“We’re gonna put you in the movies and our TV / All you’ve got to do is put on this little bikini,” indie rock chameleon Caroline Rose sang on “Bikini” off her breakout 2018 record Loner. Rose pithily skewered the objectification women must put up with when they enter the limelight and further criticizes the music industry in the accompanying video. She shakes and shimmies as a smarmy male singer, while bikini-clad babes dance behind her or unconvincingly “play” instruments. Their half-hearted performance brought to mind the women in the background of Robert Palmer videos, who serve as ornamentation at best. On Loner, Rose placed the system surrounding fame and celebrity squarely in her crosshairs.
Now, though, as her star is rising, Rose has turned that critical eye inward. Superstar tells a fictionalized, though autobiographically-inspired, story about an up-and-comer seeking a life of stardom, critiquing the protagonist’s self-centered aspirations. It’s an astute pivot for Rose, and an indicator that she is anything but your typical ascendant artist.
Superstar proves itself a tightly knit satire of celebrity, effective thanks to Rose’s sharp storytelling and her calculated use of distortion, which highlights the artificial quality of the protagonist’s new surroundings. “No one is gonna stand in my way / Even if I have to leave this whole city in flames,” Rose sings on the opening track “Nothing’s Impossible,” which is a more melodramatic way of saying every reality contestant’s favorite mantra: “I’m not here to make friends.” The song also sees the protagonist receive a call in error from the Chateau Marmont, a symbol both of Hollywood glamor and the darker side of fame (it’s the site of John Belushi’s untimely death from a drug overdose).
Funky synth propels the chorus of electro-pop groove “Got To Go My Own Way,” in which the protagonist imagines what they’ll be like as a celebrity (Rose makes a point that the budding star uses they/them pronouns). While they might “weekend in Paris,” they know that stars have to maintain a veneer of relatability: “Remain humble not like all these fakers / Always get bleacher seats sitting at the L.A. Lakers.” Rose’s voice is warped to a fragile whisper on the bridge as she talks about the emotional truths behind our hero’s drastic choices: “Remember when we wanted all of the same things? / To settle down and hyphen both of our last names?”
Among these key storytelling points are some of Rose’s most brilliant moments yet as an indie-pop artist, a dizzying kaleidoscope of her own vocal talent and colorful artistic choices. After a distorted, romantic string intro, “Do You Think We’ll Last Forever” turns into a retro-pop jam, showcasing Rose’s vocals as she extends “do” into a multisyllable word on the chorus. “Freak Like Me,” a seductive track littered with incongruous metaphors about love, is punctuated with sparkling showers of piano from Aaron Embry’s “Raven’s Song.” Zippy hooks are featured yet again on “Pipe Dreams,” which opens with a Mitski-like guitar line and then quickly detours into a light, child-like steel drum ditty that’s sure to get lodged in your brain. Rose’s fluency in the punchy, elusive language of pop is never clearer than on Superstar.
“Back at the Beginning,” bookended by a Middle Eastern-inspired melody, boils down the thesis of the album to one line: “I like to dress up all my fears / Doll ‘em up, paint them red.” That’s exactly what Rose does on Superstar, taking every worry about failure or succumbing to the machine of fame and twisting them into a tale so spectacularly outrageous that being scared isn’t an option anymore. Let’s hope that Rose keeps taking us on colorful tours of her psyche for years to come.
Revisit Caroline Rose’s 2013 Daytrotter session: