For the better part of a decade, indie rock has been ruled by sad boys and sad girls. It’s a bit difficult to pinpoint when exactly the gloomy and the morose took hold of the genre – after all, a key appeal of even the earliest indie rock is that it is created for and by depressed outsiders who can’t see themselves in mainstream pop music – but its roots are probably found in the 1990s, when singer-songwriters like Elliott Smith, Fiona Apple, and Tori Amos mined their own traumas and addictions to create intimate, soul-baring music broadly influenced by non-rock genres like folk and jazz. This stretched out into the 2000s with the likes of Cat Power, who sang about people trying to drown their sorrows at the nearest dive bar, and Sufjan Stevens, whose ruminations on love and death were insufferably pure. Death Cab for Cutie, The Microphones, Bon Iver, and Bright Eyes also wrote tearjerkers of their own that set themselves apart from bands like Interpol and Modest Mouse that wrote ostensibly sad songs but discussed their sorrow in a cosmic sense rather than a personal one – Paul Banks may sound tortured in “Obstacle 1,” but that song has nothing on Death Cab’s “I Will Follow You Into the Dark,” which almost fetishizes tragedy by making it seem like a personality trait.
Eventually, these two separate forms of sadness would synthesize into Hospice, The Antlers’ 2009 concept album about a love affair between a hospice worker and a woman dying of cancer that paired a singer-songwriter’s ear for maudlin intimacy with the epic sweep of Arcade Fire-style indie rock. This would also serve as sad music’s peak for a little bit, as the early Obama-era was dominated by the artsy “GAPDY” bands (Grizzly Bear, Animal Collective, Phoenix, Dirty Projectors, Yeah Yeah Yeahs), Vampire Weekend, MGMT, Passion Pit, Temper Trap, and kitschy Americana pop acts like Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes and The Lumineers. These bands were capable of writing personal music about sad subjects as well, but they were more interested in experimenting with bright sonic palettes that sounded a world away from the spare folk arrangements of their downbeat counterparts. Even chillwave, a genre that’s considered a reaction to the economic anxiety and listlessness experienced by elder Millennials during the Great Recession, is primarily escapist, wrapping the listener in warm, nostalgic synths so that they don’t have to face their troubles head on.
Determining when the switch flipped from uptempo and vibey to slow and sad is an inexact science, but if anyone popularized being a “sad girl” as an aesthetic, it was Lana Del Rey. Although Del Rey’s painstakingly curated and deliberate persona stands in stark contrast to the raw authenticity most contemporary sad boys and girls claim they aspire to, her swooning, internet age torch songs about loving and losing a series of modern day James Deans resonated with young Tumblr and Twitter users, and a trend was born. Although she continues to release well-received music, Del Rey’s particular strain of sad girlism feels dated, a relic of an age when Urban Outfitters was synonymous with chic and white kids semi-ironically appropriated hip-hop iconography and terminology with relatively minimal backlash (the Kreayshawn Window, as I call it). But the idea of sadness as a marker of quality and authenticity and a defining Millennial condition began to trickle down to artists operating within the ill-defined indie space. Half Way Home, Angel Olsen’s 2012 full-length debut, introduced listeners to the singer by stretching out her operatic range to its most mournful extent, and finds the singer pensively ruminating on failed relationships and mortality with the same lonely, searching mindset. While Half Way Home plays into a “sad cartoon country girl” archetype that goes back decades, Mitski introduced the sad girl template to punk and emo with her 2014 breakthrough Bury Me at Makeout Creek, which countered Olsen’s quiet contemplation with more direct, but no less artful, expressions of vulnerability. A million rueful female singer-songwriters followed in Olsen and Mitski’s footsteps, but these two stylistic diversions most emphatically met in the middle on 2018’s boygenius, an era-defining collaborative EP by era-defining sad girl singers Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker. Only a year later, sad girls slingshotted back into the pop mainstream in the form of Billie Eilish, whose when we all fall asleep where do we go? features a back half dominated by dreary ballads about self-harm and premature death that contrasted sharply with the sunshine-y pop of Katy Perry and life-affirming power ballads of Lorde that had dominated radio ten years prior. Two years after that, Olivia Rodrigo would adapt the sad girl persona for her melodramatic “driver’s license,” a slickly-produced pop song that nonetheless was labeled as “bedroom pop” because of its subject matter and disinterest in being catchy or danceable. All of a sudden, being sad made for big business.
