Collage by Victoria Warnken, Photos by Rachid Bellak, Chris Polk/FilmMagic, Chris Weeks, Gustavo Caballero, Patrick Catler/Avalon, Evan Agostini/ImageDirect

It Girl Issue

Paris Hilton, Addison Rae & The It Girl's Reign On Party Music

From EDM to pop, the It Girl’s touch on popular music has been indelible.

by Leah Mandel
Originally Published: 

It’s 2006: Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton are feuding over Stavros Niarchos, and Britney’s given up Kabbalah because her baby is “her religion.” Just My Luck is out on DVD, The Simple Life is airing on Fox, and Paris CDs are for sale at Tower Records. Nicole Richie and DJ AM have been on-again, off-again for years, but this time it looks like it’s really quits. In November, there will be the “Bimbo Summit” — the Post’s sleazy on-brand belittling of Paris, Britney, and Lindsay, our ’00s It Girl triad.

Fast-forward to 2007 and Brit’s shaved her head, the 45 days of jail time Paris served for drunk driving are a late-night punchline, and Lindsay’s movies are flopping. But everyone is still listening to “Stars Are Blind” and watching the last season of The Simple Life. Brit snaps back with “Gimme More” and “Piece of Me” — It’s Britney, b*tch; I’m Mrs. Oh my God that Britney’s shameless! — following in the footsteps of LiLo’s “Rumors,” three years earlier. They’ve made it clear they just want to live, that they are just people, even in their very not-like-us way, but the paps don’t stop. Which is how we know Paris is dating Good Charlotte’s Benji Madden, and that Britney’s been put in a conservatorship, and Lindsay is officially coupled with British DJ Samantha Ronson, the little sister of the guy who made “Valerie” with Amy Winehouse.

It wasn’t just the paparazzi. This was the first era of social media. News Corp. beat out Viacom to acquire MySpace in 2005, and a year later, Facebook began allowing non-college students to make profiles. It was the crest of Mark “The Cobrasnake” Hunter’s party photos — we saw our It Girls mingling, mascara-smeared in the flash, and sought to emulate them, posting our own saturated pics in superfluity. Suddenly our lives were documented, too, and everything and everyone was in the same place. Or, on the same page, at least.

It seems party culture, music meant for a good time, has always been too something, until it’s mainstreamed. And it’s always been the It Girls who ride that wave.

For Cassie Petrey, co-founder of artist management firm Crowd Surf, this was a pivotal time. A pioneer of social media marketing, Petrey was one of the first to realize the potential in MySpace. “I remember sitting at my computer looking up one of the local college bands,” she says, recalling a time when she would lug around her “giant” Sony Vaio. “I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t big artists use MySpace?’” The platform, which was the progenitor of social media as we know it, not only allowed the sharing and discovery of music, it appeared to level the playing field. It was suddenly possible to become “MySpace famous.” You could visit Katy Perry’s page and find out she loves roller-skating and mini golf, Lizzy Grant’s influences include Nirvana, Coney Island, and motorcycles, and that Kim Kardashian, known then as Paris’ assistant, used to customize her princess-themed page. Now, anyone could be an It Girl, and our existing It Girls were closer than ever.

The first era of social media meant the first era of perceived intimacy with celebrities, our It Girls. And what were they doing? They were partying, duh, with designers, photographers, directors, artists, musicians, and DJs. This has always been the case, of course, but crucially, we could see it happen. One could scroll for hours on The Cobrasnake website; it was addictive to see what everyone was wearing, how drunk or high they seemed, but even more so to know who was rubbing shoulders.

