Sabrina Carpenter: how the Espresso singer became a piping hot pop prospect

Estimated read time 6 min read

Capped with one of the most brilliantly nonsensical chorus lines in pop history – “That’s that me, espresso” – Sabrina Carpenter’s Espresso is the most streamed song in the world this week, deposed Taylor Swift as the UK’s No 1 single yesterday and is shaping up to be the critics’ pick for the song you won’t be able to escape this summer.

Since its release in mid-April, this irresistible shot of nu-disco has been steadily climbing the charts to become one of the only tracks holding its own against the tidal wave of songs from Taylor Swift’s double-disc The Tortured Poets Department. Carpenter was recently released from Swift’s Eras tour juggernaut, having supported the superstar on her dates in Latin America, Australia and Singapore. Anointed by Swift as a “sweet angel princess”, she is now rising through the ranks to become pop royalty in her own right.

Espresso has jolted the airwaves awake, with casual listeners, pop obsessives and even the hard-to-please music press in agreement about its addictiveness. “Pop’s disco revival is wearing a bit thin, but if you can do it with this much elan … maybe it can last just one more summer,” wrote Pitchfork’s Jeremy D Larson.

Less brittle than Dua Lipa’s New Rules, more stylish than Carly Rae Jepsen’s Call Me Maybe, Espresso nevertheless ranks among them as a pop song you can’t play just once. The perfectly weighted lyrics are charismatically spiky – “I can’t relate to desperation / My give-a-fucks are on vacation” runs the opening couplet – and Carpenter’s matter-of-fact explanation that she’s “working late, ’cause I’m a singer” has become an instant meme.

According to Nate Sloan and Charlie Harding, co-hosts of the podcast Switched on Pop, the song succeeds because of its off-kilter phrasing, holding even TikTok’s famously jittery attention. “Espresso plays with language in a way that takes your brain a moment to process,” they say. “‘Walked in and dream-came-true’d it for ya’ – that’s not proper English … it keeps listeners on their toes.”

Musically, Espresso evokes vintage funk and disco but with digital production sheen, and Carpenter told Vogue that she also wanted to blend of old and new in the stylish sun-kissed video, directed by Dave Meyers. Shot in black-and-white and 60s-ish tones, it shows Carpenter beachside in retro fashions and flanked by surfboard-toting stallions.

Espresso is now set to be the star-making hit of Carpenter’s career – which is already a decade long, though she only turns 25 next week. The youngest of four sisters home schooled in Pennsylvania (and the niece of Nancy Cartwright, the voice of Bart Simpson), Carpenter signed a five-album record deal when she was 12 with the Disney-owned Hollywood Records. From 2014 to 2017, she also starred in the Disney Channel comedy Girl Meets World, while steadily releasing music.

But like her generation Z pop peer Olivia Rodrigo, and Miley Cyrus and Britney Spears before them, Carpenter struggled to convey a distinct personality within Disney’s limits, and her success during that time was limited to the dance charts.

Performing with Taylor Swift on the Eras tour, in Sydney.View image in fullscreen

After opening for Ariana Grande and the Vamps on their 2017 tours, and a stint as the lead in Mean Girls on Broadway (cut short by the pandemic), Carpenter signed with Universal Music Group’s Island Records in 2021. Since then, she has been a growing presence in pop – helped by the gossip-column inches devoted to her rumoured love-triangle with Rodrigo and Disney co-star Joshua Bassett.

Carpenter is widely speculated to be the older “blond girl” whom Rodrigo admits to being “insecure about” in her 2021 mega-smash Driver’s License. Neither party has ever confirmed the reference, though Carpenter’s emotional 2021 single Skin was taken as confirmation, with its lyrics: “Maybe you didn’t mean it / Maybe blond was the only rhyme … Don’t drive yourself insane.”

Since late last year, Carpenter has been dating Saltburn actor Barry Keoghan, who was seen at her Coachella show last month and is namechecked in a freestyled outro to the song Nonsense. Evoking her mentor Swift’s work-ethic and attention to detail, Carpenter has become known for tailoring Nonsense at every performance – leading the BBC to pull her Radio 1 Live Lounge performance of it from YouTube, over an ad-libbed sexual reference.

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She generated further controversy with her video for Feather, filmed in a Catholic church in Brooklyn. A priest was removed from administrative duties for agreeing to the shoot, to which Carpenter responded: “Jesus was a carpenter.”

With Barry Keoghan at the 2024 Vanity Fair Oscars party.View image in fullscreen

Since her confessional 2022 album Emails I Can’t Send, however, Carpenter has been best known for her music, with Skin, Feather and Nonsense all registering in the US and UK charts. On stage, she is intimate yet boisterous, shaking up her between-song banter at every show, soliciting stories from the audience and dispensing dating advice. “She’s got such a good balance of performance and just being herself,” says Los Angeles-based singer Annika Bennett, who supported Carpenter on her UK and European tours last year. “Every night feels special, but equally as big of a show.”

Carpenter’s playful public presence also extends behind the scenes, adds Bennett. “She’s just so kind and such a fun person to be around. I think that translates: people can tell that she’s genuinely a cool person.”

Having first approached Bennett about joining her on tour via Instagram DMs, Carpenter then visited her in her dressing room “every single night”, says Bennett. “That’s never a guarantee from the headliner,” adds the singer, who is weeks away from her own tour of UK and Europe. “As a headliner, you have your own show and you’re under the most pressure – but Sabrina totally extended friendship.”

Now, after wrapping the months-long “Taybrina” run of the Eras tour in late March, Carpenter is secure in Swift’s squad, pledging fealty on Instagram: “There is truly no one like you and there never will be”. Despite Espresso beating Swift’s Fortnight this week, however, there’s room for two at the top. And amid the ubiquity of The Tortured Poets Department – a wordy, ruminative album about the mixed (but mostly bad) blessings of superstardom – the energising Espresso is going down especially easily.


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