Image courtesy of Epic Records

Madison Beer: “I can't run from this even if I wanted to”

The 21-year-old popstar discusses feeling trapped by fame, starting her career too young and why her debut album ‘Life Support’ is like therapy.

by Alim Kheraj
02 March 2021, 2:41pm

Image courtesy of Epic Records

Madison Beer is feeling overwhelmed. Eight years after she released her first single, a treacle-sweet teen pop song called “Melodies”, the soon-to-be 22-year-old musician has finally released her debut album, Life Support. “It’s like, ‘How is it actually, finally about to come out?’” she says in minor disbelief, speaking to us from LA three days before the album is due to drop. “I've been sitting and waiting. My fans deserve it at this point.”

They may be a little surprised by what they hear, too. While the singles that have preceded the record’s release -- the bouncy “Baby”, the devastating “Selfish” and the megawatt bop “BOYSHIT” -- have all pointed towards an album made up of accomplished and accessible pop music, Life Support is something far more curious. Unmoored from obvious trend chasing, it’s often weird, introverted and unexpected; laden with bait-and-switch melodies and off-kilter production.

Similarly, while Life Support may ostensibly appear to be a break up album, it’s grounded by Madison’s raw, sometimes discomforting desire to be honest about so much more. Touching on everything from mental health issues, early career lows, toxic and abusive relationships; as well as the scrutiny attached to life as a popstar, it’s deceptively complex. Musically, it draws more from the crooked regality of Lana Del Rey’s Born To Die than the obvious comparisons to Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish, while songs like “Effortlessly”, “Default” and “Follow the White Rabbit” feel like poppier takes on Radiohead and Imogen Heap. “Everything that I like and everything that I'm a fan of I let bleed over into my music,” she explains.

Madison Beer grew up in Long Island, New York, a stone's throw from Broadway and beguiled by the possibility of a future in music. But she didn’t have to leave her house to become a juggernaut superstar. The story goes that, aged 12 or 13, she was discovered by Justin Bieber and his manager Scooter Braun after she uploaded a video of her singing “At Last” by Etta James to her YouTube channel. After signing to Scooter’s management company shortly after, she inked a deal with Island Records and was packaged up as a Disneyfied pop princess as if she were a kids’ TV graduate on the cusp of making it big in music. It was a direction that felt wrong to her. But, still just a young teenager, any creative ideas she had about her own career were stifled.

“I was silenced a lot,” she recalls. “I don't want to say I was bullied, but I was told what to do by other people who supposedly ‘knew better’ than me. It was difficult to use my voice. I felt like I was this tiny little girl who didn't really have the opportunity to speak up.”

Artists like Miley and Ariana have, in recent times, spoken about the difficulty they’ve had embracing the early aspects of their career. Madison says that, for her, it’s still a difficult period to reflect upon; wondering why she, the artist, never got as strong a say in her art as the older music industry figures, mainly men, who claimed to know what was best. “It's a never-ending process of continuing to try and understand it and figure it out,” she admits. “It never gets easier, unfortunately.”

The deal with Island Records eventually collapsed, and aged 17, Madison decided to forge a new path as an independent artist. Fortitude kept her going, as well as the ability to finally wield creative control over her artistic vision. This period produced the excellent and appropriately titled EP, As She Pleases. Finally, she had the space to produce the off-beat pop she wanted to make: the wonky and darkly humorous “Dead” and the breezy Fleetwood Mac-esque “Fools” just two of its audacious highlights.

Still, Madison feels like her entry to the music industry came too early. “I was very, very young and I think that I could've probably used a bit more of my childhood,” she says. “But I feel like there's two sides to it: there's part of me that's like, ‘Ugh, it was too young’ and I feel like it was a lot. But then I'm also glad that I did it, and that it happened the way it did, because it wouldn't have turned out the same if it hadn’t.”

This trajectory has also meant that Madison has had time to figure out her sound and who she is as an artist. Part of this has involved the core creative team she has worked with on both As She Pleases and Life Support, the latter record released through her new label, Epic Records. Forgoing hit-focussed writing sessions and numerous big-named producers, she has formed a tight group of core collaborators like Canadian songwriter Lowell (who also works with Hailee Steinfeld and Tate McRae) and producer Leroy ‘Big Taste’ Clampitt (Justin Bieber and Dua Lipa). She says they understand her; they don’t need her to spell out how she’s feeling. 

Transparency and trust are key traits for those she brings into her inner circle now. Ever since her career began, Madison has been the subject of numerous “scandals”, bolstered by tabloids, social media trolls and gossip blogs, making her a prime target of popstar misogyny. If you search her name on YouTube, there are a number of videos claiming to “expose” her. On TikTok, a platform she used to be prolific on but has since distanced herself from, there are similar ones that scrutinise everything from her appearance to her relationships. Trolls accuse her of being disingenuous; her digital footprint too curated and, because of her looks, align her with the vapidity associated with social media influencers.

It’s a narrative that deserves some form of scrutiny. Following the revelatory documentary Framing Britney Spears, many have acknowledged the harsh misogynistic narratives that surround women in music, while congratulating themselves on how far things have come in the years since. But looking at the toxicity and assumptions that surround Madison, it’s clear not much has changed. Decades have passed, but still young women in music are too-often having their stories told for them.

On the Life Support song “Stained Glass”, Madison reflects on how fame became the source of her being misconstrued. “It felt like my platform was more like a chopping block,” she says of its inspiration, “and like I was never being seen. I was always being painted as something else. I don't feel like I'm seen for who I truly am very often. That can be really hard and exhausting.”

Does she feel like she’s been given the space to make mistakes? “I think that I've been pretty crucified over the past few years for things that I do and have done,” she says. “It can be hard because I'm still young, you know? I don't really know what I'm supposed to do or how am I supposed to not make mistakes.” There are times she wishes she could turn it all off and escape from her life as a popstar. “But you can’t,” she adds. “There's no way to. It can be really tough and scary. I can't run from this even if I wanted to.”

Madison is quick to insist how much she loves her fans and how “blessed” she is to be able to make music. But even over the phone you can hear the hurt the fame machine is inflicting; her voice shifting between affected softness and glum exasperation. “People say, ‘Well if you can't deal with the hate or you can't deal with the criticism then you shouldn't be on social media’. But why is that a thing? Why do we just accept that?” she says. “That is so messed up.”

While recording Life Support, Madison was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. She’s glad she had the music to turn to back then. “It made things a lot easier and helped with a lot of my confusion,” she says, the song “Stay Numb and Carry On” tackling her experiences with antidepressants and medication. “Everyone has their own little ways of dealing with it and I'm still figuring it out myself, which can be tough.” Nevertheless, she’s glad she’s spoken about her diagnosis: “Whenever it's time for me to open up about things, I do. I got diagnosed with BPD long before I opened up about it, but it feels good to share it and it's rewarding to see people say that I’ve helped them.”

The depths Madison has delved into on Life Support speak to this sense of emotional altruism. “I just hope the album brings people a sense of healing and light and love,” she says. “Or that it’s something for people to dance around to. Whatever it might be, I want them to take something away from it that's positive. I want people to come up to me in the street and say how my music helped them with their anxiety or depression and how it made them feel less alone. That makes it all feel worth it at the end of the day.”

Madison Beer’s Life Support is out now. Listen here and follow i-D on Instagram and TikTok for more music.