Her Breakout Hit Skewered Disney. Build-A-Bear and Barbie Are Next. - Rolling Stone
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Her Breakout Hit Skewered Disney. Build-A-Bear and Barbie Are Next

After going viral last year with “Mad at Disney,” Salem Ilese has co-written rising hits for Bella Poarch, Tomorrow x Together, and Jamie Miller

Salem Ilese

Salem Ilese has writing credits on recent hits for Bella Poarch, Tomorrow x Together, and Jamie Miller.

Alana O'Herlihy*

Jamie Miller’s “Here’s Your Perfect” is a plinking piano ballad that swells quickly to arena size, and it’s possible that the song will be performed in arenas before long. Miller released the song at the end of April, and it debuted on Spotify’s Global Viral chart less than a month later; it’s hovered there for most of the summer, putting the former Voice UK contestant on the path to his first hit. 

Two weeks after Miller’s release, TikTok star Bella Poarch put out “Build a Bitch,” which became an instant sensation on YouTube, where its gleeful, lets-overthrow-the-patriarchy video led to a record-breaking debut. Poarch’s sugary delivery partially camouflages cutting lyrics — “This ain’t build a bitch/I’m filled with flaws and attitude/So if you need perfect, I’m not built for you” — but in the clip for the song, which has been viewed more than 267 million times, any conciliatory tone flies out the window: Poarch grabs a fire axe and wreaks havoc. 

Another two weeks passed before the K-Pop group Tomorrow x Together released The Chaos Chapter: Freeze, which featured “Anti-Romantic,” a snap-happy track about the fact that love tends to wither and die, leaving pain and misery in its wake, so might as well stop before you start. “Anti-Romantic” is not the album’s single — that honor goes to the notably less ambivalent “0X1=Lovesong (I Know I Love You)” — but it’s become a sleeper hit, trailing the focus track by only around 10 million streams on Spotify. 

These three songs were released by artists from three different continents signed to three different labels, but they are united not just by their commercial success but by a shared co-writer: Each was penned in part by 21-year-old Salem Ilese. The sensation of having this trio of songs gain commercial momentum all at roughly the same time — even though she co-wrote the “Here’s Your Perfect” demo with Miller in one of her first L.A. sessions around two years ago — is somewhat dizzying, though not unpleasant. “I feel like I’m in some sort of simulation,” she says, “but I’m not complaining.” 

What’s also notable about Ilese’s hot streak is that only Tomorrow x Together was an established hitmaker. Rather than working with big names, she’s proven adept at helping to provide artists with their first hit. This particular talent gives songwriters extra clout in the music industry, because the alchemy required to transform a previously unknown act into a Somebody is so hard to achieve — harder than ever in an era when 60,000 new tracks are uploaded to Spotify daily. In the last year, not only did Ilese play a part in penning breakout singles for Miller and Poarch, she also co-wrote her own breakout hit, “Mad at Disney,” a sunny send-up of romantic movie tropes that has earned more than 300 million streams to date. 

Her manager Jeremy Maciak, who started working with Ilese well before the success of “Mad at Disney,” believes the “specificity in her lyrics” is what has helped catch the attention of streamers. “This is something I’ve felt has been desperately missing from pop music for some time,” Maciak adds. (Ilese has now caught the attention of the music industry as well; she recently signed a joint publishing agreement with Sony and APG.) 

She loves shooting holes in cherished pop-cultural touchstones. This is true not only in “Mad at Disney,” where Cinderella fails to get her happily-ever-after and a would-be prince charming callously cheats on Sleeping Beauty, but also in “Build a Bitch,” which takes on sexism through the prism of the popular Build-A-Bear toys and casually sideswipes one of the most famous toy empires: “The boys are always playing dolls/Looking for their Barbie/They don’t look like Ken at all/Hardly have a heartbeat.” (To Ilese’s chagrin, the lyrics site Genius initially got this line incorrect, replacing “dolls” with “golf,” though the text has since been fixed.)

Even the lyrics to the demo of “Anti-Romantic” — which started as a spare ballad and was then re-written in Korean and produced out by Tomorrow x Together’s team — take aim at an enduring symbol of affection: “Sorry I’m an anti-romantic, I grew out of seeing the magic/But when flowers die after a week, sometimes love is hard to believe.” 

Ilese’s recent co-writes also get mileage out of word-less, sing-song sections, la-la-las that flutter in after the chorus in “Build a Bitch” and “Anti-Romantic.” (When these are delivered with breathy sincerity by Tomorrow x Together, “Anti-Romantic” takes on the quality of a swooning single from Spandau Ballet.) “Sometimes you can say the most by saying nothing at all, just making a hooky section,” Ilese explains. “My songs tend to be quite short, because a song that’s a little bit too long I can get bored of too quickly. And I’m pretty anti-bridge in most scenarios — in nine out of ten scenarios, I’ll say let’s skip a bridge and pop in a post-chorus.” 

Ilese can also bring her skills to bear on a more traditional ballad like Miller’s “Here’s Your Perfect,” in which the singer vows “you won’t see me break, call you up in three days/Or send you a bouquet, saying, ‘It’s a mistake.'” Before Ilese’s session with Miller in 2019, the singer’s team asked them to work on an up-tempo record, worried he had already recorded too many ballads. But Miller showed up feeling blue after a break-up, and the writers quickly ditched the uptempo approach. A remix of “Here’s Your Perfect” with Ilese singing the second verse arrives Friday; the original has amassed more than 55 million streams on Spotify.

Rather than regarding her successful collaborations with Miller and Poarch strictly as a springboard that will launch her into sessions writing for Big Names, Ilese has embraced the challenge of working with lesser-known acts. “It’s so cool to be in a session with one of your childhood idols,” Ilese says. “But there’s no feeling like being able to break an artist. It’s a special thing to watch.”

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