English singer-songwriter Arlo Parks released her first EP, Super Sad Generation, in 2019, when she was 18 years old. As the title indicates, it’s a downbeat record, a snapshot of late-adolescent lassitude, the kind streaked with recklessness. “When did we get so skinny? / Start doing ketamine on weekends / Getting wasted at the station / And tryna keep our friends from death,” Parks sings, on the title track. She is from London, but this vignette could be taking place in any town where the young and bored get wrecked together, while the music, which is underpinned by a modest hip-hop groove, is contemporary without being modish; it might have been recorded in 1999 as easily as in 2019. The EP’s most intriguing musical ingredient is Parks’ voice, which is low-pitched, nonchalant, a voice of seen-it-all experience at odds with the singer’s youth – or then again, maybe not. “In my age group, there’s a lot of prevalence of mental health [problems], being self-destructive, and quite hopeless,” she told online music magazine The Line of Best Fit, ahead of the record’s release.
Each generation believes it invents sadness and disaffection, and in a way it’s true, in so far as each generation must face a present it did not make but has inherited. There are always new reasons to be sad. In February, The New York Times reported on the rising prevalence of mental illness among the world’s young people, partly as a consequence of the social isolation and economic insecurity caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some of Europe’s youth psychiatric wards are filled to record capacity, and in the United States, according to survey data compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fully a quarter of 18- to 24-year-olds have seriously contemplated suicide.
“I’d lick the grief right off your lips,” sings Parks on “Black Dog”, the best song and the midpoint of her full-length debut, Collapsed in Sunbeams, which came out in January. “You do your eyes like Robert Smith.” The image of this person Parks addresses is vivid in my mind: their defensive bearing, the armour of their dark clothes, the way they trace over yesterday’s eyeliner with today’s. They move through the world as I did – as I still do, on occasion. The scribbly Smith, meanwhile, a human stick of charcoal, is leader of The Cure and a metonymy for all the sad kids and the songs they love to cry to, as he has long been.
Parks’ strummed guitar is set high in the mix against a wistful, repeating piano riff that anticipates the rising melody of the song’s chorus. “It’s so cruel,” Parks sings, her breath cut short on cruel as she arrives at the burden that the word indicates. “What your mind can do / For no reason.” This is a tender hook and a true circumstance: unwell teenagers caring for each other, believing – with some justification – that the world won’t listen. “Alice, I know that you are trying,” Parks sings, at the end of the second verse, higher and lighter than usual, the fragility of her phrasing emphasised by the vocal’s double-tracking, “but that’s what makes it terrifying.” “Black Dog” is compelling because each element of the song is bound together, or born together: an imperilled friendship, a circling arrangement, a melody that gets difficult for its singer to navigate.
Talking of songs that enact the trouble they describe, last year Parks and her fellow singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers recorded a performance for the BBC of the old Radiohead song “Fake Plastic Trees”. It’s available on YouTube; Bridgers sings the lead and Parks plays chords on the piano that in Radiohead’s version were played on an acoustic guitar. “Fake Plastic Trees” is not a million miles away from Parks’ own “Black Dog” musically, but if the latter song is about an anguish inhabited too long, then the former is about the struggle to inhabit genuine feeling in a world of ersatz emotion – a world in which a Coke ad can promise you “the real thing”, which means that everything, including one’s anguish about this, must already be a sham. Like I said, each generation finds its own reasons for disaffection, and angst in the ’90s, as expressed in pop music, was very much a reaction to the experience of living with, and through, a collapse of distinction between authentic life – whatever that had been – and a simulacrum of it, available for purchase.
Originally released in 1995, “Fake Plastic Trees” was one of the first Radiohead songs on which the band’s vocalist, Thom Yorke, working under the influence of Jeff Buckley, deployed his falsetto, which was limpid and controlled, a blown-glass sound closer to the effect of a boy soprano than to the ravening wail of a Robert Plant, say, or the dazzlement of Prince. “If I could be / Who you wanted,” Yorke sang, at the song’s wearied end, in a desert of artificial plants, plastic surgeons and strip malls, and his “be” was everything: high and lonely and notional, for there was nowhere to put down one’s carapace of anger and suspicion anymore, no way to be vulnerable. This falsetto, this false voice, came to characterise Radiohead, at least for a time, and birthed a lineage of male vocalists from Coldplay’s Chris Martin to James Blake, who patterned their singing on the clarity of Yorke’s tone but boiled off his irony, leaving a syrup.
Bridgers, too, sings it straight. And I could tell on first listen that this cover was meant to be reverent and beautiful, but when Bridgers sung the words “rubber plant” in her California accent I couldn’t help but hear “Robert Plant”, which reminded me of the rubber plant named Robert Plant that was housed for years on the windowsill of the artist’s studio I share: a joke that got funnier over time like a cheese accumulating flavour.
I’m sorry, Arlo, sorry, Phoebe, but I did a little snort-laugh, recalling Robert Plant (the plant), and then, less fondly, Robert Plant, whose extravagant demeanour used to scare me, until I grew old enough to conceive of Led Zeppelin as a burlesque. As she sings “Fake Plastic Trees”, Bridgers gazes at the ceiling and lifts her arms above her head a bit embarrassedly; the song’s emotional disclosure is embarrassing, unless you can remember that it’s meant to be a feint (until it isn’t one). Her long-sleeved shirt shows a skeleton, as if her guilelessness had made her see-through.