In the ’80s and ’90s, DJs ruled the scene — Larry Levan at Paradise Garage, Paul Oakenfold at Cream, Andrew Weatherall at Trip, Mark Kamins at Danceteria — and there were photographers there, too, getting shots of Madonna, Keith Haring, Sade, and RuPaul. But it wasn’t until the mid-2000s that DJs truly became celebrities and the rise of mainstream EDM began. Like disco and house, and because of its origin in dance music, tied inextricably to gay parties and coastal and European rave culture, EDM was initially derided. The association with It Girls like Paris and Lindsay — simultaneously teen idols and gay icons — gave it a kind of “cringe,” “Disco Sucks” reputation in many eyes. These celebrities were in turn mocked by tabloids and hetero critical culture, yet loved enduringly by their young and queer fan bases. There is a tendency, usually by older, usually male types to scoff at and underestimate what is loved by teenagers and queer people. It seems party culture, music meant for a good time, has always been too something, until it’s mainstreamed. And it’s always been the It Girls who ride that wave.

To this day, Paris Hilton remains one of the most sought-after performers.Rick Kern/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

The persistent photographing of It Girls with DJs, and our receiving of these images in almost real-time, meant a familiarization with this party culture, and this music. The mainstreaming of EDM started here, at these parties. Though mainstream EDM has been almost solely associated with bro culture, it was the intrigue our It Girls lent to these DJs that led to their rise.

Paris Hilton had been clubbing since age 15, but it was the relationship between Nicole Richie and DJ AM — aka the late Adam Goldstein, who overdosed in the years following the plane crash of which he and Travis Barker were the only survivors — that really kicked it off. It’s Goldstein that Paris credits with teaching her how to DJ, after all, and presumably how she came to meet the now world-famous DJ and producer Steve Aoki, with whom she was so often photographed (although they may have known each other due to being children of hospitality industry moguls).

“He was so talented,” Hilton said of Goldstein in a Billboard interview, “and I was inspired by him to become a DJ. He taught me how to read a room and vibe, and also how to transition from genre to genre during a set and make it flow in a perfect way.”

Lindsay Lohan’s relationship with Ronson was a joke that tabloids and bloggers like Perez Hilton loved to make. For us, however, it was no joke. Not only did we get to see our LiLo in a gay romance, we were introduced to the cool kid club scene by way of their drama. Photos of Lindsay next to Sam at her booth were mesmerizing. (Especially this one, from the 2005 Teen People Young Hollywood issue release party, in which the pair look absolutely mirthful as Sam appears to teach Linds how to spin.) We wanted to be there, with the new It couple, and with Paris and Aoki. Lindsay and Sam’s tumultuous affair ended in 2009, but the gossip stretched into 2012, when Lindsay told Us Weekly the two had been in love. It was during this year, too, that Paris DJed for the first time at Pop Music Festival in Brazil.

For a long time, Paris’s DJ career was mocked. Her first set in Brazil was deemed a disaster because of a sound snafu — and after the sound guy arrived on stage to fix it, media claimed he was the real DJ.

“I felt I had to prove myself even more with first being a woman in this industry and [then] that happening,” she told Billboard. As she told Bustle in 2020, she’s been singing and playing the piano and violin since childhood. She’s made it clear that music is her one respite from fame and the hyperreal public character, the peak It Girl, she so deftly crafted.

Emmeline Clein wrote in a recent essay, “Hilton’s relationship with her public was one of performative distance; the point of watching her was that she was nothing like the rest of us.” But with music, it was different — on both sides. Though both the slickness of EDM and the production on songs like “Heartbeat” (which just got a new music video) and “Stars Are Blind” mirrored Paris’ persona, the music was inherently emotional. To this day, she remains one of the most sought-after performers, drawing massive crowds at Tomorrowland, an EDM festival that debuted in 2013.

In 2022, our It Girls often come to us by way of the next-level selfie machine, TikTok. The app, which debuted in 2016, is what Petrey — who’s worked with Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, and now up-and-comer Loren Gray — refers to as a direct descendent of MySpace. “It’s the first time I’ve seen people share music in a meaningful way, the same way you were able to with MySpace,” she says. The video hosting service, which the music industry now keeps a keen ear on, is prone to launching the careers of musicians as well as influencers, models, and actors. Addison Rae is perhaps the most recognizable of these — her fame an almost overnight phenomenon.

