Sabrina Carpenter’s pop magic comes from being in on the joke

Sabrina Carpenter’s pop magic comes from being in on the joke

Sabrina Carpenter performs at Coachella 2024, which is now referred to as “that’s that her Coachella.” | Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

Who’s that her espresso?

I must tell you that I have been Ratatouille’d. Except instead of a rodent making me cook gourmet meals, it’s a blonde 4’11” pop star named Sabrina Carpenter controlling my motor functions to make me repeat a phrase that doesn’t even make sense: “That’s that me espresso.”

“We don’t have Coke, is Pepsi okay?” That’s that me espresso.

“How much do you want to contribute to your 401(k)?” That’s that me espresso.

“Sir, do you know why we pulled you over? Do you know how fast you were going?” That’s that me espresso.

Like the man Carpenter’s singing about in “Espresso,” I am up thinking about her every night — and of course her espresso.

So what does it mean? The lyric is an unconventional way to tell us that Carpenter is so hot and charming that men are obsessed with her. It just happens to be centered on a grammatically flawed phrase featuring the reduplication of the word “that” that for all its silliness has burrowed nonsensically into brains nationwide. Yes, “me espresso” sounds like a baby asking for a caffeinated beverage. Sometimes the best pop songs don’t make total sense or follow the commonly accepted rules of metaphor or syntax.

Nonsense is actually what 25-year-old Carpenter does best.

Whether it be sex with exes, dirty rhyme schemes, or being hot, a clown, or the other woman, Carpenter’s surprisingly long career has been seriously devoted to never taking things too seriously. With an SNL appearance on the horizon and her airy track looking to be the inescapable song of summer, there is no better time to understand the bubbly allure and sparkly lore of Sabrina Carpenter.

The Olivia Rodrigo song that kickstarted Sabrina Carpenter’s adult career

With the overnight success of “Espresso,” which was released in April, it might seem like Carpenter is pop music’s flavor of the month. But she didn’t just come out of nowhere.

Carpenter has been releasing music since her debut album Eyes Wide Open in 2015, five albums in total. She started out honing her craft as part of the Disney machine, breaking out on Girl Meets World in 2014. But it’s her presence in one of the biggest songs in 2021, one she didn’t actually sing, that made the then-21-year-old famous.

Sabrina Carpenter holding up her hands that are covered in red ink.
Bruce Glikas/FilmMagic
Sabrina Carpenter promoting Girl Meets World at the Buca di Beppo Times Square in 2015. The devil works hard, but Sabrina Carpenter works harder.

Turn the clock back a little over three years: 17-year-old Olivia Rodrigo had just burst on the scene with “Drivers License,” an angsty ballad about a boy who broke her heart. In it, Rodrigo hints that the breakup involved another woman. “And you’re probably with that blonde girl,” she sings, adding: “She’s so much older than me. She’s everything I’m insecure about.”

Since this is an article about Sabrina Carpenter, and Carpenter is blonde and three years older than Rodrigo, you’ve probably guessed that Carpenter is who Rodrigo might be singing about.

Rodrigo acted on High School Musical: The Musical: The Series, a show on Disney+, and was rumored to be dating co-star Joshua Bassett. The two wrote songs together, some of which were featured on the program. The characters they played — Nini and Ricky — were a romantic pair. Disney couldn’t have asked for a better script.

But in August 2020, Rodrigo hinted she was going through a breakup. Around the same time, Bassett was spotted with Carpenter, a fellow Disney star. Adding fuel to the fire, Bassett and Carpenter donned a couples costume for Halloween, going as Sharkboy and Lavagirl.

Despite all these public appearances and social media clues, Rodrigo, Carpenter, and Bassett have never explicitly addressed the love triangle they may or may not have been a part of. But they haven’t explicitly denied the rumors either. Like Rodrigo, Carpenter seems to have turned it into music.

