for slate.com, | October 21, 2021

TikTok’s Latest Breakout Star Hides Her Name, but She Can’t Escape Her Fame

The 20-year-old makes music for the extremely online.

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“I’m obsessed with you in a way I can’t believe,” sings PinkPantheress on her TikTok-famous hit “Just for Me”—which has, ironically, gotten the internet obsessed with the mysterious, genre-bending artist herself. The track combines soft acoustic guitar-picking and a garage beat with her high-pitched, glitched-out vocals. It switches to a dance break after the line, “When you wipe your tears do you wipe them just for me?” and the vocal melody matches up with the beat underneath it, as she repeats the last word of each line over and over again: “me, me, me, me.” That sound clip has gone viral, providing a catchy beat for dancing along to or a surprising shift for sharp transitions in videos.

Since its release in July, “Just for Me” has been used in 2.2 million videos on the app; it now has over 46 million Spotify streams as well. Even TikTok named the song the app’s breakout track of the summer (in PinkPantheress’ home of the U.K., at least), noting that it saw the largest percent increase of videos made using the song over a six-week period spanning June to August “despite only being released in late July.” Other TikTok and music stars like Tate McRae and Giveon have made videos using (or even covering) the track. PinkPantheress is no one-hit wonder, however. With one million TikTok followers and over 10 million monthly listeners on Spotify in less than a year, the TikTok star has gone from being a regular college kid experimenting with sound bites on the app to becoming a viral hit-having, chart-making artist beyond social media’s confines.

While her songs have become inescapable for TikTok users, filling up their For You pages, those off the platform may have never heard of PinkPantheress, let alone heard any of her music—but they’re going to. PinkPantheress released her debut mixtape, To Hell With It, on October 15, and it’s already finding an audience beyond the app. Only half of its ten songs were new material—in total, the mixtape is under 20 minutes long— but that hasn’t stopped it from receiving favorable reviews from outlets like Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, and NME. She’s had interviews in Vogue, the Guardian, BBC and Billboard, and the New York Times named her a critic’s pick. She even got a shoutout from fellow Gen Z phenom Billie Eilish on Instagram, the Grammy winner hyping up PinkPantheress to millions of followers. The singer’s even landed some cred outside of the music and social media industries, modeling for a recent Marc Jacobs campaign. 

Despite all of the press coverage and song streams, PinkPantheress has chosen to keep some key personal details, like her real name, out of the public eye. What we do know is that the 20-year-old was born in Bath in the United Kingdom; her mother is Kenyan and her father is English. PinkPantheress is currently a film student at the University of the Arts London, recording her music late at night in her dorm room. She got her TikTok username from hearing the word “pantheress” come up as an answer on a game show; the word alone was already taken as a username on the app, but she was also a fan of The Pink Panther, so she combined the two to create her username, and now uses it as her artist name as well. Everything else is mostly a mystery: PinkPantheress has never disclosed her real name online or in interviews, mainly for privacy reasons, and she refused to show her face in full until earlier this year, in the music video for “Just for Me;” she’s even done some press interviews with her camera off.

Her career trajectory, meanwhile, is much easier to track. PinkPantheress started making music for herself in high school, with no intention of sharing it. She uploaded her music to SoundCloud, the first step for many indie artists toward big success, but it didn’t receive much of a reaction. “I tried all the other options in terms of getting my music out there—and I feel like TikTok was my saving grace,” she told NME. PinkPantheress’s music is exactly the kind of music that blows up on TikTok, drawing on the app’s different subcultures and weaving in the language of the extremely online in order to create a unique sound that speaks directly to social media obsessives. It’s music by Gen Z, for Gen Z: a blend of hyperpop and bedroom pop mixed with some Y2K-era U.K. dance genres for what young adults consider “vintage” measure, like garage and D’n’B. She also draws influence from pop-punk and nu-metal and is a self-professed K-pop fan. (She has even said that she used to make K-pop fan edits, a popular video format that involves setting images and videos of a specific person, like a celebrity or character, to music). There’s something for everyone, especially if you happen to be a Gen Z kid who spends hours surfing social media.

PinkPantheress calls her sound “new nostalgic,” at once an original sound and one that’s nostalgically evocative—for those who were young during the 2000s, at least. PinkPantheress has a simple explanation. “You’re hearing a lot of music that you used to listen to in one, at the same time,” she told NPR. “That’s essentially why it feels nostalgic.” This descriptor seems to resonate with fans. A comment on “Just for Me” reads,: “How are her songs so nostalgic and futuristic sounding at the same time!?!?” And “Pinkpantheress songs give me a feeling of nostalgia to something that I’ve never experienced,” a YouTube user commented on “Pain.”

