Siena Liggins Rewrites Pop Expectations On Her Debut Album, ‘Ms. Out Tonight’

Siena Liggins is well aware that most mainstream pop music wasn’t written with her in mind. “I am literally the founding father of America’s worst nightmare — A gay, Black, powerful woman,” she quipped over the phone from her new home in Atlanta. But with her debut album Miss Out Tonight, Liggins is turning the industry on its head. The album features the same buoyant hooks, floor-shaking beat drops, and snapping melodies heard on Top 40s stations, but written from her unique point of view. A song like “Girlfriend” offers a revved-up anthem for queer commitment-phobes, while the title track, “Ms. Out Tonight,” is a double entendre about coming out that showcases Liggins’ sweetly chilling vocals over a pulsing bass.

Each track on Ms. Out Tonight is playful yet salacious, and tongue-and-cheek without sacrificing  contemplation. Most of all, Liggins’ music is catchy — and that’s no accident. “I like to write the kind of songs that people love to hate,” she said. “When I’m in the studio, I want to write the song that will accidentally get stuck in somebody’s head.” Her Yung Baby Tate collaboration “Dirty Girl” exemplifies that knack for penning earworms: Clapping snares and shimmering synths melt in line with Liggins’ rhythmic chorus about dirty talk, one she delivers with a blown-out swagger.

Liggins has been making music since she was a pre-teen, so she’s had a lot of practice songwriting, but she never envisioned actually releasing an album. Siena always saw herself as a songwriter — someone delicately crafting the next hit from behind-the-scenes — never the face of a project. “I was very scared to be an artist,” she said. And it wasn’t due to a lack of confidence, a simple scroll through her Instagram feed shows she has plenty of self-assurance. Her apprehension was instead a symptom of the industry. “I don’t really see anybody that looks like me, or sounds like me, or is into the things that I’m into,” Liggins noted. “I don’t see them pushed to me. I won’t see them on New Music Friday [roundups], I don’t get their music videos pushed to me. So I was definitely a bit nervous because I didn’t feel like there was really a roadmap that was laid out for me.”

Liggins may not have a roadmap, but on this debut, she’s literally writing her own. Ms. Out Tonight pays homage to the bubblegum pop stars of the early ‘00s that came before, all while carving out space in the music industry for a new generation of pioneering pop stars. In lieu of the album’s release today, we discussed all this and more — check out a condensed, edited version of our conversation below.

You’ve been releasing music for several years, and been performing at shows and festivals for a while. Now that you’re releasing your debut album, how does it feel?

It feels crazy. Part of me can’t believe it. I kind of became an artist on a whim. My teacher had told me that I needed to stop letting other people sing my songs. I never thought about releasing an album. I never thought about what my first project was going to be like. I just wanted to make songs that people could connect with. I wanted to make songs that I wanted to hear. I love Justin Timberlake and love pop stars who are boys, and sometimes I feel myself fitting into that character, but there are no lesbians doing that. There’s no Black girls that are doing that. With the rise of artists like Kehlani and Hayley Kiyoko, I’m like, ‘cool, I can fit in there.’ But now that I have my own project, I’m excited for it to be something I created — and can hopefully offer a new perspective. Hopefully, when somebody listens to it, and they’re like me, they feel it’s their song just as much as it’s mine.

You mentioned that you grew up listening to artists like Katy Perry and Britney Spears. Britney has been in the pop music conversation a lot since the #FreeBritney movement and her documentary. It has me thinking about the pop stars that our generation grew up on and really idolized. With Britney in particular, she did have a big role in her own career. But at the same time, a lot of who she was as an artist was shaped by older white men as a way to make a lot of money. Now, there’s this whole generation of artists who grew up on her music that are reclaiming that sound, reclaiming that genre, and making it something that’s totally original and totally theirs.

The system, or the formula, wasn’t ever written with people like me and mind. There was absolutely a cookie cutter, plug and play approach to pop music for a super long time. In every form of media, there’s always been a very Eurocentric, straight, cisgender approach to what can be popular. I’m very grateful to artists like Britney Spears for popularizing the sound and creating space for women. Like you said, there needs to be like an expansion upon that and the baton needs to be passed. Because that groundwork has been laid, now there is more fire, energy, and empowerment among people like me who enter the space and do it in an authentic way. It’s exciting because I can connect with people who are like me or want to hear what I do. And the days of old cisgender white men deciding what’s hot and what’s not are coming to an end.

