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Lithium Stop expecting “sad indie girls” to be sad all the time

Oct. 8, 2021

You could say I’m “not like other girls,” just like the artists that fill up the majority of my Spotify playlists. Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, Lucy Dacus, Julia Jacklin, Clairo, Soccer Mommy—the list is infinite. What differentiates them from other musicians? They only need to check off two boxes to be classified as a "Sad Indie Girl": A. woman or femme-identifying and B. emotional. This label has created a genre that universalizes their experiences and music into a single representation of pain, encouraging them to continue trauma-dumping—all for their craft.

Last month, Lucy Dacus, one-third of the sad girl indie group boygeniusshed light on this problematic genre on Twitter: 

sadness can be meaningful but I got a bone to pick with the “sad girl indie” genre, not the music that gets labeled as that, but the classification and commodification and perpetual expectation of women’s pain, also i don’t think my songs are sad, anyways good morning ☀️

Dacus, the person behind every sad girl’s go-to breakup song, "Night Shift," is one of many who have been sorted into this genre. The 25-year-old musician argued that “sad girl indie” generalizes a diverse medley of music, thus commodifying and demanding these women to publicly express their pain through their art. Thus, “sad girl indie”—established in how successfully women’s trauma sells—was born. 

Julien Baker, another third of the musical trio, shared Dacus’s tweet, proving that although she sings about religious trauma and addiction relapse over melancholic piano chords, that doesn’t mean she has to be boxed into this category. Baker produced her latest album entirely on her own, yet her membership of the sad indie girl club ignores this talent, often forgetting to mention anything but a woman’s ability to tap into her sadness and share it with the world.

The same could be said for most musicians that belong to this genre. Phoebe Bridgers, the final third of boygenius and the face of depressed lesbian TikTok, sings honestly about abusive partnersloneliness, and the end of the world, grappling with complex emotions that are too intimate to be described in one adjective. Mitski has been deemed the most emotional indie songwriter out there, but this statement ignores her powerful songs that transcend her perceived emotions and identity as a Japanese-American woman in music. 

One thing these artists all have in common? They explore niche topics and personal anecdotes with grace, nuance, and musical genius, but are often failed to be recognized as such. Instead, the music industry slaps this label—“sad girl indie”—on any woman who expresses her emotions. It’s lazy at best but precarious at worst, revealing both the issues with the label and the need to invent more appropriate genres (or ditch categorization altogether).

When I discovered this genre, I was only delighted. I spent my high school years listening to men sing about tragic love stories or being depressed and wanting to literally disappear, feeling their sadness but not entirely connecting to their stories. But listening to women sing their feelings empowered me; if women could share their heavy emotions, so could I. It was once taboo to vocalize women’s pain, but it now became the expectation—a fault I didn’t quite understand until years after I started listening to these artists.

Men in indie music who share their emotions are applauded for their brilliance. For women, it’s a different story (as it always is). Spanning an even vaster array of poetics and musical novelty, their talent is dissolved into a single emotion—erasing their ingenuity, belittling their experiences, and creating the expectation to be publicly sad to garner more success. Men are named geniuses, but women become the blunt of a TikTok joke, wherein anyone who listens to Mitski or Phoebe Bridgers must be going through it, as if their discographies are only meant to be listened to during mental breakdowns.

As Dacus tweeted, the fault isn’t on the music itself. It’s not the vulnerable lyrics from her newest single, "Thumbs," which recounts a college memory of meeting her friend’s estranged father. It’s that we take this one example and use it to classify the musician herself; these women become their grief through this genre. They don’t get applauded for their ability to produce their own music or praised for how their voice reverberates while shouting into a guitar (as Mitski does when performing "Class of 2013"). They’re instead characterized as a “one-dimensional thing,” which Julien Baker said in a 2018 interview with her fellow boygenius members, noting how female artists don’t get the chance to escape this shallow version of darkness.

