Bonnie McKee and What It Takes to Make a Modern Female Pop Star


Earlier this week Bonnie McKee put out the video for her new single “American Girl.” I can’t remember how I saw it first because at this point, I’ve listened to the song so many times that any memories of anything I had before it came into my life have totally been erased. What I do remember is thinking, “Who the fuck is this girl and why do I have the feeling I’m supposed to know her already?

A few weeks ago, I had no idea Bonnie McKee existed, despite the pop musical influence she’d unknowingly had upon my life. But then I happened upon her doing an acoustic set of covers of some of the best pop songs written in the past few years through some early morning YouTube trolling and was instantly hooked, in the way that young white women are by acoustic covers of pop songs. At first glance, I didn’t realize the most notable thing about the video, as I was totally distracted by McKee’s very bright candy-colored hair: it’s that she actually wrote every song she was performing. “Hold It Against Me.” “Teenage Dream.” “Dynamite.” “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F).” “Part Of Me.” “C’Mon.” “California Girls.” “Wide Awake.”

You’ll notice a lot of Katy Perry in that list; McKee has co-written five of Perry’s number one hits, which make up most of her nine songs that have gone number one. I learned that watching one of the five videos on YouTube that her team produced as a internet series called “Breaking Bonnie“, which premiered back in December and was teased on Idolator, who wrote that they were “really excited” about her.

“Breaking Bonnie” has six short episodes, each only a few minutes long, documenting the development of this “superstar songwriter and future pop diva.” They’re accompanied with either the hashtag #popstarintraining or #breakingbonnie; depending on the video, the hashtag changes. (I’ve yet to figure out if there is any significance to this at all.) In the first video, McKee introduces herself as follows:

I’m Bonnie McKee. I’m a singer-songwriter, mostly known as a songwriter, but hoping that’s going to change.

McKee says she moved to Los Angeles at 16 and signed a record deal with Warner Bros. With that label, she produced one album in six years and was dropped; the album, called Trouble, is available on Spotify. In one of her interviews, she says that after she left Warner Bros, she did too much partying, making some oblique references to doing drugs. Now, signed to Epic, she says that now she’s stronger and better than all that because she realized no one was going to do her work for her.

When she first got to LA, McKee says she felt like her stardom was inevitable:

In my head there was just no doubt about it. I was going to be the biggest pop star in the world and that was that. I was going to be a teenage sensation.
But if it had just happened overnight for me, on my first album, I’d probably be dead right now because I wouldn’t have gotten my shit together and I would have just kept barrelling through life.

At the end of June, McKee launched the first phase of her plan of Pop Star Domination: Call in every favor in the book and produce a viral video for “American Girl” starring half of Hollywood. It’s basically every famous person in music and acting you read about these days: the aforementioned Perry, Carly Rae Jepson, Joan Rivers, Kathy Griffin, Ke$ha, Macklemore, Kiss, Nicole Scherzinger…the list goes on. “My competition,” sighs Perry facetiously at the end of the video, about McKee.

It’s funny because it’s true: McKee basically is Perry – she’s just not famous (yet). Watching “Breaking Bonnie” is akin to watching a low-budget version of Perry’s 3D “documentary” extravaganza Katy Perry: Part of Me, which came out in 2012. The layers go even deeper: remember that McKee helped write the song that the movie is named after.

In Part of Me, you get the “real” Perry, or at least the real version Perry’s team wants you to see. I found myself disturbingly moved by the film when I watched it a few months ago; Perry is seen struggling trying to get through a world tour while maintaining her relationship with Russell Brand, which we all know ended badly. But it’s the story that Perry tells about her rise to fame that fits the most in with McKee’s, this tale that she is just a “regular” girl who always knew she would be famous, that it took a lot longer than people thought, that she would do whatever she could to make it happen and that it only worked out because of how true to herself she was. Perry’s story is the same as McKee’s, it just has a more defined ending. She too was signed to a label that dropped her, after struggling and failing to find the right “sound” and image to present her as.

“I feel like a stronger, better person because of [my struggles],” Perry says in Part of Me, her language nearly identical to that of McKee’s. McKee must be looking to Perry as a direction inspiration, from her sound (which, since McKee helps write her music, is also McKee’s sound) to her over-the-top, colorful look. And listening to McKee discuss Perry, you can’t help but wonder if she’s more just a little confused about how Perry is the one that has made it and she hasn’t. Of Perry’s inclusion in the “American Girl” viral video, McKee told MTV:

…we’ve known each other since we were teenagers and kind of an ongoing rivalry a little bit. But we were like frenemies a little bit, but we love each other. She’s always supported me. I’ve always supported her, so it’s just a cute little wink and a smile moment.

McKee says she even wrote “Last Friday Night” about when she and Katy were younger and “going nuts, wilding out”:

We met when we were teenagers, when we were like 18, 19. We met at a thrift store actually in LA. We were both broke songwriters selling our clothes that nobody wanted to buy, so we bonded over being rejected at the thrift store. We’ve been friends ever since.

