Camp royalty

Queer pop superstar Chappell Roan chronicles ‘The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess’

Credit: Ryan Clemens

It’s Chappell Roan’s sparkly, glitzed-out world, and we’re just living in it — that is, if you were lucky enough to score tickets to her headline tour. The rising pop star’s Boulder Theater date, along with many other stops on the 32-city run, sold out almost as quickly as you can say the title of her debut LP, The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess.

And since the release of her record last September, this Midwest Princess has come a long way from home. The 26-year-old artist has already checked off a few dates in the opening slot of pop megastar Olivia Rodrigo’s GUTS Tour. She also recently donned a big, red wig and pink party dress for an NPR Tiny Desk Concert, and she was added to this summer’s Lollapalooza lineup

“It feels not real,” Roan says. “I have yet to play a major festival. … I’m so excited — I have no idea what that feels like. I’ve never even been.” 

The artist’s larger-than-life, drag-inspired stage presence makes this kind of success look effortless. However, her breakthrough album was four long years in the making. 

Roan inked a deal with Atlantic Records after being discovered on YouTube at age 17, but was dropped in 2020 after what would become Midwest Princess’ anthemic first single, “Pink Pony Club,” underperformed in their eyes. She moved back to her small, Ozark-adjacent hometown of Willard, Missouri, before saving up enough money to get back to L.A. 

The leap worked out in her favor. Roan eventually found a home for Midwest Princess at an Island Records imprint run by musician and producer Dan Nigro, known for his work with pop heavyweights like Rodrigo, Caroline Polachek and Kylie Minogue. Today, Roan’s hard-fought debut has been streamed tens of millions of times.

“It’s a massive feat of years and years. It’s such a big relief to know that I could get something like this across the finish line with an entire team of people — like, we all did it,” Roan says. “It’s just kind of living and breathing now. That’s the crazy part.”

Chappell Roan comes to Boulder Theater on April 9, following last year’s full-length The Rise and Fall of a Midwest Princess and the release of her new single, “Good Luck, Babe!” Credit: Ryan Clemens

‘The freest version of myself’

Chappell Roan is a stage moniker — her legal name is Kayleigh Rose Amstutz. But part of what makes Midwest Princess such a feat is its capacity to represent the totality of the artist’s over-the-top stage persona: bold, brash, sexy, queer, earnest and theater-kid dramatic, all at once. 

“Chappell Roan is a campy drag queen from the Midwest who wound up in Hollywood and is trying to find her place in that community while simultaneously finding her identity in the Midwest, where she came from,” Roan says. “It’s the freest version of myself — the most accepting version of myself.”

This freedom and acceptance is an electric current coursing throughout Midwest Princess, which never loses its sense of fun. Roan channels Hannah-Montana-meets-80s-Madonna on the synthed-out track “HOT TO GO!,” throwing out cheeky lyrics like “Baby, don’t you like this beat? / I made it so you’d sleep with me.” 

The album also features its fair share of vulnerable moments, like on the aforementioned “Pink Pony Club,” which chronicles Roan’s feelings after a night at an L.A. gay bar, knowing she’ll never be the daughter her mother envisioned: “Won’t make my mama proud / it’s gonna cause a scene / she sees her baby girl / I know she’s gonna scream, ‘God, what have you done?’”

Chappell Roan: Tiny Desk Concert

Stephen Thompson | March 21, 2024 It’s become a Tiny Desk tradition for artists to leave a small offering on the shelves – a tchotchke, a toy, a signed album or piece of swag, a guitar pick, that sort of thing.

‘They don’t know what camp means’

The result is a whirlwind of emotional, queer joy — one that doesn’t necessarily cater to the musically “tasteful” among us. Upon its release, Midwest Princess was praised by publications like Pitchfork for its boldness and tight songcraft, but was backhandedly slighted for what the reviewer called a “steely indifference to good taste.” 

“I don’t know what the fuck that means,” Roan says. “When people say I don’t have taste, they just don’t know what the word ‘camp’ means.”

This exaggerated sense of play is exactly what sets Chappell Roan apart, in production and live performance alike. Her dedication to all things over-the-top is a love letter — to Los Angeles, to drag and to the queer community that gave her a sense of belonging in the first place. To that end, her shows feel more like a party where all are welcome to be who they are.

“You do not have to worry about judgment for the next two hours of my show,” Roan says. “People are gonna accept you. You can dance and sing however you want to, dress however you want to, bring whoever you want to. No one’s gonna bat an eyelash.” 

ON THE BILL: Chappell Roan. 8 p.m. Tuesday, April 9, Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St. Sold out. Resale: $400+


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