Image via Ayesha Erotica/Instagram

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In August of 2023, I went to a warehouse in Downtown LA to be shouted at by a woman in a pink tank top, a zebra print bra, and pajama pants. She paced back and forth on a stage, her bottle-red hair swaying behind her as she called out lyrics about wearing Baby Phat and making out with scene boys in Port-A-Potties. The crowd went wild.

This woman was Ayesha Erotica, the elusive hyperpop musician who has existed in the internet shadows since her 2015 debut. Despite racking up millions of streams for tracks like “Emo Boy,” “Yummy,” and “Literal Legend,” she’s never received much critical recognition. Listeners who stumbled upon a single and looked her up wanting to know the girl behind the music—a hodgepodge of swirling synths, hip-hop beats, and cartoonish sound effects—would more or less draw a blank. At this point last summer only a few photos of her were accessible online: most of them low-quality close-ups taken in indiscriminate locations. Her songs revealed the occasional tidbit of information about her personal life. For example, the fact that she was a transgender woman. But there wasn’t much to prove that she was indeed a living, breathing artist and not an apparition conjured up by a trio of teen witches stirring blood and glitter in a cauldron, and clad in Hot Topic Tripp pants, a Juicy sweatsuit, and a Bobby Jack tee.

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Even as she gained notoriety, mystery remained her modus operandi. Music videos? Out of the question. Live shows? As if. Maybe she wanted to protect her personal life from prying eyes; maybe she wanted to ensure total control over her image. In any case, the mystique worked in her favor, cementing her as a mythological figure amongst listeners who considered themselves PC Music-pilled but appreciated their synth hooks with a side of silliness.

Erotica’s career was seemingly cut short in 2018 after a Discord user leaked her private accounts and deadname. In the confusion that ensued, Erotica blamed an unrelated third party, who retaliated by leaking Erotica’s demos. Erotica announced her retirement, popping online for one final message. “I’m not a public figure, and I do not want to be an internet celebrity.”

It felt like a fair request considering the gross violation of her privacy, but also surprising given how poised for virality the pop provocateur seemed. As she remained in the bunker, she continued to amass a following, constantly making the rounds on TikTok with her lyrical punchlines—perfect for a platform known for its 15-second comedy skits. 2023 delivered a plot twist: the long-absent Erotica popped up on a livestream with Twitter star-turned-pop star Chase Icon, promising new music. Like all things Ayesha, even her return was shrouded in mystery: she never explained what led her to reemerge, although the support of Chase Icon and fellow hyperpop wunderkind That Kid likely helped. Now she’s experiencing a renaissance, selling out raves in LA and opening for spiritual Crystal Castles descendants Snow Strippers. It’s no wonder that she’s been embraced so fully. Catchy, clever, and consistently in character, Erotica’s discography is suited to the fixations of the current moment in a way that today’s Top 40 fixtures could only dream of achieving.

Despite her natural star power, Erotica’s not a Hollywood baby. When she first achieved notoriety, she was living in Huntington Beach, a MAGA stronghold in Orange County. In an era where Charli XCX and A.G. Cook’s hyperpop experiments set the stage for innovation and inclusivity in the pop world, she dared to break out of the box with her self-produced, SoundCloud-released tracks. Soon, she was collaborating regularly with genre legends like Slayyyter (who similarly came up through SoundCloud). Their 2018 duet “BFF,” a playful ode to partying delivered over cell phone beeps, is a perfect window into the Erotica ethos.

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Born in 1996, Erotica drew inspiration from the bedazzled pop stars that defined the 2000s, reaching her through platforms such as MySpace and MTV. Comprising a string of conceptual EPs and albums with titles like Barely Legal and Loose Teens, her discography takes sonic and aesthetic cues from the era. Erotica sings with a breathy vocal tone and pronounces “she’s” like “chaise” a la Britney Spears. In her lyrics, she name-drops celebs that have populated plenty of throwback fashion mood boards, likening herself to both Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan in “Literal Legend.”

While these comparisons might seem obvious now that references to the 2000s are occupying the collective subconscious, the nostalgia for an era just barely in the rear window felt fresh when the song was released in 2017—and even when it hit TikTok in 2019. (Erotica herself hinted at her hidden depths in the same song: “I can give you Bjork, but I don’t think you’d understand it.”) All of this is to say, the prescient Erotica crafted her persona long before the “Y2K look”—as seen on everyone from Kali Uchis to Ice Spice—was en vogue. Perhaps this aesthetic has been resurrected with the “Zillennial” generation (those born in the mid-to-late ’90s) because it manifests as aspirational to them. When they were growing up, the “Y2K cool girl” was marketed to them as the essence of chic. Now, as adults, this generation can finally embody the women they once looked up to and wanted to be: their Bratz dolls, the trendy high schoolers at the mall, or the TV stars they plastered onto their bedroom walls.

Anchored in allusions to the aughts, Erotica’s lyrics allow fans to actualize their dreams from bygone eras, if only for a few minutes. Singing along to one of Erotica’s anthems has the same effect as slipping on a tank top with “Princess” written in silver script: it instantly transforms you into what you wish to be.

