Good Luck, Babe! and the Potential of Pop Anthems | Rock & Art
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Good Luck, Babe! and the Potential of Pop Anthems

Pop is a genre which has long been lauded for its universal accessibility. It is literally an abbreviated form of ‘popular’ – pop music’s signature style often includes catchy, feel-good lyrics, danceable tempos, and uncomplicated notation that makes it the golden child of radio stations, supermarket chains, and dance clubs. While there’s nothing inherently bad about a genre its success is, by and large, defined by its ability to pander to mainstream marketability. 

A more critical listener might label the genre as “inoffensive” and in more extreme cases “unoriginal” – after all, commercial success relies on its ability to connect to anyone, anywhere, and there are only so many topics, and so many tempos, that can satisfy the stingy pallet of the general public.

Perhaps this is why pop anthems have a history of uplifting one type of voice, while quietly shutting the doors on the rest. Such as why black artists often have a hard time designating themselves as pop stars without other labels being tacked onto them—hip-hop, R&B, and in the most recent case “urban”—by an industry that seems intent on preserving a system where the colour of one’s skin plays more of a role in establishing where on the music grid an artist falls upon than the type of music they are making.

Good Luck, Babe! and the Potential of Pop Anthems | Rock & Art

LGBTQIA+ artists are no exception to the challenges that come from trying to be considered a pop success or not. While it’s true that more queer artists have taken to the scene than ever before, the Troye Sivan’s of the world are still incomparable to the sold-out arenas, giant fan bases, and chart-topping albums that artists like Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, and more recently, Olivia Rodrigo, accomplish.

However, that’s not to say that even when an LGBTQIA+ artist does get a chart-topping single, like Lil Nas X with Montero (Call Me By Your Name), which was touted as being a mix of “flamenco and reggeaton dipped in pop”. Often times their songs, while imbued with queer sentiments and references (Call Me By Your Name taken from a gay novel with the same title), blurs the line between heterosexual and homosexual experiences.

After all, on the guitar strumming, dembow-style beat Lil Nas X asks his lover to, “call me when you want, call me when you need”, and can’t we all relate to that?

That is not to say that songs like this are not needed, or that it is some sort of failure on the artist’s part when their lyrics skew towards relatability. But it is worth pointing out that the unique challenges that present themselves in LGBTQIA+ relationships are often not at the forefront of these chart-topping pop songs.

Such a phenomena begs the question: can a genre so dependent on universal marketability leave any room for those whose songs diverge from mainstream experiences? And can marginalized voices singing about marginalized experiences still earn themselves a shot at the pop anthem crown?

While these questions don’t necessarily have an answer, there’s one voice who is attempting to answer them, and it belongs to singer-songwriter Chappell Roan.

Chappell Roan: A Rising Star

“I was just wanting to write a big anthemic pop song,” Roan says to Rolling Stone when discussing her new single Good Luck, Babe! A song which reached number 44 on the Billboard Hot 100 and peaked at number 18 for the UK Singles Chart. This is an impressive feat considering how uniquely and loudly queer the single is. 

But to truly understand the music, one must first understand the artist. So who is Chappell Roan? Well, the rising pop star is a prime example of overnight success, if you consider ten years of false starts, failed partnerships, and countless hours spent in songwriting as “overnight”.

Born in Willard Missouri, a city with a population of approximately 6,000 people, Kayleigh Rose Amstutz, now professionally known as Chappell Roan, signed with Atlantic Records in 2015 after uploading an original song entitled “Die Young” to YouTube. From there she spent years working on her sound until she eventually released her debut “EP School Nights” in 2017. 

However, this sudden success was short-lived, as while working on “Pink Pony Club”, a song which would later become her most successful single since starting her musical journey, Roan would end up dropped from her label in 2020.

“I burst into tears,” Chappell says in an article with Rolling Stone after finding out about this devastating turn of events. Although as dismal as her situation became, and as time went on, Roan realized that her time at Atlantic had not been completely unproductive. After all, it was at Atlantic that she met her songwriting partner Dan Nigro, who would go on to write the poppy punk-ballads of Olivia Rodrigo’s Sour, and, through this connection, Roan would later go on to open for the budding pop idol’s sold-out tour. 

