Sad Girl Blues
Updated: May 3, 2022
By Avery Poznanski
Pasadena native Phoebe Bridgers rose to indie stardom with her 2017 debut album Stranger in the Alps. Her style is characterized by warm, layered instrumentals and a soft vocal clarity, often incorporating imagery and contemplation surrounding death and its inevitability. The record’s first single, “Funeral” is soaked in economic bouts of melancholy, with lines like “Wishing I was someone else, feeling sorry for myself / When I remembered someone's kid is dead.” In Punisher, her 2020 follow-up to Stranger in the Alps, Bridgers’ voice and songwriting clearly matures, her production just as lush but more refined. In her sophomore album, she has developed even more control of her voice and perspective, narrowing in on death as a concept and a driving force towards the apocalyptic heartbreak at the center of the record.
Bridgers’ feathery voice, disarmingly poetic lyricism, and the public’s tendency to immediately ascribe the success of female artists to their male influences earned her a consistent comparison to the martyr of the melancholy indie singer-songwriter genre: Elliott Smith. Smith’s intimately personal, often despondent lyricism and stripped acoustic arrangement style earned him moderate fame during his career, until his untimely death in 2003. The honesty of his art established him as a pioneer of the early emo genre (a genre perhaps defined by being undefinable), but the mystery and romanticism surrounding his death cemented him as a cult icon. Upon hearing just a few of their songs alongside each other, it’s unsurprising to learn that Smith is a personal hero of Phoebe Bridgers.
“I’m obsessed with Elliott Smith, which is very common knowledge,” said Bridgers in a 2017 interview.
The influences of his writing style and instrumentation are easily recognizable in Bridgers’ discography, but the unique urgency and clairvoyance of her work stands firmly on its own. In the title track “Punisher,” Bridgers admits that her connection to Smith is largely fabricated by her own projection. In death, Smith has become not a person but a concept, an idol; his words untouchable and fleeting, his influence inescapable.
But why does Smith’s status as cult legend overshadow the nature of his death? There’s nothing romantic about his death, but it’s an inextricable part of his art’s legacy. In early emo and indie music an emphasis on “confessional” lyricism emerged, a specificity and intimacy that turned the focus on not only the music, but the deepest thoughts, desires, and turmoils of the singers themselves. In an industry and a genre where artists’ pain is so directly tied to their success, a conflict emerges between songwriting as a pure confessional act and producing music as a product to be sold. How long can an artist sustain a career derived from the emotional labor of displaying intimately personal feelings? And how are women, who are already taught to perform constantly devalued emotional labor, supposed to survive in this environment without being perpetually exploited?
Elliott Smith is remembered as a tortured indie hero, a martyr, and a legend. It’s hardly surprising that an artist like Phoebe Bridgers reveres him so. But Smith’s use of sorrow earned him reverence, not ridicule. Bridgers’ displays of emotion and artistry are compartmentalized and marketed as an aesthetic, and men on the internet revile her in response. In the comments of Instagram posts from the online music magazine Pitchfork, which seems to be especially volatile and heavily populated by men, she’s at best “overrated” or “contrived,” and at worst “narcissistic,” “insufferable,” or “nauseating.” Some go as far as claiming she pays Pitchfork for good reviews, or that she’s built her career off false sexual assault allegations. How does this criticism fester while her music garners critical acclaim? Because her feminine embrace of darkness, usually reserved for intellectual men and their expensive guitars, is unfamiliar therefore dangerous. Because when a woman is openly emotional, it’s no longer taken at face value as art, but is immediately labeled as weakness.
Just as fervent as her critics can be, the devotion of her fanbase borders on the spiritual. Onstage, she commands a shimmering, wraith-like presence. Her feathery voice and open, moonlike face are that of a woman possessed—touched in the head by divine purpose, echoing a deep anger, a bottomless sorrow, an excruciating yearning. Her work explores the patterns of sacrificing agency or individuality in desperation to feel wanted—reflecting patriarchal patterns that tell girls they must belong to someone, that their worth is determined by their sexual or romantic value to another.