Erotica’s 2000s-inspired, glitz-and-glam aesthetic is often contextualized with respect to “bimbo feminism”—a school of thought that embraces the ditzy, “dumb blonde” persona as an empowering reclamation of sexist stereotypes. The thesis is that by doing so, one is indicating an unequivocal pride in “femininity,” even if that femininity manifests in a traditionally vapid manner.

At first glance, Erotica’s penchant for pink might suggest that her work leans into the bimbo feminist premise. Yet playing dumb isn’t really Erotica’s shtick. Her exploration of femininity is more concerned with the metaphorical implications of excess and maximalism, in line with the queer tradition of camp. In songs like “Yummy,” where she surrounds herself with high-glam signifiers such as a “hot pink bed,” a “drop-top pink coupe,” and “chinchilla furs,” she’s not simply embracing the feminine through hyperbole; she’s also taking a page from the hip-hop playbook by using these items to signal power. We’re most familiar with this tactic when it’s used by male lyricists, but Erotica has never been afraid to subvert expectations.

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Adding to Erotica’s allure is her brand of satire that’s distinguished by its crassness in an era when polite speech feels not only passe but fundamentally unfulfilling – or maybe even morally bankrupt. The right and Dirtbag Left bemoan an excess of “political correctness.” Other lefties and liberals lament “respectability politics.” Whatever buzzwords you choose to use, it’s clear that irreverent speech is having a moment—and that includes irreverent comedy. Erotica understands this, seldom settling for an obvious punchline.

While her penchant for NSFW phrases might be the most obvious example of Erotica’s cheekiness, what separates her music from, say, “W.A.P.” is her use of crude storytelling to comment on social issues. This is particularly evident on Erotica’s concept EP Where Is That Damn Baby? which conjures up images of teen pregnancy, childrearing, poverty, sex work, abortion and its aftermath, postpartum psychosis, and possibly even clashes with Child Protective Services. These images are splayed over a backdrop of booming dance beats and silly sound effects, commanding the listener’s attention via overstimulation.

“Boby Brainz” is perhaps one of the EP’s most shocking tracks. Here, she presents a surreal scenario in which a character only referred to as “Baby” is trampled by a large pair of shoes after spending her time with “boys” and “junkies.” In the final verse, a crowd of “seniors” surrounds the mother, sneering at her: “Clean up that baby! You better do it!/Clean up that baby! You blew it!” The term “Boby” is borrowed from the previous track, in which the singer utters it after frantically repeating the line “Who put my baby in the oven”—abstracting not only the word but the concept of a baby itself, positing the infant as an alien figure, both in terms of its unknowability and the horror its existence might pose.

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Another trait that makes Erotica so uniquely relevant is her willingness to deploy religious imagery with a refreshing lack of self-seriousness, weaving references to Jesus into her lyrics and adorning album covers with crosses. After quarantine, many young people became spiritual seekers of some sort, with Christian ideas and aesthetics experiencing a big boom in particular. While we know little of Erotica’s personal life, her songs suggest a Christian background where devoutness often bled into carnal desire—an especially interesting theme given her upbringing in conservative Orange County.

In her remix of Nicki Minaj’s “Chun-Li,” she remarks, “Jesus is always with me, even when my boyfriend gives me hickeys.” In “Star,” she imagines herself “[taking] a hot bath while Jesus watches [her].” Incorporation of religious tropes into sexual fantasy is nothing new. Yet aided by the confessional language of teenage yearning, Erotica employs these tropes in a way that explores the transcendent aspect of longing rather than solely aiming for sexy subversion. She’s not even trying to be sexy here—the emphasis is on the emotion of teenage infatuation, which can feel sacred in itself.

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I attended parochial school for a whopping fourteen years. Plenty of my peers, looking back at their experiences with Catholic education, admitted that they developed innocent “crushes” on Jesus during their adolescence. Is this really shocking or surprising when Jesus is positioned within the Christian faith as “the perfect man”? Did countless Christian mystics not describe their devotion to Christ to using terms that might seem better suited for erotic literature? Erotica’s lyrics center this complexity, demonstrating that human nature doesn’t fall away even as one looks heavenward. The Gospel of Ayesha encourages listeners to cast aside shame while embracing hope (whether that’s hope in a higher power or hope that a late-night rendezvous will blossom into something more). This message certainly resonated with my peak-pandemic self—wasting away in my campus’ isolation dorm as I prayed for both a cure to the virus and a fun frat party to attend when I was set free—as it has resonated with so much of the COVID generation, reaching out for both meaning and pleasure in a society that often punishes the search for both.

I’ve seen Erotica perform twice now. On each occasion, I could barely hear her due to the incessant screaming from the mass of teens and twenty-somethings dressed like they were vying for spots in Erotica’s Top 8. All of them had stars in their eyes. Sometimes the scene queen shouted her choruses back to us. At other times, she wordlessly danced along or took the opportunity to tell front-row fans how gorgeous they were.

I didn’t mind, nor did anyone else. Even in silence, she reflected our emotion, our collective joys and frustrations and delusions—a beautifully blinged-out magic mirror.

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