Sadness then becomes a marketing ploy, particularly for Baker’s trio. In the aforementioned interview, the three spoke out about the issues of commodifying mental health through their music. Phoebe Briders went on about how she “[doesn’t] want to sell people the idea that wallowing in your own misery is the thing”—a tactic that can further romanticize mental illness. Bridgers’ music is incredibly personal, sharing difficult emotions such as feeling guilty for being depressed and reeling from a toxic relationship in her debut LP. Yet her songs transcend these dark themes, although her tweets would disagree. She often celebrates solitude, writes about more than her own bleak feelings (like her musical obsession with Elliot Smith in "Punisher"), and even has a self-help-themed collaboration with fellow sad boy Conor Oberst. A fine line exists for these women who want to write honestly without becoming part of this ploy. Is it better to escape the trope by transitioning to an entirely different style? Or to create vulnerable and innovative music and risk losing its meaning, as any emotion they convey is reduced down to the sad-girl genre they belong to?

Mitski has also dealt with this dilemma, especially as the token sad girl of color, placing yet another limitation on the artist. "Your Best American Girl," a yearning anthem of sorts, is about her struggles to reconcile her desire to be culturally American alongside her Japanese background. However, many only fixate on her opening lyrics of “If I could, I'd be your little spoon / And kiss your fingers forevermore,” perhaps because her intention is too complex for the “sad girl indie” genre to cater to. 

Be The Cowboy, the artist’s latest LP, is her critique of “sad girl indie”—it’s an empowering collection of songs that represent an overdramatized character, challenging how fans have always viewed her as an autobiographical musician. Mitski, similar to Bridgers, said“I was always bothered when people say, ‘I cry to your music, it sounds like a diary, it sounds so personal,’” when they spoke of her older albums, noting how folks tended to only fixate on her sadness. Be the Cowboy is her attempt to break free from this reputation—even though people (including myself) regularly cry to its final track, "Two Slow Dancers." The emotional persona she’s crafted, obsessed with control but destined for grief, is only part of her—and Be the Cowboy distances herself from her music, suggesting she feels burnt out from the pressure of being everyone’s favorite sad indie girl. Her resistance to “sad girl indie” didn’t entirely dismantle the box she’s been pigeonholed into, and while she could exert more emotional labor to escape this trope, she instead took a much-needed musical hiatus. Now, she has switched gears and is writing a soundtrack for a graphic novel, finally freeing herself from her genre through an entirely new one. Is this the only way sad indie girls can be liberated?

An alternative could be for the artist themselves to declare what their music means. Lucy Dacus argues that her music is far more than sad, claiming, “But I actually have one sad song! Other songs are hard, but they’re about confidence and getting through it.” “Night Shift” is what many would assume to be the sad song she referenced, but this breakup ballad is actually an empowering anthem, as the artist evokes anger and the concept of moving on through her lyrics and belt-worthy outro. Her others are about being a woman in music or her relationship with her mother, but they’re oversimplified based on the assumption that “people think emotional girls are sad,” she said. “That’s the emotion we can allow for girls, that’s the emotion we can understand.”

Even when women make valid claims about their music—a form of emotional labor that men are never asked to do—they are still typecast as sad, as if women’s feelings can only exist inside a happy-sad binary. They write album after album, carrying new meanings and cutting-edge techniques, attempting to hold agency over their music to become an influential musician rather than a sad indie girl. But once a sad indie girl, always a sad indie girl. The industry will tell them to lean into their sadness as if it’s the only way they can be successful, but anything that digs beneath the surface (or God forbid, anger) is too much. Be sad in that hot girl way, wherein depression is “cute” but not hopeless. Really dive into your trauma to make art, but don’t you dare find a redemption arc, especially if it means you’ll evolve as a musician.

Maybe it is possible to escape this trope—these musicians can continue creating music, proving to the world that they have the ability to make art with more nuance than what is assumed of them. But even if the genre implodes, won’t we still expect their pain? Will their next nasty breakup or depressive episode remain private or instead become the basis of their next album? 

The solution might be on us—to decipher their music as a vast array of narratives and expand the sad girl into a fleshed-out musician who can do more than just feel. “Sad girl” doesn’t begin to do these women justice; their spectrum of moods and styles, from yearning to loneliness, heartbreak to anger to the realization that your growth is something to celebrate, demands more. Their discographies are not mere diary pages, but thorough explorations of emotion through musical innovation. For the industry to truthfully call itself feminist, music experts need to broaden their lazy “women in music” headlines by actually listening to these women. Their music just might teach them something.