Buckets of pink confetti were fluttering down on my head as I slurped up the last few drops of my $10 cran vodka. The drink was called “Fight Song”—named after the anthem that Rachel Platten was busting out in front of us with all her strength, pumping her fist in the air with the endurance of someone who does a lot of cardio. I was packed close to the front of the stage along with other Platten-heads on the first night of her two sold-out shows at Irving Plaza in New York last March; Platten, in faux-fur vest and bejeweled leotard, not only performed "Fight Song," but exposed her other sides of herself. There was anger, loss, confusion—sides of Platten we didn't hear through her radio singles. And as I screamed the chorus of her claim-to-fame track in a haze of happiness, confetti landing in my drink, I thought: Why isn’t Rachel Platten the biggest pop star in the world right now?
Her major label debut, Wildfire, was certified gold, and her breakout single was certified platinum (Plattenum?), but Platten is not, for all intents and purposes, a “big” pop star right now. Nobody’s gossiping about her exploits or putting her in fashion campaigns. No one speculates about her marriage. Instead, we just listen to her music. Imagine that.
With powerful lyrics and a never-give-up message, Platten’s “Fight Song” became more than just an uplifting chorus: It became an anthem for those going through rough, even life-threatening, patches. She went on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to duet with a cancer survivor; she visited kids in the hospital; she stopped by The View to meet kids battling cancer. She sang with them: “And I don't really care if nobody else believes / 'Cause I've still got a lot of fight left in me.”
“Fight Song” peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart in August. According to my pals at Brandwatch, there have been a total 256,000 mentions of “Fight Song” on Twitter. The song itself has nearly 156 million views on YouTube. Platten continued the momentum with second single “Stand By You,” an equally empowering track about sticking with a pal through thick and thin, and “Better Place,” the video for which dropped on Monday (May 9) and has her watching couples stare into each other’s eyes (she’s really milking the heartwarming angle).
Wildfire, released on January 1, contains all the ingredients for a successful album: danceable beats, contagious melodies, relatable content. Wildfire could’ve been a Taylor Swift album. It could’ve been a Katy Perry album. It could’ve debuted at No. 1. But, despite dropping her LP on the same day as only one other person, rapper Boosie Badazz, Platten only reached No. 5 with Wildfire. To her defense, she was competing with huge fourth-quarter releases (Adele, Justin Bieber), but Twenty One Pilots' May release and The Weeknd’s August release also took slots above her.
Despite all the radio play, music critics barely gave her a nod of attention. Hell, I even skipped covering her album release, passing off “Fight Song” as cheesy and stereotyping her as a product of marketing. With a Carrie Underwood smile and a safe song about hope, you might even misplace her as a country singer (and people have). The lead-up to Wildfire gave her a one-sided narrative—that she had to fight to make it as an artist after 10 years of shitty gigs, and finally broke through at the age of 34. But that story had been told before. We needed something more.
And Platten knew this. In an interview for MTV in January, she spoke about this frustration:
“I get asked a lot, 'So, you’re the empowerment girl? You’re really confident and inspring!’ I’m like, 'Oh God, I’m not.' I think that what people should take away is that I am 100 percent human, and not only this confident, happy, powerful woman, but also someone who deals with a lot of self-doubt and inner criticism and my own demons.”
Turns out, Platten has been giving us more all along. Once I finally stopped and listened to it, I found that Wildfire was a treasure trove of emotion, darkness and even some sexuality. On “Hey Hey Hallelujah,” featuring Andy Grammer, she sings about a dude she has wrapped around her finger: "I really got a hold on you / You're begging me for more / You never seen nobody do the things I do before." On "Speechless," she pleads for love: "Just give me that touch (I want it) / Quit talking too much, I'm ready / Stop moving your lips and kiss me / Keep taking my breath away." The "Fight Song" version of Rachel would never.
While Ariana Grande's immediately acclaimed "Into You" has the same exact stop-talking-let's-get-down attitude of Platten's "Speechless," there's one thing that sets them apart: Grande made "Into You" a single. Platten went a safer route.
There's even more that's hidden on Wildfire: On “Congratulations,” Platten passive-aggressively tells the story of a painful friendship, surrendering to someone who she needs to cut out of her life. “Lone Ranger” has her questioning her relationship with her husband, while thrusting herself into the vagabond life, daring to leave everything behind: "Maybe I'm selfish / Call me see-through / But I'm debating if I really need to stay tied to someone forever." And on “You Don’t Know My Heart,” she replays the agony of being misunderstood by her sister.
These are dramatic themes, yet every time Platten puts out a single, it’s non-threatening and inspiring. That’s not a bad thing; everyone wants to feel good. But the reason why Platten doesn’t have the same buzz as other pop stars is that she's presented as the one-sided “empowerment girl"—not as a complex woman with this myriad of thoughts and feelings.
Perhaps this is the perception that Platten and her team want, but in my opinion, Rachel Platten has more corners of her little jewel of an album that need to shine too. I just need more Platten—the music that makes my heart feel good AND the music that makes me feel a little bad. And if she keeps harvesting other parts of her personality, I’ll be drinking many more $10 cran vodkas in her honor.