SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
What if we told you this song...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST FOR ME")
PINKPANTHERESS: (Singing) I found the street of the house in which you stay.
MCCAMMON: ...Has over 40 million plays on Spotify and was named TikTok's breakout song of the summer.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST FOR ME")
PINKPANTHERESS: (Singing) 'Cause I read somewhere you'll fall in love with me.
MCCAMMON: The song is "Just For Me," and the singer goes by PinkPantheress. NPR's Mano Sundaresan has the story.
MANO SUNDARESAN, BYLINE: Even though PinkPantheress was willing to talk, she won't share her real name. The 20-year-old with a hint of mystery hails from the U.K. and is bringing back a style of music that hasn't seen success outside her country in decades. In January, PinkPantheress logged on to TikTok with a plan.
PINKPANTHERESS: I was really sure what I wanted to achieve through TikTok, and it was obviously, like, to get a bigger audience.
SUNDARESAN: So she started posting snippets of her music every day. And then her song "Pain" went viral.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAIN")
PINKPANTHERESS: (Singing) It's 8 o'clock in the morning. Now I'm entering my bed. Had a few dreams about you. I can tell you what we did.
SUNDARESAN: "Pain" is the prototypical PinkPantheress song. She sings in this really wistful way, and it samples a version of "Flowers" by Sweet Female Attitude.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FLOWERS")
SWEET FEMALE ATTITUDE: (Singing) Oh, I'll bring you flowers. Whoa, baby.
PINKPANTHERESS: I try to choose beats are simpler so that my singing doesn't get too, like, I guess, clashy (ph) with the beat.
SUNDARESAN: Another thing about "Pain" - it's insanely short, clocking in at a minute, 38. Her mixtape "to hell with it" is 10 songs and only 19 minutes long.
PINKPANTHERESS: I just get kind of tired of hearing the same melodies too much over and over. And obviously, the way that a usual song is structured is you'd have two verses, two choruses, maybe a post, then obviously, like, fade out. It feels awkward for me to write any more than I feel like I have to.
SUNDARESAN: Well, the formula has worked for PinkPantheress. After "Pain," song after song and video after video blew up on TikTok, and she signed a record deal with Parlophone. Fans often describe her music as familiar, and her TikTok videos have this really low-effort quality to them. She'll sometimes film herself just walking really fast to her music.
CAT ZHANG: Typically on TikTok, if you want your music to blow up, like, you have to anchor it to a dance trend or meme, something where many different people are doing the same thing to your song and there's like a clear trend to it.
SUNDARESAN: That's Cat Zhang, assistant editor at Pitchfork. She says that her success on TikTok points to a shift in the platform's culture.
ZHANG: There's a lot more music that becomes popular on the platform, like, not for any particular reason, but because there's a lot of, like, lifestyle content, vlogs, food-related things like outfits and stuff like that that just need kind of, like, a chill background, like a nice vibe to it. And so I think her music works well with that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BREAK IT OFF")
PINKPANTHERESS: (Singing) I like you. What's stopping you? Ah, ah, ah, ah. What's stopping you?
SUNDARESAN: In her next online hit, "Break It Off," PinkPantheress sampled Circles by Adam F.
(SOUNDBITE OF ADAM F'S "CIRCLES")
SUNDARESAN: PinkPantheress loves sampling U.K. Garage, a genre of dance music that gained popularity in the '90s. It's full of fast breakbeats and ambient melodies. And PinkPantheress would listen to it on the radio with her mom.
DJ Q: Garage was just all over the U.K. Like, people like Jay-Z used to come to the U.K. and go to garage clubs, like, twice as nice. They were just the sound of the U.K.
SUNDARESAN: That's DJ Q, a fixture in the U.K. dance scene. He grew up in the heyday of garage, and he thinks the scene is having a small comeback.
DJ Q: Once the hype died down, it was like a destroy and rebuild sort of thing. It slowly built to where it is now, where you're seeing garage tracks in the charts again in the U.K. and stuff like that.
SUNDARESAN: PinkPantheress has received praise for how she has drawn eyes and ears to U.K. garage. But she also has detractors who think that she's running wild with the source material.
PINKPANTHERESS: So when I was taking those beats, I wasn't like, OK, I'm going to steal this beat and everyone's going to think I was the one that came up with it. It was more of a, like, I'm going to take this beat and I'm going to see if I can write anything to it that differs from the original and see if anyone likes it.
SUNDARESAN: Here's DJ Q.
DJ Q: I think she's sick. I think it only helps the scene, man, because it's going to shed light onto the scene from people that are not generally into garage. They're going to listen to that and think, what's this, and then maybe discover more artists or more tracks like it.
SUNDARESAN: PinkPantheress says she even reached out to the artists behind the samples to get their approval. Haters aside, many fans really enjoy her music for that familiarity. She sings about sadness in a way that's kind of cheeky and mundane. Her art feels nostalgic and weirdly comforting.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NINETEEN")
PINKPANTHERESS: (Singing) I wasn't meant to be this bored at 19.
ZHANG: There's like a nostalgia for, like, an imagined kind of past.
SUNDARESAN: Again, Cat Zhang.
ZHANG: And nostalgia for a feeling of, like, comfort and safety that I think gets invoked through her wistful vocals.
SUNDARESAN: PinkPantheress thinks a lot about her musical lineage. She says fans should do their homework, listen to some classic U.K. garage - Shy FX, Adam F, The Streets. As for her own music...
PINKPANTHERESS: Enjoy it. Just have fun with it. Don't take it too seriously. Even though it's a very dramatic cover, I think the songs themselves don't have to be too dramatic. And I think just don't - and don't worry about me. A lot of people worry about me and think I'm like, super, super sad all the time because all my lyrics are so sad, but no. I'm happy (laughter). I'm happy.
SUNDARESAN: She might be living in the past a little, but she's doing just fine.
Mano Sundaresan, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PASSION")
PINKPANTHERESS: (Singing) Said I had to clear up my head, but tonight I think I lost the plot instead. I said that I'd be cleared out by 3 to the walls. I know they listen to me. The teachers always called it a shame.
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