This departure also enlightened Roan on the unexpected benefits that came from going independent. “Once I let go of trying to be this very well-managed, put-together pop girl, it felt like everything just fell into place,” Roan explained to Billboard when discussing curating her new creative vision in 2022. “I leaned into the fact that my looks were tacky, and very obviously using fake diamonds and Gucci knockoffs. I leaned into my queerness for the first time. When I did that, the songs got easier to write, the shows got easier to design, and my aesthetic was finally there.”

Finally this change in direction and attempt at authenticity certainly paid off when in April 2024 she released Good Luck, Babe! a single which would be her most successful to date.

Good Luck, Babe! and the Potential of Pop Anthems | Rock & Art

In the song, Roan looks back at her relationship with a woman whose queerness has been denied by her hand–whether that be through fear, internalized homophobia, or a lack of perceived acceptance from those around her–and how that denial of her sexuality has ultimately led to the end of their relationship. 

However, what makes this song so unique is that its meaning requires no subtext, nothing is hidden behind layers of finely spun ambiguity. On a blissful beat and groovy synths, Roan lays out cleanly an experience that is as distinctly queer as it is sonically stunning.

With lyrics like, “You can kiss a hundred boys in bars / Shoot another shot, try to stop the feeling” and the more scathing, “When you wake up next to him in the middle of the night / With your head in your hands, you’re nothing more than his wife,” Roan gives voice to an experience that is fundamentally queer, and perhaps more impressive, one that lacks pop music’s signature marker of success – relatability.

The Potential for Pop Anthems 

So what does that mean for pop anthems? Well, first it’s important to establish that queer artists have never been as accepted in mainstream music as they are in the current age. A fact which has opened up a wellspring of opportunity for remarkable musicians to share their talent and spotlight with the world. Certainly, we have come a long way from the pinnacle of so-called queer experiences relegated to Katy Perry’s I Kissed A Girl.

Yet as important as artists like Ethel Cain and SOPHIE have been in transforming their respective genres’ landscapes, it is hard to compare the success of any of these artists with those pop stars who have a leg-up in the industry. So-to-speak,  they don’t have to face the extra hurdle of making sure that their lyrics toe the line between the authenticity of their own experience as queer artists navigating a largely heterosexual world, while also remaining palpable and relatable to a general audience who does not share their experiences. 

Despite these extra challenges, the success of Roan’s Good Luck, Babe! speaks to a more hopeful future for pop. Now, one cannot help but wonder, is it because of a changing, progressive society that we are seeing the success of queer pop ballads? Or is what we consider ‘relatable’ a lot more malleable than what was initially thought? If that is the case, how important is reliability when it comes to producing a successful pop song anyway?

Perhaps relatability as we know it doesn’t have to be so cut and dry. A straight relationship won’t ever deal with the complexities that come with shame born from sexuality, but many people will certainly know what it’s like to be left behind for the sake of another. What matters is the sentiment–a broken heart, a sense of betrayal, a realization that you can’t change a person to accept you for who you are, and you certainly can’t help a person accept themselves for who they are either. Roan gives voice to what many of us know in our hearts. Sometimes, when you really love someone, the best you can do is wish them luck. 

In this way, Good Luck, Babe! is more than just a top-charting pop song by yet another on-the-rise pop artist. Roan’s final repetition of good luck, acts both as a farewell to her lover, and a rallying flag for other marginalised artists who are wondering how much of themselves they can put into their music and still see success because of it.

While Roan’s success might be rare for its time, perhaps one day we might see a Billboard top ten chart that reflects human experiences as varied as there are people in the world, but until then we can use singles like these as a touchstone in a larger conversation on empathy. Instead of seeking lyrics that can appeal to the most amount of listeners, we, as the audience, can do the work of trying to see ourselves in others, learning to extend our capacity for relatability, and in the process fundamentally change an industry so guided by its audience’s desires. But as always, the first step begins with us.

So good luck, babe–you got it from here.