OPINION: “Sad girl music,” and why fan culture is bad for art

A person holds a phone that is playing a song called "Everyone" by Mitski.
(Lillian Visaya • The Student Life)

If you’ve listened to indie music, spent time online or perused a Scripps College student’s Spotify Wrapped, you’re aware of the cultural impact of “sad girl music,” the soundtrack to the modern cool kid’s mental breakdown. But the recent treatment of singer-songwriter Mitski by her fans has illuminated the dark side of indie-pop stardom and the way we consume art in the digital age. 

Mitski joins Phoebe Bridgers, Clairo, Soccer Mommy, Lucy Dacus, Julien Baker, Snail Mail and Japanese Breakfast as just a few of the seemingly infinite singer-songwriters lumped into the category of “sad girl music.” The subgenre has become so popular online that it even has its own Spotify-made playlist. And it’s easy to see why. The creators of sad girl music sing about topics like mental illness, grappling with identity and living through what feels like the end of the world in an intoxicatingly honest way. 

This vulnerability has garnered the figureheads of sad girl music a large and incredibly passionate fanbase that trends young, queer and female. This trend has been positive in many ways, providing a community for fans and helping talented musicians rise to prominence. I personally connect a lot with the music and messages of sad girl music. Like picking at a scab, it can be satisfying to put on my headphones and feel like someone understands the pain I’m going through. That’s why Mitski was my top Spotify artist in 2021 (whether that’s a brag or a cry for help is unclear).

Despite my love for her music, I’m tempted to distance myself from a vocal minority of Mitski’s fanbase. Since she returned from a two-year hiatus and began touring her new album “Laurel Hell,” she has been met with frankly embarrassing behavior from fans. Imagine for a moment that you are Mitski, trying to perform emotionally resonant performance art while teenage fans scream sexualizing comments and stale TikTok memes at you. She also tweeted a request for fans not to spend her entire concert recording her, which some fans found so offensive that they took to Twitter in a display of frenzied entitlement until the managers that run Mitski’s account deleted the statement. 

Fans feel comfortable mistreating artists in this way because of the harmful way in which online fandom encourages fans to position themselves in relation to the art they consume. Social media has made people feel entitled to participate in the work and lives of artists directly. While at times this accessibility can be beneficial for establishing community, it has the tendency to become invasive and damaging. 

The term “parasocial relationship” gets thrown around a lot in reference to online celebrities, and while it does seem that a good number of Mitski’s fans forget that she is not their friend or therapist, there’s another layer to this that ties back to the “sad girl music” categorization. The mistreatment of Mitski and other artists stems in part from people viewing art as a part of their own personal identity. Social media’s maelstrom of performance, interactivity, and consumption has prompted many young women online to start defining themselves based on the media and aesthetics they consume, as Rayne Fisher-Quann explores in her essay “standing on the shoulders of complex female characters.” If you listen to Phoebe Bridgers, read Joan Didion, wear Doc Martens and watch Fleabag, you are a certified “sad girl.” Once you have defined yourself as a “sad girl,” you begin the search for even more media to consume and glom onto your identity that fits into the narrow self-concept you have constructed. 

Mitski’s music is raw and relatable for a lot of young people who are still finding themselves, so it’s tempting to add it to the identity pile. However, this way of approaching art is ultimately harmful to both artist and audience. Since fans view Mitski’s music and even her public persona as an integral part of their personal identity, they feel justified in treating her however they want. They have such an emotional connection to her music that they react with hostility if anyone tries to tell them how they should interact with it, even if it is the artist setting necessary personal boundaries.

In addition to the direct harassment, reducing the diverse range of subject matter, musical styles, and performance presentations found in Mitski’s discography into what is easily digestible as “sad girl music” does her work a grave disservice. For example, Mitski is notably one of the only prominent sad girls of color, and themes of struggle with racial identity in songs like “Your Best American Girl” are often overlooked, as they don’t pass cleanly through the relatability filter of the generically white “sad girl.” 

While it’s true that there’s no “right” way to interact with art, the obvious mental toll that modern fan culture has taken on Mitski and many other artists should make it clear that this is not respectful or constructive for the creative process. After the “Laurel Hell” tour is over, I wouldn’t be surprised if Mitski stopped releasing music again, driven away by the behavior of her fanbase. 

Exclusively consuming art and media through the lens of carefully cultivated relatability also inhibits the audience from fully experiencing it. Art doesn’t have to mold perfectly onto your personal experiences; appreciate art and music for their ability to challenge you and open your eyes to new points of view. It’s easy to get caught up in the frenzy of online fandom, but it’s worth taking some time to critically examine your relationship with the media and creators you enjoy.

Mitski’s plea to not record her shows was an attempt to resist her artistic expression being reduced to mindlessly relatable content. She writes, “When I’m on stage and look to you but you are gazing into a screen, it makes me feel as though those of us on stage are being taken from and consumed as content, instead of getting to share a moment with you.” If you’re gazing through a phone camera, or the narrow view of played out “sad girl” stereotypes, you might miss the art happening right in front of you.

Nikki Smith SC ’25 is from Boulder, Colorado. They enjoy hiking, poetry, and making oddly specific Spotify playlists.

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