Largely because sad girls dominated the indie world during that stretch, sad boys didn’t attract nearly as many think pieces in the 2010s, but they made their presence felt nonetheless. Sad boy veterans like Sufjan Stevens and David Berman (under the name Purple Mountains) both released well-received albums in 2015 and 2018, respectively, while Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes put out an album with Phoebe Bridgers under the name Better Oblivion Community Center. Ellliott Smith’s influence loomed large over artists Andy Shauf, who milked a break up for two full length concept albums, and Alex G, who adapted the sound and image of the sad boy in the service of creating music that would become increasingly absurd and abstract.
Many of these aforementioned artists have put out some of the best work of their era, and I’d even argue that Eilish and Rodrigo breathed new life into what had become a pretty stale pop radio landscape. But this nearly decade-long focus on sadness and misery has flattened the range of indie rock emotions and sucked some of the fun out of listening to music. Alternative/indie rock has always been a place where mopey young people were able to melodramatically express themselves – heck, The Smiths and The Cure made a career out of doing just that – but it’s also been the refuge of the class clowns, the slackers, the bored kids with nothing better to do than thrash around on a guitar and have some fun with free word association. As thankful as I am that I have Angel Olsen to listen to when I’m feeling down or Titus Andronicus to listen to when when I’m feeling angry, I am a little frustrated that I don’t have my own version of Pavement or Guided by Voices when I just wanted to chill or party.
But there are some signs that this trend may have started to wane – just look at Wet Leg’s self-titled debut album. It’d be disingenuous to say that Wet Leg is all sunshine and rainbows – a good chunk of the songs are about a break up (“Piece of Shit,” “Ur Mum”) or the anxiety of being in love (the aptly titled “Being in Love”), but the way these heartbreaks and frustrations are articulated differs sharply from the sad boys and girls that preceded them. A defining feature of many of these sad boys and girls is that they’re considered poets first, singers second. While that reputation is warranted by some objectively well written lyrics, many of these songs read much better than they sound – I like Phoebe Bridgers, but she’s demonstrated time and again that she doesn’t have much of an ear for hooks or catchy choruses. The consternation of some and to the occasional delight of this writer, Rhian Teasdale and Hester Chambers – the young British duo behind Wet Leg – are most certainly not poets, at least not in the Phoebe Bridgers vein. If anything, they’re a little too focused on hooks. Sometimes that leads to dunderheaded tracks like “Chaise Lounge” (whose chorus consists solely of “On the chaise lounge, on the chaise lounge, on the chaise lounge”/”All day long on the chaise lounge”) and “Oh No” (which, in the grand tradition of The 1975’s “Love It If We Made It,” unconvincingly tries to evoke the feeling of doom scrolling through social media), but it can also result in “Angelica,” which thrillingly recounts a particularly unthrilling party, and “Wet Dream,” a catchy kiss off that would make for a perfect car commercial sync if not for its racy title. At 28 and 27, respectively, Teasdale and Chambers may be the same age as your median sad girl, but with its extensive vamping and hangdog lyrics, Wet Leg is not weepy 20-something music. Instead, it’s bored teenager music, and after nearly two years in which the entire world hung around their homes like bored teenagers, even the album’s stupidest moments carry with it a kind of delirious resonance. The peak of this dumb-but-not-stupid approach is “Supermarket,” the album’s penultimate track and one that Teasdale says was directly inspired by the pandemic and the feeling of “queuing for Aldi and feeling like I was queuing for a nightclub.” With its lazily strummed guitars and nonsense backing vocals, “Supermarket” recalls slacker classics like Weezer’s “El Scorcho” or Beck’s “Loser,” while its infusion of sexual energy into a mundane experience (“I wanna shop ‘til I’m weak in the knees”) recalls the sweaty, nebbish eroticism of Jonathan Richman. “Industry plant” or not, Wet Leg are playing within the confines of a grand indie rock tradition.
Critics who praised the sad girl songwriters for their raw and soul-baring narratives might view the radio friendly production and chorus heavy songwriting of Wet Leg as inherently cheap, but so what? Some of us are talented enough to turn heartbreak and the drudgery of daily life into rich and detailed texts about love, the universe, and everything, but most of us have to resort to indulging in cheap thrills to make us numb to the point where we can eventually feel again. For too long, artists in all genres, but in indie rock in particular, have convinced themselves that they need to say something profound to justify writing a song at all. But there’s an honesty and a purity in admitting that you don’t have anything important to say, and that you’re just looking for any outlet at all through which to channel your unexpelled energy. That Wet Leg are so profoundly unprofound, and that they eschew wallowing in depression for more straightforward expressions of surface level emotions, is what makes their debut album such a success.
But this gratification-over-depression aesthetic isn’t limited just to Wet Leg. On this year’s Fear of the Dawn, Jack White adopts a similarly hamfisted approach to songwriting and instrumentation and works within the same pleasure-centric template. While The White Stripes were defined by the childlike joy Jack and Meg White brought to their music, by the mid-2010s Jack White seemed to have soured into a curmudgeon, releasing bitter and judgemental music and engaging in a petty feud with Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys. Some of that bitter and judgmental music was quite good, but it also resulted in “Entitlement,” the worst song of his career, and one in which he seemed to make clear that he believed he was better than everyone else. Surely but slowly, White has tried to reclaim ground as a fun rock star, first with 2018’s Boarding House Reach, a mish-mash of rock, hip-hop, and techno that’s also the first album of his to be made with ProTools, and then with the Raconteurs’ 2019 reunion album Help Us Stranger. While neither of these albums are “great” – Boarding House Reach is messy and unfocused, while Help Us Stranger is a little overproduced and generic – they were each a step in the right direction and a welcome antidote to the miserable music I’ve already spent hundreds of words describing.
Like Wet Leg, Fear of the Dawn is not necessarily a happy album – many of the resentful feelings White expressed on Lazaretto remain – but it is exuberant in its anger and frustration, and sounds like the most fun White has had on an album since the Raconteurs’ Consolers of the Lonely. Even “Taking Me Back,” which debuted as part of a Call of Duty ad campaign and felt like a generic rock radio single at first – takes an unexpected turn at its half-way point, introducing cascading synths and a swirling bridge. Fear of the Dawn is filled with these kinds of proggy diversions, and while some critics might consider them masturbatory, I find them oddly life affirming. From the quirky, kaiju-esque sound effects of the title track, to the industrial influences of “The White Raven,” to the winking patter of “What’s the Trick?,” Fear of the Dawn is an album that values off the wall sonic eccentricity and raw power over lyrical intimacy or depth. Once again, I understand that this is something that I, as a discerning listener, am not supposed to commend, but I just can’t help myself. I’ll always be attracted to music with a rock first, words second agenda, and it’s a style and philosophy that’s been in short supply in recent years. “Hi-De Ho,” which features a verse from Q-Tip, is borderline meaningless – just two veteran musicians riffing off each other because they can. But it’s also one of the most original rock songs I’ve heard in the past five years and, most importantly, doesn’t take itself too seriously. If even 46-year-old, post-divorce Jack White can find it within himself to lighten up, surely other, younger artists can as well.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with taking yourself seriously – and there’s nothing wrong with writing sad music. But the current indie rock scene is in desperate need of a counterweight to the dour status quo, and Wet Leg and Jack White offer at least some semblance of one. There are other pockets of resistance cropping up too. From the over-the-top hillbilly affectation of Big Thief’s “Spud Infinity” and “Red Moon” or Wednesday guitarist MJ Lenderman’s Michael Jordan-ribbing “Hangover Game,” some artists seem to be rediscovering a sense of humor and a teenage dirtbag approach to writing and recording that’s, ultimately, more pleasant to listen to than the countless bloodlettings we’ve been witness to over the past decade or so. It’s ok to cry – but it’s also ok to admit that you’re capable of having a little fun, too.