Wrestling with “Sad Girl Indie” and the Limits of Rawness

Photo Credit: Alysse Gafkjen

Earlier this year, in a March listening party following the release of her acclaimed third album Little Oblivions, Julien Baker sat down with NPR columnist and host Jewly Hight and Mackenzie Scott (who performs as Torres). Their conversation revealed an uncomfortable undercurrent of the way today’s booming female indie musicians are framed in popular media: the ever-present discourse of “rawness” and emotion that accompanies critical reception of their work.

“Sure, call it ‘raw’ because it was totally spontaneous,” Torres remarked sarcastically; the term hardly applies to Little Oblivions, Baker’s first release with a full studio band and released after a lengthy reckoning with her creative persona. “It’s just a journal entry. Right.”

Hight describes this “raw” characterization as a misplaced focus on “purging as opposed to craft,” and once identified, it’s easy to see how often that lens is focused on the performers who comprise the loose umbrella of contemporary “sad girl indie.” The term “raw” has not only been used for Phoebe Bridgers’ debut Stranger in the Alps, but also her 2020 release Punisher, which was praised by NME for its sonic experimentation and Stereogum for its “biting, hilarious” lyrics. It’s been bounced around to describe Lucy Dacus’ Home Video, featuring “Thumbs,” a track so layered and personal that Dacus spent years refining and reconsidering it in live show performances that she asked audience members not to record. Last month, she released another version of the song, too, with additional instrumentation.

“Raw” is an odd term for the intimate, candid work of these musicians. It implies a certain undoneness, a lack of artistic focus resulting from ecstatic emotional clarity. It also connotes an ancient, patriarchal idea that art created by women is taken directly from personal experience, rather than the filtration of creative vision and process. Conor Oberst, for instance, a longtime influence and current frequent collaborator of Phoebe Bridgers, has largely escaped seeing his music called “raw” — except when he’s specifically sought it out

“When people hear ‘sad boy music,’ they don’t assume it’s a heartbreak,” Audrey Neri, who releases music as Cherry Flavor, points out in Marissa Matozzo’s zine Sad Girl Indie: The Genre’s Relevance in 2021. In contrast to “rawness,” men like Oberst, Christian Lee Hutson, and King Krule – who create music on the same emo-folk-indie pop spectrum that “sad girl indie” comprises – are seen as philosophical troubadours, engaging with emotion on an abstract level. Héloïse Adelaïde Letissier, who lays claim as Christine and the Queens to unabashed, public female sadness in “People, I’ve Been Sad,” put it this way in a recent conversation with Crack magazine: “even in art, women are refused the apersonal.”

Linked to “raw,” the term “sad girl indie” occupies a complicated gendered space in contemporary pop culture. It’s been cited as a space of solace by New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino, and claimed as a moniker of feminist community and genre by fans and certain artists. But it’s also been lambasted by Dacus, who doesn’t even consider most of her songs to be sad — as well as Bridgers and Baker, her fellow members of supergroup boygenius, who joined forces after being relentlessly pigeonholed and compared to each other as members of the “sad girl” set. These recent criticisms have led some to argue for abolishing the categorization altogether.

The question of who gets to be in the “sad girl” club has also been raised. Though sad girl indie has been praised for its queer narratives, transfemme musicians like Ezra Furman and Ethel Cain are rarely included in the conversation, to say nothing of the “girl” moniker’s implicit exclusion of nonbinary musicians. Discussions of Black and Indigenous artists like Arlo Parks, FKA Twigs, Black Belt Eagle Scout, and Indigo de Souza are also rare, though de Souza recently offered a compelling perspective on “sad girl indie” hagiography in the Michigan Daily podcast Arts, Interrupted. As TN2 Magazine points out, the women of color who are included under the “sad girl indie” umbrella (typically Mitski, Jay Som, and Japanese Breakfast) have been tokenized and ascribed troublingly-racialized descriptions like “feral,” in addition to the old standby of “raw.”

Of course, effusive emotion has always been a double-edged sword for women in the public eye, dating back to Victorian diagnoses of hystericalism, or even the dismissal of medieval “madwoman” mystic Margery Kempe for her public, psychosexual devotion. Reclaiming this patriarchal notion and finding strength in intense, uncomfortable vulnerability has been a hallmark not only of contemporary “sad girl”-ism, but also the musical forebears who influenced it. 

Take Joni Mitchell for instance, who Brandi Carlile recalls dismissing for being “too soft” before listening to Blue at the behest of her wife, which forced her to “reconsider what ‘tough’ is.” Proto-“sad girls” like Mitchell, Joan Armatrading, and those that followed in the ‘90s feminist punk and singer-songwriter scenes used the aesthetics of emotion to construct artistic spaces in a world that refused to listen to them, giving voice to complex narratives ranging from unwanted pregnancy to systemic poverty, environmental anxiety, and queer desire. This is echoed in today’s “sad girls,” whose music reckons explicitly with abuse, addiction, and mental health concerns.

The potential strength of sad girl indie, however, is diluted by the critical presumption that its artists’ songs are “raw,” unprocessed “journal entries,” rather than artistic acts of ownership and cultivation. It’s also vastly diminished by the exclusion of trans and BIPOC artists, for whom the reclamation of the complicated, ruminative emotions so key to the subgenre’s success is even more urgent. 

