This past summer, I stood underneath the aurora borealis in northern Canada. My neck craned back, eyes glued upwards to the bursts of light against the pitch-black sky. When the colourful flames faded, I lowered my head, my neck sore, my body feeling weightless and a gravitational tug all at once.
Similarly, Bea Miller, a nineteen-year-old singer and songwriter from Brooklyn, is drawn to colour. After placing 9th in the X Factor in 2013, she was signed to Hollywood Records and soon after, released her first EP Young Blood in 2014. The following year, her debut album, Not An Apology, peaked at number 7 on the Billboard 200 as she made waves opening for Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato.
Over the past year, she has released a series of three EPs: chapter 1: blue, chapter 2: red, and chapter 3: yellow. Miller, who has synesthesia, feels that each chapter and their corresponding colours embody specific sensations. Each EP, along with a few more tracks, will make up the body of her sophomore album aurora, out on February 23.
Initially, Miller was planning on naming the album Spectrum. Listening to Miller’s music, I sense a gratifying contradiction of emotion. The decision to make each EP correspond to a primary colour embraces this contradiction. It allows for in-betweens and cross-overs. A “red” feeling might complement, or inform a “blue” feeling, becoming purple. Emotions, like colours, cannot always be compartmentalized and a spectrum evokes a lineage of change, one colour gradually turning into the next, with a start and end point.
Aurora, in contrast, evokes a cataclysm of colour, light, and feeling, all occurring at once, unpredictably bursting through the dark. Speaking to Miller on the phone, I asked her what provoked the change of heart: “I realized over the past year and a half as I’ve been writing the music that I’ve changed a lot — not only as an artist or writer, but as a person. I wanted to find something that still represented the original concept, but in a way that was more representative of who I am now versus who I was a year and a half ago.”
There are always going to be people who try to tear you down when they see that you’ve lifted yourself up.
“The first definition of aurora ties back to borealis, which I thought was really cool, because all of my EPs have revolved around colour, and the aurora borealis is a colourful lightshow.” While making the album, she was also drawn to the story of the Roman goddess Aurora, which means “dawn,” and the imagery of Aurora bringing in a new beginning.
“The story goes that she would fly across the sky every morning in her chariot throwing flowers and pulling the sun behind her. She is the bringer of a new day and represents a new beginning. I’ve already put out my first album, so this album is not the beginning, but it definitely feels like a new beginning, because this album is something that I actually wrote myself and that I’m really proud of and something my fans are maybe not expecting.” “[In the story] the flowers spoke to me, because all of my covers have flowers on them. I really like that they symbolize growth.”
The shape-shifting nature of the aurora borealis also embodies the liminality of teenagehood. Through embracing growth, rather than resisting it, Miller writes pop music that is introspective, as well as incredibly danceable. She explores sadness and self-empowerment, often in the same breath, evoking the complexity of letting go in order to grow up. For most, it’s difficult observing change and growth when you’re in the midst of it. At 19, Miller is aware that change is imminent, yet that doesn’t mean that it isn’t scary.
“Being a teenage girl is rough because you go through so many changes and develop so much as a person… I feel like because other people recognize that since you are that age, you are going through a lot, and they’re not going to necessarily listen to what you have to say. But that doesn’t mean that what you have to say is any less important or deserves to be heard any less. It definitely is frustrating when I feel like people don’t take me seriously, whether it’s because of my age or for any other reason.”
Her self-assured embrace of change did not happen overnight. Miller has had her fair share of heartache and, with a funny and bold social media persona, has been subject to scrutiny by online followers. In one incident, she recollects someone slut shaming her on Instagram — an incident she flipped on its head, resulting in the girl power-pop anthem “S.L.U.T.” (Sweet Little Unforgettable Thing) on chapter 3: yellow. Though she managed to get the last laugh, she didn’t always find it easy to respond to criticism with self-love.
“When I was younger, I used to respond to my haters, and I used to be so quick to defend myself and be angry at everybody for not understanding me… I realized that it’s about prioritizing yourself and your own happiness. There are always going to be people who try to tear you down when they see that you’ve lifted yourself up, but you have to keep in mind that those people are probably going through some hard times in their lives. That is probably why they are trying to tear you down to whatever level they feel like they’re on.”
In a world where we still raise girls to apologize for things that are not their fault, there’s something incredibly cathartic about the way Miller takes solace in not having all the answers.
In spite of, or because of her experiences with taking criticism in stride, Miller has a devoted fan base, mostly of young women around her age, and it’s easy to see why. Her voice is authentic and unapologetic. In a world where we still raise girls to apologize for things that are not their fault, there’s something incredibly cathartic about the way Miller takes solace in not having all the answers.
Hers is one unique voice among a rising movement of young artists who are complicating the traditional yet dated idea of pop as bubble gum. She sites Billie Eilish, Khalid, and Lorde as some of her role models who are also her contemporaries – other young, teenage (or freshly out of teenagehood) songwriters who write self-reflective, relatable lyrics.
“I love that we are all trying to communicate our messages and be ourselves, and tell the world that we’re not afraid of being who we are. I really respect those people and look up to them, and I hope that I can be a part of their movement.
“People don’t always want to hear about going out to the club and all these exciting, crazy things that a lot of pop music is about. Sometimes you just want to hear from somebody who’s their age and is going to high school and is trying to live their life and figure out who they are and where their place is in the world. We all get a little lost. Especially right now, at 19, I have a good sense of who I am, but I definitely go through my ups and downs. I think it’s really interesting to hear so many perspectives from people who are similar in age, and are going through their own ups and downs.”
In “repercussions” Miller says “My point of view has been altered because I’m never looking out through my own eyes/I don’t know when I misplaced my own perspective so now I gotta take back what was mine.” I hear a strength in the uncertainty of her words. She might be young and trying to figure it all out, but the courage with which she approaches these challenges demands attention. She’s in charge of her own narrative, and that means knowing that it might not be predictable.
Miller has stated that chapter 3: yellow is not about finding a happily ever after, but rather, an affirmation of self, a process of healing and regaining strength.
“I’m not naïve enough to think that one day you reach a point where everything just works and it never falls back down. You’re constantly growing and changing, no matter how old you are, or how many things you’ve experienced or overcome. Life is full of ups and downs, and it’s very unpredictable… What I’ve discovered so far is that one hard time will help you overcome another, but that doesn’t mean that another is not going to come. You’ll just be better prepared for it when it does.”