Don’t feel bad if you haven’t yet heard of Betty Who, even though she just might be pop’s next big star. Even though the single she self-released last year made it to viral-video fame and No. 1 on Billboard’s dance-club songs chart. Even though her upcoming major-label debut, the five-track album Slow Dancing, has been building buzz for months. Even though she’s helping redefine how young women can build careers in the pop world. Even though she sings about the kind of love that makes you want to dance–and at her packed live shows, people do just that.
No, do not feel bad at all. Just a year ago, even her own friends had never heard of her.
Betty Who, 22, was born Jessica Anne Newham, and until recently everyone called her Jess. So last April, when she self-released The Movement, four songs recorded under her nom de pop, people were confused. “When I put out The Movement under that name, my friends were like, ‘What’s happening?’ I was like, ‘That’s me,'” says Who. “Every time someone says ‘Betty Who,’ it reminds me that I’m really doing it. I’m really pursuing what I always wanted to.”
These days, as she makes the transition from indie star to mainstream maven, she’s all Betty. Sure, she looks more like a hipster Valkyrie than a stereotypical would-be diva: she’s 6 ft. 1 in., and her dance moves are vintage Supremes compared with bump-and-grind Beyoncé. But despite pop’s reputation for churning out cookie-cutter clones, she makes it work. Her voice can be just as anthemic as Katy Perry’s, minus the gimmicks. “Somebody Loves You,” the song that topped the dance chart and can now be heard in a Designer Shoe Warehouse commercial, was written as a posthumous tribute to Whitney Houston’s sound. Betty Who is unabashedly pop. And as she is proving, that’s a good thing to be.
“It’s pop music, but it’s not cheap pop,” says the blogger Perez Hilton, who’s a fan. With Slow Dancing due for release April 8, he asked Who to play at his annual South by Southwest party last month, the same event at which he featured Perry shortly before Teenage Dream took her to the next level of stardom. “It’s smart pop,” he adds, “which is actually really hard to do.”
Raised in Sydney on Michael Jackson and Joni Mitchell, Who came to the U.S. as a teenager to study cello at the prestigious Interlochen Center for the Arts in Michigan, where her parents still live. There, she recalls, pop was “a very dirty word”–but when her highbrow classical-music education took her to Boston’s Berklee College of Music, she left the cello behind. There she met Peter Thomas, who became her friend and producer, as well as the backing band–keyboardist Lauren Fuller, bassist Jemila Dunham and drummer Derek Schurbon–that came together to record The Movement in the basement of Thomas’ parents’ house in Rhode Island.
From the beginning, she walked the line between mass appeal and quirk, the same divide she’s still bridging. Her synth-heavy tracks are meant to have a wide listener base. “I want people to feel safe listening to my music,” she says. “I don’t want them to feel like they don’t get it.” At the same time, she and her band embraced vintage eccentricity, wearing Grease-inspired jackets that Who’s mother made by sewing bw patches onto cardigans from Club Monaco.
“I think she was born to do this,” says the charismatic Dunham. “It’s so great to see how she’s maneuvering her way through this whole process. There’s no handbook for this, especially considering how it’s happened for her, how quickly.”
Who released The Movement shortly before leaving Berklee–she walked at graduation but is a few credits shy of a diploma–and soon after performed her first live show as Betty Who. Then everything accelerated. A Salt Lake City man popped the question to his boyfriend at a Home Depot, complete with a flash mob dancing to “Somebody Loves You.” In September, the YouTube video of his proposal went live–and viral. It has now been watched nearly 12 million times. (The couple was one of those married onstage at this year’s Grammys; Who later sang at their private ceremony.)
Before the clip’s debut, on a Wednesday in September, Who had been in talks with RCA Records, but nothing had been finalized. That Sunday, the label arranged a late-night meeting. She signed.
All that attention wasn’t part of her original plan for stardom. When The Movement bowed, she said she wanted to stay independent as long as possible. What she calls “our little machine”–a team she put together with her manager Ethan Schiff, another Berklee student–just couldn’t handle the speed of her ascent. Slow Dancing was pretty much ready to go as a second self-released EP, but without a label there’d be no national tour, no radio play. A bigger machine was needed, so the indie part of Betty Who stepped aside. Happily. “There was a sigh of relief,” she recalls, “because it wasn’t all on us anymore.”
Besides, it turns out, being a cog in that machine isn’t mutually exclusive with being yourself. Along with the usual trappings of a record deal, for example, RCA provided gold lamé letterman’s jackets to replace the band’s homespun stagewear.
Pop, the Question
By now, building a fan base without a record deal is so common it sounds almost old-fashioned. It’s just the details that differ: Justin Bieber had his mom, Kelly Clarkson had American Idol, Who had the proposal video. “Each new pop star is like a startup company now,” says Eric Weisbard, the editor of Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music. That’s why Betty Who is a lens through which the state of pop is clear.
Releasing an EP independently is akin to a tiny tech firm’s building its first app. The label is Facebook, offering a buyout. The public, in choosing what to download, does the work of old-school A&R pros–the artists-and-repertory folks who put together a label’s lineup. Though A&R is still a crucial part of the way a label works, RCA’s president and COO Tom Corson says the growth of independently released music changes the equation. “There’s a lot of metrics you can look at and a lot of comments on, say, a YouTube page,” he says. “Once it’s out in the marketplace, that gives you that many more tools, rather than having it be classic A&R, which is ears and gut and feelings.”
Though purists might bristle at artist development turning into another Big Data business, it can be a good thing. A genre that had its process on lockdown for decades has been opened up, giving individual performers–especially female vocalists, from Beyoncé to Miley Cyrus–unprecedented power. For Betty Who, that means she’s able to capture one of pop’s most elusive qualities: authenticity.
In the past, Weisbard says, “realness” was reserved for male rock and hip-hop stars. Meanwhile, a woman in major-label pop was often seen as a product. A perceived lack of authenticity can still dog a performer for years (case in point: Lana Del Rey), but Who is insulated from that problem. Going through the startup phase allows an artist to stay honest without staying indie. “This sounds very Disney, but I would rather have a song or image that reflects who I am,” she says. “I’m lucky to have the luxury to say that, because I had the first EP that I did really honestly and had it do very well. [Otherwise], I could be saying that and I could be talking out my ass.”
This star-is-born story doesn’t have its happy ending yet. Who still has to get radio play and finish the full album she wants to release by fall. But with the new EP and an ongoing national tour, she seems to have carved out a place for herself–and she’s already shown that pop is not a dirty word after all. “I want people to feel excited about pop music again,” she says. “People write pop music off so easily, and it’s too bad. Pop’s the best.”
This appears in the April 14, 2014 issue of TIME.