“sweet But Psycho” Singer Ava Max Is Trying To “bring Pop Back”
Two years ago, Ava Max made a mistake that ended up becoming a defining signature. She was in the middle of cutting her hair, while at the same time baking cookies, when she caught a look of herself in the mirror.
“It was funny, ’cause I was actually experimenting with different haircuts and colors, pink hair, blue hair, all that kind of stuff,” she said. “Nothing felt like me. One day I cut my hair, my actual hair, cut it on the right side, and I remember I had something in the oven—I think they were chocolate-chip cookies. And I run downstairs without cutting the other side.” As she recounted the anecdote, it was easy to imagine her telling this story again and again over the next five years. “I run downstairs, and then I’m like, ‘Oh my God, [the cookies] almost burnt.’ As I’m going [back] upstairs, I see in the mirror my reflection and the haircut, and . . . I literally tilted my head, like, why does this feel like me? It felt like me, like I had found myself.”
It is an unusual haircut, one side chopped as a short bob and the other left long and loose. (The hairstyle is reflected in her logo, as well, which morphs the “A” of “Max” to reflect the ’do.) She boasted that the style has its own name now—the “Max Cut”—and that it pleases her when she gets odd looks from strangers when she’s out in public. “At the grocery store, people were giving me weird looks, and I’m like, ‘O.K., I’m happy.’ The weirder the looks, the better this decision is.”
Max is in the middle of a grueling promotional cycle, traveling the country—her Instagram stories serving as a travelogue of sorts—on behalf of her first pop hit, “Sweet but Psycho.” The song held the No. 1 spot in the U.K. for four weeks, hit the top of the charts in over a dozen other countries worldwide, and is No. 1 on the U.S. Billboard emerging-artists chart (it’s been rising on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100, currently at No. 32, and has reached the U.S. iTunes top 10).
The song is unabashedly pop, reminiscent of Lady Gaga or Katy Perry’s early output. While that almost cheesy “pump it up,” perfect-for-the-treadmill sound would be considered outré by some in 2019—when more languid, melancholy, and R&B-infused tracks dominate popular music—Max didn’t seem to be too concerned. She seemed well-aware of the improbability of the song’s meteoric rise: “We knew the song was special, but we didn't know it was gonna take off like this, obviously, because this was a phenomenon. This doesn’t happen to an artist that no one knows from nowhere, right?” she said, folded up on a sofa in Manhattan this January, a few hours after performing on the Today show and a few days after appearing on The Late Late Show with James Corden, her first late-night-show performance.
While it may seem as if Max appeared out of nowhere, she worked tenaciously in order to arrive at this moment, and “Sweet but Psycho” came after years of attempts to break through.
Ava Max was born Amanda Koci, in 1994, to Albanian-immigrant parents in Milwaukee. When she was eight, her family moved to Virginia. Her mother was an opera singer; her dad played the piano; her uncles were in bands. She was a Britney Spears fanatic who wanted to pursue pop music.
As many a stage mother has done before, Max’s mom moved her 14-year-old daughter to Los Angeles in 2008. (“She’s like, ‘We're moving to California . . . [because] there’s nothing to do in Virginia for your career.’”) But Max found the city “overwhelming,” and, a year later, they were back in Virginia, where she would remain for her teenage years. “I’m happy nothing happened back then, so I could actually have a normal childhood,” she said.
She eventually moved back to California a few years later, in hopes of igniting that career. She started making music with a friend of her older brother (one of the few members of the family without musical inclinations; Max said he’s an “entrepreneur”). That friend was the producer Cirkut, who, alongside Max Martin and Dr. Luke, was responsible for Katy Perry’s “Roar,” and Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” (with Dr. Luke), among other titanic hits that shaped the 2010s pop sound. Though Cirkut and Ava Max recorded a bunch of songs together, it was a modern-day cosmic event that spurred her ascent: a song that the two uploaded to SoundCloud.
“I’m not even kidding you,” Max said, “We got e-mails from record labels wanting to talk [just from that song].” Over the past year, Max has sung on David Guetta and Jason Derulo tracks, and released some one-off singles—including the bombastic, effervescent “Salt” and a re-interpretation of “Barbie Girl” titled “Not Your Barbie Girl”—but none gained traction until the Cirkut-produced “Sweet but Psycho” was unleashed.
A successful pop star needs more than just the music, though, a fact Max seems highly aware of. When she was 13, she had come up with the middle name “Ava” for herself, which she eventually started using as a first name. “I never felt like an Amanda,” she said.
