Why is mainstream music suddenly so sad?

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      I approach the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on a beautiful evening, dragged here by a friend for a show I’m told is not to be missed. On the bill is Lauren Spencer Smith, a Vancouver Islander who has hit it big on TikTok, enticing millions of followers across the world with her powerhouse vocals.

      Outside there are thousands of girls ready to pile in, all decked out in their most sparkly getups, hair done, phones at the ready. It’s been a while since I’ve been to a show where the dominant audience is girls my age (I’m approaching my mid-twenties), and the giddiness is harmonious. I can’t help but think, “Wow, the girls are really thriving!” 

      Or so I thought. As the performance begins, Smith is swallowed by a choir of Gen Zers belting her gut-wrenching lyrics about love and girlhood. Each track builds to a crescendo of screaming and crying, all cued by Smith’s devastating ballads. Soon she arrives at her smash hit “Flowers”, and seemingly every audience member belts out the lyrics: “The version of you in my head now I know wasn’t true/Young people fall for the wrong people, guess my one was you.” The Queen E has transformed into something of a therapy session before my eyes. Everyone is sonically arrested by their own emotions. But somehow, there is relief. 

      Despite being an avid concert-goer, I had never seen anything like the crowd that Smith commanded that night back in August. And she’s not alone—there is a growing trend in mainstream music, and its popularity stems from a single emotion: sadness.

      Weeks earlier, Vancouver was graced by the holy trinity that is Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker of boygenius. The supergroup’s album The Record debuted at number four on the Billboard 200 and number one on the UK, Irish, and Dutch album charts. Like Smith, boygenius leads with melancholic lyrics and manic melodies. One of their most popular tracks, “Not Strong Enough”, plays off Sheryl Crow’s 1994 single “Strong Enough” by producing a sad ending rather than a happy one. While Crow asks, “Are you strong enough to be my man?” Boygenius answers with a hard no, writing self-loathing lyrics, “I don’t know why I am the way I am/Not strong enough to be your man.” This musical act brings a metaphorical wet blanket to every party, and despite their glass-half-empty outlook, their cult-like following is unmatched.

      Photo by Matt Grubb.

      This era of sad records isn’t exclusive to women, either. American singer-songwriter Noah Kahan has climbed the charts with his latest album Stick Season, selling out Rogers Arena instantly last August and booking it again for March 2024 (which has once again sold out). Stick Season articulates the experience of a lost love within the confines of a small town, with Kahan singing that “It’s half my fault, but I just like to play the victim/I’ll drink alcohol ‘til my friends come home for Christmas.” For a while, