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Addison Rae, Proper Pop Star

When was it that Addison Rae turned into a real pop star?

In March 2021, Addison Rae released her debut single “Obsessed.” To say it was panned would be an understatement. Critically, outlets like Vulture compared her whisper-singing to Selena Gomez, while Entertainment Weekly remarked that “execution may have gotten lost in translation.” (I, perhaps in a moment of preciency, at least got the cheek in its narcissistic lyrics.)

She fared much worse in the YouTube comments. Even today, in comments not older than a few months, people are unceremoniously crapping on the song. “THIS IS AMAZING I ALWAYS LISTEN TO IT ON 0 VOLUME,” goes a particularly clever recent one with over 1.9k agreeing upvotes.

But over two years later, the tides have seemingly suddenly changed for Rae. Suddenly, people are now excited, even anticipating, the release of more music.

Today, Aug. 18, Rae released four new tracks (including the heavily awaited collaboration with Charli XCX “2 Die 4”), songs that were supposed to be on her “long lost” debut album that presumably ended up getting scrapped when an entire USB’s worth of her demos got leaked onto the internet in 2022. At the time it was assumed with the leakage that Rae had given up her pop star hopes; after “Obsessed,” she never released a follow up single, and she seemed to be taking on more and more acting projects. Maybe she thought with the hugely negative wave her only official song received, plus all of her other songs now available for free illegal streaming, her pop star career was better left abandoned.

It turns out the opposite happened. Her leaks gained listeners, then covert fans. One of the songs, “2 Die 4,” performed especially well and suddenly there was a co-sign from Charli XCX who passionately exclaimed, “this. song. is. ART.” Perhaps that was all that was needed to open the floodgates for morbidly curious listeners and secret fans to come out of the woodwork and say, “the music actually slaps.” By the time Rae announced a few days ago that she would officially be releasing a small selection of those leaks songs, the tide of public opinion had already significantly turned and the announcement was met with the type of feverish enthusiasm and anticipation typically reserved for “real” pop stars. That brings us to today.

When was it that Addison Rae turned into a real pop star? It’s hard to say. Definitely not at the moment she released “Obsessed,” her intended entrance into the pop realm and industry. To be a pop star means you need to have followers who take you seriously, and there was little outside of her established TikTok realm taking her seriously then.

But there is something pop star-ish in her songs getting leaked, and then getting liked, and then becoming covertly adored. To have something leaked — a time-honored tradition for pop stars and beloved musicians all over — means having something people care about to even leak. In a twisted way, is it a way to grant legitimacy, to bestow the ability to call yourself a capital A artist? I think about Jai Paul, who, like Rae, had barely released songs when his entire debut album was leaked, built an entire career identity around having the leaks, and is now enjoying a victory lap as a game-changing artist two decades later, performing his first-ever live show at Coachella 2023. (Paul officially released that leaked album earlier this year.)

In a parallel way Rae is doing the same. She’s now reclaimed her leaked music and formally cashing in on all its benefits. Now, they’re not songs nobody asked for, being thrust into the world by a desperate influencer trying to make it big; they’re the long-awaited concessions to the legions of voices who’ve been desperately begging for them: “alright, since you guys asked for so long, here you go,” she says with a wink. It’s a power move that certainly reads pop star to me.

And the music is worth it. AR’s brand of pop is the kind you can’t look too closely at because there really isn’t anything much deeper to gleam. Everything it is and will be is already on display on its gleaming, shiny outside. “Obsessed” isn’t about being some overwrought way to secretly boast about how much she loves her self; it’s about, “you said you’re obsessed with me, and I said me too!” The same goes for “2 Die 4” — an exaggeration on an oft thrown-out quip that’s an actual pop gem and soon-to-be classic.

Production-wise, these songs unabashedly stroke a sort of nostalgia. A friend of mine, when explaining the appeal of the songs to him, said that they sound so outdated it’s almost like a shock to the system. “Nothing On (But The Radio)” reminded him of early Lady Gaga a la The Fame. In that vein, “it could’ve been you” also sounds like it contains flecks of Katy Perry’s Teenage Dream era. They’re uncomplicated and so shine because of it. Call it shallow or asinine or straight-up bad, and you’re probably missing the point.

It’s unclear where Rae will be going from here, if she’ll use this momentum to actually try and build something real or if she’s now satisfied to let this remain a funny artifact in her life. She’s tweeted, very earnestly, that she “loves music,” so maybe there’s more to come. If not, then my hope is these songs will age like Paris Hilton’s “Stars Are Blind” did. And maybe, 20 years from now, Rae will be back to reclaim her pop legacy once and for all.

Addison Rae’s ‘AR’ is out now.