When she was signed by a record label, she decided she wanted a last name to go with it—and thought carefully about what exactly she wanted that last name to represent. “Max came about because it felt very masculine, and I feel a little masculine sometimes, like 50/50, like my hair,” she said. “I wanted something with the feminine that Ava has, and Max has masculinity, so I added those two together.”
Again and again, Max spoke about how success for her means standing out, visually or otherwise. When asked about her personal style, she said, “I think about it like, what can I do against the grain? I don’t want to do what anyone else is doing. I don’t want to go to the designer that everyone is going to. I want to find a designer that maybe no one’s paying attention to. . . . And I’m not afraid to wear something crazy and ridiculous. I think it’s important, again, to give people an experience on a red carpet or a performance.”
The pure pop sound, the striking platinum blonde hair, the outsize persona, the flashy stage name—it all recalls, well, a certain pop-star icon. And Max didn’t shy away from the Gaga comparisons. She name-checked Gaga—along with Spears, Perry, Céline Dion, and Mariah Carey—as one of her musical inspirations. Of Gaga, in particular, she offered, “It’s funny, people compare me to her, but I think she’s such a legend, and she’s untouchable to me. I think she’s as . . . I see her as iconic. So that’s such a compliment every time I hear that. Yeah, she’s incredible.”
She is also often grouped in with the three other stars with Albanian roots currently finding pop success—recent Grammy best-new-artist winner Dua Lipa; Bebe Rexha; and Rita Ora. Max joked on Twitter that the four of them should record a “Lady Marmalade”-style track together at some point. She told me, “I always make a joke . . . ‘It’s in our blood because we’re so hot-blooded.’”
I asked Max if it ever bothers her that so much of the pop-music conversation is about competition—this pop star sized up next to that one, that one slighting another, this one not paying respects to their pop elder, and so on.
She sidestepped the question and answered with something of a thesis statement: “I think ’cause there’s not a lot of straight, head-on pop [music out right now]. . . . Also, even when you’re in school, if you were dressed different or you were different, or the kid with the really, really, really big glasses, they would look at that person strange, and then they’d comment a lot about a person’s appearance.
“So I think it’s the same thing with artists. It’s like, wait, this person’s different. This person’s kind of weird. Why is she weird? Why is her hair cut halfway? Right? So, I think that’s why it’s maybe getting attention.”
With a hit under her belt, Max’s follow-up to “Sweet but Psycho” is going to be highly scrutinized. Another chart-topping song and Max will likely start to be embraced by the pop establishment; a dud, and she could be quickly written off as a one-hit wonder. Max, though, seemed pretty confident and relaxed about it all.
She finished recording her debut album over Christmas. “We’re bringing pop back,” she told me. “I hope you’re all ready.” While the release date remains a surprise, she said we’ll be getting the album, which she worked on for over a year and a half, “Sooner than you think . . . definitely this year.” There are no guest artists on the album (“I wanted people to discover me”) and it seems the propulsive “Sweet but Psycho” is indicative of the overall sound. “All the songs coming out after are exactly like that,” she said. The next two singles have been picked, and it seems likely they will be equally well-suited for spin class: “The next two are so fast . . . super-fast. And super-pop. The next one has a huge message behind it. It’s coming out in March.”
The message of “Sweet but Psycho” has been criticized for its use of tropes about mental illness, particularly in the music video, where a “psychotic” jilted girlfriend wields an axe and baseball bat after she learns her boyfriend is cheating on her. (The U.K.’s Zero Suicide Alliance released an open letter expressing dismay.)
But Max explained away the controversy with the skill of a celebrity who’s been doing this for much longer than she actually has. “It’s all play-pretend. It’s like, well, guys think we actually are [psycho]. . . . It’s mocking. It’s all gaslighting. Guys like to gaslight us, and it’s not cool. And it happens so much; it’s happened to me in relationships. It‘s happened to me where I have been cheated on, and I felt so sad and angry, like it wasn’t my fault, but that was because the person was gaslighting me into thinking it was my fault.” She continued, “[At first, people] think I’m actually calling them psycho, but then it’s a deeper meaning. And obviously the music video is very drastic, and I want theatrics. I want to give people a show and an experience. And every music video is gonna be an experience for you guys, and I definitely want you to see the real message behind it.”
The song is one of self-empowerment to her. “I think we all have different personalities . . . and even in relationships, we can be called psycho, and we can be called sweet, based on what the person feels about you. And it’s so irritating, because you’re like, ‘Stop labeling me,’ and so I really think people relate to that.”
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