PinkPantheress Is 2021's Most Bewitching Breakout

PinkPantheress Is 2021's Most Bewitching Breakout

Story by Erica Russell / Photography by Aiden Zamiri / Styling by Milena Agbaba / Beauty direction by Karla Quiñonez Leon

In an age of hyper-heighted anxieties — from political to digital, environmental to technological — many are turning toward nostalgia to find some semblance of solace. It's perhaps why the most resonant artist to break out of obscurity this year is PinkPantheress, whose ephemeral, D'n'B-sampling music has become the unofficial soundtrack for disillusioned, chronically online millennials and Gen Z teens desperate to feel something, anything, in this otherwise numb world.

The 20-year-old UK film student-turned-producer and singer, known only as PinkPantheress, dropped her first track, "Just a Waste," on TikTok at the very top of 2021. With 1 million followers and counting to date, she's captivated the platform, becoming one of its most successful musicians thanks to her refreshingly new, yet comfortingly familiar brand of ultra-emotive breakbeat alt-pop.

PinkPantheress' songs are like bubbles: Effervescent, sentimental and fleeting. Each one pops into a burst of glistening shimmer the moment you try to capture or define it, and suddenly you're frantically chasing after the next little bubble in her discography. It's no wonder her blissed-out music has gone mega-viral and has been used in millions and millions of TikToks in the 10 months since she first appeared on the app, including videos from top creators like Charli D'Amelio and Bella Poarch, subsequently landing her record deals with Parlophone and Elektra.

Many of PinkPantheress' musical influences look as though they were pulled off a playlist from a mid-2000s iPod left buried in someone's childhood dresser. There's the lilted talk-sing narratives of Lily Allen, who the artist cites as a major lyrical inspiration, plus the chill, experimental electronica of Frou Frou and Dido; the anxious, teen-friendly alt-rock of My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park and Blink-182, and the theatrical pop-punk melodies of Panic! At the Disco; and, of course, flourishes of the requisite UK garage/ dance subgenres, from 2-step to D'n'B and jungle music. The latter influence is most noticeable in PinkPantheress' work, but she says she's "definitely not a D'n'B artist" and rather prefers to simply call herself "an alternative pop artist," even if she's clearly shifting the pop paradigm into uncharted waters.

Top and skirt: Paul-Louis Orrier (from Rellik Archive)

Born in 2001, PinkPantheress was just a kid when the music she references was popular in the clubs, so even her own evanescent affinity for the era is less a direct recollection and more like musical déjà vu diffused through a modern, personal lens. "I wasn't necessarily at my prime when these things were coming out, but I was still alive and I remember it being a cooler time, to be honest," she says. "My cousins and my parents did show me a lot of that stuff when I was younger, and with the internet it's really easy to research a lot of the past."

In turn, PinkPantheress' own music presents as a dreamy hybrid of disparate genres and styles that's at once warm and chilly. Her wispy, fluttery bedroom pop vocals float above racing, stuttering drum and bass breakbeats; she weaves cinema-grade youth-afflicted despair into intricate emo melodies and sets them atop whirling, high-octane samples from the likes of Crystal Waters and Just Jack.

Her hit single "Pain," with its 101 million-plus streams on Spotify, samples British electronic act Sweet Female Attitude's 2000 garage classic, "Flowers," while PinkPantheress reminisces wistfully about an ex-lover over looping beats. On one of her other breakthroughs, "Break It Off," she samples D'n'B pioneer Adam F's seminal 1997 genre smash "Circles," interpolating the track with sugary, achy lyrics about heartbreak: "But I'm so used to saying I'm fine/ And then something that you did to hurt me worse/ It comes to me," she sings on the lounge-y track, which went wildly viral on TikTok earlier this year.

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Sampling, unfortunately, is a bit like roulette: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. One of the casualties of PinkPantheress' preference for chopped and screwed production is her fan favorite debut, "Just a Waste." The swirling nu-disco track's genius sample of Michael Jackson's "Off the Wall" proved too difficult to clear legally, resulting in its sudden, devastating removal from Spotify in early September. This was a "tragic" blow for PinkPantheress, who counted the track as one of her favorites. "I don't think I'll try to revisit that song though," she says. "It's hard to clear any Michael Jackson, and I don't want to change it or anything because it won't be up to par with the original, so I don't even want to try, either. RIP."

