2024

The Power List: Tate McRae

After conquering TikTok, this 21-year-old pop phenomenon is ready to win over the world
BY Courtney Shea
1. Tate McRae_feature

April 1, 2024

In September of 2023, Tate McRae’s single “greedy” started a sprint up the charts, hitting No. 1 around the same time as she performed on Saturday Night Live and landed on the cover of Billboard magazine. Who was this suddenly unavoidable presence whipping her hair, with more TikTok followers than Beyoncé? In response to her sudden ubiquity, a particularly aggressive army of web trolls cried “industry plant”—a term that has been used to dismiss a certain type of well-packaged, label-backed talent since the boy-band era. The new main pop girl (an actual term) seemed to have come out of nowhere. 

McRae would like to set the record straight. She did not, of course, spring from nowhere, but from Calgary, born on Canada Day in 2003. Nor did she achieve the kind of overnight success her critics have accused her of. “I’ve been grinding since I was 13,” she told Variety. And arguably long before that. She started training with her mom, who’s a dance teacher, at the age of six. At 12, she was a contestant on So You Think You Can Dance, performing a back walkover that prompted judge Paula Abdul to call her “a gift from God.” She managed to place third without the benefit of homegrown support, since Canadians couldn’t vote on the American reality show. That same year, she danced on stage with Justin Bieber during his Purpose tour, one of those totally iconic moments that feels like a passing of the baton in the hazy glow of hindsight. (In a full-circle moment, McRae and Bieber were both celebrity team captains at the 2024 NHL all-star tournament.)

In 2017, at age 14, McRae started posting choreography videos on her YouTube series Create With Tate, but it was her nascent musical talent that took her to the next level. “One Day” was a confessional bedroom ballad about a girl who likes a guy, which a tweenage McRae recorded in her actual bedroom on a child-sized, worn-down keyboard she had owned since she was six. Within days she’d heard from executives at 11 music labels, all salivating for the next gen’s Selena or Miley. McRae signed with RCA. In the spring of 2020, she released her first single, “you broke me first,” another angsty relationship track that struck a chord in the early COVID era when everyone was going through a breakup with life as they knew it. McRae was grouped in with a new wave of so-called diary scribblers and internet sad girls, including Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish. By 2021, she had relocated to L.A. to work on her debut album. 

I Used To Think I Could Fly reflected the kind of pop-star-by-committee effort that is antithetical to the creative process and artistic expression. Tracks on the album came from a dozen different writers. On the cover McRae wears pink latex. (“I don’t even like pink,” she told Variety.) After it came out, she cut much of her original management loose and brought in the same management team who work with Harry Styles, a pop star who has endured his own set of industry-plant accusations. (He sent McRae flowers after her SNL performance.) When her second album, Think Later, came out at the end of last year, it was a total departure. So much so that McRae took a page out of the Beyoncé playbook, introducing an onstage alter ego: Tatiana, a take-no-prisoners tough girl who gives zero effs about what people want to call her online. The real Tate, who has 6.6 million followers on TikTok, is more attentive to that conversation. 

Ever since Usher discovered Bieber, social media has become not just a harbinger for the next big thing but its own musical ecosystem. Plenty of acts exist and succeed strictly in this realm of views and likes, but leveraging a devoted TikTok fan base into an upcoming 70-city world tour is extremely rare. McRae has managed to break out of social media largely by leaning into it. She interacts with her fans all the time, praising their edits of her songs and responding to their comments. The video for her 2022 single “don’t come back” was the first music video ever to make its debut on TikTok. Shooting content in vertical is commonplace these days, but McRae was the first. The ascent of “greedy” to No. 1 on the Billboard charts would not have been possible without the devoted army of Tater Tots who used her song in more than two million TikToks and defend their girlie against the kind of criticism that is rarely levied against male singers. 

The shades of early-aughts pop icons on the new album are there on purpose. McRae wasn’t born when Britney danced with a live snake at the VMAs, but today she is finding inspiration in Spears as well as Christina Aguilera and Nelly Furtado—all creative powerhouses who were dismissed with the same kind of industry-plant rhetoric in a business that can’t seem to appreciate the authenticity of young female feelings set to a killer beat. Like them, she has endless eras ahead of her.


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This story appears in the May issue of Maclean’s. You can buy the issue here or subscribe to the magazine here.