Betty Who has been a Pride festival staple for years, but only recently did the Sydney-born pop performer (real name Jessica Anne Newham) more boldly lean into her queer identity. As a longtime lesbian fan, I was obviously thrilled about this courageous embrace of self. But even before I knew she was part of the LGBTQ+ community, I was drawn to Betty Who’s music. For me, it began when I discovered her song “Wanna Be.”
The song tells the story of the unique brand of heartache that comes from unrequited love, and it is set to a soft-pop track that builds just enough tension in the first 90 seconds to release spectacularly in the chorus. All that combined with the lyrics, “I know she’s sweet, but she isn’t me. Where she lies in your eyes, that’s where I wanna be,” stole my gay heart when the song came out in 2017.
That year, I was still in the process of coming out to my family and personally connecting the dots on why all those “close friendships” I had with girls over the years were the products of powerful crushes (yikes). When I tell her this in our interview ahead of her March 18 show at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit, somewhat embarrassed, I’m relieved Betty is glad to hear of this.
“‘Wanna Be’ is big lesbian anthem energy, so I’m so glad it spoke to you,” she says. “Thanks for sharing that with me. Love this for you. Love that you were in your era. I think it’s really interesting: You want to be cool with who you are on your own terms, but so much of our experiences and perceptions of ourselves come from being reflected back by the people we love. In some cases, especially if you have fans, by the way that people see you and experience you.”
The release of those expectations is the running theme behind Betty’s latest album “BIG!,” which harnesses the power of pop’s bubbly energy and pairs it with thoughtful lyricism. Straight away, listeners hear the title track’s message — one of self-confidence and empowerment even when unable to adhere to society’s normative expectations. In Betty’s case, it’s not only about being queer; it’s about her physical size. She is 6-foot-2, so it’s not simply a metaphor: “I’m a big, big girl,” she tells me, laughing.
Perhaps the most poignant lyric on that song is, “I won’t apologize for taking up space,” which could be about literal size or can be applied to any number of intersectional identities that aren’t perfectly in line with the status quo. I tell Betty how the lyric resonates with me personally as both a queer person and as a woman who has struggled with confidence in the past, and she acknowledges her own emotional connection to the song. When she wrote it, she said she was “thinking about the 10-year-old girl in me who needs that song so badly and didn’t have someone in her life or in the public eye who was singing music that felt like it spoke to me.”
“It’s been really impactful for me to talk to particularly women who often reference that line to me,” she adds.
And just like in “Wanna Be,” the song “BIG” hits that perfect, nearly 90-second-in sweet spot for a fittingly huge proclamation: “Baby, I was born to be big.” The rest of the album follows suit with songs like “Blow Out My Candle” and “I Can Be Your Man,” before gently ending with a series of softer tracks and, finally, “Grown Ups Grow Apart, musically scaled down, but still big on the emotions. Hearing the songs from the album, I am surprised to learn that Betty was feeling far from confident when she wrote it.
“Then I wrote ‘Blow Out My Candle,’ I listened back to it and was like, ‘Oh man, this is really an anthem for me,’” she recalls.
“After I heard the music back [I was] like, ‘Oh my god, am I really this confident? Can I really pull this sound off? Can I really be this butch? Is that cool? Am I loving that? Does that feel like me?’” she adds.
After a few listens back to the album, she made her decision.
“All of a sudden, listening to the music I made, I was like, ‘I have to go sing this and carry this. Is this who I am? That’s so cool. I guess I have to lean into this music that I just made.’”
Style-wise, a change is also apparent. In 2023, Betty Who’s internal confidence radiates outward through her appearance, with a sense of fashion that is decidedly now more masculine.
“You should see how many Pinterest boards it took to get here,” she says, laughing. “It takes you so long. I just turned 31, and I feel like I’m only now just locking in on it. And I look back at me at 25 trying to decide what to wear on stage, and I was like, ‘I don’t fucking know. I don’t know who I am or what I want or the story that I’m telling.’”
Recent as it is, Betty attributes pandemic isolation to giving her the time and distance away from the public eye to further embrace her queerness and, as she says, “unlearn” some behaviors that no longer serve her. During that time, she had an epiphany.
“‘Oh, have I been playing dress-up in a woman’s world for my entire life? I’m trying to live up to an expectation of a person I have never been in my life,’ which has been a big problem for me,” she says. “It’s like mourning a life that was never meant to be yours in the first place.”
After 10 years of creating absolutely memorable pop tracks, Betty Who’s “BIG!” marks an important milestone in her career. It’s a marker of personal growth and a total embrace of authenticity — no easy feat but not at all off brand. During Betty’s decade-long career, she’s made a name for herself creating consistently catchy, often ’80s-inspired bops that have amassed millions of views and streams. (Makes sense since her favorite invention is the synthesizer.)
On top of that, it’s undeniable that her music is as deftly crafted as it is energetic. She is after all a graduate from Michigan’s own Interlochen Center for the Arts, consistently ranked as one of the best music programs in the nation. She says that her time at Interlochen, where she studied cello, gave her many of the building blocks to become a successful musician, not least of which being the time and support needed to explore her passion for her instrument, singing and songwriting.
“I had an incredible cello teacher, Crispin Campbell, who could sense in me that I was very much not going to be a classical cellist,” she says. “In my senior year, when he heard that I was going to Berklee [College of Music] for voice instead of cello, he spent half my lessons doing the curriculum that he had to teach me, and the rest of the time he spent teaching me how to accompany myself and sing at the same time.”
Betty’s classical training certainly shines through in each of her releases. She plays many of the instruments on “BIG!” and creates arrangements that prove she knows more than a thing or two about song structure. But as impressive as that is, her appeal lies somewhere far beyond the training. There’s something infectious about her energy and passion for music that translates into a powerful but hard-to-explain feeling of confidence and power that she notes as the driver behind her latest album.
“There’s like a chord or kind of a zone or genre of music that will hit a place inside of me,” she says. “It makes me feel invincible, unstoppable. All of the things. Whatever the emotional reaction is to that music, that was the feeling I was chasing the whole time I made ‘BIG!’”
It’s a feeling that’s present in all of her tracks, like her own personal queer brand. Betty herself notes that she considers English as her first language, music as her second, and that certain types of music possess a unique power over her. For me, I feel it’s definitely there in songs like the earworm that is her “Queer Eye” theme song (for obvious reasons) and “All of You” (a favorite deep cut of mine). In fact, I think it’s that intangible energy that resonated so much with me when I discovered her music for the first time, and what made me stick around.
Betty Who will be performing at St. Andrew’s Hall in Detroit on Saturday, March 18. Find tickets at www.bettywhomusic.com.