searchsearch
The Psychology Of "Sad Girl" Pop: Why Music By Billie Eilish, Gracie Abrams, Olivia Rodrigo & More Is Resonating So Widely
Billie Eilish performs at the 2022 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival.

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for ABA

feature

The Psychology Of "Sad Girl" Pop: Why Music By Billie Eilish, Gracie Abrams, Olivia Rodrigo & More Is Resonating So Widely

As Olivia Rodrigo, Tate McRae and more of pop's current leading ladies continue to pour their hearts out in song, three music psychology experts assess what makes their vulnerability so connective.

GRAMMYs/Jul 13, 2022 - 07:48 pm

Olivia Rodrigo probably never imagined that a drive through the suburbs would become a rallying cry for anyone who's ever mourned a relationship. But when she released her debut single, the racing power ballad "drivers license," in January 2021, suddenly she had the biggest song in the world.

"drivers license" broke streaming and chart records upon its release, debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and inspiring memes across social media. While it wasn't exactly uplifting —  Rodrigo vividly details the devastation of trying to move on from an ex, and laments the milestones they were supposed to celebrate together — the song became universally celebrated, sending listeners into a nostalgic haze of first heartbreaks. Everyone was screaming, crying and dancing at the same time. 

"drivers license," one could say, is the latest centerpiece of "sad girl" pop — the specific aesthetic of artists who write songs through a dreamy, yet raw lens of rage, pining, heartbreak or rejection. The music itself creates a spectrum of emotions where you might want to sway at one point, but scream like Zach Braff and Natalie Portman at the rock quarry in Garden State at another.

Though Rodrigo is one of the stars at the center of "sad girl" pop, it had been percolating long before the explosion of "drivers license." After all, artists like Fiona Apple and Alanis Morrisette were the poster girls for it in the mid-to-late '90s. But one could argue that this iteration of "sad girl" pop found its roots in the 2010s, thanks to artists like Lana Del Rey, whose palpable aching and loneliness became inescapable anthems like "Video Games" and "Summertime Sadness"; Taylor Swift, whose first crossover success Red spawned the still-heart-wrenching fan favorite  "All Too Well"; Robyn, who created the ultimate crying-at-the-club banger "Dancing on My Own"; and MARINA, care of the depressed-Barbie era of her album Electra Heart. 

Even with all of its origins, "sad girl" pop didn't truly begin to form its own sort of subgenre until Billie Eilish and her whispery, gloomy music emerged in 2016. Others have steadily begun following suit: Sasha Alex Sloan emerged with a debut EP aptly titled Sad Girl two years later; Gracie Abrams' intimate, diaristic tracks served as major inspiration for Rodrigo (who later recruited Abrams as a tour opener); Tate McRae has turned her insecurities into aspirational, sad-pop anthems like "she's all i wanna be."

While "sad girl" pop isn't exactly new (most music trends are cyclical, of course), the way that people are clinging to it is. "There's a cliche about pop that it represents a retreat from reality, an escapist fantasy world where listeners get to leave their fears and anxieties in a vision of Katy Perry's 'Teenage Dream' or fun.'s 'We Are Young,'" says Nate Sloan, host of Switched on Pop and assistant professor of musicology at USC Thornton School of Music. "But modern listeners — especially young people — are pushing back against that paradigm, celebrating artists like Billie Eilish, Halsey, and girl in red, who don't shy away from the troubles of the world but sublimate them into their music." 

Their music, in turn, helps them cope with their own "lived realities." It's equal parts celebration of the artist and found community for someone who, in a world away, relates.

Which is why the rise of "sad girl" pop feels synonymous with the current state of the world. To varying degrees, we've all endured the trauma of a pandemic that hasn't ended, particularly the mental and emotional toll of isolation and anxiety that has transpired. There's also been the weight of police brutality, school shootings and the impending death of democracy for people to bear. Finding comfort in nostalgia — especially within pop culture — was natural for many.

Some retreated to the music, TV or films they listened to when they were teenagers, while others sought relief in music that evoked the feeling of being young and carefree. It's also why recent vulnerable, melancholy pop tracks became 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 are teenagers. It makes sense: Gen Z is coming of age at a time when there's less of a stigma around discussing mental health. Celebrities and artists are arguably more open than ever about their struggles — Shawn Mendes, for instance, has often shared his battle with anxiety, sharing a super honest message with fans in April; Selena Gomez opened up about her bipolar diagnosis in 2020, and launched a multimedia company dedicated to mental health this year.

And it isn't just young women dominating this niche area of pop. Male artists like Conan Gray, Dean Lewis, Jeremy Zucker and Lewis Capaldi are delivering bedroom pop anthems ranging from angsty to wistful, overall unafraid to showcase raw vulnerability. Their music has proven to similarly resonate, with Capaldi's pained breakup ballad "Someone You Loved" hitting No. 1 on the Hot 100 in 2019 and Dean Lewis' "Be Alright" reaching No. 1 on Billboard's Adult Pop Songs chart that same year.