One thing I noticed when watching the Ms. Out Tonight visual album is that before it cuts to the song, ‘First Time,’ there’s a scene where you’re sitting in a faux radio DJ booth with naked Barbie dolls behind you labeled with different pop star names like Billie, Selena, and one says ‘Free Britney.’ 

That was a huge motif that I wanted to include in the video, full visual album, and all of the videos I made for the album. This album, Ms. Out Tonight, hits on the fact that the formula of what a pop star could be was never written with Siena Liggins in mind. At the beginning of the video, there’s this Barbie doll that’s got these pins in her and she’s voodoo’d out. As you go on, ‘Dirty Girl’ has a bubblegum machine that has Barbies in it as well, which is supposed to be a symbol of this bubblegum pop machine — you put in a quarter and you get one out. Then, there’s the faux radio DJ scene where they’re all in jars now. It’s supposed to represent how these pop stars have been collected in their jars, and on paper check a lot of the same boxes: white, cis, straight, or straight-passing at least, and all of those things. I wanted to create a contrast with me as the radio DJ, deciding what song was going to come next, what music was going to be played and announcing it very loudly in this microphone while also having this idea of what’s come before me and what the standard is.

I wanted to ask about your Instagram Story highlight ‘popstar.’ It’s a space for you to chronicle all the assumptions you get about your music based on your identity, from people labeling you an R&B artist when you’re clearly a pop singer, to a major label guy hitting you up to ask if you wanted to feature on a hip-hop project, or just the lack of Black woman in pop music in general. You compare your trajectory with successful white pop singers like Iggy Azalea and Miley Cyrus, who are afforded the opportunity to experiment with genres but still be labeled as pop artists.

You hit it on the head. It’s wild, Miley made an album called Bangerz and Mike WiLL Made-It was the primary producer on the album. And Iggy Azalea, she came out doing freestyles on Sway In The Morning. But she’s charting as pop, they’re charting as pop. They get to bend genres and fluctuate between. They’re allowed that freedom, they’re allowed that fluidity and nobody questions it. They get to write that narrative. Whereas for me, I don’t see other artists who are my equals in terms of what they’ve accomplished getting that same treatment. 

If you see a white blonde girl make a song, you’ll probably assume that she’s a pop artist first. Then there’s me: Black, loc’d hair, queer, not exactly effeminate in my representation, not sexualizing myself in how I dress. People assume that I am a rapper or assume that I’m an Afrobeats artist. They don’t even go as far as to do their research. They’re reaching out to speak to me on an album or project saying, ‘I love your music,’ but they haven’t listened to my music. To me, it sometimes reads as disrespect and an affirmation of where this industry is and what they expect of folks like me.

You said in a statement, “I’m not just another queer artist; I’m not an amalgamation of trends & buzzwords.” Do you ever feel like queer musicians, yourself included, have been tokenized for their identity, or would you say that it’s positive representation?

I think both of those things can be true at the same time. There’s a huge emphasis right now on marginalized communities and representation. And there’s a push for it, there’s a push for the conversation. A lot of the people who are super integral in the conversation are sometimes not included in the genesis of the conversation. Queer folks are getting more opportunities, they’re getting to be at the front, they’re getting more representation, they’re getting to be more at the forefront of these conversations and the platform is great. It’s great that it normalizes a queer identity. 

But at the same time, I do suppose there’s a sort of tokenization because there’s a huge rush to capture the attention and dollars of our generation and the generation after us, and to capture their attention as soon as possible. So there’s sort of a level of tokenization, and it sucks and I don’t know what the solution is. But I think that so long as people of color, queer people, trans people, women, as long as all of those marginalized groups continue to push our way into the industry and the communities and infiltrate the system, things will get better. It can’t just be us on the cover of magazines, or just us getting lead roles in new series or movies, it can’t just be that. It has to go as deep as rethinking what it even looks like to have a company, or to have a board, or to even have a platform. And we have to continue doing the work to rewrite these things. Like I keep saying, these formulas weren’t created with us in mind, so there has to become a point of where the formula is rewritten.

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