Sad Girling 101: 

Inner Turmoil and Benefits of the Void

Words: Willow Stewart
November 13, 2022

Female artists openly performing about personal disappointments, vulnerability, and internally falling apart is not a new concept. In recent years, though, they have undergone a boom in popularity, finding significant ground on social media platforms like TikTok and Twitter. Globally, listeners who resonate with the music written by those deemed “Sad Girls” are able to create parasocial connections and communities surrounding this categorization of music, typically shelved under indie rock.

The history of the “Sad Girl” singer-songwriter has roots in the late ‘60s with artists such as Nico. She was known for her distinct voice, deeply personal lyricism, and gothic approach to rock that connected with fans intergenerationally. Her tragic personal life bore an air of dejection that was beautiful and deeply intimate. With her so-called beauty-in-sadness, Nico was considered an influence on later generations of female artists, part of the first definable wave of “Sad Girl” music that came about in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.

‘90s artists such as Fiona Apple, Hope Sandoval of Mazzy Star, Sarah Mclachlan, Tracy Chapman, Suzanne Vega, and Natalie Merchant of 10,000 Maniacs contributed to this emergent phenomena. Mclachlan’s musical festival, Lilith Fair which ran from 1997 to 1999 (later revived in 2010), boasted exclusively women artists and was the epicenter for the ‘90s sad girl. Fans of indie rock in this style were able to find a tangible community, mirroring the communes found in social media and at festivals and concerts today.

While maintaining the previous generation’s traditional style of thoughtful, melancholic lyrics, the current landscape of the “Sad Girl” reaches a wider audience through streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music. Pioneers of this modern interpretation include Soccer Mommy, Lindsey Jordan of Snail Mail, Julia Jacklin, Jay Som, Clairo, and Beabadoobee.

Supergroup Boygenius (a trio composed of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker) has openly criticized the title of “Sad Girl” for flattening women of this strain into one dimension. Female artists in the music industry are not given the same opportunity to be seen as complex artists as their male counterparts—instead, they are monetized, marketed, and given the inevitable label of “Sad Girl,” ultimately reducing their vulnerability, their mental health struggles, and their inner turmoil. In Boygenius’ 2018 interview with the website Jezebel, Bridgers mentions that she does not, “want to sell people the idea that wallowing in your own misery is the thing.”

Producing melancholic songs automatically writes female singer-songwriters off as “Sad Girls” rather than introspective artists with meaningful lyrics. In the same Jezebel interview, Dacus alludes to the acceptance of female artists, albeit shallow:

“I think it’s because people think emotional girls are sad. That’s the emotion we can allow for girls, that’s the emotion we can understand.”

So why even consider some artists “Sad Girls” when the music industry consistently fails to acknowledge their complexity and multi-dimensional work? Baker of Boygenius gives perspective on the benefits of this categorization in a Harper’s Bazaar interview that was published earlier this year:

“It’s not a bad thing to be discontent… to meditate on dark things—not because I want to wallow in them but because I don’t want to look away. I want to be present and acknowledge the dark and harmful behaviors within myself and unpack them. I want to show up, be aware of what’s happening in this world and the suffering that’s ongoing that I am complicit in and have a hand in, and try to work out a more compassionate relationship to my community. I don’t think it’s a bad thing to stare into the void. You can learn a lot from the void, maybe.”

The introspective songwriting that Baker describes allows these so-called “Sad Girls” to use music as a method for personal healing, and as a way to create connections with listeners that know what it’s like to live in a world ridden with constant turbulence.

The genre of “Sad Girl” music gives listeners the acknowledgment that they are not alone in their feelings of loneliness and sadness through complex, honest, and tragically beautiful compositions. It’s about being able to openly meditate on darker feelings, and it emphasizes the notion that music does not have to be upbeat to leave an impact. A twenty-something with a guitar and emotionally charged lyrics is just as impactful as upbeat, heavily produced artists just as (if not more) dependent on the listener demographic.

While it’s important to appreciate the depths of “Sad Girl” music, there is plenty of room for this category to be more inclusive. There is an evident lack of diversity amongst the names foremost in this genre—most tending to be conventionally attractive, cisgender white women. while singer-songwriters of color don’t get the same amount of social media and industry attention.

Hopefully, with changes in culture and the growing inclusivity of gender identities that lie outside of the binary, indie rock will continue to experience a shift in the categorization of artists. There have already been noticeable changes in how music is cataloged, as seen with the rise in popularity of Spotify’s genre-less genre of music, POLLEN. Maybe one day there won’t even be a need to recognize female artists as “Sad Girls”, and those who are deemed to be part of this scene will simply be considered thoughtful and introspective lyricists.






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