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Laufey is a trad-pop superstar (and that's enough)

Laufey performs during the December 2023 event A New York Evening With Laufey, at The Greene Space in downtown Manhattan.
Rob Kim
/
Getty Images for The Recording Academy
Laufey performs during the December 2023 event A New York Evening With Laufey, at The Greene Space in downtown Manhattan.

With the Grammys coming next week and the Oscar nominations out, I've been thinking about the ways the culture industry — including writers like me — throws things into buckets in order to see what floats to the top. Awards season is a fun game, but also a folly.

Consider the debate over the newly nominated "I'm Just Ken," the power ballad parody that bursts into the Barbie movie in a 1960s Pop Art musical sequence and lifts the film to a wholly new level of pink plastic pathos. The song already won a Critics Choice Award, its success fueling the moment's unfortunate Ken backlash. (Greta and Margot's bona fides aside, Ken's the peachy heart of that film, give him his flowers!) Even Ryan Gosling himself has indicated that he thinks "I'm Just Ken" isn't all that.

The thing about "I'm Just Ken" is that it doesn't fit the usual bucket for Oscar-winning songs. It's a parody of such songs, with its sweeping chorus and heroic lyrics lamenting the existential crisis of a ripped polyvinyl chloride doll. It sounds like the kind of sweeping, sentimental hit that the Academy loves, but that's a disguise allowing Gosling and his Kennish chorus of dancers to critique the very bravado conventional winners trumpet. "I'm Just Ken" is Oscar bait, while also standing outside that category. It shows how such categories are inadequate.

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The same thing can prove true at the Grammys, as new talents land in buckets that do and don't make sense for them. Consider the puzzle presented by Laufey, the Icelandic-Chinese vocalist and songwriter whose breakthrough has saddled her, in some corners of the music world, with the burdensome role of Gen-Z jazz savior.

A highly self-aware budding celebrity, Laufey has been diplomatic when asked whether jazz needs saving and if she is the right candidate for that job. Unfortunately, her responses haven't inspired confidence among "real" jazz lovers. She stands up for the greats — Ella, Billie, Miles — but shows little awareness of the vibrant young international scene that's set jazz on fire in the past decade. She can come off like an interloper, despite her obvious good intentions.

Is Laufey the Ken of current pop — brimming with potential but uncertain about what she actually can do and be? That may seem like an outrageous question, but I see a connection. The questions some have raised about her authenticity recall not just Ken's heartrending journey toward becoming a "real man"; they also reflect the debate about Barbie, the movie. The snubbing of director Greta Gerwig and producer/star Margo Robbie in their own categories suggests that the Academy could accept Barbie as an irresistible commercial juggernaut, but not as a serious film. Similarly, Laufey's immense popularity got her a Grammy nod, in the "traditional pop" slot, while she was shut out of anything labeled "jazz."

I think Laufey, like Gosling as Ken, deserves huge kudos for the skill and emotional expression that's made them both beloved performers this year. I also think they should be credited for what they actually do. Gosling's performance is a genius comic turn: There's no shame in that, and it's not "less than," say, Robert Downey Jr.'s sinister performance in Oppenheimer. And Laufey belongs in traditional pop. If she wins her gramophone (she'll have to beat Springsteen, good luck), I hope her triumph leads to a greater acknowledgment of her artistry in that realm, and of that musical legacy itself.

I'm talking about the kind of pop that gets name-checked as "mid-century," "musical theater" or even "Disney." It's a lineage dominated by voices like Laufey's: intelligent, highly crafted and, for many years, mostly female. For most of the last century of popular music, it's been viewed as a complementary yet inferior and even opposing force to jazz, inauthentic and perhaps threatening. Laufey sings for the women (and men, but I'm thinking about the women) whose voices formed the American Songbook, but whose artistry has always been treated as "number two" (to quote Ken's song) compared to the innovators within the jazz canon.

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Laufey has said that her pandemic goal, the reason she made the videos that brought her viral superstardom, was to dive deep into the Great American Songbook, finding her own way into classics by the likes of Rodgers and Hammerstein and Cole Porter. YouTuber Adam Neely points out in his respectful and convincing critique of Laufey that this songbook is a blueprint fundamental to several musical streams: jazz, but also cabaret music, musical theater, the torch song, adult contemporary music. He goes with the "mid-century" label, though I bet he'd agree that's historically inaccurate. In fact, even as Louis Armstrong and others were inventing jazz as we know it in the 1920s, women theater stars like Florence Mills were taking a sweeter, more neatly constructed approach to the same material. Even then, these women were idolized by the masses and sometimes questioned by those seeking to tighten the definitions of an emerging art form.

