What does it look like when you shift your outward presentation to match your inward personality? For Caroline Rose, it looks bright red. She has covered herself, her branding, and her self-directed music videos in the same candy apple shade; it is the color of blood, evoking both life and death, and it’s the perfect look for a musician who has gone through a resurrection and now approaches her heaviest subject matter (death included) with a bright, boisterous sense of humor. LONER, released last week, is Rose’s second studio album, following her debut by three years. Her previous album fell solidly within indie folk, but Rose has crystallized her voice since then, and she has emerged with a wildly different sound. This album is poppier, lonelier, sillier, and more personal. Rose is exploring her talent recklessly, and part of that recklessness means embracing moments of absolute silliness. Her growing pop sensibilities are treating her well, providing a release for her obvious wealth of manic energy, and giving her the tools to approach serious issues with oscillating (and sometimes simultaneous) frivolity and gravitas.
In the three year interim between her albums, Rose has undertaken a personal voyage that reads like the sardonic inverse of the Walden narrative capitalized on by everyone from Bon Iver to Justin Timberlake — instead of leaving the city, Rose has found it; she has moved from Vermont to New York, traveled, dated, developed new obsessions, and begun to publicly tend to her sense of levity. She has also begun publicly identifying as queer, rejecting a previous concern that her sexuality might be used as her primary identifier, overshadowing her music. But now Rose has voiced her intention to be, as she puts it, as much of herself as possible, and this is reflected through songs that gain additional depth and clarity when considered from a queer perspective. In LONER’s opening track, “More of the Same,” for example, Rose describes discomfort and boredom while attending a party filled with “alternative haircuts and straight white teeth,” which all amount to “more of the same thing.” Adhering to carefully cultivated, trend-conscious alternativeness is just another way of conforming, and Rose is pushing past this in order to find herself. On this album, her personality bursts through every song, even as she embraces a work-in-progress attitude.
Listen to LONER on Spotify
“Soul No. 5,” one of LONER’s most danceable tracks, beautifully manifests how Rose is embracing her queer perspective and her own artistic evolution. As the name suggests, this track has cycled through previous iterations, implying that a soul is something that can be tweaked, workshopped, or scrapped entirely. One of the past versions of “Soul” has been immortalized in Rose’s NPR Tiny Desk concert, and while the bones of the song are the same, its narrative and character have emerged entirely changed. In the album version, Rose adopts the perspective of an overconfident catcaller, shouting misguided interest and self-satisfaction to the world. Eventually the distance between the catcaller and the catcalled collapses, leaving it unclear who is who, or if they have been the same individual all along. It’s a funny song, with the main joke being the improbable role reversal, but there’s another narrative level adding to the absurdity: Rose is a woman, i.e., not the typical image of a catcaller, but she is a queer woman, and therefore does not fit neatly into a binary that sets men as the lookers and women as the looked upon. Yet catcalling as a phenomenon is so deeply rooted in cisgender male culture, watching a queer woman perform these same actions does not feel like a manifestation of real desire.
Rose’s decision to accept and foreground her own playfulness is especially noteworthy considering many young queer women musicians seem to inherit an expectation of continual solemnity (I’ve hardly seen an interview with gay singer-songwriter Julien Baker in which the interviewer doesn’t comment on how little they expected her in-person cheerfulness). It’s important to explore this solemnity, but queer women also deserve our silliness. Caroline Rose lets hers exist alongside loneliness, sadness, and moments of exhaustion. She repeats certain tricks, devolving into baby talk, or pant-singing “Uh-uh-uh-uh-uhh!” as if she’s finally getting winded (or else, uncontrollably turned on). In her most crazed moments, she employs synth to create a frantic seesaw, teetering back and forth between sounds and perspectives. This is a big shift for a woman who once relied on a discrete black and white outfit to communicate her credibility, and it is clearly a much more comfortable fit.
“Rose’s decision to accept and foreground her own playfulness is especially noteworthy considering many young queer musicians seem to inherit an expectation of continual solemnity.”
Rose refers to this phenomenon as “Benjamin Button syndrome,” indicating that as she grows, she has been losing the need to appear mature. This is certainly fun and earnest, but in a way, it’s also in vogue. When Rose “became a member of the modern world,” she entered a digital age that hugely affects how we perform personality. Social media concentrates personhood into quantifiable pieces, allowing us to identify the exact characteristics to share, hide, or warp. It feels like part of what Rose is reacting to is this demand to self-quantify, and avoiding such a demand is a precarious business. You don’t want to be pigeonholed as a joke, but you don’t want to be falsely somber. You don’t want to submit to singular defining factors, but you don’t want to spurn important parts of your life. The solution Rose seems to have found is to perform herself in accordance with an innermost truth, prioritizing her vibrancy, her multiformity, and her tongue-in-cheek anti-fear agenda. Maybe in this way, the idea of performing self can cease to feel like a facade, and instead be seen as a way of practicing individuality. If there is a way to use the demands of our contemporary world to become more honest, Caroline Rose is pursuing it.
In the music video to her 2014 single “I Will Not Be Afraid,” Rose stands alone in the spotlight of a darkened stage, preparing to break into dance. Somewhere in front of her, a disembodied voice announces, “Next up is Caroline Rose, auditioning for the part of Caroline Rose.” It’s a great video, but it’s also a relic of the past; if Rose’s debut album was her audition to be herself, LONER is an indication that she has earned the role. •
Tessa Bahoosh is a writer and opinion-haver with a background in media and the arts. She lives in Boston with her imaginary pit bull, Bluebell, who is a very good girl. You can find her on Twitter @tessabahoosh