I was shy as a child. When I read aloud to the class, my shaky voice was barely audible. My teachers encouraged me to speak louder, but didn’t seem to mind so long as I was reading correctly. And besides, I was the model of a well-behaved young girl. Painfully averse to their displeasure, I followed every rule without hesitation. I didn’t interrupt; I didn’t get in the way; I didn’t demand their attention. They rewarded my passivity with glowing reports to my parents. Later, I would learn that researchers Myra and David Sadker had spent decades studying differences in the way teachers interact with boys and girls, publishing their unsettling conclusions in the 1995 book, Failing At Fairness: How Our Schools Cheat Girls. They discovered that teachers spend more time talking to boys, interrupt them less than girls, and call on them more often to answer questions or demonstrate lessons in front of the classroom. Girls, on the other hand, are more often praised for being quiet.
As I grew older, I began receiving a new set of messages. If I wanted to scrap for equality with men, I was told, I had to speak up, be bold, lean in. The shyness that had once delighted my teachers was now the thing I had to wage war against if I wanted to accomplish anything. When I put together a band and began playing shows back in Austin a few years ago, my initial strategy for navigating a male-dominated scene was to imitate the codes of masculine dominance, which favor aggression and the concealment of self-doubt. My band certainly benefitted from my becoming more assertive, but cracking crude jokes with the booker after playing a set so he would book us again chafed against my quiet disposition. It was a persona I threw on when necessary, then shamefully tucked away.
The first time I listened to “Here,” Alessia Cara’s first single for Def Jam, I felt pangs of recognition hearing her openly address her discomfort at a party. I’m sorry if I seem uninterested, or I’m not listening, or I’m indifferent, she sings—But really, I would rather be at home all by myself. The Toronto vocalist’s brashness almost struck envy in me; here was the rare, talented 18-year-old who seemed had no qualms whatsoever with her own introversion.
Wanting to know more about the recent GEN F alumn, I went to the YouTube channel full of pop covers she’s been maintaining for the last four years, and listened to her polished renditions of Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me.” In a video dated December 23, 2014, she impersonates an array of pop divas. “These are probably horrible,” she tells her subscribers. “It’s just humorous, it’s just a joke. It’s just something funny to put on my channel.” She then launches into spot-on parodies of Ariana Grande’s sexy baby melisma, Lorde’s low growl, Beyoncé’s breathy drama, and Iggy Azalea’s mock-American hip-hop drawl. As the grainy video cuts from one imitation to the next, the light in the room dims. “It got dark outside for how long I’ve been doing this,” she tells the camera. The video told me a few things about Alessia Cara: one, that she is modest; two, that she is the kind of person who’s comfortable spending a full day alone in her room; and three, that if she can imitate her pop elders so well, she’s probably also capable of joining their ranks.
If the past few weeks are any indication, Alessia is already on her way there. Her career thus far is the stuff of adolescent fantasy: four years ago, she started amassing her YouTube following and eventually caught the attention of Def Jam, which started working with her on her debut album two years ago. Last week, she released the video for “Here” after the track had already spent time hovering at the top of Spotify’s viral charts; as of this writing, the song has been streamed there well over four million times.
The video pulls directly from the story of the song’s inception, now her go-to interview anecdote and the basis of her budding persona. After she started work on her album, she went to meet some friends at a big party, but as soon as she got there she felt annoyed with the boy hitting on her, the shouting drunk kid, and the gossiping girl in the kitchen. In the video, which features some of the attendees of the actual party, everyone is frozen except for Alessia, who narrates her thoughts while scrunching herself evasively against the walls of the house. In some ways, the scenario is the exact opposite of Katy Perry’s “Last Friday Night (T.G.I.F),” a cartoonish romp where she plays a caricature of a nerd who gets a makeover with some help from Rebecca Black and transcends her outsider status for the night to dance with the popular kids. By contrast, Alessia covets her role as an outsider; sitting on the floor, against the wall, she’s unapologetically the same homebody we encounter on her YouTube channel.
