Maggie Rogers is hardly the first pop singer to admit she's in a weird emotional space in the middle of a show. But she might be one of the few who would handle it by confessing that she is in mourning and kind of a mess, dipping off stage, then shedding her white designer jumpsuit and cape for camo pants and a T-shirt. And she might be the only one who could then still pull off a show that leaves thousands of fans screaming so hard when she walks on stage for the encore that she can’t start speaking for a solid minute.
Her show at Denver’s Mission Ballroom, on Monday, September 23, was a testament to her power as a performer to satisfy the dreams of a crowd of admirers and simultaneously push them into a more complicated, vulnerable space — and still end the night with a dance party.
Being the “authentic,” “real” young woman who stumbled into fame is nothing new to Rogers’s identity or personal brand, and that’s what much of her first album, Heard It in a Past Life, grapples with. Rogers grew up in rural Maryland and identified herself musically as a banjo player. After what she has called an “awful period of writer’s block,” she discovered house music while studying abroad in Europe and unexpectedly loved it. She found her niche in a poppy blend of folk and dance, aspiring to the lyrical rawness of Lucinda Williams, but overlaying magnetic body-shaking beats akin to those of Carly Rae Jepsen.
Her breakthrough was her senior project at the Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music at New York University, a song called “Alaska,” which made Pharrell Williams's jaw drop when she played it during a master class he taught in 2016. When the video went viral just months after she graduated from college, her life changed completely. As she told the audience at the Mission, she played in Denver for the first time at the Larimer Lounge in 2017. Then, she blew up the Internet. Just over a year later, she was playing Red Rocks with HAIM and Lizzo.
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Along the way, she has acquired a dedicated fan base. The crowd at the Mission was, according to a very unscientific estimate, composed of about 80 percent white women in their early to mid-twenties. As a member of that demographic myself, I can attest to the cult status Rogers has carved out in many of our lives. Inspired by her song “Alaska,” three friends and I wrote a grant to go on a twelve-day backpacking trip in the Northern Rockies. We called it “And I Walked Off an Old Me,” the song’s refrain. We’re prone to saying things like, “I’m going to channel my inner Maggie Rogers and just do this.”
As I found out Monday night, we’re not unique: Most of the people at the Mission were dressed in some version of the girl-next-door power flair that Maggie rocks: long hair left loose, simple but stylish clothes, some subtle element of glam or bright color. Most of them were also, I’d venture a guess, in that stage of life where they’re “figuring it out.” As I heard one girl say to her friend as I was weaving through the crowd, “This is such a weird time in our lives. Our lives are so different now.”
This ultra-excited crowd, no doubt going through growing pains of their own, would bear witness to what Rogers said in the middle of her set was “definitely the weirdest show I’ve ever done.” It started with a technical error: The show opens with ethereal lighting on a white canvas, which is supposed to illuminate Rogers’s shadow as she stands behind the curtain, singing the lingering harmonic notes of “Color Song.” But something was off, and her shadow never appeared. Gracefully, Rogers cut off the song midway through and told the audience she really wanted them to see this the way it was meant to go. So she started over from the beginning. As she trailed off the last note, the curtain dropped, the drummer kicked right into “Fallingwater,” and the crowd erupted, as though forgetting about the awkward start completely.
It was one of Rogers’s first shows of what is technically a new tour. She has been touring all summer for her first full album, capping it off with two rescheduled shows in Denver at the Ogden Theatre only about a month ago. She’s still singing the same songs, but their style and presentation has been revamped. Her music feels less sing-songy and more powerful live — almost more serious. Her song “The Knife,” for example, opened with a keyboard interlude of Beethoven’s “Sonata Pathétique.” Her new tour features more dramatic strobe lights and misty effects, but her funky, dynamic dancing style was still the center of attention. A mesmerized crowd danced like her.
On Monday night, it felt like she was at an even higher level of intensity. She was still hitting all the notes in her wide vocal range, but almost as though she was pounding them like a hammer. The light, breathy voice fans are used to in her recordings had been overtaken. After a surprising mic drop on “Say It” and an angry feel in “The Knife,” Rogers took a deep breath and confessed she was not quite comfortable on stage at the moment.
“I lost someone very, very, very close to me yesterday,” she told the crowd. “And I've been having a lot of trouble sort of being in performance mode, and putting on my, like, special white clothes and — please stop yelling at me. I'm just having trouble being in my performance, exhibitionist, outward, extrovert. I'm gonna play for you...”
For a moment, it seemed like she was about to call off the rest of the show. Everyone held their breath.
But then she continued, “I wanna play, because there is nothing that makes me feel better than singing or dancing. … I'm just gonna put jeans and a T-shirt on and not be in performance mode, and I think I will have a really good show.”
And that she did.
The crowd, to be sure, was caught off guard. But Rogers did not back down; to the contrary, it seemed that her voice got fuller and her dancing more wild. The audience was soon shaken out of their discomfort. As Rogers sings in “Light On,” she was “vulnerable in oh so many ways” and “still dancing at the end of the day.”
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Maybe by accident, Rogers has crafted a narrative along with her music. A lover of the simple poetry of folk and bluegrass can feel alienated in the often-overproduced soundscape of the music on the radio. But she shattered that duality and brought realness into the electronic world. That’s the simple version of her story, anyway. If the musical lesson is that you can instill honest, sensitive lyrics into synth beats, then the emotional one is that you can be your most vulnerable self and still have fun.
What the audience at the Mission caught a glimpse of the other night was Rogers’s ability to transcend the challenge of being widely adored for being “authentic.” As on Monday night, sometimes even Rogers might struggle to be both vulnerable and exuberant at the same time. Whether she was angry, hurt, lost, grieving or just exasperated, Rogers showed that she’s not locked into the happy side of her narrative; she was able to embrace that more complicated side and push the audience to do so along with her. We still had fun. But we were also made to think about it.
Stepping back on stage without her band for an encore, she was greeted by a chorus of cheers, which were maybe about supporting her as much as they were applauding her performance. She then played an acoustic version of her original hit, “Alaska,” the way she wrote it in fifteen minutes in her bedroom. She was thinking about playing that song back at Larimer Lounge two and a half years ago, she said: “I'd like to play that song with the idea of showing that self all of this.”
If one thing was clear, “all of this” for Rogers is not just the high of critical acclaim, popular success and an amazing Instagram account. It’s also the strength to be raw and sincere, even through the pressure of emotional turbulence on stage. And that gives me hope she will keep creating music that gives her fans a dance high and much, much more.