Maggie Rogers and the Myth Behind Viral Internet Fame

Becoming an overnight star doesn’t just happen.

Photo by Olivia Bee

The Maggie Rogers success story sounds like the 21st century recipe for getting famous, and for getting there fast: When she was just 21, a burst of Internet virality skyrocketed her song “Alaska” to celebrity after a video of Pharell Williams’ awed reaction over the work-in-progress reached millions of views on YouTube. This was at a NYU masterclass, before anyone knew who or what Maggie Rogers was. In the following years, the banjo-player who grew up on a Maryland farm would become a massive superstar playing on The Ellen Show with her folksy, airy indie-pop sound.

It’s the same narrative that gets marketed over and over again because of its allure. “Small town girl meets big city fame overnight” is a promise that feels uniquely American and modern and exciting — the thought that anyone can make it if the stars are aligned. But it’s also “so fucking dainty,” as Rogers put it in an interview with Elle. “It skips over the fact that I made my work.”

Whether or not people realize it, the fast track to fame was actually years in the making, preceded by a lifetime of intentional musical training. Before Rogers’s most recent album Heard it in a Past Life made it to number two on US Billboard 200, Rogers was a teenager writing songs at summer camp. Before she was profiled by the New York Times and the New Yorker, she was making music in a broom closet at her boarding school. And before she sold out a Friday night concert at Berkeley’s Greek Theatre (which seats 8,500 people), Rogers was studying music engineering and production at NYU’s Clive Davis Institute of Recorded Music, a technical background that heavily shapes her recent work.

Maggie Rogers’ music — for all the free-spiritedness and magic it tends to exude — is all about precision and intentionality, like most of her musical career so far. Her Berkeley concert began with the constructed image that exists on her merchandise in the form of t-shirts, lapel pins, candles and baby onesies: the Magi, an illustrated version of Rogers standing under the moon and stars with her arms carrying a branch and jar at her sides. 

Some version of this was extrapolated in the form of a larger-than-life shadow on the back of the Greek Theatre stage, with Rogers lifting each arm slowly as the ethereal “Color Song” played to screaming crowds, and Rogers’ shadow multiplied into three overlaying silhouettes before Rogers broke the image. She emerged from her hiding spot with a pair of silver wings (another motif that Rogers sprinkles throughout her work through orange-red capes).

Rogers announced her stage presence with “Fallingwater,” a single co-produced with Vampire Weekend’s former member Rostam Batmangli that stands testament to Rogers’ production ability. Strong beats punched steadily in the background as Rogers’ voice, sounding something like a mix between a howl and a call, punctuated the carefully controlled percussion.

Finding that control amid chaos — and sometimes losing it — is a theme that appears again and again in Rogers’ lyrics. In “Fallingwater”: “I fought the current running just the way you would / And now I’m stuck upstream.” In “Light On”: “Would you believe me now / If I told you I got caught up in a wave?” In the iconic “Alaska,” the song that propelled her to stardom: “Cut my hair so I could rock back and forth / Without thinking of you / Learned to talk and say / Whatever I wanted to.”

If Rogers’ history is any bit indicative, Rogers is best when she’s behind the wheel. After the Williams video went viral, Rogers found herself in the middle of a bidding war, and emerged victorious with a record label of her own — Debay Sounds, named after her middle name, which allows Rogers to wield extensive artistic control over her songs while licensing her music to Capitol Records. It makes sense why Rogers would want stay the master of her own fate — sometimes fast fame is fleeting, but it’s clear that Maggie Rogers wants to stick around.

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