I got on a thought-train, then, and rode it out past the stations of the sad men, the interchange named Robert Smith, the Thom Yorke branch line, the other Smith, Elliott, and Drake looming down at me from every billboard along the way. I know the whole damn network, as do these women: the most palpable influence on Bridger’s much-lauded 2020 album, Punisher, is Elliott Smith, the soft-voiced, Portland-based songwriter who had a brush with mainstream recognition in the late ’90s, when his song “Miss Misery” was featured on the soundtrack for Good Will Hunting, and who died in 2003, aged 34, of stab wounds; whether his death was a suicide or a homicide is still undetermined. Either way, he’ll forever be Elliott Smith, mourned and celebrated equally, which is as it should be.
But there are stops on the network where no one wants to disembark: the stations where if you hang around for long you get called crazy. There goes Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears, Courtney Love, Sinéad O’Connor, Azealia Banks, and on and on, rushing past the window. The stations of the sad women, who are known as madwomen.
The shared musical ancestor of Phoebe Bridgers and Arlo Parks – the former leaning towards folk, the latter to electronic pop – is Beth Orton, whose own debut album proper, Trailer Park, was released in 1996, when a thing called “folktronica” was all the rage, which was one of those genre names invented by the music press. Sad songs, you know, but not too sad; sad songs by people who weren’t afraid of drum machines but who played more acoustic guitar than New Order did (they basically invented sad songs with drum machines). Sad but not furious, sad but not completely fucked up. Pretty-sad, which is the one type of sad that women artists get to be.
“I swear I’m not angry, that’s just my face,” sings Bridgers on the title track of Punisher, addressing some barfly-slash-imaginary beau who spends “most times alone”. And look, I’m not angry either, at least not with those aforementioned male musicians whose articulated sadness has given me a means by which to live quietly with my own. “What if I told you / I feel like I know you / But we never met?” Bridgers goes on. I love the fact that Robert Smith still kooks around being Robert Smith, and that Thom Yorke went from the most maladjusted young man in Oxford to a grey-haired yoga dad fronting his still melancholy band. I just wish more of the sad women had lived, too, and that the ones who are alive (Sinéad O’Connor, for example) were thriving as popular musicians rather than having been shut for years – decades! – inside a small box labelled difficult.
I’m not saying anything that hasn’t been said before about the double standard that applies to women who are careless enough – brave enough – to demonstrate their pain in public. But it seems one has to keep saying it, because part of the operation of the double standard is that, having demonstrated pain, a woman is not generally regarded as being a reliable witness to or a fair narrator of it; her pain, that is, which has no basis, and must merely be derangement or motiveless anger. Or she has misremembered it; false memory, false voice. Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. When Arlo Parks sings about what the mind can do “for no reason” I don’t think she means: there are no circumstances to explain your sadness. I think she means that the mind consumes itself, eventually, like a fire generating heat. If you’re lucky, you’ll be left standing in the ashes.
Bridgers, too, has a song about aftermath, which closes Punisher, and which she performed in February on Saturday Night Live, called “I Know the End”. The first third is a sketch of the touring musician’s frazzled state of mind: “Somewhere in Germany but I can’t place it / Man, I hate this part of Texas,” Bridgers deadpans. (The sad woman capable of being amused at herself is also a rarity, in public life.) She is alone; she has been left alone by yet another chancer. A Mellotron runs beneath this part of the song like the road beneath a tour bus. Then the pace changes, or rather, the pressure: first hi-hat, then kick drum, and a violin wheeling in the big blue sky above the tour bus. It all gets cathartic, pretty fist-in-the-air, even if the landscape that Bridgers traverses is hemmed in by fear and violence. “A slaughterhouse, an outlet mall,” she sings; she’s trying to punch through it.
At the end of her performance of “I Know the End” on Saturday Night Live, Bridgers smashed her guitar, though to describe it that way is to overstate it: she swung the guitar against her stage monitor, repeatedly, but it didn’t break. Still, it was enough to rile people on the internet, and I found myself doomscrolling Twitter threads about it, even though I don’t use Twitter; I just couldn’t look away. She shouldn’t have smashed the guitar because she wasn’t strong enough to smash a guitar. (The biologically determinist argument.) She shouldn’t have smashed the guitar because Jimi Hendrix / Pete Townshend / Kurt Cobain already pulled this stunt, in the old days. (The “nothing new under the sun, men got here before you” argument.) But worse than even these was the moralistic argument: Phoebe Bridgers shouldn’t have smashed her guitar because it’s been an awful year and destroying things (even though she didn’t destroy it) is wasteful, and really, she should have donated that guitar to charity.
I mean. Get. Fucked. Do you know for how long, how often and in what detail I have dreamt of smashing a guitar, any guitar, many guitars, endless guitars, which are after all only wood and strings put together by people (like my brother) who build them for an hourly minimum wage in factories? They’re products. It’s as symbols that they accrue power, which is why I have always longed to smash one, especially in public: to vent my bottomless rage at the patriarchy of the music industry – of the world – which the guitar stands in for, a gleaming phallus. I can think of reasons – many, many reasons – why a young female musician might be keen on smashing her guitar.
And that’s before I even mention what I think is the greater significance in smashing guitars or other instruments onstage at a concert, or live on a TV variety show, which is as a demonstration of the fact that popular music is a performance (of course), but an impotent one: powerless to lift us free of the wasteland of slaughterhouses and shopping malls and the sadness that this world induces. But it’s all we have – or I should say, speaking for myself, that I have often felt that pop is all I have, as a weapon.
“I saw something inside her break,” sings Arlo Parks, on a song called “Caroline”, observing a bus-shelter argument between a woman and a man. “Everybody knows the feeling.”
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