GAYLE's Punk-Pop Prowess Transcends Her Viral TikTok Fame

Olivia Rodrigo set the tone for a new generation of musical badasses when she posited, "I'm so sick of 17. Where's my f*cking teenage dream?" in her hit song "Brutal" at the start of 2021. Exactly seven months later, TikTok exploded with thousands of loops sampling an equally passionate "f*ck you" anthem: GAYLE's "abcdefu."

Sweet in tone yet sharp in delivery, the breakup song seemed to be an overnight hit, raking in millions of likes and spurring hundreds of covers. But according to GAYLE — whose rebellious image comes through in her fierce stage presence and the middle-finger emoji that doubles as a cursor on her website — the song's trajectory to viral acclaim isn't as clear-cut as it seems.

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Becoming GAYLE

In 2011, 7-year-old GAYLE, a budding fan of Ella Fitzgerald, took the stage at a vocal-arts summer camp to perform "Cowboy Take Me Away" by The Chicks. "I was so nervous. In the rehearsals, I literally used to cry and run off stage," GAYLE tells POPSUGAR in a remote interview from Ohio, where she's touring with AJR. In spite of her stage fright, she powered through, channeling her newfound love for one of music's most influential figures: Aretha Franklin.

"Aretha has this soul and intensity that I find really inspiring and impactful, and in that moment, I felt this thing that I could honestly live in forever," she says. "I was like, 'That's it. That's what I want to do for the rest of my life. I want to be making music the way that Aretha Franklin is.'"

"It's a really intimidating thing when you actually feel like you have the permission and freedom to be yourself, because who are you?"

At the time, GAYLE's family and friends were skeptical of her sudden passion for stardom, but she "stubbornly" persevered, requesting frequent family road trips from Dallas to Nashville in elementary school to get a vibe for the music scene. While most preteens don't get the opportunity to follow their passion 700 miles across the country, GAYLE's mom fed her daughter's fervor with Nina Simone records and drives to Music City. "My mother is a superhero to me. She's made so, so many sacrifices to help me do what I love," GAYLE says. "I would not be where I am without the support of my family."

At 14, her tenacity paid off, and she was scouted by former "American Idol" judge Kara DioGuardi, who acted as her mentor. "From the minute [GAYLE] opened her mouth I was confused," DioGuardi recalled in an Instagram post. "She had an intensity and voice way beyond her 14 years. She stuck with me like she was [embedded] in my soul."

With DioGuardi's encouragement, GAYLE began to explore her vulnerability in her songs, making countless revisions until the lyrics and melodies began to flow together seamlessly. "I'm very grateful to have found Kara at the time that I did," she says. "I feel like the biggest thing that she did was give me the permission to fully just be myself . . . If there's no standard you have to uphold yourself to, then what are you? What do you do? What are you like? It's a scary feeling, especially at 14."

Years later, those moments of self-reflection resulted in "abcdefu," a breakup anthem that passed a crucial litmus test before it hit No. 1 on the Billboard Global 200 and No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts: a listen from her older brother, Trace, her biggest music critic. "He looked me dead in the eyes after I played it for a second time, and he was like, 'That's a hit,'" she says of the song, which she cowrote with her best friend Sara Davis and Dave Pittenger. "And I was like, 'What? You have never said anything positive about the music I've shown you, ever.' And he's like, 'That's it, that's the song.'"

Processing Fame

Processing Fame

After perfecting "abcdefu," GAYLE took matters into her own hands to get the single on the desks of producers, sending the track to nearly a dozen names in the music industry. Long weekends spent trying to get the song picked up resulted in rejection, but TikTok's American Sign Language community saw the single for what it was worth and quickly transformed it into one of the platform's biggest hits of early 2022.

"I found out the other day that Avril Lavigne followed me back on Instagram, and I was like, 'I'm dying.'"

Thanks to ASL TikTok, "abcdefu" slowly began to pick up traction, landing a spot in loops from around the world. "It was a really crazy, exciting time. But also terrifying, because I was like, 'I don't want it to stop, but I also want to be very grateful for what's happening right now,'" she says, adding that the song even won her the attention of a few established artists, including Jon Bellion, Upsahl, and Blu DeTiger. "I found out the other day that Avril Lavigne followed me back on Instagram, and I was like, 'I'm dying. I'm dead. This is death. Wow. This is ascending to the heavens.'"

Even Olivia Rodrigo slid into her DMs to congratulate her on her success. "She's really lovely, very, very sweet," GAYLE says, noting that her favorite conversations are less about music and more about checking in with one another as real people.

"She's a very, very successful young woman inside the industry," she continues. "The media and people inside of the music industry love to pit women against each other. So it's really nice to have a personal moment [with her] and be like, 'Yo, we both can be great in our own ways, and it doesn't have to be one or the other' . . . She's like, 'Are you OK? You good? How's your brain?' I'm like, 'My brain's good, how's yours?'"

Kicking Ass

Kicking Ass

Since her rise to TikTok fame, GAYLE has been hard at work perfecting her second EP, a follow-up to her March release, "A Study of the Human Experience: Volume One." "I've been blissfully in love, scared of commitment, pissed, hurt, used, and been the one to hurt somebody, and all of those ranges of emotions are going to be told," she told Melodic Magazine in September.

"I see ['Volume One'] more as things I did for my 15-year-old self," she says. "I wrote 'Kiddie Pool' when I was 15 and I was really, really excited about that song that took me like 10 years to put it together and to release it . . . I feel like 'Volume Two' is me trying to get a little bit more experimental, mainly in the production."

While working on the album — which she describes as a mix of lo-fi, punk, and bedroom pop — GAYLE took some inspiration from her experience with chromesthesia, a rare type of neurological condition that allows individuals to see colors in response to different sounds.

"I was like 14 at the time, and I was like, 'I'm not baby blue.'"

"I realized that I had chromesthesia, funnily enough, when there was a song I just did not like," she says. "I liked the melodies, I liked the lyrics, but there was something about it that I just didn't like. I realized, every time I listened to the song, I saw this light baby blue — super bright blue — that I just didn't like. I was like 14 at the time, and I was like, 'I'm not baby blue.'" The ability to "hear colors" recently inspired her to partner with Adobe to create downloadable social media templates in exciting colors to help spark others' creativity.

If you're curious, GAYLE describes herself as a vibrant orange, a color that she hopes will mix well with her new EP's icy-blue theme. When she was creating the "abcdefu" music video, GAYLE made sure to incorporate pops of red, the song's primary color, and follow suit with the remixes, making the "Chill" remix purple, the "Nice" remix gray, and the demo green.

As the second half of 2022 takes shape, GAYLE is gearing up to go on tour with My Chemical Romance, Snoh Aalegra, Florence + The Machine, Charlie Puth, The Chainsmokers, and more, gigs that will give her the opportunity to share her music around the world.

And with her 18th birthday on June 10, she has one more order of business to take care of as a tribute to the woman who started it all. "I think when I'm 18, I want to get my mom to draw a heart," she says. "I'm going to get it tattooed, and then I'd do the same and she does the same, so we have matching heart tattoos. So whenever she's away from me, she's still with me — you know, that mother-daughter bullsh*t."