Whether it was Lorde, Halsey or even Taylor Swift, pop singers knew that presenting themselves as outsiders was a clear way to connect with listeners in a year as fractured as 2017.
But when these would-be misfits are topping year-end lists (like Lorde) and selling more than 1 million records in a week (like Swift), it’s easy to wonder if maybe they’ve moved inside — and to think about who’s truly operating on the fringes.
One overlooked act that fits that bill: Hey Violet, the smart, sly Los Angeles band responsible for 2017’s most convincing rebel yell, “From the Outside.” Released in June, the album sets vivid thoughts about the stifling expectations placed on young women against music that keeps skirting conventions of its own.
“I’m the girl in the back of the class / Blank stare, don’t care, don’t ask,” singer Rena Lovelis warns in “O.D.D.,” which combines plaintive acoustic strumming, a thudding hip-hop beat and pitch-shifted synths from EDM. In “Hoodie,” Lovelis admits to holding on to an ex’s sweatshirt with “the broken zipper and cigarette burns.”
“You’d probably think I was psychotic if you knew,” she sings, and yet the surging chorus reveals zero embarrassment. Later, in a turbo-charged pop-punk tune with an unprintable title, Lovelis rips into a guy who wears his mom’s earrings and steals his pickup lines from Drake.
“I know he’s tall and he’s fit, but I won’t fall for it,” she insists over fuzzy power chords, “Don’t want his hands or his lips coming near me.”
For all its craft and attitude, “From the Outside” didn’t gain the traction this year that it deserved; the album peaked at No. 110 on the Billboard 200, while its audacious lead single, “Guys My Age,” made it no higher than No. 68 on the Hot 100.
On Spotify, “Guys My Age” — in which Lovelis, who’s 19, goes looking for “attention from a grown-up” — has been streamed more than 35 million times, which sounds like a lot until you compare that with the nearly quarter-billion plays Halsey has racked up with her song “Now or Never.”
Why Hey Violet didn’t take off is hard to say. It certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort: In an interview over the summer, the band members described with impressive enthusiasm how they’d spent the previous few weeks flying to cities across the country to play three or four songs at a music festival or a concert sponsored by a radio station. (Think KIIS-FM’s annual Wango Tango, only in Boise, Idaho.)
“A lot of the times you land and the only thing still open is McDonald’s,” said guitarist Casey Moreta. “But I think we kind of like to romanticize the grind.”
One problem may have been confusion about Hey Violet’s origin. Before they formed the band, Lovelis and her sister, drummer Nia Lovelis, used to play with keyboardist Miranda Miller in Cherri Bomb, an unremarkable hard-rock group that put out an album on Disney’s Hollywood Records label in 2012.
In 2013, Cherri Bomb’s singer, Julia Pierce, either quit the band or was fired; what happened depends on who’s telling the story. But the remaining musicians’ slow transition into Hey Violet — with the eventual addition of Moreta and bassist Iain Shipp — conjured a whiff of record-business engineering that’s clung to the new outfit.
Miller’s departure in August, a few weeks after our interview (and photo shoot), only bolstered suspicions that perhaps Hey Violet was a creation of its handlers, including the Lovelis sisters’ parents.
Then again, what difference does all that make?
As Swift has shown, even America’s onetime sweetheart can rebrand herself as a troublemaker. And though its underappreciated status gives Hey Violet a certain scrappiness, “From the Outside” gets by on its musical and emotional merits; its rebelliousness feels real — more real than that on Lorde’s “Melodrama” or Swift’s “Reputation” — no matter the specifics of the group’s back story.
To its credit, Hey Violet maintained that edgy quality even as the band was working with some of the same producers and songwriters behind hits by Jason Derulo and One Direction.
One of those studio pros, Julian Bunetta, praised Rena Lovelis’ supple yet husky vocal tone, which he attributed in part to the years she spent screaming in rock clubs. And, indeed, Lovelis singled out Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain as a singer she admired for his ability to make the experience of isolation somehow feel relatable.
Cobain, of course, had no problem gaining the kind of recognition that so far has eluded Hey Violet — though the demands of celebrity are also what helped drive him to suicide at age 27.
Asked if Cobain represents a cautionary tale about success, Lovelis acknowledged that she worries that pop’s current outsider fixation risks glamorizing “personal dysfunction,” as she put it. It might also encourage fakers moaning about anxieties they haven’t experienced.
“We can’t all be outsiders — that would mean we’re all insiders,” Miller reasoned with a laugh. At that, Lovelis narrowed her eyes.
“For the record,” she said, “we’re not tricking you.”