Amira Elfeky is the major label barometer for nu-gaze

Atlantic Records signed a Deftonesy TikTok breakout. What does her trajectory say about the commercialization of nu-gaze?

Amira Elfeky is the major label barometer for nu-gaze
Photo courtesy of Atlantic Records

Unless you're a Deftones fan under the age of 24 or reading my former place of employment, then you probably don't know who Amira Elfeky is. The twentysomething seems to be the most prominent major label response to the nu-metal/shoegaze crossover I dissected last week. She had a fairly viral TikTok song in the second half of 2023, "Tonight (demo)," and Atlantic Records released her debut EP, Skin to Skin, earlier this spring. Spotify also drafted her for a somewhat hauntingly pretty, somewhat cloyingly manicured cover of System of a Down's "Lonely Day" back in February. She's currently on her first ever tour opening for third-wave emo stalwarts The Used and Story of the Year.

Elfeky's career trajectory thus far appears to be following the modern playbook where an artist has a breakout single on TikTok and then gets scooped by a major who tries to spin their budding appeal into a formidable career. That's not "industry planting," that's just how the music industry works these days. The only reason Elfeky sticks out among the hundreds of artists who've charted that path in the 2020s is because nu-metal and shoegaze, the two genres she slips between, have not been appealing to major labels in a very long time. It's only within the last couple of years that those styles of music have become massively popular again (shoegaze less so than nu-metal), and I'm fascinated that Atlantic thinks there's money to be made in someone like Elfeky, whose sound wouldn't have had a home on a major even two years back. ​

I had no idea who Elfeky was until late last year when I started receiving emails about her from the Atlantic publicist who usually sends me stuff about Janelle Monáe. One press release called her a "nu-metal/alt-rock songstress" and situated her "at the forefront of a heavy rock renaissance." That's the kind of buzzword gibberish I typically see applied to girl in red wannabees, so I was immediately intrigued to see a Deftones worshipper being presented to music journalists with that type of stilted industry lingo. Outside of strategically vague press releases and a threadbare Instagram account, I could hardly find any info about who Elfeky was and where this major label nu-metaller came from, so I did some digging and learned that she didn't materialize out of thin air.

In 2021, Elfeky was releasing woozy synth-pop like the above song, "Dolores," which was once posted on the popular indie-pop YouTube channel David Dean Burkhart (it's since been deleted from there, but proof of its existence on the channel is archived here). "Dolores" was co-produced by Martin Cooke, a Grammy-winning producer who's worked with CHVRCHES, Young the Giant, and Of Monsters and Men, according to Genius. Another pre-nu-gaze Elfeky song, the Billie Eilish-fronting-Crumb "Say Goodnight," was on YouTube when I first started researching Elfeky a few months back. It's since been deleted, along with the following comment from 2023 that I found hilarious and apt: “2 years later she became the queen of e-girl post-deftones shoegaze underground 2-songs creators... and i fucking like it."

Clearly, Elfeky has been trying to make a career in music for a while now. You don't do sessions with producers like Cooke unless someone believes in you enough to finance that endeavor. What fascinates me is that, while I don't think either of those old Elfeky songs are particular good, both are more conventionally "accessible" than the music she's making now. Yet it's "Tonight (demo)" and her even more nu-metally follow-ups, "A Dozen Roses" (adorned with Linkin Park vinyl scratches) and "Secrets" (a blatant nod to Evanescence's "Bring Me to Life"), that Atlantic have seen as a worthwhile investment.

Elfeky's music is basically the point where nu-gaze ends and nu-metal begins. Her resemblance to contemporary nu-gaze bands like Fleshwater and Loathe — both featured in her "Fans also like" Spotify tab, meaning they have many mutual listeners — is more aesthetic than sonic. The only people I see using the word "shoegaze" to describe her are misinformed posters who think anything reminiscent of Deftones is shoegaze. Unfortunately, we live in a time where misinformed posters have more control over the shoegaze discourse than ever, so, like it or not, Elfeky is still orbiting around the genre in a meaningful way. To me, her most relevant association with shoegaze are the striking parallels between her career and that of fellow TikTok nu-gaze star Wisp.

Wisp's music is basically the point where nu-gaze ends and shoegaze begins. Her first-ever song, "Your Face," went TikTok viral in early 2023, and she signed to Interscope shortly thereafer, who issued her first EP this April, one week after Elfeky's Skin to Skin. According to Elfeky herself, "Tonight (demo)" had virtually the same trajectory as "Your Face." The song was a literal demo she had been holding onto for a while, and one day she just decided to throw it up on TikTok, accidentally catalyzing her career in the same manner as Wisp. The similarities don't stop there.

Both songs were made by the artists singing over pre-constructed rock "beats" (the instrumentals were digitally formed by a producer, not a band), thus bucking the band-in-a-room conventions of their respective genres. Both are distinctly lo-fi takes on historically hi-fi idioms, and on a purely sonic level, "Tonight (demo)" and "Your Face" sound quite similar; damply reverbed vocals but mixes that sound uncannily dry; big dynamic drops that're muted by cramped production; verse vocals that sound coolly aloof and choruses where the singer's yearning reaches a sweltering boiling point. Both blew up on TikTok within a few months of one other. Both are included in many of the same playlists. And going back to what I wrote last week, both represent either side of the same nu-gaze coin.

Another thing Elfeky and Wisp have in common is that the soaring success of their debut singles have yet to be replicated. They've both released about the same number of songs since their TikTok breakthroughs, and none of them have anywhere near the same amount of traction as "Tonight (demo)" and "Your Face." Those diminishing returns are not at all uncommon among the plethora of TikTok hit-makers (or rather, hit-stumble into-ers) who the majors have snatched up and then failed to launch over the last few years. Wisp is a special case in that category because shoegaze bands have rarely ever had hits to begin with. A song like "Your Face" was a total anomaly for the genre, and there's no real reason to believe that Wisp can't continue growing her burgeoning shoegaze career unless she produces another viral takeoff. She seems to be doing remarkably well as is.

But major labels are fickle. The industry doesn't have the capital or patience it once had to chuck money at a potential star and wait to see if it ends up being a worthwhile "investment" a few years down the line. Also, music trends move faster than ever. Remember all the TikTok pop-punk artists like jxdn and Huddy who were trying to ride Machine Gun Kelly's coattails in 2021? Three years later, jxdn has undergone a complete artistic makeover, and Huddy is making more or less the same style with a precipitous drop in streaming figures (33m to 642k between his 2021 and 2024 lead singles). Right now, Deftones-core is the flavor of the month, but unless Elfeky delivers another "Tonight (demo)" by this time next year, I wouldn't be surprised if she either departs Atlantic for a more metal-rooted label, or undergoes another creative overhaul.

As much as I love predicting those sorts of things, I'm trying my best to enjoy the moment we're currently living through. The song Elfeky put out last week, "Remains of Us," is a duet with nu-gaze mainstay Scarlet House. It's definitely her most overtly shoegazey single, and I think it's her best song yet. The breakdown at the end has huge orchestral swells and crunching guitars that sound like if Alcest cared about cranking their drums to fit onto playlists with $uicideboy$. It's basically a post-metally shoegaze song that was released on Atlantic Records.

I don't care if that's cool or not because it's at the very least interesting that it exists within this context. If the commercialization of nu-gaze starts and ends with major labels funding songs like "Remains of Us" for a year or two, there're worse fates. Seriously, go listen to that new jxdn song.