Read More: How James Bay Found The Courage To Be Vulnerable For New Album 'Leap'

"Shame is gradually being removed, so people are talking more about their feelings and their mental health — and audiences can relate to it," 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 need to do this, this and this to feel better.' We just have to set an example," Milstein explains.

Gen Z is much less filtered than other generations, and more candid about their own mental health struggles, as a 2018 survey by the American Psychological Association and a 2019 report by the American Psychiatric Association showed. And it's not uncommon to see them pouring their hearts out on TikTok or Instagram. But their connection to hyper-vulnerable music is also the result of where they are in their lives. Because their brains are still developing, they "tend to have a more difficult time modulating their emotions," says Sloan.

"At the same time, they feel things more deeply than adults might, especially music," he continues. "Studies have shown that the developing brain creates strong neural pathways between music and emotion in the teenage years, so that the music we listen to at that phase of our lives tends to stay with us, no matter how far we get from that period.".

Despite the lyrics — or even the mood — of the artist, "sad girl" pop is no different than other subgenres of music. "What's true of 'sad girl' pop is true of all music: it's essential to try and hear a piece of music as expression, not fact," Sloan adds.

In other words, girl in red may be singing about depression in "Seratonin," but it doesn't mean that the listeners themselves are depressed. They could be, but they could 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 can experience [it] as if it was kind of empathizing with them," says Jonna Vuoskoski, associate professor in music cognition at the University of Oslo. "Music is almost like a virtual friend."

But while the music is resonating, there is a flipside to "sad girl" pop. The label, which has helmed the conversation around this music, can be diminishing to the artists who are pouring their feelings into these songs. Despite all of the aforementioned artists whose vulnerability has helped their listeners heal, filing music under "sad girl" writes off a person's — particularly a woman's — emotional trauma 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. When it comes down to it, their songs are about as personal and vulnerable as one could get. They're creating deeply moving material — and an importantly deep connection with those who listen.

"They're speaking up for themselves — they're setting limits or setting boundaries," says Milstein. "On Instagram and Tik Tok, people get on there and will say, 'Hey, this happened to me, and I'm not gonna deal with this anymore.' People have been more expressive. You see other people actually 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 cachet: They're simply young women (and men) trying to navigate young adulthood. What they're sharing is courageous — and should they decide to move out of the "sad girl" box they've been placed in, we should be ready to grow with them.

How Tate McRae Turned A "Full Identity Crisis" Into Her Debut Album, 'I Used To Think I Could Fly'

FYI/TMI: Are Taylor Swift And Ed Sheeran Getting Together?
Ed Sheeran and Taylor Swift

Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

news

FYI/TMI: Are Taylor Swift And Ed Sheeran Getting Together?

Rumors surface that the two are in a red-hot relationship; Sony/ATV Music Publishing named top publisher of fourth quarter in 2012

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(In an effort to keep you fully informed, and fully entertained, below we present today's FYI and TMI — news you need and news that's, well, sometimes needless….)

FYI …

Sony/ATV Claims Top Publisher In Q4 2012
Sony/ATV Music Publishing, which in June 2012 acquired administration of EMI Music Publishing, was the top publisher in the fourth quarter of 2012 based on its 25.8 percent share of the top 100 songs during the period, according to figures released by Nielsen BDS. No. 2 was Kobalt Music Group (16.5 percent share), followed by Universal Music Publishing Group (15.9 percent share), Warner/Chappell Music (14.2 percent share), and BMG Chrysalis (5.3 percent share).

TMI …

Swift Getting Together With Sheeran?
Taylor Swift may never be getting back together with a few people — like, ever — but that isn't stopping her from joining "The A Team." According to a report, Swift and GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran were reportedly seen together at a hotel in late February. Adding more red-hot fuel to the fire, Sheeran collaborated with Swift on her latest album, Red, the name of which is also a tattoo on Sheeran's left arm. Since Swift and Sheeran supposedly dated briefly last spring, maybe they are, like, getting back together.

Taylor Swift Plots 2020 World Tour With U.S. Dates For Lover Fest East & West

Taylor Swift

Photo: Dimitrios Kambouris/VMN19/Getty Images

news

Taylor Swift Plots 2020 World Tour With U.S. Dates For Lover Fest East & West

Following dates in Europe and South America, Swift will land in the U.S. for Lover Fest East and West, where the pop star will open Los Angeles' brand new stadium

GRAMMYs/Sep 18, 2019 - 02:38 am

Taylor Swift  will be spreading the love in support of her hit album Lover.in 2020, but it may or may not be in a city near you. The GRAMMY winner announced plans for her summer 2020 tour in support of her seventh studio album, including two shows each in Foxborough, Mass. and Los Angeles for Lover Fest East and West respectively as the only four U.S. dates announced so far.

