Sad Girl Revolution

I’ve been thinking a lot about music, and the history of music, recently. I’m (very slowly), working my way through The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross, a history of music throughout the 20th century. I’m anxiously awaiting the television adaptation of Taylor Jenkins Reid’s novel based on Fleetwood Mac, Daisy Jones & The SixI’m appreciating the music of my middle school years as I rewatch Gossip Girl. Needless to say — I’ve been listening to a little bit of everything — 60s soul, 70s folk and rock, 2010s club pop, and today’s bedroom pop.

I’ve been particularly struck by how different “pop” sounds today. Most of the popular songs I listen to today are incredibly intimate and sad. Songs that in the past would have been deep cuts snuck into albums are now the biggest songs in the world. Critics have dubbed the phenomenon “bedroom pop” or “sad girl pop,” in honor of the (mostly) girls who make it, from, you guessed it — their bedrooms. As the internet has allowed young people to release their music straight to an audience, much of it really does come straight from bedrooms across America. Maybe you’ve heard of Billie Eilish? Yeah, she and her brother Finneas are famous for making her debut album from their bedroom. It won 5 Grammy’s (plus, she won best new artist for good measure).

One of the reigning queens of bedroom pop, Gracie Abrams, released a new album today. Good Riddance is a breathy, glittering, and incredibly personal record. I know that I for one have been entranced. Gracie sings about heartbreak, anxiety, growing up, and her own mistakes. I think my favorite track may be album opener “Best”, wherein Gracie takes responsibility for how horribly she feels she treated an ex.

But, the more I listened to the album today, the sadder I got. It wasn’t so much that the music was making me sad, though, heartbreaking is a word I would use to describe it. No, I was sad, because I was thinking about what its popularity meant for young girls.

I’ve been thinking about teenage girls and young women a lot recently. Recently, my high school, which has a widely acknowledged rape culture, has been in the news once again. Their lawyer, who represented the school and petitioned to strip a minor sexual assault survivor of her anonymity, was nominated for a federal judgeship.

Around the same time, The Washington Post reported that federal researchers had released a new report at the CDC and said that teen girls were, “‘engulfed in a growing wave of violence and trauma.” I can’t say I was surprised, but the numbers were sobering. 57% of teen girls reported feeling “persistently sad or hopeless,” 1 in 5 had experienced sexual violence in the last year, and 1 in 3 had seriously considered attempting suicide. In the weeks since, there have been countless think pieces as to why teen girls are in such a crisis. Michelle Goldberg’s opinion in The New York Times today offers some good thoughts — as much as we may want to blame climate change, sexual assault, and school shootings — the timing seems to most closely line up with the rise of smartphones and social media.

As someone who was a teenage girl not very long ago, that makes sense to me. But, I also don’t think it’s quite that simple. Social media and phones are often the stressor pulling us away from friends or toward toxic comparison. Maybe they are the what the data will tell us is leading the downward spiral. In my personal experience, though, it is an all of the above situation. Teenage girls are in crisis, because whether they know it yet or not, they are living in a world that is not made for them. It’s a world where they are assaulted, where big tech companies pit them against one another and the toxic ideal of a “perfect body,” where school is a constant competition, and yes, where the climate is collapsing and none of the adults in the room seem to be doing anything.

And that brings me back to Gracie Abrams. I was sad that her tragic album would be so popular, because of course it makes sense. Bedroom pop is popular, because teen girls are in crisis, and these songs offer a world where someone else gets it. Club music is no longer pop, because we aren’t going to clubs. Stadium rock isn’t popular, because we aren’t feeling loud or euphoric. Folk isn’t popular, because we aren’t gathering together to sing-along. Bedroom pop — quiet, sad, and intimate — is the perfect soundtrack for the teenage girl in crisis… sitting alone in her room, trying not to cry. Of course, my generation doesn’t have a Pete Seeger-like protest artist. It’s not that we don’t care, it’s that we’re listening on Spotify instead of the streets.

But maybe, the secret is that bedroom pop is a protest all on its own. In her album, Gracie doesn’t talk about climate change. She doesn’t talk about assault. She doesn’t talk about school shootings. She’s not asking us to pick which “side we’re on” or find our hammer to “ring out freedom.” Instead, she’s singing, “Despite this space between us/ I’ve never felt this close to someone.” She’s offering young women a spot to sit for a while in a world filled with people like them. And that’s radical.

The connection that music like this offers is real. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve bonded with other young women over the artists, movies, and books that are unapologetically made just for us. The cultural touchstones that get derided as “too girly” or “unserious” or “low-brow” tend to be havens where girls feel safe. Where we can connect with our peers over things we might not otherwise talk about.

I was struck by this video from a Gracie Abrams concert in 2021, where she talks about how hard her year has been and how she is thankful for the opportunity for connection. The crowd proceeds to scream the lyrics to the aching “I miss you, I’m sorry.” The connection and safety in that room is palpable.

Whether it’s due to smartphones or climate change, bullying or school shootings, teenage girls (and many other marginalized groups as well — like LGBTQ+ teens and teens of color) are trying to make it through in a world that tells them in a million small ways, over and over again, that they don’t matter. It’s dangerous and exhausting. I’m hopeful that in bedrooms and through earbuds across America, perhaps girls are starting to find the connection that will help them feel just a little bit better, a little bit stronger, a little bit safer. After that, the sky’s the limit. I have no doubt that today’s teen girls who survive to become young women will be planning to burn this extractive, patriarchal, fossil-fuel driven system down. I mean, listen to the power of the crowd at Olivia Rodrigo’s (another queen of bedroom pop) concert singing, “They’ll all be so disappointed/ cause who am I if not exploited!” The sad girl revolution is on its way. Watch out world.

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