In the middle of “thank u, next,” the game-changing monster of a hit single that she released last year, Ariana Grande makes an announcement about her romantic life: “I met someone else, we having better discussions / I know they say I move on too fast / But this one is gonna last.” It’s all a fake-out, of course. The new person in Grande’s life is Grande herself. In the midst of a song that finds sly and subtle ways to comment on Grande’s own recent tabloid-narrative past, it’s a way to assert agency, to take control.
At the end of her debut album Crush On Me, the DIY artist Kelsie Hogue does something similar, but the tone is all different. As the music fades out, Hogue makes an announcement about her own romantic life. She sounds excited but also nervous and embarrassed, like she’s taken her friends out to after-work drinks to tell them the big news: “So, uh, I have a new crush.” The crush is Hogue herself. “We’re just gonna ride this one out and see where it takes us. I’m not trying to project too much into the future, but I do have a good feeling about this one, so…” Her speech is dotted with pauses and singsongy inflections, and as she trails off, the album ends. For Hogue, that announcement might be a way to assert agency, as well, but it’s a more slippery and self-conscious kind of agency.
Grande and Hogue are about the same age, and they both grew up on steady diets of TRL, but their paths diverge from there. Hogue grew up in New Hampshire, the daughter of bohemian types, and she recorded Crush On Meafter a couple of pit stops — going to college and singing hardcore in Boston, trying her hand at weirdo comedy in Chicago. Somewhere along the way, Hogue discovered her own queerness, coming out as bisexual and nonbinary. And Crush On Me explodes with the excitement and uncertainty of making that jump into the unknown, of being young and figuring out all the different directions that your life might take you.
Hogue has said that she started making pop music after Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, and Whitney Houston visited her in a dream. And Crush On Me is a sort of low-tech DIY take on the giddy day-glo maximalism of late-’90s and early-’00s pop. Hogue knows her way around a hook, but there’s not a lot of control or sheen to what she does on Crush On Me. Instead, this is instinctive exposed-nerve music, music about reveling in the chaotic tornado of your own life. For me, it doesn’t recall any of the albums from Hogue’s dream-visitors so much as Paper Television, the unheralded 2006 breakthrough from the Blow. Like Paper Television, Crush On Me is the work of a nervous, self-conscious outsider in an off-the-map locale who’s figured out how to use pop music as a vehicle for personal expression. And if you know Paper Television, then you know that’s a good thing.
“Haunted House,” for instance, is a song about being at a party, being drunk around drunk people, and wondering whether you’ve got a single meaningful personal connection going: “No one knows the difference from my laughter and my screams / When everyone around me’s 20 shots under the sea.” Or there’s “Cheerleader,” about the way pleasure and social expectations go to war against each other inside our heads: “I’ll kill my reputation if you promise not to tell / I’ll kill my reputation if you come with me to hell / Our dirty little secret in the bathroom stall / Everybody wants to watch the cheerleader fall.”
My favorite moment on the album might be on opening track “Heels,” where Hogue tries to insist that things have changed, that she’s changed: “You don’t know / You don’t know me anymore.” And then, firing up into a yell: “I changed my hair! I changed my hair! I changed my hair!” A moment like that exposes something that we might not want to admit. We might go through all these seismic personal upheavals, and we might try to signal those upheavals to the outside world, and then our best friends might not even fucking notice.
The production on Crush On Me is dinky and claustrophobic, but it’s full of sharp melodic turns. The whole thing sounds synthetic, even the washes of guitar that occasionally poke through the mix. Hogue sings with fire and immediacy and no polish at all. It’s a vision of DIY music that can only exist when we can all do things on our laptops that would’ve cost thousands in studios a decade or two ago. Once upon a time, people had to choose between making raw and weird and immediate music on guitars with friends, or making slick and expensive and catchy music on synthesizers in studios. But that’s over now, and there’s nothing to stop someone like Hogue from bending pop music into her own image.
Hogue has the personality and the melodic chops to get herself absorbed into the pop-music machine if that’s what she wants. Maybe we’ll look back in a few years and see that Crush On Me was her calling card, her way of proving herself. Or maybe she’ll stay on the outside, making her own version of bright and shiny and expressive pop music. After all, you don’t have to be Ariana Grande to do that.