Stephen Sanchez, TikTok’s favorite crooner, is ripped from another era

Stephen Sanchez, TikTok’s favorite crooner, is ripped from another era

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It was 2023 at 9:30 Club, but the clock slipped back several decades once Stephen Sanchez took the stage. Greaser-suave, he swaggered from behind the golden curtain as a prerecorded voice rumbled: “Ladies and gentlemen, the tale you’re about to hear happened a long, long time ago.”

We’re back in the 1950s. Got it. But as anyone who’s messed with a time machine knows, you’d better have a plan. The space-time continuum can get sticky.

End of carousel

First, let’s rewind to 2021, when Sanchez released “Until I Found Her,” a lovelorn doo-wop ballad that feels ripped from the jukebox. The tune quickly found a home on TikTok, set under sentimental videos of lovers, and rushed to number 23 on Billboard’s Top 100. Then 19, Sanchez transformed from a singer-songwriter churning out Lumineers-adjacent folk pop to Gen Z’s favorite crooner.

It’s a niche that Sanchez has embraced with open, leather-jacketed arms. In September, he released a concept album, “Angel Face,” in which a troubadour Sanchez is a world famous musician in the late ’50s who meets and falls in love with Evangeline, the girlfriend of a mob boss, at a club. A torrid romance ensues until the singer is shot dead by the gang leader.

On Friday, Sanchez narrated the story to the second night of a sold-out D.C. crowd, which supplied abnormally frenzied shrieks of affection. But it was Sanchez’s voice that was most captivating — velvety, with a controlled, era-appropriate vibrato that echoes back to the likes of Roy Orbison. His vocals were topped with a stage presence that crossed Elvis Presley with Michael Jackson, with sharp little hand movements that exploded into full body shakes.

He most embodied Elvis on “Shake” as he sang, “Well, she was a-shakin’ to the east/ Shakin’ to the west/ An Elvis movin’ pelvis underneath a-that a-dress” — an on-the-nose rocker with fuzzy vintage vocals and glissando slides that served as firm timestamps.

But like most of his saccharine repertoire, the lyrics don’t go much further than a washy setting of twinkly romance at the sock hop. As Sanchez told NPR, he has a disaffinity for writing about his own life; with the exception of “Until I Found Her,” the songs’ meanings are fully fabricated. Maybe that’s why it’s his biggest hit.

His songs may feel like new covers, but it was on actual covers that he seemed to have the most fun. He launched into a raucous rendition of Orbison’s “Pretty Woman,” after a flirty, “Okay, boys. This one’s for your girl.” And his take on Hy Zaret’s “Unchained Melody,” stripped down with just him and an acoustic guitar, felt almost personal.

Sanchez has a shtick, and he does it beautifully. Who wouldn’t want to escape to his glamorous, long-gone world? Like fellow musical time-surfer Laufey, he provides nostalgia for a period from which Gen Z is far removed. It’s a perfect escape from an increasingly-dystopian reality, with a leading man who personifies (at least in song) the emotional vulnerability in relationships that 21st-century men are so often told should be abandoned.

But his whole performance might make you wonder whether we need a crooner in the digital age, and especially whether we need one with nothing more to add to a closed book. If he had anything new to say — about the era’s politics, about masculinity or romance, about love — it might be more effective. But for now, Sanchez’s time warp feels futile.

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