How do you build a Gen Z pop star? Ask Sabrina Carpenter and Chappell Roan

An investigation into the sharp rise of the ‘overnight’ pop princesses, who’ve actually been years in the making

Hero image in post
Hero image in post

An investigation into the sharp rise of the ‘overnight’ pop princesses, who’ve actually been years in the making

By Darshita Goyal15 May 2024

When was the last time you mumbled, “that’s that me, espresso”? If you’ve been online, walked into a cafe or spoken to a bop-loving friend recently, then surely not too long ago. Haters will call it hyperbolic, but looking at a shot of espresso without thinking of Sabrina Carpenter – and her latest viral hit – is as cardinal a sin as looking at a tennis racket without thinking of Zendaya.

… or looking at a pink cowboy hat without thinking of Chappell Roan, says Tatum Van Dam, social media manager at the label Young. “It takes a certain degree of pop-stardom to be associated with something; especially a colour or an object. In their own unique ways, Sabrina Carpenter and Chappell Roan have the “it” factor — the vocals, the aesthetics, the songwriting ability, the stage presence, the looks — they’re Gen Z pop perfection.”

Van Dam is hardly alone in thinking this. Over the last month, we have witnessed the stratospheric rise of two distinctive pop stars in Carpenter and Roan, sealed and solidified by both of their TikTok-viral Coachella performances. Despite being in the industry for over a decade, both found mainstream success much later.

Flirty blonde pop star Carpenter was infamously discovered by Disney in 2013 through Miley Cyrus’ YouTube singing competition. Soon after, she starred in the mild flop Girl Meets World series and went on to release four albums with the children’s network — none of which received the traction she desired. In a career-breaking moment in 2020, Carpenter was signed onto the Broadway production of Mean Girls as Lindsay Lohan’s cult character Cady Heron, but the pandemic halted those aspirations almost immediately.

As if the cards were already stacked against Carpenter, the singer was soon embroiled in a weird teen-era love triangle that would haunt her for years. Rumours of Carpenter dating Olivia Rodrigo’s ex Joshua Bassett and the 2021 release of ‘drivers license’ resulted in fandom wars, cyber bullying and even death threats. Finally things began to look up in July 2022 when the singer put out emails I can’t send, her first album under a new label and went on tour, kicking off the iconic city-specific outros for ‘nonsense’ that catapulted her to virality.

Riding the success of ‘feather’, ‘nonsense’ and ‘because I liked a boy’, the singer opened the Latin American and Australian legs of Taylor Swift’s ongoing (mammoth) Eras tour which made her a mainstay on FYPs worldwide. Soon after, Carpenter released her biggest hit ‘espresso’ before her twin Coachella performances. The song debuted at #16 on global Spotify and quickly rose to the peak position, dethroning none other than Miss Swift herself. The hashtag #thatsthatmeespresso has over 26 million(!) posts on TikTok while Pitchfork declared the catchy tune the biggest contender for ‘song of the summer’.

But Carpenter wasn’t climbing the pop ladder solo. Not too far away, on another Coachella stage, a Midwest princess was becoming a star. Though ‘espresso’ hit big on global charts, Roan – with her deliciously fun, queer and tumblr-era confessional lyrics – arrived as a messiah for sapphic TikTok. Having begun her music career in 2015 signed to major label Atlantic, Kayleigh Rose Amstutz (AKA Chappell Roan) released a series of slept-on tracks over the years. In 2020, when the singer-songwriter put out ‘Pink Pony Club’, an ode to Los Angeles’ cult gay bar The Abbey, her music resonated with the Lady Gaga fans of the world but wasn’t profitable enough for her label, and Roan was sadly dropped.