The tour kicks off in Belgium on June 20 and hits festivals in seven European countries before heading to Sao Paulo, Brazil on July 18 then heading to U.S. Swift will then present Lover Fest West with back-to-back Los Angeles July 25 and 26 at the newly named SoFi Stadium. The concerts will serve as the grand opening of the much-anticipated NFL venue. The tour will wrap a double header at Gillette Stadiuim in Foxborough July 31 and Aug 1

"The Lover album is open fields, sunsets, + SUMMER. I want to perform it in a way that feels authentic," she tweeted. "I want to go to some places I haven’t been and play festivals. Where we didn’t have festivals, we made some. Introducing, Lover Fest East + West!" 

Lover was released Aug. 23 and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200. Her sold-out tour for her previous album, 2017's Reputation, was the highest grossing U.S. tour ever, breaking her own record.

Tickets for the new dates go on sale to the general public via Ticketmaster on Oct. 17. 

news

"GRAMMY Effect" Spikes Sales

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

"GRAMMY Effect" Spikes Sales
The 52nd Annual GRAMMY Awards drove a 3.3 percent increase in album sales compared to last week, according to a Billboard report. The 2010 GRAMMY Nominees album jumped to No. 5 with sales of 71,000 units, a 55 percent increase. Top GRAMMY winner Beyoncé's I Am…Sasha Fierce rose to No. 14 with sales of 32,000 copies, a 101 percent increase. Other GRAMMY performers experiencing sales increases include Pink (up 234 percent), Dave Matthews Band (up 114 percent), the Zac Brown Band (up 82 percent), the Black Eyed Peas (up 76 percent), Taylor Swift (up 58 percent), and Lady Gaga (up 17 percent). Lady Antebellum, who also performed on the telecast, remained at No. 1 for the second consecutive week. (2/10)

Grainge Promoted To UMG CEO
Universal Music Group International Chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge has been promoted to CEO of Universal Music Group, effective Jan. 1, 2011. He will succeed Doug Morris and report to Jean-Bernard Lévy, chairman of the management board of Vivendi. Grainge will relocate from London to New York to serve as co-CEO of UMG in tandem with Morris for six months starting July 1. Morris, who has served as UMG chairman and CEO since 1995, will remain as company chairman. (2/10)
 

news

Pop Shines With 55th GRAMMY Nominations

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

This year's GRAMMY nominations are an eclectic, all-inclusive ensemble of nominees perfectly reflecting the wide variety of musical genres, tastes and trends that The Recording Academy celebrates.

Pop made a strong impact in the coveted General Field categories with nominations for Kelly Clarkson (Record Of The Year for "Stronger (What Doesn't Kill You"), Taylor Swift (Record Of The Year for her pop-tinged "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together") and Carly Rea Jepsen (Song Of The Year for "Call Me Maybe").

The nominations also marked a milestone for Fun., who received six nominations, including Record and Song Of The Year and Best Pop Duo/Group Performance for "We Are Young" featuring Janelle Monáe, and Album Of The Year and Best Pop Vocal Album for Some Nights. The Brooklyn, N.Y., trio also received a Best New Artist nomination.

"It feels good, very good," lead singer Nate Ruess said backstage at "The GRAMMY Nominations Concert Live!!" in Nashville on Dec. 5.

"American Idol" alum Clarkson is among the top female nominees with three nominations, including Best Pop Vocal Album for Stronger. Pink received a deserving nod in the Best Pop Vocal Album category for The Truth About Love, which hopefully opens the door to a performance during February's GRAMMY Awards telecast. (Side note: Pink's album features "Just Give Me A Reason," a duet with Ruess.)

It was a big night for British superstar Ed Sheeran, who grabbed a Song Of The Year nomination for "The A Team." Sheeran was overjoyed with the honor, tweeting, "I can't describe how happy I am."

GRAMMY winners Maroon 5 had a strong night with nominations for Overexposed, the group's self-proclaimed "most diverse and poppiest album yet," in the Best Pop Duo/Group Performance and Best Pop Vocal Album categories.

RedFoo and Sky Blu of LMFAO scooped up a Best Pop Duo/Group Performance nomination for their dance-pop confection "Sexy And I Know It," a deserving nomination for the world's most colorful party rockers.

Following a successful year for her GRAMMY-winning album 21, Adele's momentum is still going strong.  The proud new mom picked up a nomination for her live performance of "Set Fire To The Rain" in the Best Pop Solo Performance category. Adele was nominated alongside Clarkson, Rihanna ("Where Have You Been"), Katy Perry ("Wide Awake"), and Jepsen, the latter of whom was quick to tweet that she was "over the moon excited" with the honor.

With exciting pop newcomers and veteran pop artists nominated in the General and Pop Fields, the GRAMMY Awards telecast on Feb. 10 will without a doubt be Music's Biggest Night and a terrific night for pop.