Twenty-year-old singer-songwriter Samia has three songs on Spotify, and each has basically nothing to do with the others.
One is a folk ballad about friends dying young from drug abuse, painted with broad strokes Biblical imagery. Another’s a life-or-death torch song for Father John Misty, titled “The Night Josh Tillman Listened to My Song.” The third, released this April, is “Someone Tell the Boys,” a bubbly pop-rock tirade about dudes who won’t stop talking. You could call it an anti-mansplaining anthem — one that offers up a handful of pretty good burns. The chorus is simple enough to be immediately satisfying, and the first time it hits, its delivered in a flat, pleasantly rude monotone: “someone tell the boys they’re not important anymore.” The second time, the delivery builds from a snarky lilt into a full-on belt.
It’s this song, its unlikely placement on one of Spotify’s curated playlists, and the flurry of tweets it elicited from amped-up young women on the internet, that made me ask her if she might want to hang out.
“Forget it, I’m never going to work with anybody who’s mean to me again.”
On a Thursday afternoon in September, when Samia wanders up to my picnic table on the corner of 1st Street, she’s dragging a backpack and wearing a Mötley Crüe Girls Girls Girls t-shirt cut off in the middle. It was clearly broken-in a long time ago, and probably not by her, and she’s paired it with pinstripe pants, white high-tops, and tall orange socks. She’s also carrying a black jacket that she slides into as the afternoon turns colder, saying, “there’s a cool thing on the back.” It’s a portrait of David Bowie.
It’s a look, for sure. A young-and-making-music look. She also has a balloon of dark hair, a surprisingly low, confident voice, an oddly comforting presence, and soft spots for Kesha, Charli XCX, and Miley Cyrus — though she just downloaded Nirvana’s entire discography onto her phone and also worships Courtney Barnett. Also Janis Joplin. And Rihanna and Bob Dylan.
Samia says she wrote “Someone Tell the Boys” in response to a bunch of male musicians she was collaborating with “who fancied themselves really knowledgeable and important.” She woke up one morning determined to write away all the boys who were rude or condescending, whether professionally or romantically: “I was like, forget it, I’m never going to work with anybody who’s mean to me again. And also never date anyone who’s mean to me again.” A few weeks later, she found out that “Someone Tell the Boys” had been plopped onto Spotify’s “Badass Women” playlist. She was sitting in her parents’ bedroom, scrolling through the stats on her distribution site, and noticed that she’d jumped from about 3,000 streams total to 13,000 streams for just that day.
Five months later, “Someone Tell the Boys” has been streamed about 160,000 times, which is nothing more exciting than “respectable.” Spotify’s playlists have made much bigger hits than this, and a bonafide Cinderella story on the platform would see “Someone Tell the Boys” perform well enough to get bumped up to bigger and bigger playlists. So far it hasn’t, though it made its way onto Discover Weekly playlists throughout the summer and hasn’t been cut from “Badass Women” yet.
What’s interesting to me about Samia — a New Yorker who can’t wait to turn 21 just so she can get into a bar to charge her phone, never mind getting her friends into 21-and-up venues to see her play — is that this little blip might determine the course of her career anyway.
I found Samia in my Discover Weekly playlist in July — not on “Badass Women,” which I don’t follow. But it’s likely that her placement in my Discover Weekly was a ripple effect from that initial placement. As The Verge’s Ben Popper reported in September 2015, Discover Weekly takes advantage of the fact that Spotify’s 100 million users are making their own playlists constantly. Simply put: the algorithm can find other users whose taste is similar to yours, then pull tracks from their playlists, taking cues from how they’ve arranged and paired songs you might like, then repackaging them and serving them to you as a personalized Monday morning treat. In Discover Weekly’s algorithm, Ben wrote, “Each time a user with similar taste playlists a certain song, it’s a vote that the song will sound good to you when paired with other tracks on that playlist.”
Samia’s song was likely plucked from “Badass Women” and indirectly picked out for me by some stranger who, like me, listens to a lot of guitar music made by women, has put Mitski’s Puberty 2 on at least 14 playlists in the last year, started digging back into Taylor Swift’s discography in June (like a sucker), and has never met a kiss-off track she didn’t like. That would pretty much explain why Samia noticed that almost all of her new fans are young women.
It took weeks to pick out an afternoon for us to meet, because even though Samia left her contemporary music program at the New School last year, she’s been incredibly busy. To make money while she figures out the music stuff, she’s been doing a lot of acting. (It helps that her mother is Kathy Najimy, a character actress best known for Hocus Pocus and Sister Act). She’s part of the ensemble in Sarah DeLappe's new play The Wolves, a New York Times Critic’s Pick about a high school soccer team, and she has plenty of friends who need warm bodies for short films.
