DIY Music: The Ideology Behind Bedroom Pop
By Mary Caroline McCormack
WRI 111: Writing Seminar
To read Student Editor Yushuo Wang’s comments on the writing moves found in this essay, click on or hover over the footnotes within the text.
Spotify lists over 5,071 genres of music in its database. The popular streaming service identifies thousands more genres of music than the stereotypical pop, rock, country, hip hop, and R&B. With often unique and bizarre titles such as “bubble trance,” “swirl psych,” “spy track,” and “escape room,” these genres represent a “cluster of collective listening patterns” as defined by Spotify’s “Data Alchemist,” Glenn MacDonald (Rodgers). MacDonald states that the algorithm categorizes songs into “subjective psychoacoustic attributes,” which describes the sounds by the image each song brings to mind. For example, the algorithm may categorize a song into a particular genre based on tempo, duration, modernity, similarity to a situation, and many other subjective factors. Emphasizing the concept of “emerging genres,” MacDonald aims to improve the listening experience by creating these highly specific categories of music that inclusively provide a space for all artists. However, many users find these genre titles comically confusing and often overlook their meaning. Seeing the nonsensical titles “trap run” and “chamber psych” as top genres under one’s listening history might cause one to wonder what these odd names even describe.
Similarly, “bedroom pop” may also sound like another niche genre depicting, perhaps, subjectively determined “chill,” relaxing music to listen to in the comfort of one’s bedroom. 1 With the background of those comically confusing titles set in the previous paragraph, Mary Caroline narrowed the titles to “bedroom pop,” a particular one and her main topic. However, the bedroom pop genre actually categorizes young artists who independently begin their music careers by creating music in the casual setting of their bedrooms or homes, which might make sense retrospectively. Often overlooked as just another abstract genre curated by Spotify’s seemingly bizarre algorithm, bedroom pop holds significance in promoting diverse music that defies the music industry’s boundaries while providing voices to the marginalized. Representing Generation Z’s debut into the world of music, bedroom pop challenges studio culture by rewarding independent artists who display their true selves.
At only 19 years old, Maia, known by her artist name “mxmtoon,” became an internet sensation overnight. Only two years after releasing her first single on streaming platforms, she sold out over 24 shows in the U.S. to perform her self-produced indie-folk music featuring the ukulele. Discovered by TikTok, SoundCloud, Instagram, YouTube, and Spotify users worldwide, mxmtoon unexpectedly realized she could have a career in music. Explaining that she “never saw [her fame] coming,” Maia states that she “was definitely set on going to college to study architecture” (qtd. in Roos). However, Maia’s career began in her teenage years as she produced music in the guest room of her parent’s house in Oakland, which has since become “her recording studio” (Coscarelli). 2 Mary Caroline picked an effective example that fits well between paragraphs. The anecdote of Maia helps readers visualize and understand the bedroom pop genre. The discussion of her identity also leads to how this genre is a symbol of diversity, as mentioned in the next paragraph. Emphasizing authenticity and self-expression, mxmtoon remains true to her roots by releasing two versions of each song: an acoustic and a full studio-produced version. Mxmtoon values originality above signing with an impressive label or studio producer, as she explains that she “never approached the internet as a branding tool” (qtd. in Coscarelli). Furthermore, identifying as a bisexual member of the LGBTQ+ community, Chinese-American Maia brings her unique perspective to the industry from a demographic that frequently remains absent from mainstream music. This story of an obscure Gen Z teenager achieving surprising success and stardom from the internet characterizes the majority of bedroom pop artists. A movement largely shaped by online platforms and easily accessible, high-quality music software, bedroom pop embodies the ideology that “anyone can make music,” as Maia explains (qtd. in Roos).
If the genre allows everyone to produce music and become a “bedroom pop” artist, then what importance does the genre hold? With independence and individualism guiding the genre, bedroom pop artists have the unique freedom to express their personal beliefs, experiences, and stories. As a result, the artists closely tie their identity to their music, encouraging representation from more diverse demographics, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ+ community. Since the genre includes artists from various social and musical backgrounds, defining the sound of the bedroom pop genre presents a serious challenge. Many bedroom pop artists sound absolutely nothing like each other, yet cohesiveness exists throughout the genre. The genre’s essence comes from the artists’ ability to produce music with minimal aid or equipment in an independent manner. Rudimentary, exotic “soundscapes of gentle, dreamy ambiance” dominate the scene, encompassing a wide array of genres (Williams). Artists creatively mix sounds, recordings, audio clips, vinyl, and their own voices to create ethereal, eccentrically unpolished music.
