Gracie Adams 2024
Photo: Abby Waisler / Live Nation

Gracie Abrams and the Secret of Confessional Writing

The strong hooks on The Secret of Us provide the missing third dimension to Gracie Abrams’ songs and create a winning formula that could sustain more albums. 

The Secret of Us
Gracie Abrams
21 June 2024

The smartest thing about Gracie Abram’s sophomore album, The Secret of Us, is the placement of its poppiest song. Abrams released a snippet of this track, “Close to You”, in 2017, and fans have been clamoring for it ever since. Since the snippet’s release, Abrams put out two EPs and one full-length record but never included the buzzed-about track. She told Porter magazine, “I never felt like it had a place until this album.”

“Close to You” flows steadily over a thrumming baseline amplified in the chorus. It showcases Abram’s gift for melody and pacing; she may not be a powerhouse vocalist, but, similar to her mentor Taylor Swift, she doesn’t need to be. “Close to You” carries an electric current of catchiness created by melodic variation. It descends as Abrams entreats, “Pull the trigger on the gun,” before vaulting to higher notes on the titular hook. 

Aside from being fan service, the inclusion of “Close to You” in The Secret of Us announces the LP’s mission statement. It’s a pop album with songs to satisfy the large crowds Abrams has begun to play for, including as an opening act for Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour. 

Gracie Abrams’ ascent to stardom follows the trajectory of the “sad girls” who conquered pop in the late 2010s and early 2020s. Descendents of Lorde and Lana Del Rey, these artists, including Clairo, Billie Eilish, and Phoebe Bridgers, rebelled against the empowerment anthems that polluted radio waves in the early 2010s. The “sad girls” captured a shift that made Katy Perry’s “Roar” appear overly optimistic after political upheaval in the United States and validated the pessimism that permeated the national consciousness, which cleared the way for Abrams to give it a mainstream makeover. 

The broad appeal of “Close to You” ensures Abrams avoids sounding derivative of her pensive counterparts. Each one of her peers demarcates her own territory in a genre known for individuality: Billie Eilish is darkly comic, Lorde alternates between techno and acoustic sounds, and Clairo’s commitment to her mellow, contemplative nature creates a self-contained universe. Abram’s dalliance with pop stretches the parameters of this subgenre but without rejecting its indie roots. In The Secret of Us, the structure of a pop song becomes a vessel for Abrams’ direct writing style. 

As an opening act for Taylor Swift, Gracie Abrams has a platform that lends itself to promoting an album with pop tendencies. The most recent success story from the ranks of Swift’s opening acts, Sabrina Carpenter, achieved her first Top 10 Hit on the Billboard Hot 100 with the single “Espresso” peaking at number three in June 2024. After this milestone, Carpenter released “Please Please Please”, which topped the Hot 100 produced by Jack Antonoff. Working with pop’s most in-demand producer, formerly the guitarist of the band Fun., has become another rite of passage for contemporary singers, one that Swift pioneered when she worked with him on several tracks from her 2014 album 1989. Antonoff said, “Before Taylor, everyone said: ‘You’re not a producer.’”

Antonoff co-produced “us.”, a collaboration between Abrams and Swift on The Secret of Us. The song showcases Abram’s ability to write lyrics on par with Swift’s. In the bridge of “us.”, Abrams hurls one idiosyncratic insult after another at a pseudo-intellectual boyfriend, building to a climax where she questions her agency in prolonging a toxic relationship before resettling on the track’s opening premise. 

In this section, Antonoff positions a whooping bass drop where Abrams doubles down on her convictions, a sonic backdrop emphasizing the narrator’s pain at eviscerating someone she once loved. This crescendo contains evidence of a self-inflicted wound while engaging the listener through an introduction of new sounds. “Was it a curse or a miracle?” Abrams asks. Her anguish conveys a willingness to relive painful memories to be free of them. 

Gracie Abrams is poised to inherit Swift’s throne in terms of songwriting style, and if she leans into the pop inclinations of “Close to You”, she may become an industry titan. However, regardless of Abrams’ fate in the music business, sufficient events have transpired to begin entrusting Swift’s legacy to a new generation of stars, each of whom bears a distinctive quality of Swift’s music on their own. Sabrina Carpenter is the pop star, Gracie Abrams is the songwriter, and Camila Cabello, for better or worse, is the media personality. 

In “Let It Happen”, Abrams admits to reaching a new level of loneliness while her former lover remains oblivious. The chorus, in which the narrator resigns herself to the persistence of her love, gains depth in the context of her willingness to shield the former lover from her pain. The catharsis evidence in Abram’s songwriting mirrors the style of peer Olivia Rodrigo.

Allegedly, Rodrigo’s relationship with Swift may not be as peachy as that of the other pop acolytes. As Abrams’ star power rises, it’s important to maintain sympathy for stars not firmly in Swift’s camp. After all, Sabrina Carpenter, an ally of Swift who once feuded with Rodrigo, recently shot a campaign for Skims, Kim Kardashian’s shapewear line. Kardashian is a sworn enemy of Swift. 

