Caroline Rose Is (Carefully) Becoming a Superstar

The narrator of “Superstar” is an ostentatious caricature, but their journey speaks to real concerns.
Caroline Rose Is (Carefully) Becoming a Superstar

The narrator of “Superstar” is an ostentatious caricature, but their journey speaks to real concerns.

Words: Max Freedman

photo by Cara Robbins

March 04, 2020

When I head to a Brooklyn restaurant to chat with Caroline Rose, I assume she’ll stand out in a bright red outfit. Red has long been Rose’s color of choice for her album covers and press photos—and, as of the night prior, her debut TV appearance. Rose does indeed rock a showstopping red jacket as I speak with her, but it’s not quite the same one she wore on Late Night with Seth Meyers (though she is wearing the same blue-and-neon-green tee she wore while dancing goofily but charmingly in front of her band).

“I’ve just been wearing red for a long time. There’s not any meaning behind it,” Rose tells me. “I really like red, and now it’s too late to change.” The color has stayed with her even as she’s dabbled more in character sketches: The artwork of her breakout album, 2018’s Loner, depicts her as a chain-smoking daredevil in a red tracksuit, an outfit she wore in several of the LP’s music videos. 

Where that album weaved through characters including new moms, waitresses, and whoever this is, its follow-up Superstar chronicles the journey of a gender-neutral narrator who, as described on the album’s delirious synthpop opener “Nothing’s Impossible,” ditches the mundane for a remote shot at fame after receiving a mistaken phone call from the ritzy Chateau Marmont hotel. Rose describes this character, seen on the album’s artwork with even their skin glowing (you guessed it) red, as “a rubber person that’s melting as [Superstar’s] story moves along. You start to see a plastic, shiny veneer breaking off, and you see an uglier side on the inside.”

That Superstar’s conceit sounds excessive and indulgent is the whole point. Atop Rose’s catchiest, most tinsel-dashed productions yet, the Long Island–raised, Austin-based artist uses her character to address how, as her audience and stature has steadily grown since she first released her 2012 debut album America Religious, she’s noticed qualities in herself that she doesn’t like as much: vanity, ego, self-seriousness. “Every song describes things I’ve thought, felt, experienced, or wanted to feel,” she says.

On Superstar—which sees her leaning into Loner’s synth-heaviest moments and away from its guitar-based, faintly rockabilly explosions while retaining but slightly restraining that album’s rampant ebullience—Rose paints an exaggerated portrait of the darkest sides of her minor fame (Superstar’s lead single “Feel the Way I Want,” the one she performed on Seth Meyers, soundtracks a viral TikTok video). She describes being a musician as “possibly the most ego-driven career path I could be on, besides maybe a dictator… Success in this business is growth and self-promotion and playing for bigger audiences and”—she affects a mocking growl before saying this next part—“world domination!” Rose says that working in such an individuality-driven sphere can make it “hard to check yourself,” and Superstar is her attempt to do just that.

“Feel the Way I Want” might be the album’s best example. Over a sticky-sweet synth pulse that couldn’t be radio unfriendly if it tried, Rose’s narrator sings about being deeply in love with themself, pursuing fame at the expense of their physical and mental well-being, and doing the exact opposite of what many people beg them to do: pare it back. It’s hilarious, over-the-top, and satirical. It’s also true to Rose’s life.

“The times that I’m failing at being a good person are when I’m really ambitious and cutthroat, so I wanted to talk about it,” Rose says. She weaves this part of herself throughout the first half of the album, which she made “very upbeat” to “reflect the emotions” the narrator experiences in their highs. 

“[Being a musician is] possibly the most ego-driven career path I could be on, besides maybe a dictator… Success in this business is growth and self-promotion and playing for bigger audiences and…world domination!”

Of course, ups don’t exist without their downs, so Rose stuffs Superstar’s back half with defeat. On “Someone New,” the narrator sings despondently about learning that their old partner has “found someone new, and / She looks just like me” (think of it as The Killers’ “Somebody Told Me,” but not, in retrospect, possibly homophobic). Famous people and non-celebrities alike often crave romance, and Superstar’s highs-and-lows division recognizes this near-universal need. “Without feeling your own humanity, you’ll go crazy,” says Rose. “I wanted to create this arc where this person is on top…and then as the album moves along, they’re falling from this cloud.” 

As the narrator recognizes that even fame can’t distract them from their longtime feelings, the album takes on a less bombastic tone and ultimately closes with no resolution. “The chinks in the narrator’s armor have been showing more and more,” Rose says, “so by the end, you can’t really tell if they’ve lost their mind or if they’re really thinking about their choices.” That the story is left open-ended is perhaps its most realistic aspect: “I’m trying to find the answers to the same questions I’m asking,” Rose says.

Though Superstar is told from a deliberately ostentatious point of view, it speaks to widely relatable social topics (and really, what good fiction doesn’t?). In developing a character who sacrifices their pleasure and abandons their status quo for a remote shot at fame, Rose also offers sharp insights into not just the perils that accompany Making It™, but the proliferation of performative internet presences, the pressure for queer people to perform gender and sexuality, and the notion that those wariest of the spotlight need not take the people in it so seriously. Though not all of these threads were intentional, Rose doesn’t deny their presence: “A song might not be autobiographical,” she says, “but you can only write about what you know.”

That might be why queerness feels central to tracks such as the quirky synthpop tune “Got to Go My Own Way.” The song’s story of traveling to LA, Paris, and Fiji (the narrator also visits Acapulco and Southern France on “Pipe Dreams”) evokes the abundance of queer Instagram influencers whose performative personalities and perfectly sculpted bodies might be actively harming users’ mental health. Likewise, any queer person can relate to what happens during the song’s cloud-clearing, key-changing outro: The narrator sneers goodbye at the non-supportive people who dominated their childhood years. 

Rose didn’t necessarily have queerness and influencer culture on her mind, but she “wrote Superstar imagining elements of myself” and “wanted to make sure that it can very well be about queer life. I am queer, so it’s inherently in there.” She describes her tightrope walk between the fantastical and the real with the following mission statement: “Take your own life, take the most interesting parts, inject it with steroids, and inflate it.” Perhaps not coincidentally, it’s a process that could describe every influencer’s strategy.

As Superstar brings influencers and queerness to mind, it also takes aim at those who look down upon the ecosystem that connects everyday people to public figures. “A lot of people take themselves really seriously and say that art needs to be serious,” Rose says of people who roll their eyes at certain public figures, herself included. And even though her current self just took to late-night TV to sing and shuffle weirdly, she insists that “silly” and “serious” exist in a Venn diagram. “I do think this is serious!” she says. “I’m taking seriously that people need to lighten up.” FL