Conan Gray Is A Classic Small-Town-To-Big-City Success Story

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Conan Gray is in the process of turning small-town nostalgic Americana into mainstream pop success. Here's what makes him special.

Conan Gray is in the process of turning small-town nostalgic Americana into mainstream pop success. Here's what makes him special.

While Conan Gray might have only just started ascending the charts, he’s no stranger to the spotlight. He began building his brand as a tween YouTube vlogger in 2013, and grew a substantial fanbase before gradually pivoting from vlogging into music—first by uploading simple acoustic ukulele-and-guitar-accompanied performances of originals and covers, and eventually by parlaying his nascent film and audio production skills into more elaborate recordings and accompanying music videos. This ultimately resulted in him signing a record deal with Republic Records, a Universal Music Group subsidiary, and the release of his debut EP, Sunset Season, in November 2018.

One of the striking things about Conan Gray’s still-young songwriting career is how he has, at such a young age, effortlessly tapped into the bittersweet, nostalgic, small-town vein of Americana that lies at the core of so much great American music. “Idle Town” is a perfect example of this. It’s a lyrical exploration of the tiny Texas town Gray is from, and subtextually points to how it inspired him to turn to music, art and film as a means to escape the ennui of its sleepy immutable rhythm. But while he lyrically yearns for escape (I never learned anybody’s name / we all vowed that we wouldn’t stay”), gentle electric piano chords, sighing harmonies, and sparse percussion bathe the song in a hazy nostalgic glow that’s also reflected in the music video featuring Gray and his high school friends and classmates that Gray filmed and edited.

Gray’s longing for the world outside the confines of his safe and predictable bubble of a hometown struck a resonant chord with the millions of people with similar experiences, pushing the song towards viral popularity and gaining him label attention and the contract with UMG. The first single off Sunset Seasons mined a similarly resonant lyrical vein of young adult angst, specifically as a member of a rebellious “Generation Why” trying to find its place in a politically, environmentally and culturally fraught world:

“Parents think we’re fast asleep / But as soon as we’re home we’re sneaking out the window / ‘Cause at this rate of earth decay / Our world’s ending at noon, could all just move to the moon”

The year since the release of Sunset Seasons has been a busy one for Conan Gray, with the release four singles off an album purportedly slated to drop sometime in 2020. The singles find him expanding on his dreamy bedroom pop sound to incorporate a rock edge, more hard-hitting dance-y beats, and insistent hooks, and also demonstrate him coming into his own as a bonafide popstar-in-waiting, while taking some subliminal visual cues from the late King of Pop himself.

The slight shift away from introspective tunes reflecting the small-town experience towards a more extroverted persona that mirrors his increasing success is also reflected in his lyrics, which largely deal with romance—albeit an intriguingly and humorously dark and cynical view of it—but Conan Gray’s honesty and comfort in his own androgynous image and ambiguous sexuality push these songs away from the pile of disposable relationship-drama anthems and towards the pile of highly appealing sad-boy pop with surprisingly nuanced and inclusive observations about confused kids dealing with complex relationship dynamics. One moment he brags about how “you see me as your lifeline / other boys and girls never really made you feel right” (The King), while the next moment he’s the jilted lover fantasizing about revenge because “you think you’re super sly / flirting with them but telling me you’re mine / buildin’ me up, but buttercup, you lied” (Checkmate). 

What To Expect From Conan Gray Moving Forward

Given that he’s still only twenty years old, Conan Gray has plenty of room to grow as an artist. He isn’t shying away from exploring disparate facets of his own personality as he adjusts to life outside the bubble of the small town that was ironically instrumental in helping him connect with the world outside it. However, his ability to tap into his identity as the perpetual outsider and misfit with a refreshingly cynical sense of humor and open quirkiness makes his lyrics and songwriting eminently relatable. After all, doesn’t every small-town kid dream about moving to the big city and making it big? Gray is doing it while bringing those kids along for the ride with his honest letters from the inside.

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