Since the sound varies immensely from artist to artist, Spotify editor John Stein defines the genre by its primary goal to create personal music that affects the audience somehow. 3 Summing up the previous paragraph and opening the current paragraph, an effective transition like this one builds the connection between paragraphs and their main ideas. The connection exists in the fact that the artists “are creatively and independently minded” and produce music that “feels fresh” to the audience, Stein explains (qtd. in Steinhardt). Without a clear defining sound, the bedroom pop genre lacks gatekeepers that strive to prevent artists from entering the genre. Mxmtoon describes this inclusivity as she believes this genre “has given a place for people with stories to tell them” (qtd. in Roos). Thus, many bedroom pop artists share intimate stories through their lyrics that give listeners authentic insight into their lives. Acknowledging their vulnerabilities and insecurities, bedroom pop artists transparently address sensitive topics such as mental health, sexuality, politics, religion, and abuse in ways that differ from the ideas of mainstream music. 4 Through the clearly listed five examples of sensitive topics expressed by bedroom pop artists, we could feel the dedicated amount of research done by Mary Caroline and her close observation throughout the process. And this is how we build our credibility as writers. It only makes sense that Gen Z, a generation trained to become comfortable with revealing personal information on the internet, would find sharing intimate ideas through music entirely normal.
Leading bedroom pop artists such as Cavetown embody this characteristic of sharing vulnerable ideas through their music. 5 Here is another supportive example of the former paragraph and a well-connected transition to the new paragraph. Robbie Skinner, known in the music industry as Cavetown, identifies as transgender on the asexual spectrum, and he communicates his ideas on gender stereotypes through his song “Boys will be Bugs.” Stating that he is a “dumb teen boy” who “eats sticks and rocks and mud,” Cavetown expresses the harmful societal ideas surrounding masculinity. Even “though it isn’t [him],” Cavetown feels pressured to act like a “dumb teen boy” that “wants to make you cry,” revealing how society expects men to remain tough and strong at all times and lack emotions while they “pretend [suffering] doesn’t bother [them]” (Cavetown 0:36). His mellow indie-pop-rock frequently communicates ideas regarding love, gender, and depression. Dominic Fike, another popular artist who discovered his beginnings by releasing “home-produced” music on YouTube in high school, expresses his brutally honest beliefs in his alternative hip-hop rap album “Don’t Forget About Me, Demos.” Fike of Filipino, Haitian, and African descent references his volatile upbringing throughout his music. In his song “Babydoll,” released the day he had to drive his mother to prison for drug-related charges, Fike claims he can be found “on Miami concrete” because “[his] daddy was a pimp” (Herwees; Fike 0:35). Discussing his personal story, Fike reveals sometimes shockingly authentic details about his family life, time in jail, political beliefs, and experience with love that allows his music to connect with the audience deeply. Clairo, another bedroom pop artist, considered the pioneer of the bedroom pop genre, produces lo-fi indie electro-pop music that communicates her story as a member of the bisexual community. Transparently commemorating her discovery of her sexuality, Clairo sings about unrequited love in her hit “Sofia.” Explaining that “Sofia” symbolically represents her first crush on women, Clairo acknowledges that women loving women “shouldn’t feel like a crime” (London; Clairo 0:27). Because these artists express great honesty in their music, bedroom pop artists empathize with the listener by discussing similar experiences and problems that countless individuals face. These artists do not differentiate themselves from the rest of society; instead, they engage with their fans through genuine emotions.
The relatable nature and authenticity of the bedroom pop genre have directly led to its immensely growing popularity. Billie Eilish, who began releasing her music on SoundCloud at age 13 with the help of her brother Finneas O’Connell, has recently racked up 7 Grammy Awards, 5 MTV Music Video Awards, and countless other accolades. In a 2019 Song of the Year acceptance speech for Eilish’s “Bad Guy,” O’Connell states that “we just make music in a bedroom together. We still do that …” (qtd. in Roos). While Eilish has now made her way into mainstream music, her start as a bedroom pop artist and the originality and openness of her songs attracted her now colossal fanbase. Clearly, something about the genre attracts listeners. With Japanese-American Conan Gray’s cautionary tales of heartache in nostalgic, “lonely suburbia,” Filipino-British beabadoobee’s confessions about depression and struggling with sleep paralysis, and Norwegian girl in red’s earnest cries about existential crisis and the ups and downs of love as a lesbian in the modern era, the bedroom pop genre has the power to “elevate marginalized voices” (Williams). The diversity in the bedroom pop community reflects the diversity of the music audience, creating a closer connection between the “popstars” and the general public.
