into? Do you have a background?
No, but I have always loved dance. Every other Thursday when I was at boarding school, there was a hip hop class at 8 PM in the gym and I would take that class, but I never trained or studied, which I am sad about because I wish I had a foundation. I've had to do so much work as an adult to try and find my mind-body connection because it's really difficult to have the same awareness that someone who has been a dancer their whole life does. But I love dancing. I grew up watching performers who were dance-forward and that really spoke to me. I've always known I was a songwriter, so it's funny that I've spent the last couple years on tour. I love to move, I have a ton of energy and my cardio is off the fucking charts. It's always been something that I really want to do. I love the way that I can express myself through my body.
Sometimes there's a disconnect between the audience and the way a trained dancer moves, where it’s almost too good that you don’t feel anything visceral besides being impressed by them. There's something relatable about the way you move that’s almost being in a workout class.
I have big workout instructor energy. I've been making music, especially for gay men, for a really long time because that is my community. But as I’ve gotten older, I realize I've never really made music for women, which I feel really sad about, and now I I've tapped into something where I'm in the Divine Feminine era of my life. I have such a respect and love for the female community. I have realized how important it is for me to set an example or show up for women, as well as my queer community because that's always where I've been safe and loved and listened.
A huge part of that has probably been because I was so insecure in my body and about myself that I was like, “Girls don't look at me. I don't want to be an example for you.” When you tell me you think I'm brave because I wore this outfit that makes me feel bad. That doesn't make me feel good. Now that I'm a bit more confident, I’ve realized how important it is now for me to hold space for girls, young girls especially, because I never saw anybody who looks like me on stage when I was a young girl. I've spent the last 10 years deprogramming the part in my brain that thinks that I have to be Britney Spears because I haven't been that since I was 8 years old and I never will be ever again.
I want to now be the person who can hold space and show women that you don't have to be that because I never had that. I've always been afraid of carrying some kind of mantle of responsibility because I'm still figuring it out. I have come to understand that with great power comes great responsibility, and if I'm gonna get up there and capture people's attention on stage, it should be purposeful. There should be something else that isn't just like, “I'm really good at this and you should pay attention to me.” I want to show you how easy it is when you go, “What if I didn't give a fuck about what anybody thought?”
There is something really brave about “She Can Dance” from a reflective, storytelling perspective. One of the hardest things a person can do is really sit down and face their past. What was that experience like for you and were there any memories that were scary to face head-on?
When we were writing the lyrics of this song, I told my producer Martin [Johnson], who I've made this whole record with, that I wanted to ask with every song, “Could anybody else sing this?” If it sounds like it could be anybody else's song, it's not good enough, it's not specific enough, it's not me enough. You have to hear it and be like, “Nobody could sing that but Betty Who.” And so he was like, “Okay, what's your story?” There was something I thought was interesting about clueing in people who hadn't been around for the last 10 years and having a song that is like, “Here's what you've missed.”
So the stories in the track are all true to your life?
It's not only the truth, but also really scary and vulnerable, especially the bridge where I talk about my relationship to my career, specifically: “Couple records come and gone, never thought I'd take this long.” I have felt so singular in my pain about the snail's pace of my growth at times and it's such a common artist experience. But especially because of social media, you look around and you're like, “Everybody's succeeding and everybody's having the most fabulous time and everybody's careers are skyrocketing and I'm sitting at home in my fucking living room feeling miserable and bad about myself.”
So I thought, let's tell this story the actual way that it was. It's not the fun romanticized story, let's be real. Like in high school, I was fucking late and loud. I was a hurricane coming into this life of mine because I had all this energy. And then in my twenties, in New York, I was finding myself and I hurt a lot of people. And now here I am, I just want to enjoy my life and enjoy the ride. I want to be present to that and know that this too shall pass. The best stuff in your life is over one day and the worst day of your life will also be over one day.
"The one thing that I would bet my life on is that I know how to put on a good show."
We're so trained to only share our successes or create a story that makes it seem like we're killing it. Very few people are confident enough to say, “I thought I'd be further along or the vision I had for myself was more successful than where I am right now.” So I think a lot of people will relate to that message, even if they don't have the strength to admit that themselves.
It's okay, I did it for them and then we can all just dance around to it together.
This is all part of your new album, BIG! For you, what is the project’s overarching statement?
There's a song called “BIG!” and the album is called BIG! The song unlocked something for me when we wrote it and it’s about finally coming to terms with the fact that I am never going to be tiny. It's funny how much it all ties back into my body, my relationship to my body and my perception of myself. Being tall is a really interesting experience, especially as a woman, because I'm a little bit other. Clothes aren't really made for me and I'm plus size, but then I don't look plus size because I'm just kind of mid size that's been stretched out into a plus size body. I don't fit into any categories easily, so trying to place myself into a box that is then sellable to the public has been really difficult for me.
I've made a lot of creative choices in my past, which I am sad about. I don't regret them because we’re all on a journey, but I am sad about the number of choices I made creatively that were based out of fear and based out of insecurity about the size of my body. Trying to hide it, trying to pretend like I'm skinnier than I am, trying to sell some version of me that is perfect and airbrushed and wears three pairs of tights on stage and is cinched up to my eyeballs. The further away I’ve been from the hustle and bustle of pop stardom life, the more I have become a more grounded and real person.
Sometimes I feel like I walk on stage and I'm becoming an entirely different person. Is that what I want? Is Betty Who genuinely a totally different character? Or is this the time when I have to get the most vulnerable I've ever been and take a step back and come to terms with the fact that I'm never going to be the thing that I've been trying to peddle myself as for 10 years. I don't think people listen to my music because I'm skinny. I don't think people come to my shows because I'm a hot piece of ass. It's because I make good music that people want to feel the energy of. At my heaviest, at my skinniest, my fans show up in either way. So then that's changed how I dress. I'm wearing a lot more men's clothes because they fit me and it makes me feel powerful. I'm actually wearing something that looks good on my body as opposed to playing dress up in this petite woman's world like I had been doing for my entire life.
So BIG! physically, but what about mentally? Does it have a double meaning?
It's an emotional metaphor, like I'm going to really go for it, but there is also this very literal physical aspect of it which is about me finally being like, “What if I was okay with how I look for the first time in my life?” What if I stopped standing in the back of pictures a foot behind everybody so that I look like I'm the same height? What if I stopped only hiring male dancers who were taller than six feet so that I look small on stage? My dance captain is 6’1” and he wears two-inch lifts in his boots on stage every night so that I look a bit more dainty and small. So I'm trying to de-program all of that stuff within myself and be like, “What's me?,” as opposed to, “What's me looking at how everybody else has been doing it forever and trying to figure out how I fit into somebody else's version of this?” And I can't believe how fucking long it's taken me.
It’s crazy how these made up rules get so ingrained in our brains. Something as silly as your dancers needing to appear shorter than you–
Because I'm a woman and that's what I'm supposed to be: tiny and petite and cute and adorable and helpless. It's such a weird heteronormative, sexist, deeply ingrained bias against myself. I was six foot tall when I was 12 years old. I want to pull away from all these very feminine ingenue energies, like the Marilyn in me. All of that has been put on the back burner and I'm really pulling back to being like, “What if I was my 15-year-old queer baby self playing guitar and writing songs about my life and experience?” Like, maybe that's who I've literally always been.
Betty Who's new album BIG! is out October 14 (via BMG). Pre-save it, here, and stream "Blow Out My Candle" and "She Can Dance, below.
Photography: Kate Biel