After a two-year hiatus, the singer returned with synth bop ‘Feminonomenon’ and suddenly, crowds were paying attention. Similar to Carpenter, Roan found commercial success by opening for a bigger artist – Rodrigo in this case, on her Guts tour. And there’s been no stopping the star ever since. As per Chartmetric, in April the singer enjoyed a 141.4 per cent increase in her daily Spotify listeners and her YouTube views grew by 659.7 thousand, a 55.2 per cent increase to the prior period. Roan’s rise cannot be mentioned without the raging popularity of ‘HOT TO GO’ on TikTok quickly followed by “bros” struggling to understand what ‘Casual’s’ “knee deep in the passenger seat” means.

In fact, in between ‘Good Luck Babe’, ‘Red Wine Supernova’, ‘espresso’ and ‘nonsense’ outros, it’s hard to be online and hear anyone but Carpenter and Roan. “There is something to be said about Gen Z artists and understanding how to use social media to their advantage. We grew up on the internet so it's something that comes naturally to us,” says Van Dam. “Roan and Carpenter are both deeply ingrained within their aesthetics: every post has a purpose, and in one way or another, links back to their music. To build a pop star, an artist first needs to build a fan base, which is done through this kind of world-building and relatability.”

This world building has done leaps and bounds in shaping the “overnight success” of the two pop princesses. The ‘espresso’ singer’s brand has a relatable, airy, pop flavour and her social media reflects it. From indulging in fan-origin transition videos to having a Leo DiCaprio meme on her 25th birthday cake, Carpenter wants you to believe she’s just another girl’s girl. The singer even writes about the silliness of liking boys and how easily they’re obsessed with her, leading to sleepless nights and an all-around mood of nonsense brain. Having faced internet hate so early on — including being branded a “homewrecker and a slut” — Carpenter rode this controversy to assist her rise.

Instead of shying away, the singer chose to lean into her sensual, flirty persona as expressed through wordplay. Think: “Move it up, down, left, right oh / Switch up like Nintendo.” In her hugely popular ‘nonsense’ outros, the pop star, clad in baby blue frills, mini dresses and sparkly lip gloss, expertly switches between ha-ha humour and drop-your-panties hotness. The trend has taken on a life of its own online, where pouty fans try to predict Carpenter’s outros, both wearing and singing the part. It’s almost too good to be true (and too convenient) that her widely public, real life relationship with Barry Keoghan mimics this power dynamic. A mere Diana-coded wave from Carpenter sends the Saltburn actor into fits of red-faced giggles while that Coachella outro feat. bathwater and red wine could make anyone horny.

Although bedfellows in their love for non-PG-13 writing, Roan is for the gay girlies what Carpenter is for the boys and bis. Her irreverent lyrics cheekily reference kink, strip clubs and shrieky orgasms but instead of pandering to a male gaze, Roan finds power in her queer identity. Inspired by drag queens, the artist’s defining maximalist looks include sexy lace, bold makeup, lipstick-stained teeth and OTT wigs. As someone who grew up on the internet, Roan knows just how much Gen Z loves a themed party and she feeds into this, encouraging her fans to play dress-up with her. While on tour, all her concerts featured themes from pink cowgirl and slumber party to angels vs devils and mythical mermaids.

At her performances, Roan has brought out drag performers to open her shows and hand-picked fruity LGBTQ-friendly bars where her fans could chill together pre and post gig. The pop star is aware that today’s celebrity doesn’t live far, far away but instead has fun with her fans through relatable references, themed events and online trends. “Roan grew up listening to the pop artists that shaped the 2000s and 2010s and it’s evident in her sound,” Van Dam says. “I think her music feels simultaneously nostalgic and new for those of us in Gen Z. Also, her songwriting (situationships, fugly jeans, femininomenons) is very on par with our coming of age experience.”

While Roan’s aesthetic is drag, DIY and camp, and Carpenter embodies a saccharine, doll-like girly girl, both musicians have crafted unique brand worlds for their respective fandoms. This hyper-interactive, immersed version of a pop star doesn’t just sing and write songs, she creates communities that go shopping for pink cowboy hats and sip espressos. Be warned – and more pressingly, be prepared – for the rise of the pop girly who not only breaks the fourth wall, but steps out of the screen and into your wardrobe.