Alessia may be quiet, but she’s hardly timid when it comes to understanding and asserting her needs.
Alessia is certainly not the first pop songwriter to point to her own reclusiveness. Sia, of course, has excised her face from her public persona, playing with her back to the audience and singing about swinging from a chandelier to cope with her anxiety. Even reigning pop queen Taylor Swift rode part of the way to her current stature on the idea that she didn’t fit in (She’s cheer captain/ And I’m on the bleachers, etc.). But, as Aimee Cliff pointed out in The FADER last year, Swift’s outsider stance can veer into pettiness. On “Mean,” for example, she mocks a bully—widely speculated to be blogger Bob Lefsetz—by describing how much better her future life in the city is going to be than his, and winds up sounding like a bully herself. Like Sia, Alessia is up front about her social apprehensions, and like early Taylor Swift, she takes pride in being separate from her peers. But the solutions to these feelings in “Here” are markedly less theatrical: she doesn’t need Sia’s grand cathartic chandelier gesture, or Swift’s insecure jabs at her enemies. She just needs some time to be alone with herself. In that knowledge lies the key to her self-assuredness: she may be quiet, but she’s hardly timid when it comes to understanding and asserting her needs.
Alessia’s introversion feels genuine, but also shrewd. According to her recent New York Times profile, Alessia’s label wanted her to release a more upbeat and radio-friendly song as her first single, but she knew the safe route was short-sighted. Knowing her lone wolf personality was a rarity in the pop world, she harnessed it to make herself stand out. “As a new artist and as a teen girl, I didn’t want to be compared,” she told the Times' Jon Caramanica. “I wanted people to be, like, ‘Who is this girl?’ They might have said, ‘Beautiful song,’ but not, ‘Who is the girl?’”
Her decision to lead with a downtempo song about hating parties was a gamble, but not an unwise one. Since the 2012 publication of Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking—as well as the widely viewed TED talk that followed—the media been devoting an increasing amount of space to shyness, from serious articles about the science of social decision-making to listicles of the "27 Problems Only Introverts Will Understand" variety. In the book, Cain argues that introversion has become hugely undervalued as a personality trait, and that we should start a new dialogue about its legitimacy and advantages. To many, she says, solitude can be important for creativity and problem-solving, and we should respect and nurture those who need more time alone.
Female vocalists, too, seem increasingly interested in shyness these days. In her 2015 single “2Shy,” British electronic pop producer Shura wonders if she could be more than friends with the object of her affections, but she can’t squeeze the words out: Maybe I’m just too shy to say it, she sings. It may be an unrequited love ballad, but the song’s far too fun and lush-sounding to be a mere expression of timidity and regret; and watching the playful, minimal video, where beautiful couples of all gender combinations kiss in front of a simple white backdrop, I don’t get a sense Shura is too concerned about playing the shrinking violet. In the folk realm, The Weather Station’s “Shy Women” sees singer Tara Lindeman pointing to her own shyness while also worrying whether her reserved nature is something she’s been trained to enact to her disadvantage. Seemed to me that luxury would be to be not so ashamed, she sings in a Joni Mitchell-esque whisper. Lindeman lets her deep ambivalence about timidity hang in the air, with the song’s irresolution offering its own kind of insight: shyness, her words suggest, may be influenced by problematic conditioning, but it’s also a core facet of her identity.
As time goes on, and I meet more women who share my interests and ambitions, it feels less necessary to establish social dominance by raising my voice to the same loud volume as men’s. Success, however you define it, takes a certain amount of confidence, but it also takes self-knowledge. Rejecting all actions that could be seen as stereotypically feminine—talking at your natural volume, listening without interruption—can be self-defeating if it interferes with acting naturally. When I hear Alessia valorize her love of staying at home, rather than winning over the crowd at a house party, it feels like an affirmation that my preternatural quietness is a bearable tic rather than a curse. She wants to be alone in her room, and she has the courage to tell it to the whole world.