When PinkPantheress dropped what became her biggest hit, “Just for Me,” in a TikTok in July, the text on the video read, “plz understand that I don’t write sad lyrics in a [sic] actual ‘sad’ way but in a studious, unlucky in love main character in a y/n x Harry x Zayn wattpad love story way,” referencing One Direction fanfiction, fitting for an internet native that not only understands but is well-versed in internet slang, fandoms, and niches. The track was, in fact, inspired by the song that gave this specific strain of hyperfandom its name, Eminem’s “Stan.”

TikTok, which has served as a home for stan culture, also provided the perfect launching pad for the track; the number of videos using the song has continued to skyrocket in recent weeks. These aren’t necessarily tied to any one specific trend, either: Madison Beer lip-syncs along; Bella Poarch poses with a butterfly; Jaden Hossler and Nessa Barrett fight over a teddy bear. Others share artwork while the song soundtracks them, or play it as they do makeup or show off outfits. Some creators have used it with TikTok’s “inverted” filter, which flips the image from the front-facing camera on a phone. (That camera already gives a mirror image from what you would be seeing on a regular camera, so the filter basically turns it the right way around.) One of the inverted videos using her song has over 3 million likes—a number perhaps boosted by the strength of the song, less by the filter itself.

But “Just for Me” wasn’t the first time a song of hers had blown up on the app. The earliest TikTok still on her account, posted on December 25, 2020, contains a snippet of a song she’d recorded in her dorm room, “Just A Waste,” with this text attached: “day 2 of posting my song until someone notices.” She filmed herself in a mirror dancing to the song, with her phone obscuring half her face. She was not shy about the fact that she wanted the app to help make her music go viral. “I was really sure what I wanted to achieve through TikTok and it was obviously to get a bigger audience,” she told NPR.

“Just A Waste” is one of a handful of PinkPantheress’ hits; her later songs are even more successful. She first shared a snipped of “Pain” in a TikTok on January 29 with the text, “day 11 of posting a song every day bc i have nothing else to do,” which has been used in 176,000 TikToks; she later released the song on Spotify, where it has since racked up over 96 million streams. A clip of ”Break It Off,” posted in March, has been featured in over 462,000 TikToks, with the track reaching 66 million Spotify streams. Those songs were also used in TikToks by Charli D’Amelio and Lizzo, respectively. The success was undeniable and immediate: It was inevitable when PinkPantheress signed with record labels in April and June.

That’s not bad for a college student with a handful of viral hits made in a dorm room using samples—“Break It Off” samples “Circle” by Adam F, and “Pain” samples “Flowers” by Sweet Female Attitude. PinkPantheress claims she initially leaned on samples out of necessity, as her production skills weren’t up to snuff for her to make her own beats. “When I started out, I was a terrible producer and I couldn’t make a beat from scratch, so I genuinely had to just go and find a beat and be like, I’m going to kind of mess around with it, maybe change the tempo, maybe change the pitch,” she told NPR. In interviews, she urges her listeners to dive deeper into the world of U.K. garage, from which she liberally pulls. When asked about criticism she received for relying on samples in an interview published last week, she told NPR, “I can’t disagree with any of these people. The only thing I can say is…yeah, it is lazy not producing my own beats and taking them from online.”

Having her own songs sampled by other artists, meanwhile, has helped give her a boost of popularity. “Just for Me” got a second life and a second chance at chart success when U.K. drill artist Central Cee sampled it on the song “Obsessed With You.” In a full-circle way, a snippet of the song Central Cee posted as a teaser on TikTok in August got 2.6 million likes. When the song was released in full in September, it ended up going to number 4 in the U.K. (“Just for Me” had hit 27 on the same chart). And “Just A Waste” found new life on the app recently thanks to a mash-up by user @hedonisthellcat, which combines the song with a Saturday Night Live clip of Bill Hader saying, “I roll with a crew of problematic bachelors and we call ourselves the squad.” The text on the video reads, “I made an audio for friend group edits,” and the sound, named “the squad,” has been used in over 103,000 videos, some with more than 500,000 likes.

Now that To Hell With It is finally out, PinkPantheress has taken her biggest step yet toward becoming something more than a TikTok trend. Right now, her mixtape sits at 22 in the U.K. midweek albums chart—impressive for a total newcomer whose name we still don’t know. PinkPantheress has a few shows lined up, making sure to poke fun at how short her body of work is in her mini-tour announcement: “don’t take any toilet breaks cos u might miss it,” she posted in an Instagram story. Just a handful of local U.K. dates are lined up, but she’s also eager to release more songs sooner than later, as she told Australian station Triple J. And then, time for a break from it all for a minute, she says. “I’ve been quite busy this year.”