Why Actresses Reinvent Themselves as Folk—Not Pop—Singers

By creating more stripped-down music, female celebrities keep the focus on their voices, not their bodies.

Leighton Meester of Gossip Girl fame and now-wife of The O.C.’s Adam Brody has added another occupation to her resume: folk songstress.

The same week Taylor Swift dropped her much-awaited, departure-from-country album, 1989, Meester quietly released Heartstrings, a soft-pop take on folk that has reached few. Even the reviews of it have been few and far between, with mild praise ladled carefully on an album that has been alternately described as “dreamy” and “a big surprise,” with a set that “truly pull[s] at the heartstrings.”

It's almost impossible to remember that this is the woman who sang the Icona Pop-esque 2009 anthem “Good Girls Go Bad” with Cobra Starship. A total reversal from that style, Heartstrings is lazy, lilting, and romantic, infused with a sense of boho chic that Meester's alter ego Blair Waldorf would have surely turned her Upper East Side nose at.

But Meester's reinvention as a folk singer appears to be a deliberate attempt to mark her as a serious artist. Her lyrics are starry-eyed odes, to be sure, but they don't play into the easy poetic baits that make for robotic earworms. Instead, the album’s gentle lullabies double as reflections.

Meester has sidestepped the question of whether her previous work as an actress means she will be criticized more heavily. In interviews, she acknowledges that she’s got a base of fans, but hints at wanting to attract a new, more mature audience.

“Anybody who has any clue who I am or my name or what I’ve done, I’m so happy to bring them over to this and get them to listen to this record,” she said in an interview with ELLE. “And for people who don’t have any clue about me, that’s great too. Welcome!”

It’s a surprising twist, given that Meester’s previous attempts to break into music were drenched in Auto-Tuned dance-pop fever: Her collaboration with pre-Paula/”Blurred Lines” Robin Thicke, “Somebody to Love,” was universally panned as yet another attempt by a fame-greedy semi-talented actress to carve out a spot for herself in the already-crowded music world. Meester’s next foray into the music scene was through the film Country Strong, where she tiptoed into the Taylor Swiftian pop-Nashville universe.

Meester has said that the dance-pop singles she released previously didn’t feel “right,” and as a result, she cut ties with her previous label, Universal Republic Records. Meester’s divorce from club ragers was drastic: Heartstrings was released under a label she launched, Hotly Wanting Records and specifically features a live band instead of cold singing in a studio.

Heartstrings positions Meester as a fresh voice in modern folk. The record walks a tightrope between an approachable sound that will appeal to the casual listener and the minimal instrumentation that give it just enough street cred to be filed under “folk” on playlists.

But Meester isn't the first celebrity to try to be considered seriously in the music world by delving into a genre that isn’t pop. Scarlett Johansson ventured from sultry ingénue into folk with her debut, Anywhere I Lay My Head, followed by her throaty collaboration with Pete Yorn on a dissection of love’s lowest moments in Breakup. Carla Bruni took her leggy supermodel status into a series of critically acclaimed folk albums.

On her new album, Meester shows she has more in common with Bruni, who made a name for herself with her simple lyrics and angsty odes that evoke fuzzy sweaters and coffee shops. Meester's voice is lighter and poppier than Bruni's brooding one, and her music has a solid injection of whimsy that Bruni's lacks. Both have a history of being style icons that diverges from the stripped-down sound their respective folk-pop albums convey. Sure, these artists have a solid fan base that doesn’t require them to establish their musical sensibility and following from scratch, as Meester herself alluded to. But it’s also worth noting that folk—and not pop—is the genre of choice for these women whose debuts would otherwise go the path of Paris Hilton’s 2006 single Stars Are Blind.

In essence, folk attracts inexperienced, sometime-artists who seek to venture into the fickle world of mass music appreciation. Folk is known for raw, reflective soundscapes, while pop music tends toward the carnivalesque. Lyrics are clean and relatively PG, with almost no references to sex. Because innuendo is minimal, videos featuring Meester, Johansson, and Bruni place nearly no focus on their bodies, despite them establishing previous careers where their bodies were a celebrated aspect of their performance. Objectification is kept to a minimum.

For Meester, it’s a reinvention she hopes will set her apart from the crowd of wannabe double/triple threats straddling artistic identities. The only thing Meester is concerned about is whether her new image authentically captures who she is.

“It’s very different from when you sit at a computer and make all the sounds on a keyboard,” she said in an interview with Refinery29 earlier this week. “It’s not really retouched—it’s more raw and real.”