Webs of animosity are just as tangled as alliances in entertainment, but that shouldn’t threaten the end product. Being a diaristic songwriter like Swift, Abrams, or Rodrigo comes with a built-in PR mechanism because eliciting sympathy for their points of view is already part of the job. This trait gave Swift an advantage over Katy Perry during their feud, which prompted Perry to air her grievances on James Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke.” Should any similar drama befall Abrams, she won’t need to resort to such obvious tactics to quell it.

In “Tough Love”, Gracie Abrams uses a contrast between a cheerful tempo and forlorn lyrics to advance her argument. The song recounts wandering through a new city alone, but a country-adjacent, uptempo guitar riff reframes those reflections as resilient instead of wistful. Elsewhere, the restraint of “Free Now” allows Abrams to address an ex amicably, but in the bridge, an acceleration of the pace mirrors old grudges resurfacing. Finally, the anti-climax of the laconic outro captures the narrator’s conclusion that freedom from a relationship doesn’t mean moving on from feelings but untangling the mental knot they cause. 

“Free Now” refers to surviving the aftermath of a relationship while symbolizing Abram’s freedom as a writer. Embracing a pop has provided structure to her poetry, which, on previous albums, could wander aimlessly without a focal point. The strong hooks on The Secret of Us provide the missing third dimension to Abram’s songs and create a winning formula that could sustain many more albums. 

When Taylor Swift departed country music to pursue pop, she modeled the reality that, to grow up, both personal and professional habits must be shed. Plenty of country singers write thinly-veiled pop but have too much to lose by ditching the genre. A genre is a guidepost. It may not degrade an artist’s integrity to stick with a certain sound, but for some, change itself is their muse. This inclination invites tough decisions when art exists in a capitalist system that rewards replication. 

While art may seem like a luxury, it functions with the ethos of a survivalist. Sometimes, self-preservation is a ruthless act. There is no compromising with what you truly want to create. 

Entering the pop ecosystem under the tutelage of Swift means reckoning with the messiness of being an artist, even if your medium of choice is a genre often seen as formulaic. Alongside The Secret of Us, Gracie Abrams shared personal photos of herself and Swift. In one, Swift photographs Abrams lying on the floor covering her face, which Abrams revealed was her reaction to Swift’s song “The Smallest Man Who Ever Lived”. In a video, Abrams films Swift putting out a kitchen fire with an extinguisher.

The content of this video resembles the ready-made metaphors of Swift’s and Abrams’ songs. Pop stars are constantly putting out fires. Swift has fended off every celebrity who jeopardized her existence, although not without hiccups. In 2016, a peak point of public animosity towards Swift, a meme circulated depicting Swift’s nemeses as Scooby Doo characters unmasking a villain, which turned out to be Swift. Of the rivals included, one, Katy Perry, has become an ally of Swift, and the others, including Kanye West, have fallen from the height of their celebrity. In 2022, Swift wrote, “Karma is a cat / Purring in my lap ‘cause it loves me.”

This shift has allowed Swift to select the next generation of pop stars, and her feature on Gracie Abrams’ “us.” cements this role. Although her contributions remain minimal, Swift’s presence as someone who has publicly experienced many break-ups lends credibility to Abram’s argument about the narcissism of her ex-boyfriend. The sharpness of Swift’s tone conveys anger, which, through its minimalism, functions as a more harsh scolding than a prominent vocal feature. This song’s placement as the album’s fifth track also sends a beacon to Swift fans that Abrams is their idol’s chosen successor. (“Track 5” is critical on each Swift album.)

In “Blowing Smoke”, Abrams asks a former lover, “Tell me, is she prettier than she was on the internet?” The reference to online dating contextualizes The Secret of Us as a product of the social media era without sacrificing Abrams’ point of view within that era. Contemporary references can drown an album’s message, but Abrams stays afloat by portraying the realities of her existence as ornaments in a universal story. About the girls her ex-lover now pursues, she says, “I know everything they don’t.” The sharpness of Abrams’ writing proves she has an astute grasp of her perspective. 

Abrams told Billboard, “I wouldn’t lead with ‘I’m a singer.’ I’d say, ‘I’m a writer.’” The role of a storyteller in pop culture appears to rely on individuality but, in the 21st century, justifies its existence. In the early 1970s, the peak of the singer-songwriter era, a plethora of perspectives existed, including the voices of sensitive poets like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell and rockers like the Eagles. They wrote their own material, and, in part, the demand for each of their products relied on what they had to say. However, today’s corporatization of pop music necessitates that, as a contrast to the formulaic stars churned out by the Disney machine, a singer-songwriter must exist to provide authenticity. The ability to say something meaningful at all has become its own product.  

Because the confessional singer-songwriter is a brand, regardless of the confession, the likes of Abrams and Swift remain beholden to the capitalist mechanisms that govern their peers. In a 2011 New Yorker profile, Swift admitted to becoming “fascinated by career trajectories” and watching documentaries that describe when artists “peak.” Pop stars don’t just make music: they live out a fantasy for listeners to consume, even if that fantasy ultimately consumes itself. In 2014 on The Ellen Show, Swift predicted her 2016 downfall: “I’m scared of getting framed.”

Confessions can doom you even when honesty is the bedrock of your enterprise. Celebrities are not above the whims of fate. Living their lives in the public eye doesn’t insulate them; it gives them farther to fall. The true secret to success is knowing what not to share. 

RATING 9 / 10