Sharing their darkest fears, intense emotions, and sometimes controversial beliefs, bedroom pop artists reveal how they are ordinary people with everyday struggles. They empathize with their listeners by producing relatable music. This genuine authenticity forms deep connections with the listeners, creating a relationship between the stars and the audience. Because anyone, regardless of race, gender, or socioeconomic status, can produce music in the bedroom pop genre due to its fluid sound characteristics, more diverse artists abound. This inclusivity encourages young artists of color and non-binary identities to share their voices, promoting representation from demographics utterly absent from the music industry. Cheap laptops, free software, and worn-down instruments are encouraged and even ideal for creating the sounds of bedroom pop. This DIY nature of the genre allows musicians with little experience, background, money, or training to curate dreamy melodies and discover success. By providing a space for artists too peculiar or obscure for the mainstream music industry, the bedroom pop genre curates creativity and sincerity. The impressive developing popularity of bedroom pop music reflects the public’s desire, signifying a potential for change within the music industry. Without the bedroom pop genre, the accessibility of high-quality music production software, and online platforms, these societally influential artists might have slipped through the cracks of mainstream music, remaining undiscovered – forever.
Cover image created by the author, inspired by “boy pablo – honey.” YouTube, uploaded by boy pablo, 15 July 2020, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8GQ3iqkwT3I.
beabadoobee. “If You Want To.” Patched Up, Dirty Hit, 2018. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/7I1kle4TNmkfednJDKo8GR?si=fdc5e8938461407e.
Cavetown. “Boy Will be Bugs.” Animal Kingdom, Oat Milk Industries, Many Hats Endeavors, Warner Tamerlane Publishing Corp., 2019. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/6suYoN4gFkanqOBn5yRnJC?si=f0a6b1e4d5014a75.
Clairo. “Sofia.” Immunity, FADER Label, 2019. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/7B3z0ySL9Rr0XvZEAjWZzM?si=043b90e14e2247f7.
Conan Gray. “Fight or Flight.” Kid Krow, Republic Records, 2020. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/0yfDVYKVKYrHknz9gVOlQr?si=7903eabb3bb94ab2.
Coscarelli, Joe. “A Teenager, Her Ukulele and a Bedroom Pop Empire in the Making.” The New York Times, 11 Oct. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/11/arts/music/mxmtoon.html.
Dominic Fike. “Babydoll.” Don’t Forget About Me, Demos, Columbia Records, 2018. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/7yNf9YjeO5JXUE3JEBgnYc?si=cf9bce6db52f4352.
girl in red. “body and mind.” if i could make it go quiet, AWAL Recordings Ltd, 2021. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/2dAHKe37uyUrB0v0PJrDDj?si=0e69482a4158410f
Grundy, Adam. “The Metamorphosis Of Billie Eilish: From Bedroom Pop To Global Phenomenon.” Chorus.FM, 5 Aug. 2021, https://chorus.fm/features/the-metamorphosis-of-billie-eilish-from-bedroom-pop-to-global-phenomenon/.
Herwees, Tasha. “Now or Never: The Chaotic Rise of Dominic Fike.” Pigeons & Planes, 16 Jan. 2019, https://www.complex.com/pigeons-and-planes/2019/01/dominic-fike-interview
London, Amanda. “‘Sofia’ by Clairo.” Song Meaning + Facts, 27 Oct. 2021, https://www.songmeaningsandfacts.com/sofia-by-clairo/
mxmtoon. “prom dress.” the masquerade, 2019. Spotify, https://open.spotify.com/track/2xCGBWfzTe8l2kvHpgvB6M?si=8ee7a944268c4b53
Rodgers, Katherine. “Since When was ‘Escape Room’ a Genre?” Paper, 3 Dec. 2020, https://www.papermag.com/spotify-wrapped-music-genres-escape-room-2649122474.html?rebelltitem=22#rebelltitem22.
Roos, Olivia. “What’s Bedroom Pop? How an Online DIY Movement Created a Musical Genre.” NBC News, 6 Feb. 2020, https://www.nbcnews.com/pop-culture/music/what-s-bedroom-pop-how-online-diy-movement-created-musical-n1131926.
Steinhardt, Liv. “Bedroom Pop Is Not a Genre. It’s an Ideology.” Gen Z Identity Lab, https://genzidentitylab.com/bedroom-pop-is-not-a-genre-its-an-ideology/. Accessed 3 May 2022.
Williams, Jenessa. “What Even is Bedroom Pop and Why is Now the Time to Care?” The Forty-Five, 12 June 2020, https://thefortyfive.com/opinion/what-is-bedroom-pop/.
