“Just yesterday somebody told me that I was intimidating,” Maggie Rogers tells me, ambivalent chuckles bookending her statement. Rogers and I are on a transcontinental phone call discussing her new record Heard It in a Past Life, which dropped in January this year, as well as the ever-swelling attention and tumult (and criticism) accompanying it. A genuine fan of the singer-songwriters’ whimsical, open-hearted pop tunes since long before this interview was scheduled, I find myself curled up on a couch in my office, shoes off, chatting with Rogers like a long-lost friend. “I guess if being intimidating means that I’m a powerful woman in charge of my craft then I’ll take it,” she continues. “But there’s another part of me that’s like, oh man, I want to be welcoming and warm and kind.” Rogers sighs into the speaker. “I think there’s a way to be both. I just don’t know what the right word for it is.”
As a woman who has also been on the receiving end of “intimidating” (a backhanded compliment that Rogers and I agree has undeniably gendered undertones), I would never betray the tribe by labeling her with a word whose synonyms, according to a quick dictionary search, include “frightening” and “threatening.” “Inspiring” might be the word Rogers is grasping for, though it doesn’t pack the same commanding nuance of “intimidating,” which she certainly deserves. In 2016, the 24-year-old recording artist (then a senior in college) catapulted to instant stardom after a video of Pharrell Williams listening to her song “Alaska” went viral. In the clip, which the internet hastily christened “the Pharrell video,” Williams tears up upon hearing the track (which Rogers reportedly wrote in 15 minutes) in a masterclass at NYU. Rogers hasn’t tired of talking about that video, though she has grown weary of the language the press generally uses to describe it. “I’m trying to reframe the Pharrell video in my mind as ‘the NYU video,’” she says, “because I’ve realized that calling it ‘the Pharrell video’ takes my agency out of it.”
From what I can see, Rogers’ “intimidating” qualities are simply positive attributes not typically encouraged or highlighted in women. She is well-educated and accomplished at a young age: In high school, she took home a prestigious songwriting award from Berklee College of Music; she then went on to obtain degrees in English literature and sound engineering from NYU. Rogers also has a self-possession that seems to threaten men in particular: “Some dudes,” Rogers laughs. “I don’t know what to do with them.” Among these dudes is a reporter at The Independent who opened a recent profile of Rogers with this: “Rogers is climbing all over my questions. The 24-year-old singer-songwriter once toyed with being a journalist, and has strong opinions about how I’m conducting our interview. … When I ask her if she is bored of talking about [Pharrell], she says framing it that way is ‘negative’ and ‘annoying.’ ‘A better way to ask that,’ she suggests, ‘is ‘how did it feel?’”
As a journalist, I feel relieved to have been spared this level of ruthless examination. But as a spectator, I find Rogers’s perspicacity delicious.