Why the music of Billie Eilish, Gracie Abrams, Olivia Rodrigo and more resonates so widely

Olivia Rodrigue probably never imagined that a car ride through the suburbs would become a rallying cry for anyone who has ever mourned a relationship. But when she released her first single, the racing ballad “driver’s license”, in January 2021, suddenly she had the greatest song in the world.

“Driving license” broke streaming and rating records upon its release, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and inspirational social media memes. While not exactly uplifting – Rodrigo vividly details the devastation of trying to move on from an ex and laments the milestones they were meant to celebrate together – the song has become universally celebrated, sending listeners into a haze nostalgic for first sorrows. Everyone was screaming, crying and dancing at the same time.

“Driving license, one might say, is the latest showpiece of “sad girl” pop – the specific aesthetic of artists who write songs through a dreamy but raw lens of rage, longing, grief or rejection. The music itself creates a spectrum of emotions where you might want to sway at some point, but scream like Zach Braff and Natalie Portman at the rock quarry garden condition to another.

Although Rodrigo is one of the stars at the center of “sad girl” pop, she had percolated long before the “driver’s license” explosion. After all, artists like Fiona Apple and Alanis Morrisette were the poster boys for it in the mid to late 90s. But you could say that this iteration of “sad girl” pop found its roots in the 2010s, thanks to artists like Lana Del Reywhose palpable pain and loneliness have become must-have anthems like “Video games” and “summer sadness” ; Taylor Swift, whose first crossover success Red spawned the ever-heartbreaking fan favorite “All Too Well”; Robyn, who created the ultimate club cry banger”Dancing alone“; and MARINA, deals with the depressed Barbie era of her album Electra heart.

Even with all of its origins, “sad girl” pop didn’t really begin to form its own subgenre until Billie Eilish and his whispery, dark music emerged in 2016. Others have steadily begun to follow suit: Sasha Alex Sloan emerged with an aptly titled debut EP Sad girl two years later; Gracie Abrams’ intimate, diaristic tracks served as a major inspiration for Rodrigo (who later recruited Abrams to open the tour); Tate McRae turned her insecurities into ambitious, sad anthems like “she’s everything I want to be”.

While “sad girl” pop isn’t exactly new (most music trends are cyclical, of course), the way people latch onto it is. “There’s a cliché about pop that it represents a retreat from reality, a fantasy world of escape where listeners can leave their fears and anxieties behind in a vision of Katy Perry‘s ‘Teenage Dream’ or fun.‘We Are Young,'” says Nate Sloan, host of Pop-enabled and assistant professor of musicology at USC Thornton School of Music. “But modern listeners – especially young people – are pushing back against this paradigm, celebrating artists like Billie Eilish, Halseyand girl in redwho do not fear the problems of the world but sublimate them in their music.”

Their music, in turn, helps them deal with their own “lived realities”. It is equal parts a celebration of the artist and a community found for someone who, in a world apart, tells.

This is why the rise of “sad girl” pop is synonymous with the current state of the world. To varying degrees, we have all experienced the trauma of a pandemic that has not ended, particularly the mental and emotional toll of the isolation and anxiety that has occurred. There has also been the weight of police brutality, school shootings and the impending death of democracy that people have to bear. Finding solace in nostalgia — especially in pop culture — came naturally to many.

Some withdrew from the music, television, or movies they watched as teenagers, while others sought relief in music that evoked feelings of being young and carefree. It’s also why recent vulnerable and melancholy pop tracks have become such a balm — and ultimately solidified the power of “sad girl” pop.

But the group that seems to be drawn to this niche pop aesthetic is teenagers. It makes sense: Gen Z is coming of age at a time when there’s less stigma around discussions of mental health. Celebrities and entertainers are arguably more open about their struggles than ever – Shawn Mendesfor example, has often shared her battle with anxietysharing a super honest post with fans in April; Selena Gomez open about it bipolar diagnosis in 2020, and started a multimedia company dedicated to mental health This year.

And it’s not just young women who dominate this pop niche. Male artists love Conan Gray, dean lewisJeremy Zucker and Lewis Capaldi deliver chamber pop anthems ranging from angst to nostalgia, unafraid to showcase raw vulnerability. Their music has proven to resonate similarly, with Capaldi’s painful breakup ballad “Someone You Loved” reaching No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 2019 and Dean Lewis’ “Be Alright” reaching No. 1 on the song charts. Billboard’s adult pop the same year.

Read more: How James Bay found the courage to be vulnerable for new album ‘Leap’

“The shame is gradually being removed, so people are talking more about their feelings and their mental health — and the audience can relate to that, says Jodi Milstein, MA, LMFT, LPCC, music therapist.

When their emotions are reflected back to them in a song by a public figure, sometimes that’s the key to getting help and seeking therapy. “A lot of times we can’t tell people, ‘you have to do this, that, and that to feel better.’ We just have to lead by example,” says Milstein.

Gen Z is far less filtered than other generations and more outspoken about their own mental health issues, as 2018 American Psychological Association Survey and one American Psychiatric Association 2019 Report show. And it is not uncommon to see them pour out on TikTok or Instagram. But their hyper-vulnerable connection to music is also a result of where they are in their lives. Because their brains are still developing, they “tend to have a harder time modulating their emotions,” Sloan says.

“At the same time, they feel things more deeply than adults, especially music,” he continues. “Studies have shown that the developing brain creates strong neural pathways between music and emotion during adolescence, so the music we listen to at this stage of our lives tends to stay with us no matter how far we are from that period.”

Despite the lyrics – or even the mood – of the artist, “sad girl” pop is no different from other subgenres of music. “What’s true of ‘sad girl’ pop is true of all music: it’s essential to try to hear a piece of music as an expression, not as a fact,” adds Sloan.

In other words, the girl in red may sing about depression in “Seratonin,” but that doesn’t mean the listeners themselves are depressed. They might be, but they might also find catharsis or joy in hearing someone detail a similar experience. And at a young age, especially, there’s so much power in being seen and heard by a song.

“Several studies have shown that when listeners listen to sad music, they may experience [it] like it’s some kind of empathy with them,” says Jonna Vuoskoski, associate professor of music cognition at the University of Oslo. “Music is almost like a virtual friend.”

But as the music resonates, there’s a flip side to “sad girl” pop. The label, which has been leading the conversation around this music, may shrink for artists who pour their feelings into these songs. Despite all the aforementioned artists whose vulnerability has helped their listeners heal, filing music under “sad girl” erases a person’s emotional trauma — especially a woman — as something not to be taken seriously. .

It can also glorify the idea that it’s “cool” to be sad, which is rarely the intention of these artists. Ultimately, their songs are about as personal and vulnerable as it gets. They create deeply moving material – and above all a deep connection with those who listen.

“They speak for themselves – they set boundaries or set boundaries,” says Milstein. “On Instagram and Tik Tok, people go out there and say, ‘Hey, this happened to me, and I’m not going to deal with it anymore. People were more expressive. You see other people talking about [this] stuff, which before you didn’t see that.”

From Abrams to Rodrigo, these artists aren’t singing about their insecurities and pain for the cachet: they’re simply young women (and men) trying to navigate adulthood. What they share is courageous – and if they do decide to step out of the “sad girl” box they’ve been placed in, we should be ready to grow with them.

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