Carpenter seemed to address the drama in her 2021 song “Skin.” “Maybe you didn’t mean it. Maybe blonde was the only rhyme,” Carpenter sings, telling the subject of her song — who may or may not be Rodrigo — that she’s sorry but not that sorry, and she won’t let the digs get under her, under her, under her skin.

It’s a relatively plaintive track that wasn’t as big as “Drivers License” — not many songs are as big as Rodrigo’s monster hit. It wasn’t until her next album, 2022’s emails i can’t send, that Carpenter gave her final word and started to lean into her new persona. On the sneakily edged “Because I Liked a Boy,” Carpenter is even less apologetic. She declares that she is going to be herself — the other woman, the cool girl, the hot girl, the mean girl, and everything in between — because that person can’t be any worse than what’s already been said about her (“Now I’m a homewrecker, I’m a slut I got death threats filling up semi-trucks”).

“Dating boys with exes. No, I wouldn’t recommend it.” Carpenter cheekily sings. It’s a poppier, more ironic take on her new bad-girl image.

At first blush, the Rodrigo-Carpenter dynamic doesn’t seem to be that different from the way culture has always pitted pop princesses against each other. Whether it’s Britney and Christina, Debbie Gibson and Tiffany, Brandy and Monica, or Katy Perry and Taylor Swift, there’s always been an inclination that every female pop star needs a rival.

Thanks to the alleged love triangle, Rodrigo and Carpenter have that built in. They have very thinly veiled songs about each other — a territory some of those past “rivals” have never really ventured in.

But what makes the Rodrigo-Carpenter dynamic unique is that they’ve both figured out how to make the “rivalry” work in their favor, embracing their respective images even while leaving the specific rivalry behind. They’re each more famous than their supposed feud. They’re each more famous than the boy, too.

Both singers make art that illustrates that liking boys is a humiliating experience. Rodrigo’s music is all about getting dumped by losers; Carpenter is about how all these losers are obsessed with her. Being dumped by a guy who dresses up as Sharkboy is equally as pathetic as dressing up as Lavagirl with that same guy.

At the end of the day, they both come to the same realization: When it comes to men, there is no winning — unless it’s using them to make some really good pop music.

Sabrina Carpenter’s unique brand of “Nonsense”

Prior to “Espresso,” the biggest hit of Carpenter’s pop career was an easy, breezy pop confection called “Nonsense.” It’s not about Rodrigo or Bassett, but about how liking a boy makes Carpenter feel (hint: silly). The song has a splendid little bit in which Carpenter sings, “It feels so good, I had to jump the octave,” and she does in fact, sing up a note. Carpenter is not afraid of a gimmick, a little wordplay, or even some wink-y pandering to the audience.

Her commitment to the bit was a huge part of what made “Nonsense” so popular. In live performances, Carpenter started ad-libbing the outro of the song. The original goes:

This song is catchier than chickenpox is.

I bet your house is where my other sock is.

Woke up this morning thought I’d write a pop hit.

How quickly can you take off your clothes? Pop quiz.

When she toured in Europe in 2023 she gave her German audience a bespoke naughty verse:

Down below the waistline is the fun zone.

Baby hit me if you wanna come bone.

Ich liebe dich you know I love you Cologne.

Fans who came and saw her perform at Coachella this year saw Carpenter reference her boyfriend Barry Keoghan’s infamous Saltburn scene:

Made his knees so weak he had to spread mine

He’s drinkin’ my bath water like it’s red wine

Coachella, see you back here when I headline.

During a stop in Sydney:

I can’t believe a plane can fly this far.

I met the cutest Aussie at the bar.

He said, “Are you from here?’ I said ‘Naur.’”

