It’s obvious why Madison Beer has picked her particular life goal: “I always said that I want to sell out Madison Square Garden before I turn 21,” she tells me. If only the 19-year-old New Yorker had been christened “Islington” she could have ticked off a more manageable namesake gig this weekend, when she arrives at the north London Academy venue on her first ever tour.
America’s premier arena might not be beyond her reach, however, if her ludicrous internet numbers are anything to go by: 2.6 million followers on Twitter, 10.7 million on Instagram (significantly more than the biggest new female singer in the UK, Dua Lipa) and 57.3 million Spotify streams for her biggest song to date, Dead. Beer doesn’t see it as simply as that: “Some people think, ‘She has 10 million followers, of course she could sell out Madison Square Garden.’ But they don’t realise it’s a hard thing to translate followers scrolling in their beds on Instagram to people who’ll get up, buy a ticket, get ready and go out. You really have to love somebody.”
She seems to have mixed feelings about her social media success. I catch the second concert of her life, in the Berlin club venue Bi Nuu, and her fans, mostly teenage and female, are clearly major phone enthusiasts. A forest of screens goes up to obscure the view the moment she arrives on stage. She grabs a phone from someone in the front row to take some snaps. But during a cover of Radiohead’s Creep, she asks for them all to put their devices away – perhaps to make sure that Radiohead never hear it – and just be in the moment. “I feel like you guys get to look at me on your phones all the time so it’s special that I get to see you in person,” she tells them.
Backstage immediately after the show, she says to her assistant: “Hey, I know you’re busy right now but will you try and just go through as many photos as you can, ‘cause I wanna get something up on Instagram like ASAP.”
“I’m never on my phone really,” she says to me. “It’s here with me but look, it’s on 100%, I have no texts. It bores me. I try not to think about social media too much. I don’t want to post something just to post it. I’ll go a day without posting anything, but if I go a week, I’ll think my followers are probably worried so I’ll post something just to let them know that I’m alive.”
What kind of posts tend to become the most popular? “Just photos of myself, or anything funny, or things saying like, ‘Racism is bad’, those kinds of things go viral. I don’t really care. If it gets 400 retweets I’m happy, and if it gets 40,000 I’m happy.” What if it gets one or two, like mine tend to? “It doesn’t really bother me.”
The visual world of Instagram is a habitat that suits her. She’s so physically flawless that even up close she resembles a CGI rendering of a pop star. I have to stop myself from asking if her eyebrows are real. She has done a bit of catwalk modelling for D&G and Maybelline and sang on the same bill as Liam Gallagher at a Vogue party during Milan Fashion Week.
She has had plenty of time to get used to being looked at. In July 2012, an 18-year-old Justin Bieber tweeted his enthusiasm for a YouTube video she had posted in which she sang a cover of At Last, the standard performed definitively in 1960 by Etta James. He wrote: “wow. 13 years old! she can sing. great job. #futurestar” to which she replied, demurely: “OMGOGMFHAHDBSBAWHEBSBSHHWEHHDXHSHHAFBBAGEEHYBT I CANT BELIEVE THIS IS HAPPENING. I AM CRYING.”
It was only the second clip she had ever posted on the site, two months after a mash-up of Bruno Mars songs. “All I wanted to do was show my friends I could sing. I’m from Long Island which is a very cookie cutter place. Not many people do things that are different, like putting yourself out there by posting a video,” she says. “I wanted a hundred views, maybe, and here we are.” Bieber gave the thumbs up two and a half months after At Last appeared online, and everything moved at a fierce clip after that. Within a couple of months she had signed with Bieber’s manager, Scooter Braun, and his label, Island Records, quit school and relocated to LA. Her mother, an interior designer, and younger brother came along while her father, who’s in construction, stayed in New York.
Now, the internet’s meanies would have it that all this wasn’t quite such a shock for Beer and was all part of Braun’s devious marketing strategy. “Justin definitely didn’t discover me himself. I’m pretty sure someone showed him the video and then he tweeted it. I doubt he was just scrolling on YouTube. But I wasn’t signed before the tweets went up,” is how she puts it today.
In any case, it doesn’t matter now because her dream come true wasn’t entirely blissful. She now has a different manager and is recording as an independent artist. In 2013 her debut single, Melodies, a zingy pop tune whose video features a Bieber cameo and an irritating amount of product placement for Beats headphones, didn’t reach the charts. The following year, Unbreakable, with another big anthemic chorus, did no better. She also did a theme song for the kids’ TV show Monster High.
“I’m not a fan of those songs now,” she admits. “They kind of just gave me them and said, ‘These are yours and you don’t really have a choice whether to put them out or not.’ They wanted me to be very pop, very Disney queen. I was really young, I didn’t know the industry. I felt trapped for a long time.”
In February she relaunched herself with a seven-song EP she called As She Pleases. “I called it that to be very clear that I’m running my own ship now. I’m making the decisions.” It’s a far more mature collection full of slinky, sexy R&B but also ranging in style from a retro doo-wop song, Teenager in Love, to a reggae one that sounds just like Rihanna, Home With You, and a Fight Club-inspired acoustic ballad titled Tyler Durden. I’m particularly taken with Dead, a deliciously cold break-up song that asks: “You say you can’t live without me/So why aren’t you dead yet?/Why you still breathing?”
In concert, as well as Radiohead, she also covers Labrinth, Amy Winehouse and Pixies. “I feel like it’s all a representation of myself,” she says. “I want to do things that are true to me and give people a sense of who I am. I want to do a lot of different types of music on my album when it comes out, but the thing that will be the through-line of it all is my voice and my message.”
What’s the message? “Don’t mess with me.”
And after a few more selfies with the screaming German teenagers on the street outside, Madison Beer and her phone are back on the tour bus on the long road to the arenas.
The As She Pleases EP is out now on Access. Madison Beer plays March 25, O2 Academy Islington, N1 (0844 477 2000, o2academyislington.co.uk)