Rae jump-started her own music career in 2021 with the Benny Blanco-produced “Obsessed.” Despite her success, and despite the catchiness of the song, Rae’s music has gotten the kind of belittling critique that is eerily reminiscent of the derision that followed “Stars Are Blind” and the trivializing of Hilton’s DJ career. Critics have accused Rae of self-absorption. The irony is that the song itself is clearly ironic: MySpace era-induced obsession with the intricacies of celebrity life, the hyper-documentation that brought us the influencer, led directly to the use of TikTok; Rae’s pinpointing of this is self-aware, not narcissistic. Or, if it’s both, who cares? Let’s be real: The song bangs.

Born in 2000 — when Paris was 19 and modeling for Dave LaChapelle in Vanity Fair — Rae seems to be actively taking cues from the ’00s It Girls. “Paris Hilton laid a blueprint for what a lot of people are doing now, just with different tools,” Petrey notes. Rae’s been spotted wearing Von Dutch, and she’s cited Beyoncé, Britney Spears, and Katy Perry as her musical influences. Her Spotify playlists are full of 3OH!3, David Guetta, Ke$ha, Cobra Starship, and DJ Snake. (I’ve decided to believe the “Obsessed” lyric, “You turned our song down baby what for?” is a reference to the Lil Jon song.)

Born in 2000 — when Paris was 19 and modeling for Dave LaChapelle in Vanity Fair — Rae seems to be actively taking cues from the ’00s It Girls

And it seems a redemptive arc may, too, be in Rae’s future. Charli XCX, herself an It Girl and ’00s poptimist, has called Rae “a great popstar.” (After “2 Die 4” leaked, Charli also tweeted, “this. song. is. ART.”) And the kids have started considering Rae a gay icon. As opposed to fizzles like Heidi Montag’s “Blackout,” Kim Kardashian’s “Jam (Turn It Up),” or other music made by influencers “because they feel like they have to,” as Petrey says, Rae’s “Obsessed” already has staying power. Its popularity sped past its critics, largely due to Rae’s teen audience — and the fact that it gives serious feral girl summer meets main character energy. “It’s easier to fall in love with somebody on an extreme super fan level when they make music. They’re sharing an emotion with you that’s from them,” Petrey asserts. Rae’s song encourages you to fall in love with her as well as yourself.

Initially dragged for even the idea of releasing an album, Rae now has fans practically begging for the now-scrapped project. She appears pretty much unbothered by her musical critics and continues to tweet that she loves music. After the “lost” album leaked, she tweeted, “I love that a few of the songs I made that I would’ve never let see the light of day are some of peoples favorites,” and that she’s thankful for the “people who support me (and even the ones who don’t),” and rumors picked back up that she might actually be releasing music in the near future. Her tenacity is another quality of Rae’s that Petrey likens to Hilton. “The pressure of public opinion will naturally weed people out over time,” she says. “Sheer determination, time, and consistency has kept [Paris Hilton’s] brand where it is today. Arguably, it’s more elevated than ever. She’s just an icon now.”

“No matter how many people say mean things to you, if you keep doing it, you will be an artist,” Petrey continues. “And,at some point, everyone comes around and stops fighting you because there’s no point anymore.”

It turns out not too much has changed in the 10 years since Paris debuted as a DJ: Our It Girls are still brushed off despite their success, EDM remains massive, its influence noted in Skrillex’s production credits on FKA Twigs’ Magdalene and Beyoncé’s “Energy,” and Tiesto’s recent Charli XCX banger “Hot in It.” And teen and queer fandom continues to drive culture, scornful critics notwithstanding. Perhaps one day “Obsessed” will become the Gen Z version of “Stars Are Blind,” with YouTube users commenting, “I mean, this is not just an ‘influencer’ song, like, this is an actual hit song,” as they do on Paris’ indelible jam.

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