At over five hundred million streams, Ava Max is proving to be one of the biggest popstars of 2019. Not only that, writes Sam Brooks, she might actually be the most perfect.
Ava Max is like a Frankenstein of a popstar, which I mean in the best way possible (also yes, I know Frankenstein was the doctor). She takes the greatest parts of every popstar of the past ten years – a little GaGa, a little Katy, a little Marina – and combines them into Mary Shelley’s ideal pop artist.
Here’s exactly how she’s doing it:
That monster hit
On first listen, ‘Sweet but Psycho’ feels like one of those pop songs that comes around a few times a year. It jumps right in your ear and snuggles up warm – it’s not going anywhere. It has a strong chorus, with three incredibly distinct hooks – ‘psycho/right though’, ‘m-m-m-m-mine’, ‘run, don’t walk away’ – that collapse into each other. Even though it has an impeccable pedigree – it’s produced by Katy Perry’s hitmaker Cirkut – you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘Sweet but Psycho’ is just a chorus.
But you don’t get five hundred million streams just off a strong chorus.
The song itself splits the difference between the kind of dance-pop that dominated radio in the late-aughts – ‘Sweet but Psycho’ wouldn’t sound out of place on GaGa’s The Fame – and more modern trends. Like Max herself, it’s a Frankenstein of a pop track. There’s a little bit of trap in the bridge, a little bit of EDM in the chorus, and the verses have an earnest bubblegum pop feel to them.
Really, ‘Sweet but Psycho’ is one of those pop songs that comes around once, maybe twice, a year. This is what today’s teenagers will look back at as one of the defining songs of 2019. There are teenagers currently writing ‘Sweet but Psycho’ in the margins of their journal, or maybe tagging themselves as #sweetbutpsycho on Instagram, the 2019 equivalent of the journal margin.
If you don’t believe me, look at the charts. ‘Sweet but Psycho’ has topped the charts in 17 countries around the world. That’s pretty incredible for a track that came out in 2018, isn’t a novelty song (no shade, but maybe some side-eye for you, Lil Nas X) and isn’t from an established star. If Max has an album worth of Psychos in her, we’re in for a treat.
At this stage, Max’s best asset appears to be her versatility. She can mould herself into many different styles and genres while still maintaining her persona. It’s a talent reminiscent of her fellow Albanian popstar Rita Ora, who flips between many styles of pop while still sounding distinct and unique.
As seen in the above clip, Max has a big, robust voice, much like her spiritual predecessor GaGa, but she’s able to temper that with more modern yelps and quirks as well. It’s present in ‘Sweet but Psycho’, but even more in some of her featured tracks.
Take her feature on Vice & Jason Derulo’s ‘Make Up’:
It’s a low-key feature, but a smart one. She’s a tad behind the beat, and sounds appealingly chill without sounding laidback. You could’ve given anybody this feature, but Max makes the most of it – she actually ends up feeling like the lead artist here.
On top of the exploration of dualities that ‘Sweet but Psycho’ engages in, Ava Max’s music has a decidedly feminist bent – and she even makes it catchy.
Look at ‘Not Your Barbie Girl’, which interpolates Aqua’s ’90s classic into a swaggering trap beat and some choice rap verses:
“I can take myself on a dinner date
Buy myself diamonds and a champagne
Order five courses, then chocolate cake, uh-huh
Actin’ like I care when I want a man (I want a man)
Actin’ like I care but I don’t, and? (but I don’t care)
I do my own thing”
Not only can feminism be fun, it can be pop too. And in 2019, if your music isn’t feminist, then what the honest hell are you even doing?
You can’t look at Max and not notice the hair: one side long and teased, the other short and cropped. It’s a stark look, and a very savvy one – she can change up her fashion, her makeup, but her hair remains the same. Pop is one third image, one third sound, one third brand, and Max’s already got the sound locked down, so it’s no surprise she has the image and brand down too.
Amazingly, there’s an actual story behind it. As she told Vanity Fair:
“One day I cut my hair, my actual hair, cut it on the right side, and I remember I had something in the oven—I think they were chocolate-chip cookies. And I run downstairs without cutting the other side. I run downstairs, and then I’m like, ‘Oh my God, [the cookies] almost burnt.’ As I’m going [back] upstairs, I see in the mirror my reflection and the haircut, and . . . I literally tilted my head, like, why does this feel like me? It felt like me, like I had found myself.”
It’s working, and I’m one pair of scissors away from getting the Ava Max™ myself, to be honest.
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Her latest single ‘So Am I’ – a pro-misfit anthem with MARINA’s modern classic ‘Primadonna’ in its DNA – has already racked up close to a one hundred million streams in only two months. Like the best pop music, it ticks all the right boxes without showing you the working. Bang, don’t tell.
It bodes well for her as-yet-unreleased first album. Are we going to get a high-concept classic in the style of The Fame? A hit-after-hit bop collection like For The Boys? Or an Electra Heart-esque mixture of both?
Only time will tell for her awaiting stans, and for Ava Max: One part Frankenstein, one part 2019, all parts pop-star.
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