Lauren Spencer Smith uses TikTok to connect with Gen Z

Think of Lauren Spencer Smith as a one-stop-shop for Gen Z’s most pressing emotional needs.

“Whatever you cry, I will validate it,” the 19-year-old Canadian pop singer told her young, mostly female audience at a recent sold-out concert – her first-ever headlining gig – at the Troubadour. in West Hollywood. “Because I cry over everything.”

Dressed in high-waisted jeans and an oversized denim shirt, Smith presented “Flowers,” one of many heartbreaking ballads she’s released this year with the clear goal of making rooms full of people scream with her word for word anguished. This is certainly what happened to the Troubadour during “Flowers”, where the singer returns to a failed relationship with the brutality of hindsight; it happened even more strikingly during Smith’s tie-up, “Fingers Crossed,” which she called “the song that changed my life.”

Similar to “Flowers” ​​in its majestic melody, sparse arrangement, and theme of romantic betrayal—in this one, she concludes her ex was not just a fool but also a liar—“Fingers Crossed” became a kind of mass sobbing. a-thon as Smith fans raised their voices to turn private pain into public catharsis.

“Now I don’t even miss you / I wanna get all the tears I cried back,” they sang together — a clever way to frame a familiar story of heartbreak.

Indeed, ‘Fingers Crossed,’ which has been streamed over 260 million times on Spotify, channels eternal teenage pain that runs through Taylor Swift and Debbie Gibson to the lovesick girl groups of the early ’90s. 1960. Yet Smith deploys that old-school sentiment via new means: “Fingers Crossed” first connected with listeners last November when Smith – a big-voiced “American Idol” alum who was fired up about the competition series in 2020 – posted a minus-minute snippet on TikTok that quickly went viral; within months, she had signed a joint recording contract with two major labels, Island and Republic, for which she is working on a debut studio album due out in the spring.

Smith, who has continued to regularly serve up TikToks to her nearly 4 million followers — including one last week showing crowds at a London club threatening to drown out the singer in ‘Flowers’ — isn’t the only songwriter -fresh-faced performer to gain traction on the short video platform. In August, 21-year-old Katie Gregson-McLeod erupted after posting part of her song “Complex,” a stark piano ballad on the thin edge “between being numb and feeling it all”; before Gregson-McLeod, TikTok played a crucial role in the rapid rise of sad girl stars such as Gracie Abrams, Gayle and Sadie Jean, not to mention Olivia Rodrigo, whose Hot 100 “driver’s license” took off at originally as a bare -acoustic extract from the bones.

“I love that people on TikTok feel so comfortable sharing their feelings, even though it makes some older people say, ‘Why are these kids so dramatic? ‘” Smith said. “When I see someone else crying online, I feel better telling someone that I cried today.

Yet few of his peers on the app have found the kind of traditional record industry hit that Smith has with “Fingers Crossed,” which reached No. 10 on Billboard’s Pop Airplay chart and led to a rep. with his manager, Andrew Gertler. , whose other clients include Shawn Mendes. She is now thought to be up for the coveted Best New Artist award at the 65th Grammy Awards, the nominations for which will be announced on Tuesday.

The Recording Academy has long been drawn to soulful ballads like Smith’s, often when they come from young British singers with stunning voices a la Adele, Sam Smith and Lewis Capaldi, all of whose songs it has faithfully covered in DIY videos on social media. . (Smith happens to be born in England before her parents moved her and her brother to Vancouver Island, British Columbia, when she was 3 years old.) She knows the lineage well, though she consumed the Grammys piecemeal growing up: I couldn’t afford to watch TV, so I watched every speech and every performance on YouTube,” she says over coffee in a stylish Sunset hotel. Boulevard a few weeks after the Troubadour concert. “I was obsessed with knowing who won and why.”

Smith knew she wanted to be a singer – a famous singer – as soon as she remembered. When she was 15, a video of her performing Lady Gaga’s “Always Remember Us This Way” exploded on Facebook after her father posted it; Steve Harvey saw the clip and put Smith on his talk show, where he assured his viewers that she “can really blow it.” By the time she came to “Idol,” she was already thinking about a career: “Honestly, I wasn’t that sad when I got cut,” she says, “because I knew when you win a show like that, the contract you end up having to sign always sucks. She laughs. “I’ve always been commercially minded.

