For the longest time I didn’t really pay attention to Tate McRae. When the 20-year-old singer and songwriter’s mammoth TikTok hit “You Broke Me First” popped up on my radar in 2020, I thought it was fine. Maybe it had to do with that particular moment in pop music when the trend was sopping confessionals spun around young love and heartbreak. Next to the Olivia Rodrigos and Sabrina Carpenters, McRae’s single felt a bit basic in comparison. And her live performances, few as they were, were largely unmemorable.
But in the past few weeks, I’ve changed my mind. It started when something compelled me to click on her 2023 Billboard Music Awards performance of “greedy,” which intrigued me when it first came out, as it broke away from her cookie-cutter ballads. I watched the video all the way through and even repeated it. I scrolled through the comments of effusive praise and comparisons to Britney. For the first time, I wanted to see more.
The first half of the performance is honestly filler, her sashaying through the backrooms of Los Angeles’s Roxy hotel. But then, when she finally makes it on stage, the coyness drops from her face. She ditches the mic and tears through a professional-level dance break featuring flagrant hairography reminiscent of Spears’s early VMA performances. There’s sensual air-guitar playing and a backbend out of The Exorcist. By its final note she’s standing there with the wind machine blasting. Period.
This is the type of performance McRae should’ve been doing all along. After all, she is a professionally trained dancer who got her start on So You Think You Can Dance. So what took so long? Per McRae, the answer is because dance and music “were just on the opposite sides of my brain,” but now, she’s figured out how to combine her two passions.
McRae’s career will only truly take off when she can make statement pop that meets her on the level of her performance — and maybe her new album, think later, is where we’ll see McRae become the household name she could be. The record’s best songs are all about curating a vibe, like “greedy” — you’re not meant to think too hard about what she’s saying. On “guilty conscience,” the repetition of “I li-li-live with a guilty conscience” swirls together with its beat in such a way that it becomes a mantra you want to hit “repeat” on. But too much of the record is still bogged down in “confessional” storytelling that loses me with lyrics like, “I'm so in love/ it's a punch to thе gut” and “she said she had my back but she had the knife.” Heartbreak and betrayal are transformative and universal, but McRae, who’s only 20, isn’t able to add much of anything new to the conversation.
With time and her record label’s resources — songwriting geniuses Ryan Tedder (Beyoncé), ILYA (Ellie Golding), and Savan Kotecha (Ariana Grande) all have credits — McRae might rise to fill a void in the industry for a star who’s nothing like you or me, who’s leagues beyond, who performs like it’s her job. Since Britney, those who have auditioned for that role include the likes of Normani and Tinashe, and from the Gen Z cohort, the closest is McRae. I still don’t know much about her, but now, at least, I’m watching.