Their close relationship doesn’t mean, however, that it’s been easy for her to let go of big hits, like “Teenage Dream.” In February, McKee told The Hollywood Reporter:

…that was tough one to give up. There’s a lot of little Bonnie-isms in “Teenage Dream” that I was hoping to keep for myself. But at that moment I didn’t have hot water, I didn’t have a cell phone, I didn’t have a car. So it was now or never. I’m glad that I did it. And of course I wouldn’t want anyone else to do it — Katy is the perfect fit for that, so I’m really grateful to have an amazing artist to put my lyrics on.

Stories like McKee’s and Perry’s paint record companies as the evil bad guys and the pop stars that survive The Machine as phoenixes, rising from the ashes of a corrupt creative culture. After all, in an age where Justin Bieber wasn’t discovered but made himself a hit because of the power of the internet, record labels must have no idea what they’re doing, right? In truth, record labels never had any insight that would work better than the masses dictating exactly what they wanted to listen to and watch. It’s just that now, the industry’s failings can be seen in clear view, as talented people find alternative ways to make their star shine.

In 2002, Lynn Hirschberg wrote a fascinating article for the New York Times Magazine about the making of Amanda Latona, a woman who desperately wanted to be your new Britney Spears but is ended up a bodybuilder and fitness model. Originally part of the short-lived girl group Innosense with Spears, Latona was mentored by Clive Davis, one of the biggest movers and shakers in music. The problem with Latona, however, was that she didn’t have that singer-songwriter thing, which is to say, she was low on actual musical talent. Hirschberg paints a picture of a 23-year-old woman being merely molded to become a pop star, living in a world where it was the job of her handlers “create a persona for her through the vision of others who do write songs and play instruments.”

Latona might have been less “talented” than Perry or McKee, but she spewed out the same line:

I’ve been waiting forever for this.

Despite her actually musical talent, McKee is every bit as carefully processed as Latona. To look at McKee’s current iteration is to feel as though you are looking at a human who is wearing every single trend popularized by Forever 21 during the past year. Her aesthetic is less Lady Gaga 2013 and more Lady Gaga 2008: if she is wearing high-profile designers, those specific pieces are masked by her studs, trucker hats, short short shorts and again, that half-platinum blonde, half-Ariel hair. It’s hard to even tell what her face looks like: she’s 29 years old, but she usually wears so much make-up her features can be hard to define. This screenshot from one of her “Breaking Bonnie” videos is the closest thing I’ve found that actually demonstrates that she has an age or distinctive features.

Musically, McKee seems to be struggling to find a definitive “sound” as well, stuck between the success of her pop songs, while wishing she could to steer closer towards the roots of her first album Trouble which sounds like Sara Bareilles crossed with Alanis Morissette:

I want to make an album that’s classic, so I’m pulling from a lot of my classic influences. I’d like to do kind of a modern Blondie project. I love early Madonna, Michael Jackson, Paula Abdul, anything that’s fun and timeless.

Skipping past the implication that Paula Abdul’s music is “timeless,” McKee does seem to recognize that she’s at a rough spot right now. She’s trying to grapple with the fact that her feet are in two worlds: She’s famous in the music world, but is actually still pretty much normal like her fans. She and her label are in the tough spot of creating a persona around trying to trick her fan base (which is assumedly predominantly female) into wanting her to succeed. It’s a balance that has been difficult for other stars to achieve; her viral video friend Nicole Scherzinger had a hard time switching between her many iterations, struggling to find the one that would proclaim her the ultimate pop star. Scherzinger’s now famous, but more in the general way of someone who was the lead of the Pussycat Dolls, hosted a couple of reality TV shows, and is just…around a lot.

Alternatively, Ke$ha, who McKee also counts as a friend, has taken her musical cred and run miles with it. When she hit the scene with “TiK Tok” (which was co-written by Dr. Luke, another Mckee/Perry friend. Plus don’t forget about their bud Max Martin), articles breathlessly bragged that you could like Ke$ha because she wrote her own music, including that song with Flo Rida, which she sang on and wasn’t even credited for!

But back to “American Girl”: The funny thing is, it could have been the Song of the Summer – at least in an alternate universe, where “Get Lucky” had never been released. It’s probably too late though. The single dropped in June, which according to Song of the Summer timelines, is way too late to really make sure something hits mass appeal, though it could be a late and much-needed respite from songs we’re already sick of (“Blurred Lines”). McKee’s got the summer pop vibe down. But as she admits herself:

I’m a pop star in training. I’m not there yet but I’ll do whatever it takes.

You can’t be trying to be a pop star and be a pop star in training, unless you’re on a show like The X-Factor, and McKee has too much musical knowledge to target those two bases. You have to be convinced of your own pop star eventuality more than anyone else, and even then it might not work. In “Breaking Bonnie”, McKee comes across as someone who hopes that her honesty about her dreams will translate into star power, especially when she utters the following phrase:

You know what I always say: Don’t get mad. Get famous.

I don’t know that you say that Bonnie, though now I’m assuming that it’s a song lyric you’re going to try to convince us to love soon. But right now, as much as you want me to, I don’t know anything about you.

Images via Bonnie McKee/Facebook and Jason Merritt/Getty

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