Last year, she even created a special holiday edition, “A Nonsense Christmas” in which she somehow naughties holiday cheer and gift-giving:

Look at all those presents, that’s a big sack

Boy, that package is too big to gift wrap

Woke up this morning, thought I’d write a “Chris-Smash”

How quickly can you build a snowman? Think fast

Iambic pentameter this is not, but Carpenter’s schtick of cheeky, PG-13 rhymes showed off a pop star who isn’t afraid to laugh, especially at her own expense. While these outros could easily fall into raunch or being explicit, Carpenter uses wit as her restraint. Clown humor gives her something to play her image and our expectations against.

Carpenter’s interplay between humor and hotness is also evident in her video for “Feather,” a cotton candy-like kiss-off. The video has Carpenter pulling up to a church in a bubblegum pink hearse. It turns out her blush-hued deathmobile is full of the bodies of creepy men ogling her, and Carpenter is praying for their souls as she traipses through the chapel in a black veil and tulle lingerie.

The video was filmed at Brooklyn’s Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary Church and eventually made its way to the higher-ups at the Brooklyn Archdiocese, who were extremely upset at the video’s imagery. They admonished not just Carpenter but the staffers who approved the video shoot.

Carpenter was unfazed by the holy rebuke. “We got approval in advance,” she told Variety. “And Jesus was a carpenter.”

According to Johnny Cash and the Gospel of Mark, Sabrina is correct.

“Espresso” and the summer of Sabrina Carpenter

While you could chalk “Espresso” up to luck, it’d be a disservice to Carpenter and how hard she’s worked.

This is a former Disney kid who’s been playing the game for a decade. For the last few years, she’s carefully crafted a savvy, in-on-the-joke image. She’s also been putting in the work on the festival circuit and taking opportunities like the MTV VMAs pre-show (Rodrigo performed at the main show), crafting her naughty jingles and taking them on the road. This summer, she opened for Taylor Swift (who, according to certain fans, may be employing Carpenter as part of a proxy war against Rodrigo, who may or may not have written her song “Vampire” about Swift) and performed at Coachella, where she debuted “Espresso.”

The song catching fire is no doubt lucky, but Carpenter put herself in the best position to make that good fortune happen.

It also helps that “Espresso” effectively crystallizes the persona that Carpenter has been creating for herself: a proudly flippant ditz who is so much savvier than she seems.

Like Carpenter, espresso is traditionally hot, potent, and tiny. Espresso is a bit fancier than an everyday drip — one must go out and procure it or buy one of those elaborate machines. Espresso, unlike coffee, is more of an occasion.

Grammatically, the phrase “that’s that me espresso” is a train wreck with no survivors. After listening to the song hundreds of times, I still cannot figure out if the “me espresso” in question is a metaphor in which Carpenter is comparing her essence to that of espresso. Or perhaps it’s possessive and “me espresso” refers to something of hers. Maybe she is simply identifying an entirely new type of coffee beverage.

The repetition emphasizes that the guy in question — perhaps her famously Irish boyfriend Barry Keoghan — is so obsessed with Carpenter that he can’t fall asleep. He just can’t stop thinking about her and she knows it.

“Espresso” also mentions other objects like Mountain Dew and Nintendo that ostensibly keep men up all night. Later in the song, flanked right up against the chorus, Carpenter admits she’s up past her bedtime too. She sings that she’s “working late” because she’s a “singer,” emphasizing that final syllable in a comically exaggerated way. She stresses the “er” in singer, forcing the word to rhyme with fin-ger. I now no longer want to pronounce singer any other way.

But what if this is the correct way? What if everything we thought we knew about singers is wrong? I mean, while some concerts can go till 11 pm and later, are graveyard shifts part of the singing occupation? Are singers putting in the same hours as diner waitresses and convenience store clerks? How long, exactly, did it take to create “Espresso?”

Just when Carpenter seems to be post-grammar and post-terminology and communicating with us in a way so profound beyond words, she smirk-sings the word “stupid” as a tag right after a verse that goes, “That morning coffee, brewed it for ya. One touch and I brand-newed it for ya.”

God, that’s so dumb. And so brilliant. That’s that me espresso.

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