A representative from Spotify told me that Samia’s song was discovered by the “Badass Women” curator by pure chance: “She has an internal tool that can group tracks according to sub-genres, and she basically was listening through all the new releases that week looking for songs that fit the mood of the playlist she curates.” Obviously the origin story of any musician is full of these weird little moments of luck and happy accident, but in the streaming age it’s possible (and pretty simple) to click a few links, send a few emails, and easily trace things all the way back to the beginning. There’s a little bit less magic involved, as there’s a digital record and a logical series of events.
The algorithm has other little consequences too. Samia considers herself a folk singer first, interested in writing “lyrically obscure, verbose, Dylan-esque songs,” and that’s the vast majority of what she’s been performing, bopping between Midtown lounge The Cutting Room and any Lower East Side or Williamsburg 100-capacity venue that will have her. “Someone Tell The Boys” is totally different. It’s a bouyant, forceful, slightly over-sung command that’s punching up even as it’s inviting Samia’s new teenage fan base right on in. You can imagine a nouveau feminist pop star like Hailee Steinfeld singing this song. In fact, Steinfeld’s most recent single — “Most Girls,” released the same month as “Someone Tell the Boys” — is also meant as a rebuttal to dumb boys talking.
“It’s interesting to see what those companies are interested in me for, based on that song.”
Now Samia is getting attention from management companies and record labels, all of which want her for something along Steinfeld’s lines. “They’ve all come through Spotify,” she says, “which means they’ve come through ‘Someone Tell the Boys,’ which is the song that’s done well there. It’s interesting to see what those companies are interested in me for, based on that song.” She tells me she doesn’t plan to choose between folk and pop, but then she contradicts herself a little bit: When I ask if the popularity of “Someone Tell the Boys” will affect how she thinks about what to write next, she nods, “certainly.” “
Of the “constructive criticism” she’s heard so far, she says, the recurring theme is: “Who the fuck are you? You need to be more clear.”
Wandering around the Lower East Side, past bars we can’t go into, though they radiate historical significance pertaining to many of Samia’s musical heroes, I tell her about the morning I played “Someone Tell the Boys” for a dude. He rolled his eyes like of course you would like this song and then he said “Of course you would like this song.” She laughs, but she’s unsurprised and unmoved. “There are a lot of dudes who feel that way about the song,” she says. “And that’s fine. I was just watching the Lady Gaga documentary and she said something like ‘My threshold for dudes has considerably shrunk in the past couple of years.’ I really empathized.” She adds that she noticed that her song was shared on Reddit, but she didn’t bother to read any of the comments.
“I love social media, I spend a lot of time on social media, but I have no idea how to use it to my benefit,” she says. “I sort of just post shit, and stare at it, and try to not delete it.”
“I love teenage girls. Everyone expects them to be crazy, so they give themselves permission to be ridiculous.”
On that note, I ask her, what’s she doing about Twitter? “Someone Tell the Boys” has attracted a small but eager fanbase of teenage girls, who Samia hears from mostly in tweets. She wasn’t expecting them, after years of playing folk songs in New York and opening for her friends’ band AJR, a sort of Vampire Weekend-aspiring trio of brothers with a small claim to fame thanks to a lead single that sampled SpongeBob Squarepants. But as an effusive Harry Styles fan herself, she has a lot of respect for the power of a fandom made up of young women. “I love teenage girls,” she says emphatically, shaking her head while she bumps the ice cubes around a glass of tea. “Everyone expects them to be crazy, so they give themselves permission to be ridiculous. That’s kind of empowering.”
She admires Harry Styles she says, because nobody else in the world is “trying to be a rockstar right now.” His ‘70s pastiche debut album came out in May, and her favorite song is “Kiwi,” a doofy classic rock banger about a girl who pairs “hard liquor” with "a bit of intellect."
I tell her what I tell everyone the first time I meet them, which is that that there’s a life-size Harry Styles cut-out on the wall in my bedroom and it’s a joke but only kind of. Without breaking eye contact, she ups the ante with a truly remarkable story about fandom, recounting how she begged her boyfriend to sublet the apartment of a female musician she admires, so that she could go over and touch the woman’s things. “I should stop telling people that the first time I meet them,” she laughs, ripping a bite off of a croissant. This is the moment in our conversation where it hits me that Samia can be massively popular if she wants to be. Teen girls love her now, with one not-quite-viral song on the books. They don’t even know yet that she totally gets it.
It probably doesn’t even matter that she had no idea that Spotify playlists could make a difference for a song until “Someone Tell the Boys” ended up on one, or that she had no idea that she could have a teen girl fanbase until that playlist served her to them. “The algorithm stuff is awesome, but I’m so not a mathematical person and I don’t understand marketing,” she says. “I’m confident in myself as a performer so that’s what I’ve been doing.” She made her website herself, and the music video for “Someone Tell the Boys” was shot by her friend Kayhl Cooper.
They haven’t really figured out how to put it online yet.