If you’ve been to enough concerts, there’s a feeling you recognize when a new-ish artist’s career is about to blast off — when the audience isn’t just singing along with the hit but with nearly every song, half of them with hands over hearts, many dressed in the artist’s merch or artist-identifying outfits, and at least a few singing emphatically, with tears and/or mascara running. That feeling isn’t always accurate, but it was present at Billie Eilish concerts in 2019 and Lorde’s club shows in 2013 and even the Killers almost 20 years ago — and without setting the bar unfairly high, it was definitely in the air Chappell Roan’s packed concert at New York’s 1,500-capacity Webster Hall on Tuesday night.
It comes from the songs and the artist’s presence and performance, of course, but it’s really more in how the audience is reacting to those things, like this artist is theirs, someone who’s speaking to or for or about them.
Like most of the above artists at those times, Chappell Roan isn’t really that new. The 25-year-old Missouri-born singer signed to Atlantic in her late teens, releasing an EP in 2017 and a string of singles, but her sound and profile didn’t really fall into place until shortly before the pandemic, when she began working with co-writer/producer Daniel Nigro — whose own career soon blasted off after he co-wrote and produced most of Olivia Rodrigo’s blockbuster “Sour” album. The story really begins with their April 2020 song “Pink Pony Club,” about a small-town girl who moves to West Hollywood and becomes an exotic dancer in an idealized gay nightclub: “I heard that there’s a special place/ Where boys and girls can all be queens every single day… Won’t make my mama proud/ It’s gonna cause a scene/ She sees her baby girl/ I know she’s gonna scream.”
That song and subsequent ones like “California,” “Naked in Manhattan,” “My Kink Is Karma” and “Femininomenon” established an identity that blossomed as she engaged with fans on social media and began touring in earnest in 2021: Glammy and pop and embracing her femininity and shared Gen-Z generational experiences, and also very queer-positive. Yet she’s never had a TikTok smash or a huge viral moment, and she parted ways with Atlantic early last year.
But all of the above seems to have worked in her favor, helping her to figure out who and what she wants — and doesn’t want — to be. She’s a powerful singer and a masterful performer, with practiced strutting and hair-flips and emphatic punches, and she knows how to pace her show: A rousing mid-set cover of Alanis Morrisette’s breakthrough single “You Oughta Know” (a song that’s three years older than Roan is) provides a familiar and on-message break from her own material that simultaneously acts as a statement of her own intent, a music-history lesson to her younger fans, and a nod to the older ones: Yes, I know where some of this attitude comes from, thank you very much, and I respect it.
Despite all that, her new label, Island, has kept things low-key — so much that they didn’t even officially announce her signing: They’re letting her and her audience lead. Because most of all, Chappell Roan knows her people. She speaks to the audience like a friend, not from some lofty “You guys!” peak, and when she asks them to be quiet for the ballads, they oblige. The theme for the show, as pronounced on Instagram, was “So you wanna be a POP STAR,” and the densely packed crowd more than obliged, with glitter and boa feathers and rouge and sparkly boots and jackets and more. The Island staffers at the show clearly got the memo too, with one paying homage to Bjork’s legendary swan outfit and several others dressed as Spice Girls, although one top exec seemed to be channeling Phil Collins.
Naturally, the bandmembers stepped up in fine fashion: Roan herself was wearing a spangled pink minidress with a big star on it and silver glitter go-go boots (and performed three songs in a big blonde wig — channelling Hannah Montana — before doffing it to unleash her fierce red mane), and her three female bandmembers — introduced as “Lana Del Rey,” “Avril” and “David Bowie” — had their similarly shiny attire; the stage was full of glitter and sparkle as well, with a giant tinsel-like backdrop and four rotating disco balls at the front.
The main set wrapped with what may be her best song to date, “Casual,” which she delivered with a casual magnificence before a brief break while the crowd roared for an encore. They got it, and the show closed with (of course) “Pink Pony Club” — as if the atmosphere wasn’t already festive enough, the song finished with confetti cannons blasting the front half of the audience while Roan danced across the stage in a pink cowboy hat, milking the closing chorus and blowing kisses to the crowd as she exited.
A superstar is born? On the basis of Tuesday night, Chappell Roan already was one — it’s just taken the world a minute to catch up.