There may be hope for “sad girl indie,” if it can escape the “raw” paradigm and be considered expansively as a springboard for artistic community. At the very least, moving on from “sad girl indie” may offer a chance for something new to rise from its ashes: an evolved understanding of the queer and feminist undercurrents of today’s musical landscape, one that appreciates the complexity and artistry of its performers outright.

MUSIQUE BOUTIQUE: Joan Armatrading, Hard Nips, The Montreux Years

Welcome to Audiofemme’s monthly record review column, Musique Boutique, written by music journo vet Gillian G. Gaar. Every fourth Monday, Musique Boutique offers a cross-section of noteworthy reissues and new releases guaranteed to perk up your ears.

As Joan Armatrading recently told the New York Times, she was born to write songs; “I always say I can’t take credit for it because I did nothing for it. All I did was be born, and was then given this gift.” And there are always more songs to be written. On her latest album, Consequences (BMG), Armatrading brings her keen insight about the inner workings of relationships to a set of well-crafted songs of joy and heartbreak.

Given Armatrading’s generally upbeat outlook, there’s more of the former than the latter. The buoyant “Natural Rhythm” and “Glorious Madness” each capture the delirious, giddy rush of newfound love. “To Be Loved,” couples the lush harmonies of the chorus with wonderful observations like “Every day feels like a weekend with you around.” “Already There” is sung from the unique perspective of having already fallen in love and waiting for the object of your desire to catch up.

“Consequences” opens with watery-sounding keyboards before pivoting into a taut, edgy backing that’s perfect for illustrating the roiling turbulence that’s descended into a relationship. The closing song, “To Anyone Who Will Listen” is a heartfelt plea for connection, reaching out for solace. “Sunrise” is a laidback instrumental, with a shuffling beat, the lead melody traded between guitar and piano. Armatrading’s distinctive musical mix draws on rock, jazz, pop, blues (and she’s playing all the instruments as well), and arrangements featuring all sorts of percussive rhythms percolating underneath. It’s a great, optimistic album to welcome in the summer.

Hard Nips might have formed in Brooklyn in 2009, but their music has a late ’70s/early ’80s pop/punk/new wave vibe ‑ think Blondie, B-52’s, the Ramones. Smart and sharp, a bit of an edge, but a good dose of humor as well. The Japanese foursome (bassist Gooch, drummer Hitomi, and keyboard/vocalist Yoko born in Japan, guitarist Saki hailing from Long Island) are drawn as stylish superheroes on the cover of their new album Master Cat (Dadstache Records), soaring through the air as they spread the gospel of “sex, sushi and rock ‘n’ roll!!!”

Great, chunky guitar is to the forefront here, as you’ll hear from the kickoff, “Blender,” which also has a kitschy keyboard line. The album is mostly on the up-tempo side: the strut of “Workaholic;” “Analog Guys,” with its propulsive “My Sharona”-esque backbeat; the quirky “Motto.” Then there’s the moody “Cupid Devil,” where everyone gets a chance to be in the instrumental spotlight. The title track mixes it up, opening with an ethereal keyboard and a cool vocal, then shifting gears to a bright, poppy beat before spiraling down again into the mist.

“The Montreux Years” is a new series of recordings launched by the Montreux Jazz Festival and BMG, celebrating the many artists who’ve performed at the Festival, and featuring rare and previously unreleased material. And the first two releases in series are by some true legends: Etta James: The Montreux Years and Nina Simone: The Montreux Years.

James’ album draws on concerts from 1977 to 1993, with the CD version also including her first appearance at the Festival, on July 11, 1975. “I can’t speak French,” she explains to the audience at the start of the set. “The only thing I can say you might be able to understand is ‘Get down.’ Can you say that? Get down! Get down!” Having won the crowd over, it’s straight into a steaming version of “Respect Yourself;” sterling performances of the blues standard “Dust My Broom,” a slow and soulful take of T. Bone Walker’s “Stormy Monday,” and James’ own decidedly bawdy “W-O-M-A-N” follow. The album also features sizzling renditions of some of her best known work, like “Something’s Got a Hold On Me,” “Tell Mama,” and “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

Simone’s album features songs from each of her five performances at the Festival, including her very first appearance on June 16, 1968, the first time the complete show has been available on CD. It’s a riveting set, opening with Morris Bailey Jr.’s fierce “Go to Hell,” with potent lyrics that still resonate: “So you’re living high and mighty/Rich off the fat of the land/Just don’t dispose of your natural soul/Cause you know darn well/That you’ll go to hell.” You can never hear “Backlash Blues” too many times, and she reworks “Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and “House of the Rising Sun” and makes them her own. Elsewhere, Simone covers Bob Marley’s “No Woman No Cry” and delivers an absolutely stunning version of Janis Ian’s “Stars,” which is mostly just Simone and her own piano accompaniment.

As a bonus, this month also sees the digital release of Simone’s classic 1959 debut album, Little Girl Blue (BMG/Bethlehem Jazz), in a new stereo mix that gives the music a fresh, crisp sound. This album introduced the world to Simone’s unique mix of classical and jazz influences; check out her breezy performance on “Mood Indigo” and her inventive reworking of the title track. The album comes out on colored vinyl in July, and black vinyl and CD in August.