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Sad Girl: The Soundtrack of an Era

Music made by melancholic women is nothing new. The 1950s’ darling, Billie Holiday, has been credited with the popularisation of the ‘torch’ song, a sentimental ballad for unrequited love. Folk singers like Carole King and Joni Mitchell rose in the 60s and 70s. The 90s saw the surge of Fiona Apple, who remains a key figure in the Sad Girl genre today.


CW: mentions of climate change, mental illness, sexual assault, racism and death.


Originally published in Farrago Edition Two (2022).


From my many hours of research—that is, building up my Spotify streams—I have found three common conventions of the rising genre of ‘Sad Girl Music’.

  1. A man didn’t or doesn’t understand the complexity of your emotions.
  2. Feeling sad because you are so happy, worrying you’ll never feel the same again.
  3. Feelings of dread over getting older, God and/or the current state of the world.

Music made by melancholic women is nothing new. The 1950s’ darling, Billie Holiday, has been credited with the popularisation of the ‘torch’ song, a sentimental ballad for unrequited love. Folk singers like Carole King and Joni Mitchell rose in the 60s and 70s. The 90s saw the surge of Fiona Apple, who remains a key figure in the Sad Girl genre today.

Circa 2014, in the depths of the internet subculture of Tumblr, Marina and the Diamonds’ ‘Primadonna’ and Melanie Martinez’s CryBaby broke out in the alternative scene. However, none broke out in the mainstream like Lana Del Rey’s Born to Die and Lorde’s Pure Heroine. ‘Video Games’ and ‘Royals’ provided a contrast to contemporaneous poppy love songs. In 2017 Billie Eilish released her debut album, which explored themes of suicide, the death of friends, heartbreak and even climate change to cultivate an online image of sadness. Despite other Sad Girl artists bumbling in the indie scene, Lorde, Billie Eilish and Lana Del Rey were the select few in the mainstream available for those lacking serotonin.

Then 2020 happened. With the contextual background of Gen Z mental illness and climate anxiety, the whole world was thrown into an upheaving mess of disease and political mayhem. Also, Phoebe Bridgers released Punisher.

Evoking apocalyptic imagery, feelings of faithlessness, doomed love and tormented relationships with her father, her sophomore album cemented Bridgers on the scene, with her lead single ‘Kyoto’ now amassing over 70 million streams on Spotify. Punisher provided an accessible gateway into a genre that mirrors one's own sense of helplessness. Furthermore, there is no other indication that a genre is no longer alternative than when a mainstream artist climbs aboard. When Folklore by Taylor Swift received the Grammy award for Album of the Year, it cemented Sad Girl as a prominent genre.

Art production and consumption are driven by one’s surroundings; it either validates emotions or enables an escape from them. Romanticism was a response to the Industrial and French Revolution. Dadaism and Expressionism captured the discontent of society following the devastating loss of World War 1. All art movements used a medium most accessible at the time. With the rise of streaming, music is the most accessible channel for producing and consuming art.

With a global pandemic, constant headlines about sexual assault and deaths and climate change, we need a space for our feelings to be validated, and a lot of people have found this in Sad Girl music. But, like every artistic movement before this, and for every one after, there are inherent flaws. 

We cannot ignore that Lana Del Rey, the heroine of 2010s Sad Girl music, glorifies depression through a dainty Americana aesthetic imbued with white femininity. Despite the recent celebration of PoC artists like Mitski, FKA Twigs and Arlo Parks, there is a recurring cultural preference for the sad white woman. Whilst Pheobe Bridgers and Clairo are both queer, they still fit a beauty standard dictated by a genre guilty of perpetuating patriarchal, racist, ableist and anti-fat biases.

In an interview with Crack Magazine, tapping her fingers tentatively on an armchair, Mistki says, “The sad girl thing was reductive and tired like five-ten years ago and it still is today.” Despite my avid engagement with this genre I cannot help but agree. Why are songs by artists expressing the complexity of emotions that comes with being a femme person in the world today, especially that of marginalised identities, reduced to a shallow label? By being labelled demeaningly as a ‘Sad Girl’, femme emotional expression through art becomes subject to a patriarchal condescension that belittles them, deems them as irrational and are cast aside. Ironically, one of the aforementioned conventions of a Sad Girl song is explaining how a man failed to understand the complexities of the artist’s emotion. As listeners we are guilty of perpetuating this issue when we categorise this form of art into a demeaning label; we don’t appreciate the emotions of these femmes in a nuanced nor genuine way. We embody the Sad Girl's subject of sadness.

Yet, with all of this in mind, ‘All Too Well (Sad Girl Version)’ plays and not only provides the comfort of nostalgia but validates the current underlying distress the world is suffering together as a collective. Sad Girls provide a short, but necessary burst of release. And that’s all art can do.

Farrago's magazine cover - Edition Two 2023


What would you find if you walked through the looking glass into another time? Why are all the plastic googly eyes you spilt over your bedroom floor following your every move? The entire universe and beyond is your disco ball of scintillating possibility.

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