Meet Ava Max, the “Sweet but Psycho” Princess of Pop

Ava Max serves a girl power edge to her emotional ballads.

In the music video for her hit single “Sweet but Psycho” (which has amassed 78 million views on YouTube) Ava Max can be seen slinking down the stairs serving sultry looks to the camera one moment, and holding a knife as she charges at her lover the next.

Although the disturbed character she plays in the video is a far cry from Ava’s own personality, it does communicate a dualism that’s become her signature. “I feel like it’s important to show both of your sides,” she said with a laugh.

Photographed by Lauren Dunn

The music video for “Sweet but Psycho” is three and a half minutes of aesthetic psychosis. Stylized in a half-ironic way, the video reflects the complicated attitudes men appear to have with “crazy” women. In the beginning of the video, Ava’s character is psycho in a hot way: possessive, dominant, uninhibited. But by the end, these traits (the reasons the male character fell for her) have morphed into a nightmarish situation marked by the very same qualities, only now she is too possessive, too dominant, too uninhibited.

The video becomes almost satiric, a funhouse mirror distortion of relationship problems that many women face. Ava’s character is truly psycho; she’s parodying the dubious ways the word is often used. Women are taught to maintain a controlled image in their relationships: be emotional and feminine, but not too emotional and feminine, have a desire to be protected, but don’t be too vulnerable; you can only have a dark side if it’s sexy, otherwise you’re a psycho. Co-written by Madison Love, lines like “You’ll be saying, ‘No, No’ // Then saying ‘Yes, yes, yes’ // ‘Cause she messin’ with your head,” mockingly commiserate with the man in this relationship. By re-appropriating language used to gaslight women (“Oh she’s hot but a psycho”), Ava Max creates an unlikely feminist anthem, written by and for someone who has nothing to hide, who, furthermore, has fought for herself to be seen completely.

The music video’s seamless correlation with the song does not come as a surprise, given that Ava often thinks about the visuals as she’s writing.  “If I’m able to see the vision through the lyrics, I always think of the music video first,” she said. These visual sensibilities also translate to a distinct fashion sense (she loves Gucci, Versace, and Stella McCartney) and personal style, the piece de resistance of which is her asymmetrical haircut, now a hallmark of her brand. “Nothing felt like me. I cut my hair short on both sides and that didn’t feel like me. I wore extensions to make it really long and that didn’t feel like me,” she declared. It was an impulsive decision. “I ended up cutting one side and looking in the mirror and going ‘Ok. This feels like me. It was a crazy feeling. I was just staring at myself and I knew it was weird but, you know what?” She laughed elegantly, remembering the moment. “I have the best of both worlds now.”

This haircut is not a ploy for attention. It is part of crafting a distinct public persona, but it still manages to be authentic because, to Ava, these two things are not mutually exclusive. She strives to make little distinction between her public and private personalities, which is obvious from her fashion sense. “I like a thematic look. I always see [my outfits] as an experience. So when I show up somewhere I want them to feel something like ‘Wow I can’t believe she’s wearing that.’ [It’s] like a shock moment, [but] it’s more of an expression of myself. I always wanna feel comfortable in my clothes,” she said. This is not for the cameras; Ava’s disposition is that of a pop diva, and would be, regardless of whether the fame had followed suit.

Most importantly, this sentiment of authenticity is ever-present in her music. Inspired by her childhood favorites like Gwen Stefani and the Fujis, Ava believes in empowerment through emotion and vulnerability. It’s certainly a prevailing theme of “Sweet but Psycho.” “Everyone in the world has sides that haven’t been revealed yet. Everyone in general is always evolving into a better person. So for me, it’s all about being more open and honest. And I always wanna be more open and honest. I work with myself everyday. It’s okay to be vulnerable and I really believe that,” she said. Her fans’ interaction with these concepts is vital to Ava. “Personally, seeing all the fans reactions [to ‘Sweet but Psycho’] and how they relate to it and how they feel [was the best part]. They have different sides to them and dualities, so the song is relatable to them. I love it!” she exclaimed.  

Photographed by Lauren Dunn

Ava doesn’t really have to strive to unite her public and private personalities. She was born for the limelight, and always had a very particular/direct path in life. “I think I was super young when I decided I wanted to be in music and be a singer,” Ava said. “It started off when I was about seven or eight years old, when I did my first singing competition. I knew what I wanted to do at an early age, which can be a blessing and a curse for a kid. Most kids just wanna have fun at that age. But for me, I instantly knew what I wanted to do at eight.” She wrote her first song at ten, a cute little ditty imagining her future life. “It was called Dream Away, and it was very silly but it did have a meaning behind it, basically dreaming about my dreams, in a way, making them a reality,” she laughed. Because of the glamorous life she now leads, one might think she has always had it easy, but that’s not the case. The daughter of Albanian immigrants, she learned the value of hard work. “My heritage has definitely shaped my music and my character in a lot of ways,” she mused. “My parents worked super hard when they came to America. They had three jobs each. I didn’t really see them that much. I lived with my grandmother. My dad always says ‘You can’t get anywhere if you chase the money, you have to chase the work.’ So that stuck with me.”

There had always been a part of Ava that was the platinum blonde, confident, bold songstress that she is today. It was just a matter of letting the Ava that demanded to be seen, be seen despite anxieties and fears and a world growing less tolerant of those that are different. Ava went through many progressions, both in terms of fashion (from simple outfits to classy yet daring ensembles) and music (from R&B to more soul pop), but the most radical transition that she made was from hiding to doing what she was meant to do: commanding attention. “I think my voice is important because a lot of people hide behind a curtain. I’ve hidden behind that curtain for many years, and I finally opened up that curtain and finally showed who I really was,” she said. “And I think it’s important to show that to young artists, that it’s ok to be yourself and express your emotions through your music and through your lyrics, because at the end of the day, you’re inspiring so many people.” With her recent performance on the Late Late Show with James Corden, her upcoming performance on the TODAY show on January 25th, and her debut album coming out soon, it’s safe to say Ava can finally stop dreaming.


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