Who can really say for sure exactly how it happened, but Willow is everywhere. It’s a phenomenon happening both slowly over time and seemingly all at once. Nearly a year out from her pop-punk pièce de résistance lately I feel EVERYTHINGthe youngest Smith (as if you need reminding, WILLOW is the progeny of Jada Pinkett-Smith and ex-Academy member Will Smith and the sister of Jaden) has maintained a level of ubiquity that far exceeds a typical album cycle, and it no doubt sets the stage for a high-profile career, whether it’s in pop music or elsewhere.
Since the critically underrated lately I feel EVERYTHING, which puzzle-pieces into this decade’s return to the guitar in pop, Willow has jumped on a wide swath of buzzy singles with Machine Gun Kelly (the oft-mocked “Emo Girl”), Camila Cabello (the anxious “psychofreak”), Siiickbrain (the chugging trap-goth “Purge”), and PinkPantheress (the satisfyingly hyperpop “WhereYouAre”). But before we dig too deep into where Willow is now, it would help to map out where she’s been.
Due to her A-list parentage, a cynic would be quick to stamp WILLOW with the Zoomer term “nepotism baby.” Frankly, I think that’s selling Willow and her talent short — you can be set up for success, but what you choose to do with the advantage is a whole other matter. Like many stars with young children, Will Smith brought a then six-year-old WillOW in to play his daughter in the 2007 zombie-apocalypse thriller I Am Legendand she voiced a young Gloria the hippo in 2008’s Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, which also featured Pinkett-Smith. Again, nothing unusual — Phoebe Kates and Kevin Kline did the same thing with Greta Kline aka the indie-famous Frankie Cosmos in their 2001 film The Anniversary Party. Willow acted a little after that, showing up opposite Abigail Breslin in 2010’s Kit Kittredge: An American Girlbut that year would be much more defined by the still excellent “Whip My Hair,” in which a nine-year-old willow smrked at the camera, dipped her braids into a paint can (in the tape deck of a boombox!) , and did exactly what the song title says, with the dexterity and energy that only a pre-teen can possess.
Of course Willow’s debut song went viral: Unlike most child stars, she did not incubate in the Disney or Nickelodeon machine, nor did she make the infantilizing, dumb-down Kidz Bop-type songs that tend to torture parents in their SUVs. “Whip My Hair,” an attitude-filled, hyper stylized pop cut about ignoring the haters, has the staying power of “Born In The USA” or “See You Again” in its cross-generational appeal. The song was so successful, in fact, that it almost put Willow off of music entirely.
WillOW did release a few more singles after “Whip My Hair,” including the poorly received “Fireball” featuring Nicki Minaj, but as she told NME last year, “I didn’t make music for a whole year, which is insane for me.” .” She added: “I wanted to do other things to figure out if music was the real deal or not. But it just stuck, man. It would not go away. It’s like music was saying, ‘I’m in your mind and in your heart; your forever roommate. You could write a book if you want, but it’s not going to be your main thing. You’re not going to leave me behind and be an author.”
In the 2010s, WILLOW appeared to experiment with genre, releasing the pop/neo-soul debut ARDIPITHECUS in 2015, a soulful follow-up in 2017’s The 1st, 2019’s dreamier self-titled, and a more rock-heavy collaboration with Tyler Cole as the Anxiety in 2020. If you spend any time on TikTok, you’ll know that the Anxiety’s “Meet Me At Our Spot” — kind of the Gen Z answer to Keane’s “Somewhere Only We Know,” if you’ll indulge me — became a major sleeper hit the year after it dropped. For a while, mid-pandemic, all you’d see on the clock app were kids (and sometimes their parents) miming the arms-flailing “Meet Me At Our Spot” dance. And speaking of TikTok, which loves to breathe new life into older songs, whether it is a few years or a few decades, WillOW’s 2015 song “Wait A Minute!” has arguably replaced the much newer “Meet Me At Our Spot” with more than 1 million syncs.
Between then-YouTube sensation “Whip My Hair” and TikTok hits “Wait A Minute” and “Meet Me At Our Spot,” WillOW’s music, regardless of the year, has a knack for attaching itself to and taking off on whatever platform fans use to consume music and media. Adding to her overall omnipresence, Willow is even a mainstay on Facebook, where she co-hosts Red Table Talk with her mother and grandmother. The youth might want little to do with Facebook or Meta or whatever Zuck’s making us call it now, but the social network’s numbers still overwhelm, with 2.912 billion total users as of January 2022. And Red Table Talkwhere WillOW, Pinkett-Smith, and Adrienne Banfield Norris engage in more candid conversations among themselves and with celebrity guests than on your typical daytime talk show, has generated over one billion views since its premiere in 2018.
This pretty much brings us up to the present day, though I haven’t even mentioned the way WillOW, along with contemporaries like Olivia Rodrigo and GAYLE, have resurrected Y2K pop-punk, citing influence from genre standard-bearers Avril Lavigne, Fefe Dobson, and Paramore’s Hayley Williams. For Willow, it wasn’t enough to just name-drop and be done with it; she actually slid into her heroes’ DMs (Avril and pop-punk svengali Travis Barker, in particular) and asked to collaborate. lately I feel EVERYTHING tracks featuring Barker like “Transparent Soul” and “GROW” (also featuring Lavigne) are more about seeking authenticity and personal evolution. “GROW,” in particular, passes the Bechdel test.
Much has already been said about the way WILLOW interprets pop-punk and rock music, how she’s an example of an all-white, male-dominated genre diversified, and so on. But I think Willow’s reach will ultimately extend well beyond a few years and social-media micro-trends. She’s been laying the groundwork for more than a decade. Her niche is not so much pop-punk, though her shout-along vocals align beautifully with the genre’s inherent punch. Willow is a genius at positioning herself to be at the right place, with the right person, in the right moment.
Case in point, and unrelated to music: When the college admissions scandal broke and Laurie Loughlin aka Aunt Becky went to prison, who was at the Red Table, ready to have a take-no-prisoners discussion with Loughlin’s daughter Olivia Jade about privilege? And who has seen fit to cross-promote with a vast array of artists, from the aforementioned MGK and Barker to Camila Cabello, experimental pop icon Tierra Whack, and hip-hop’s oddball superstar Kid Cudi? Regardless of the tone each single takes, Willow brings her own energy to the process, as opposed to blending in. And even when a collaboration becomes more of a joke — see: the hilariously on-the-nose “Emo Girl” — you kind of get the sense that she’s in on it. Willow reads the room. As she told Nylon last year: “I think that there are a lot of things happening socially and politically, and I think that people just want to scream and growl and express themselves because this time in life and in America and on Earth is not easy, and it’s very , very chaotic and sus. I think that people just want to live and have fun and not feel like impending doom is always around the corner.”
There’s no reason to suggest that this hyper-awareness will abate with age, or as Gen Z gives way to Gen A. Whatever she decides to do in her life, be it music, acting, hosting a talk show, or none of those things , I have a feeling Willow will always be a conversation leader, never a follower.