But who doesn’t want to feel wanted? Haven’t we all been the teenage girl aching to be loved, willing to rake ourselves over the coals just to be seen? The specificity of Bridgers’ lyrics offers visibility to the dissonance between what girls are taught to be and who they are, and even how those mentalities can overlap. Her voice is uniquely feminine in timbre and intention. Ultimately, Bridgers reclaims pride in what young women are so often ridiculed for, and paints heartbreak the way it truly feels: like life or death. In the final song off Punisher, “I Know the End,” Bridgers details striking visuals of a decaying Americana, a spectral placelessness, and the end of the world itself (“No, I'm not afraid to disappear / The billboard said, ‘The end is near’”), culminating in a deafening chorus of gut-wrenching screams. She strays from the whispery-soft vocals that garnered her simultaneous praise and criticism, and allows herself to scream—loud, guttural, painful. It’s a startling, disturbing, but ultimately triumphant release of sound and energy. The wails of anguish and screeches of trumpets eventually fall away, leaving the last sound on the record a single, whispered scream. Quiet, but present. Demanding to be heard. The message is hopeful: heartbreak can swallow us whole, or we can scream in the face of darkness and fight to see the other side of our own undoing.
While performing the song on Saturday Night Live, Bridgers smashed her black Danelectro guitar against a monitor. A blood-curdling scream ripped from her throat and a look of victorious ferocity tore across her ghostly face. Unsurprisingly, men on the Internet could not hold back their distaste. The visibility of her anger and the accompanying passion of her fanbase pose a threat to the patriarchy that works so hard to silence, to suppress, to make quiet, happy, pretty. Unlike the lineage of guitar-smashing rock stars that came before her, her woman-ness is an impenetrable barrier. Bridgers challenges the notion that female artists will always fall to being perceived as woman first, artist second. Not a person expressing an emotion, but a Sad Girl.
The feverish anger and stubborn hope of “I Know the End” is perhaps an answer to
the subjugation of Bridgers’ music into the “Sad Girl” category. Carved out by artists like Joni Mitchell, Fiona Apple, and Mazzy Star, and rekindled by modern artists like Mitski, Taylor Swift, Lorde, Julien Baker, and most recently (but arguably most explosively), Phoebe Bridgers, the “Sad Girl” genre is characterized by intimately sorrowful lyrics and delicate instrumental arrangements all driven by an unapologetically female perspective. The act of resting in one’s sorrow without immediately seeking absolution or distraction undeniably translates to “Sad Girl” music. I argue that this act of catharsis is feminist in itself; a rejection of the idea that female emotion is inherently dramatic or irrational or most insultingly, a matter of hormones. For an immortalized moment, there’s an ownership and an insistence in the reality of one’s pain. The problem arises when a female artist is then classified as becoming that pain, unable to exist as a nuanced person outside of it.
Lucy Dacus, a fellow “Sad Girl” and frequent collaborator with Bridgers, tweeted in February that she felt affronted by the label of “Sad Girl” in that it represents “the classification and commodification and perpetual expectation of women’s pain.” The music itself is not to blame, but the way we essentialize women to their grief or heartbreak, with room for little else. While one could argue that all art is a commodification of emotion, there’s a particular way we perceive women’s emotions in art that violently flattens the facets of who they are as individuals. In the same way the patriarchy derives its power from women’s pain, the music industry has jumped at the chance to sell a “Sad Girl” image. Once women begin consistently expressing pain through their music, they are expected to churn out more to sell, neatly displaying their catharsis to be dissected and compared alongside the experiences of other women. Maybe “Sad Girl” is nothing more than a marketing tactic, a playful categorization. Or maybe it’s something bleaker—maybe it’s the byproduct of patriarchal systems that profit from suppressing the humanity and complexity of women. In either case, “Sad Girls” deserve to be sad, but they also deserve to be more than their sadness.
Phoebe Bridgers and her generation of Sad Girls may very well end up nothing more than a speck on the timeline of music. Women may always be too Sad or too Girl or too loud or too angry. But the tangibility of their pain lives in music’s ability to preserve a crystallized moment of their objective voice. Ultimately, art’s potential to forge community and understanding lies in those who choose to love it.
Music can intertwine the trajectories of love and death, reveling in the inevitability of both in the end. Phoebe Bridgers knows the end, and she comes out the other side every time
Avery Poznanski is a first-year English major at UCLA.