The place of the "girl singer" changed along with musical trends and advances in the art of recording. The mics got more sensitive and so did she. Her vibrant, well-modulated voice soundtracked films and anchored Broadway musicals; it comforted the home front during World War II and then took pop right up to the edge of rock and roll. ("Girl singer" Connie Francis was the biggest pre-rock artist on the Billboard charts, an emblematic pop singer whose later hits, like "Stupid Cupid," incorporated rock and roll elements and helped make them ubiquitous.) Laufey's singing style, with its subtle vibrato, up-close mic technique and warm, fluid tone, encapsulates the lineage's evolution. It's true that her sweet spot is the middle of the 20th century: Her dynamic range would suit film more than the stage, and her default setting is the yearning tone of the ballad as torched up by Peggy Lee and Julie London, though she also shows some of Dionne Warwick's gentle brilliance and Barbra Streisand's determined flair, along with the calm confidence that made Adele impressive from the start.

Unlike, say, Amy Winehouse, Laufey wisely avoids the elements of blatant racial appropriation that trouble the "girl singer"'s history — the "novelty" numbers that had whitesingers putting on all kinds of problematic faces. Instead, she uses the utmost care to incorporate bossa nova phrasing and studied non-verbal vocal runs. Referencing Instagram in her lyrics is one way Laufey updates her classic reference points, but it's also this careful indeterminacy, her measured invocations of scatting or blue notes while she stays mostly in a cleanly lyrical vocal lane, that marks her as so very 2024. At a juncture when no one genre dominates pop — not unlike the mid-20th century, right before rock took over — she feels comfortable dipping into things without resting anywhere.

The women who thrived in this pop lane have always carried new sounds across borders: Patsy Cline, for example, introduced blues elements into country, while Jo Stafford and Patti Page brought a sense of jazz harmony and timing to their hits. These voices, often buoyed by orchestral arrangements, lingered in the rock and soul era even as blues and gospel became more influential on the mainstream. Warwick's work with Bacharach and David, and Streisand's Hollywoodization of the art song, showed that the standard could adapt beyond its designated era. So did Karen Carpenter's hugely influential career. In the 1980s, Natalie Coleand Linda Ronstadt offered retro-modern packages that made sense to the children of the Big Chill. In Everything But the Girl, Tracey Thorn did the same for new wave kids.

A funny thing happened in the 1990s, though. A flashy wunderkind named Harry Connick Jr. brought his New Orleans accent and piano chops to the table and, after that, songbook interpreters began skewing male. (Willie Nelson's Stardust, a perpetual bestseller, helped this trend along.) A look at the Grammy Award in traditional pop tells the tale: Since its inception in 1992, when Cole won for her classic Unforgettable, only five women have won, two for duet albums with men. The field is dominated by stars like Paul McCartney and Elvis Costello, who have turned to the Songbook as a kind of late-career lark; by Connick and his Canadian doppelganger Michael Bublé; and by Tony Bennett — who until his death last year repped for the male titans in the lineage like Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby, whose outsize influence has sometimes obscured the fact that women mostly defined the style, emotionally and aesthetically.

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Laufey herself has named these women as major influences, name-checking Peggy Lee, Julie London and Doris Day as favorites. Her interpretation of the 1943 standard "It Could Happen to You" sounds eerily like Dorothy L'Amour's in the film where the song debuted. Yet for some reason, writers who have profiled her or reviewed her music have dwelled on her mentions of Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday instead. Maybe it's because those geniuses could not be excluded from the realm of legitimacy, or just that so many other women pop singers have been forgotten. Stafford, a superstar in the 1950s, is mostly unknown today, though I was happy to find a couple of recent reaction videos expressing awe at her technique. It's easier to name-check Ella — but even that reference point is more complicated, because Fitzgerald, an unrivaled jazz technician, sometimes took a more "pop" approach in her beloved journeys through the American Songbook.

On some level, as the "jazz / not-jazz" debate swirls around Laufey, she's simply experiencing what her predecessors also endured. The writer Lara Pellegrinelli has tracked how "serious jazz" became equated with instrumental music partly as a way to deal with those peskily popular women singers. In recent years, stars like Norah Jones — now a mentor to Laufey — and Diana Krall have endured the same questions. Cecile McLorin Salvant transcended them through risk-taking and the volcanic force of her intelligence; Samara Joy, last year's best new artist Grammy winner, initially avoided them by adhering to a kind of classicism. (She's been stretching out since.)

Laufey's success may give some jazz lovers pause, but it also gives us a chance to confront the narrow thinking that builds buckets and to consider the problems categorization always poses. So much great jazz is being made in 2024. A new pop voice doesn't negate that, even when she leans toward the genre and possibly might influence it, as artists like her always have. Laufey is just Laufey. I think that's Kenough.

This essay was originally published in the NPR Music newsletter. Subscribe here for more.

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Ann Powers
Ann Powers is NPR Music's critic and correspondent. She writes for NPR's music news blog, The Record, and she can be heard on NPR's newsmagazines and music programs.