A Word from Mary Caroline
When I first stepped foot into Dr. Smith’s writing class, I truthfully detested the process of writing. Looking back throughout high school, I was always able to complete the papers at the last possible minute and still do pretty well, but I consistently dreaded sitting down and painstakingly figuring out how to fill the blank pages on the screen. However, Writing 111 taught me countless skills that helped to remove the pressure and intimidation surrounding writing. Learning to compose a first draft and throw out all ideas on the page instead of writing with a perfectionist attitude helped me immensely.
This essay was the first piece of writing that I actually enjoyed composing. Dr. Smith gave our class the ability to choose a topic fascinating to us, any genre of music. We had the chance to discuss a subject frequently not considered academic in an intellectual, meaningful way. Instead of editing each sentence as I typed, I allowed all of my ideas to flow onto the page. Once I had nearly double the word requirement, I then began the editing process of my rather rough first draft. This method helped me become more creative and take my paper in different directions than I originally anticipated. My ideas transformed throughout the editing process, making my paper more cohesive and purposeful. I discovered how exciting writing could be when one feels passionate and interested in the subject. Until this point, nearly all of my assigned papers had strict prompts with little room for originality, explaining my former distaste for writing. However, Dr. Smith’s Writing 111 class gave me the skills to enjoy writing and recognize its inspiring nature.
The assignment also included another creative aspect by requiring the composition of an album playlist and physical representation of this album. I felt inspired to design an album cover to represent the dreamy, exotically unpolished, and eccentrically ethereal sounds of the bedroom pop genre. Drawing this album cover on my tablet before even beginning the paper, I immersed myself in the ideas of bedroom pop. I found inspiration for ideas and a direction for my writing through the design process. Incorporating art and digital design into my writing was a fantastic experience and allowed me to connect my ideas more effectively. Amid a busy final exam week, I remember spending exorbitant amounts of time on this essay simply because I loved writing every word. I discovered my passion for writing and communicating ideas I believe are meaningful because of this essay.
From Professor Carter Smith
As a reader of Mary Caroline’s essay, I find its opening move especially convincing. Working with her audience’s existing knowledge of Spotify’s genres (even if readers aren’t familiar with the befuddling specificity of the platform’s category names, they’ll likely understand the concept of musical genres and subgenres), Mary Caroline recruits that audience’s interest while simultaneously offering a real sense of where the essay is headed. It’s the kind of introduction that makes one want to keep reading.
I remember from our class that semester that Mary Caroline was especially interested in our discussion of techniques that allow writers to create space, within existing conversations, for their own ideas. That way of thinking about the relationship between one’s own position and what others have thought and written—“creating space”— comes from John Swales’ research on patterns in the introductions of scholarly essays. In Mary Caroline’s class, we looked at examples of creating a research space (often abbreviated as CARS) in academic journal articles, but we also observed analogous patterns in writing intended for a popular audience.
That’s my sense of one of the strengths of Mary Caroline’s essay—its opening move works with a reader’s existing knowledge to make way for the, in my view, very insightful idea that bedroom pop, as a genre, allows for a more nuanced, genuine expression of its composers’ identities.
For our final writing challenge of the semester, I want you to assemble a collection of songs or pieces of music—an “album,” to use a term that’s lost some of its currency— that presents an intellectual idea. Or one, to put it another way, that makes an intellectual claim.
(Don’t be intimidated by the term “intellectual” here. For much of the semester, we’ve discussed how to see things through academic eyes: what does a text say about the beliefs, values, or assumptions of its discourse community? How is it a microcosm of the culture that produced it? To put it in other terms that we’ve encountered, what’s the problem that you want to address? What’s the existing territory? What’s your niche within that territory?)
Even though you won’t compose the music on this album, you will make authorial decisions that shape it as a text. You will brainstorm and conceptualize the idea that unifies your collection, you will select the songs or pieces to include, you will sequence them in an order that makes the argument most effectively, and, finally, you will articulate the claim that your album makes in an essay that employs the writing strategies that we’ve discussed this semester.
- 1With the background of those comically confusing titles set in the previous paragraph, Mary Caroline narrowed the titles to “bedroom pop,” a particular one and her main topic.
- 2Mary Caroline picked an effective example that fits well between paragraphs. The anecdote of Maia helps readers visualize and understand the bedroom pop genre. The discussion of her identity also leads to how this genre is a symbol of diversity, as mentioned in the next paragraph.
- 3Summing up the previous paragraph and opening the current paragraph, an effective transition like this one builds the connection between paragraphs and their main ideas.
- 4Through the clearly listed five examples of sensitive topics expressed by bedroom pop artists, we could feel the dedicated amount of research done by Mary Caroline and her close observation throughout the process. And this is how we build our credibility as writers.
- 5Here is another supportive example of the former paragraph and a well-connected transition to the new paragraph.