PinkPantheress' breezy music is not so much tenderly recycled or inferential like our current wave of pop punk-inspired hits by the likes of Olivia Rodrigo and Mod Sun, but it's not quite an homage, such as hyerpop's relationship to early 2000s trance-pop, either. A more appropriate description might be "repurposed." Like a well-loved vintage gem picked up from the thrift shop, dismantled and redesigned into something new yet vaguely evocative, PinkPantheress is reminiscent of a fleeting era while sounding unlike anything we've heard before.

And her work is resonating with a lot of people, not just the kids on TikTok. Over the past few months, PinkPantheress has been co-signed by the likes of Billie Eilish, Grimes, Caroline Polachek, Kehlani, Bella Hadid, Lil Yachty, Madison Beer, Skrillex and Willow Smith, the latter whom PinkPantheress excitedly calls herself a "big fan of." PinkPantheress has been covered by Giveon and Coldplay, and sampled by London rapper Central Cree, while she herself landed a feature on GoldLink's new album over the summer.

Hailing from Bath, England, PinkPantheress was just 13 when she saw Paramore perform at the Reading Festival in 2014, a euphoric live music experience that eventually inspired her to pursue music as a hobby. In her early teens, she and some friends started a Paramore and My Chemical Romance cover band, just for fun. While in high school, she began dabbling with GarageBand and writing lyrics for a musician friend, before making the revelation that she could make music for herself.

Top: Ilana Blumberg, Skirt: The Attico, Leg warmers: Tabio, Shoes: Prada

"I wrote for my friend a lot and then I ended up writing for myself after a while," PinkPantheress says. "I was at home and figured I might as well give it a try, just because it was more convenient for me to record at home as opposed to having to constantly be with my friend for her to record. So yeah, I just decided to do it myself."

At the time, the artist says she was making "generic pop, less drum and bass and not as quick [BPM]" as her current music. It wasn't until PinkPantheress went off to university in London, where she's currently studying, that she hit her musical stride in the comfort of her own space, resulting in the heavenly frenetic soundscapes and airy, clipped vocals fans are now familiar with. "It was actually quite easy to record in my [dorm] room because it was basically my own small flat," she says. "I didn't need to be conscious of making noise the same way I had to be while at home with my parents."

Much of the intrigue surrounding PinkPantheress has been rooted in her near-anonymity online. Partly due to her self-professed shyness and desire for privacy, she didn't reveal her face until August of 2021 — more than eight months after first blowing up on TikTok. Even then the image she shared — a somewhat blurry, unassuming Instagram snapshot of her posing in what appeared to be her dorm room — was hardly the shiny, polished promo pic of a newly signed superstar. PinkPantheress' parents didn't know about her music until things really began "popping off," and at the time of publishing, her real name and identity remain unknown, a mystery to even the most adept web sleuths. But for now, she prefers it that way.

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"I'm still quite shy," she says. "I don't really know how I decide what to put out there or not. I just do it when it feels right. Specifically, if I like a picture, then I suppose I'll share it. But I try to be as less visual as possible when it comes to myself as an artist because I prefer the music to do the job."

PinkPantheress didn't drop her first music video until September with "Just for Me." Prior to its release, the singer had only shared ambiguous visualisers on her YouTube, none of which showed her face. True to the artist's secretive and enigmatic approach to self-promotion, the fuzzy music video for the Mura Masa-produced hyper-ballad wasn't even posted to her official YouTube page. Instead, it was uploaded to a cryptic secondary account under the name "PP_ROCKSXX," as if the video had been ripped from TV and illegally re-uploaded by a fan account in the early 2000s.

Directed by LAUZZA, a London-based director specializing in video production for underground UK artists, the "Just for Me" video indeed looks like it was plucked straight from MTV's early morning music video block back in 2003. Featuring fisheye lens cutaways, aughties emo fashion and the stark, post-Y2K flair you might expect from a Cooler Kids or Anna Nalick video of the same era, her purposefully low-res clip is indicative of the transient throwback atmosphere that PinkPantheress has woven into her otherwise future-facing music.

"I'm just doing it as slowly as I can," she says of releasing visuals at her own pace. "I'm trying to have as much control over it as I can. I work with my friend [LAUZZA] a lot for the videos just because he understands the visual stuff I'm trying to go for. It's the small things like that, which ensure everything I have out is as true to myself as possible."

PinkPantheress' diaristic, detailed lyrics are often steeped in angst, inspired no doubt by her lasting love for My Chemical Romance. She sings about turning herself over to romantic apathy on the entrancing "Noticed I cried," and feeling abandoned by friends and family on the Towa Tei-esque "Passion." "I think my songs are quite dark in terms of the lyrics, but then the instrumentation used is quite violin-y and dark in itself," she admits, adding that she never really writes from personal experience, but rather tries to step "in the shoes of other people."

The artwork for her debut project, a glossy 10-track mixtape called to hell with it (released October 15), sees PinkPantheress posing dramatically in front of a white picket-fenced house in the middle of the night, as lightning strikes in the background. A haunting visual, it's inspired by the rich, saturated photography of David LaChapelle and sinister, suburban tableaux of Gregory Crewdson.

"I quite like American-looking spooky things, and surreal, dramatic pictures. I'm a big fan of darker stuff," the singer says, citing Twilight and horror films such as Saw, The Conjuring and Battle Royale as visual influences. "I really like the theatrical kind of drama. It inspires me because I enjoy how it looks, but then I also like how it can apply to my own aesthetic and lyrics."

Top: Minxx, Necklace: Uglifairy

Still, there's underlying humor to PinkPantheress: she's quippy on social media, if not sparse; she's not precious about her undying emo phase or her unironic love of '90s and '00s pop culture (her official website is designed as a spoof on defunct MySpace profiles, complete with glitchy GIFs and pixelated mirror selfies); and when it comes to her signature short track lengths (her longest song, "Nineteen," clocks in at just 2:33), PinkPantheress is totally self-aware — but she also doesn't feel any pressure to make longer songs (that's what the replay button is for).

"I'm definitely in on the joke," she says, laughing in reference to the many memes fans have made about her micro-length songs. (Even her mixtape plays at just under 19 minutes, which has become a joke that bathroom breaks should be held off until after her concert, lest you risk missing the entire set.) "It could seem like I'm being pressured to make longer songs, but I kind of just see it as, 'Well, you're getting the music one way or another, so...' If people were saying the songs were bad and too short, then I'd be like, 'Oh, God...' But they're saying they're good. And I don't know, I like them that way."

With her very first live performance now under her belt — her October 28 gig at The Pickle Factory in London sold out in seconds, according to many an aggrieved fan on Twitter — and more shows scheduled for November, as well as a brand new fashion campaign for Heaven by Marc Jacobs, PinkPantheress seems to be finally emerging from her protective shell.

It's almost inevitable that her virtual life as the world's most elusive rising pop star and her offline, IRL identity will align — eventually. PinkPantheress' songs may be quick in BPM and length, but don't expect her to rush into fully blowing her cover just yet. "It does feel like quite a relief," she says. "I know a lot of people are curious about who I am, so I think it's good to let things out there in more doses, but not too much. I think at some point my music and my life offline will end up colliding — and yeah, I hope they do."

Top: Chopova Lowena, Pants: Fraser Kenneth, Necklace: Freya Douglas Ferguson, Boots: Stylist's own

Photography: Aidan Zamiri
Styling: Milena Agbaba
Beauty direction: Karla Quiñonez Leon
Nails: Chiara Ballisai (using OPI)
Production: Yasser Abubeker
Production supervisor: Celeste Doig
Photo assistant: Arthur Comely, Anna Sophia John
Styling assistant: Nancy Rosshunt
Makeup assistant: Becky Lory