Viral Phenomenon Penelope Scott’s Songs Capture the S–tstorm of Internet Culture

“OK. This is a tour of Internet culture,” the eccentric singer/songwriter and TikTok sensation Penelope Scott says over the phone from Salem, Oregon. “Ahegao is, in my limited knowledge, originally a Japanese term that has to do with the art of the expression of a girl in a Hentai. It’s straight-up the O-face.” 

She pauses and laughs, before continuing: “But it gets snagged by Western culture and pretty much made into a meme and posted all over the Internet as its own joke almost. Now there’s sweatshirts that have the classic Ahegao face on it. It’s taken on a bunch of different meanings. That’s kind of why I put it in the song. I thought it was a really interesting path that it took as a meme. But it is obscene. There is an obscene origin to it. So I get why they might’ve banned that one.”

She is discussing her hit song—sorry, one of her hit songs—“Cigarette Ahegao” and the way it took off on TikTok just to get banned on the app. After she posted videos of herself making and playing the song, others shared the audio until it was removed from the app entirely (the recorded song itself, though, can still be used as a sound). The genreless ballad reverberates with the disorienting energy of cyberspace, and it’s compelling from the start: “So like, I guess they call it the sophomore slump/ Always crying and always drunk.” These lyrics shine as the centerpiece, though they’re surrounded by spurts of menacing laughter and weird voices in the background, including one that quips: “Hey, incels/ Just have sex.” Sonically, it’s like being inside of a videogame; lyrically, it’s like scrolling a Tumblr meme page of an edgy teenage girl. 

It’s no surprise why TikTok users ate this up — and why TikTok admins took it down. The song captures the idyllic image of trashiness that’s so frequently romanticized online: “Get thin on smoke and coffee/ Get fat on pie and biscuits/ God bless this perfect shitstorm.” It’s obnoxious in its hedonism; it’s nonchalantly selfish, coming from the perspective of that mean, but extremely cool girl who acts like she’s the only person in the world. It’s a picturesque idea of obscenity that approaches the line that separates appropriate content from inappropriate — but it can still be difficult to know where that line actually lays from the guidelines for such clips on TikTok. (Scott says she was not given a specific reason for the audio’s removal; representatives from TikTok did not respond to repeat inquiries from Billboard regarding further explanation.) 

Scott admits her relationship with the app, where she posts under the punny handle @itsworsethanithot,  is a complicated one, but remains generally optimistic about the Gen Z hub. “I definitely think that it’s a very innovative platform,” she says. “It’s done really interesting things with how popularity seems to be allocated on it. And I’ve seen it launch a few artists into getting noticed which is cool. I think a lot of people have issues with the censorship vibe on TikTok, but to me I’m almost surprised that it lets as much stuff go as it does. When you look into what TikTok is, there’s no reason this platform should have an allegiance to free speech.”

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Gen Z-ers on the app seem to mostly adore Scott for her chaotic lyricism — not everyone can express these Internet ideas in art in a way that feels genuine and accurate. A big part of why Scott can finesse this is probably because she’s a Gen Zer herself, a 20-year-old college student who gained traction through sharing songs that started off as just voice memos.  

That’s how The Junkyard 2 came into fruition when it was released in May of last year, as an intimate collection of what she considered her best material. Scott has been taking piano lessons since she was eight years old growing up in California, and that instrumental talent is one of the most striking elements on the record. The songs reckoned with touchy subjects — emotional labor, insecurity, healthcare — with razor-sharp wit and care. Even if it was recorded poorly, the brilliance of the writing and performance still resonated. After that, she realized she had to do better, and so she unveiled Public Void in September. She ditched the piano, played with software, and gave her music a texture that was bolder, weirder, and catchier. Together, the two projects and Scott’s other singles have combined to amass 87.8 million on-demand U.S. streams, according to MRC data. 

“I absolutely did not expect The Junkyard 2 to take off like it did, especially since it was not at all mixed,” she says with a laugh. “I knew when I put these songs out there that they were gonna be impossible to listen to in the car in some cases. I just assumed that that would disqualify them from being well-liked, beyond just the small group of people who would ask me to put them on Spotify. And then people still liked it. I was like, ‘I really need to start mixing these songs.’”

Through school, she’s been able to learn a lot about mixing. She was previously in a music production class where they introduced different softwares to her, and making songs was her homework. “I decided I actually really liked it,” she says about the software, “and that’s where we got the back tracks for ‘Cigarette Ahegao.’” Now, though, she’s in three philosophy classes and one computer science ethics class. It is no longer an academic endeavor for her to do music; it is just… something she does.

“There are parts of having a career that’s unlike anyone around you especially in college when most people have no idea what they want their career to be that is very isolating,” she says. “Allocating homework time is difficult. There’s this really cool collaboration that I’m excited about that’s literally with one of my favorite artists from last summer. I can either do that, or I can write this paper. I have to make that decision sometimes. And the weird thing is that sometimes I still pick the paper.”