The singer, who describes herself as “over-sharing to the max”, attributes this know-how to the fact that she got her first job at 12 years old as a hostess in a restaurant. Was it legal in Canada? “It wasn’t,” she says, which didn’t stop her from being quickly promoted to a server role; she would save her earnings to buy the Lululemon leggings her mother couldn’t buy her after a divorce from her father left the family struggling to pay their bills.

Yet his early experiences in showbiz also taught Smith to value his talent. “The number of artists who can’t sing these days – you hear them live and it’s terrible – is crazy,” she says, while Smith’s soulful, slightly jagged voice is of the variety of the phone book: one of those natural wonders that can move listeners no matter what is going on around it. When the ‘Fingers Crossed’ snippet went viral, “labels wanted to sign me right away,” she says, “and I was like, ‘Absolutely not, because the whole song is gonna blow up and you’re gonna give me more money.'”

Imran Majid, co-CEO of Island Records, confirms his account of a label frenzy: “Oh, it was a classic music industry derby,” he says. But as Smith played her material she was working on, Majid was as impressed with her writing as she was with her singing. “The concepts, the emotion, the little cliffhangers at the end of his songs – it wasn’t a formula,” he says. His ambition seized him too. “She’s a killer. In a way, it’s a bit like a hip-hop story more than a pop story: “I came from nothing, I worked like crazy, and whoever I tell that to, better not screw it up.”

Smith says her album will tell the story of her breakup with the guy from “Fingers Crossed” — a fellow songwriter she declines to name — before falling in love with her current boyfriend, who made her realize how much how badly she had been treated before. Has she spoken to Mr. “Fingers Crossed” since the song became a hit? “No,” she said, “although he tried to call me drunk several times.” She says when the song was released she intended to lie if anyone on the internet found out who it was.

“Joshua Bassett was ruined by Olivia’s stuff — it was my worst nightmare,” she says, referring to the Disney Channel star who is believed to be the real-life inspiration for Rodrigo’s “Driver’s License.” “I wouldn’t wish anything negative on anyone no matter what they did to me.”

She also draws inspiration from her music from TikTok. “If you want songs to explode, they need to include elements that people will relate to,” says Smith, who estimates she spends at least an hour on the app each day to get a feel for the trend. “For example, right now everybody likes to talk about a red flag – like, ‘I should have known when he did that, it was a red flag.’ It’s in people’s brains, so let’s include that in one line.

When asked if the flip side of this extremely online mentality is that she worries about some morally questionable videos from her past, she laughs. “I’m terrified every day that someone in high school will post sleazy s — I said about a girl when I was 14 and insecure,” she says. “But I tell everyone in my life, ‘Listen, I was an asshole until I was 16, because my parents divorced when I was 9 and one of my best friends died when I was 15.’ I was that kid who felt like the world was against me.

In fact, she’s still pulling from that deep well of teenage angst: In September, Smith posted a touching TikTok in which she previews a new song called “28” — the age of the woman her dad spars with. is obviously maintained recently. “When you first told me about her, you said she was 30 / And I can’t help but think you knew it was dirty,” Smith sings on a progression a mournful, slow chord, “She probably just had her first high school reunion / You’re probably the first one she moved in with. Even as a 60-second snippet, the song is deep.

She also admits that part of what motivates her now is the prospect of telling you that some of the people at her small-town high school would scoff when she talks about her plans to become a big pop star. . Scoring that Grammy nomination for Best New Artist would no doubt give Smith a boost, according to Lenny Beer, editor of trade magazine Hits. “It increases her credibility, and if she gets a performance on the show, it exposes her to a more mature audience,” Beer said. A wink “would also reconfirm the labels’ faith in her,” adds Beer, at a time when streaming has accelerated the lifecycle of a hit.

More importantly for Smith, it would mean this: “I literally had a teacher write on the board that I wasn’t going anywhere,” she says. “And while she was doing that, I was thinking about my Grammy speech — like, ‘Miss Campbell, this is for you.'”