It’s a big amount of responsibility for someone who just exited her teenage years. There’s also the fact that, in the context of the music industry, Scott is more or less independent. She just recently took offers from Zack Zarrillo of Alternate Side to be her manager and Greg Horbal of APA agency to be her booking agent. She uses DistroKid for distribution, a cheap service used by many DIY artists. It lets her pick a name for a fake label, so she chose “Tesla’s Pigeon.”

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Horbal was sent The Junkyard 2 by someone on the touring crew for one of his artists. He thought it was “awesome,” and then was even more impressed with Public Void. “I was absolutely floored by it. It was one of the more refreshing albums that I’d heard in a very long time,” he tells Billboard. “Both records are raw in very different ways. I think that it’s awesome watching the arc of her songwriting and production ability between them.”

When it comes to Scott’s growing fame, he’s not surprised her numbers are doing so well. “To me right now, you get more out of having a song go viral on TikTok than you do from having a song go on the radio,” he says. “TikTok is the new way to break a single ultimately.”

One of the reasons her music fits TikTok probably has to do with the way it flirts with hyperpop, the Internet-influenced, maximalist genre that catapulted 100 gecs into fame. It can’t necessarily be placed within that category, but it certainly serves as an influence for Scott. “I think it’s completely fair to say that it has elements of hyperpop although I also have been waiting for anyone to come up with an accurate description of what my genre is,” she says with a laugh. “I have never heard one that fits.”

“Rät” is the enigmatic hit that really attracted people, and just broke 40 million streams on Spotify. It became known as the love song for Elon Musk — the title coming from an old Tumblr post Scott saw that joked “Elon Musk” is short for “Elongated Muskrat.” “It’s about the larger systems of power that happen in technology and in places that really worship technology and innovation,” she explains. “I just picked him as an arbitrary, easily nameable symbol for the things I was trying to talk about.”

In over 50 thousand TikToks, the song is used for countless different kinds of videos, including ones that involve cosplay, art, and makeup. The pulsating beat makes it perfect for a backdrop, and the lyrics grab anyone’s attention. “I think there are parts of it that definitely hit on something that a lot of people have not been sure how to discuss,” she says, ruminating on the song. “Particularly the tension between science and technology being a good thing, and also the fact that how it’s done is really important and determines whether or not it really is good for the public. Also, I think that the element to it of having a belief system that is absolutely rocked at some point in your life is something everyone can relate to — especially young people today.” 

It’s relatable in that way, but in other, less dramatic ways also. Even if it’s rooted in this incredibly specific idea (“I come from scientists and atheists and white men who kill God/ They make technology high quality complex physiological / Experiments and sacrilege in the name of public good”), the chorus radiates the general energy of a broken romance: “I loved you, it’s true/ I wanted to be you and do what you do/ I lived here, I loved here, I thought it was true  I feel so stupid and so used.” There’s space for interpretation; it can be perceived as a song about unrequited love through the lens of science and politics. 

Because Scott reckons with such touchy subjects, she sometimes worries about the subsequent reaction people will have to it — particularly with her single “Born2Run,” released in July of 2020, in which she sings: “And when thots and animals storm the Capitol/ You’ll watch C-span for fun.” Obviously when the actual storming of the Capitol took place in January, the song’s meaning seemed to drift into troublesome territory. The song, though, is clearly from a left-wing perspective, lamenting the current state of healthcare, gun control, and Congress.

“It was meant to represent a surge of involvement in politics,” she explains. “Now that the phrase ‘storm the Capitol’ has been associated with violence, it’s not so cute. I had a lot of people contacting me saying, ‘Did you predict this?’ and ‘What does this mean?’ It doesn’t mean anything. It means I used an action phrase, and the news likes action phrases.”

It’s not that the song predicted anything; it’s just another example of how informed Scott’s lyrics are by current culture, especially the increasingly intense sociopolitical climate. “I was struck, and still am, by the originality of the composition and Penelope’s amazing lyrics,” manager Zarrillo says. He’d first heard “Sweet Hibiscus Tea” last summer and, like Horbal, was fully pulled in by Public Void. “[She] balances intrigue, honesty, and fun really well throughout all her songs. I don’t think there are many artists that sound like Penelope, especially in their early-20s. The lyrics are current and the soundtrack sticks out. I think for TikTok, it’s a perfect match.”

Though Scott is on the rise and can build a whole team around her, she doesn’t want to commit to doing so just yet. “For the time being, I’m pretty happy with the independence that I have,” she says. “It’s complicated. I definitely enjoy when I’m contacted by people with opportunities for collaboration. But to me that’s a very different proposition than signing full on to a team.” 

And, for the moment at least, it doesn’t seem like she really needs more than what she has. Her TikTok fans are loyal, and her popularity continues to spill into streaming services. Horbal is confident about that: “If whoever’s listening to those viral singles find everything else, you’re in a great spot,” he says.

The landscape of TikTok is cluttered, and hits are ephemeral, but Scott’s strike a unique chord and her image is constantly growing. When asked if she considers that music will be her full time job, she pauses, reluctant to think too far ahead. “I think, for the near future, yes,” she ultimately answers. “I’m definitely not leaving college for it. But the next couple of years are locked in.”

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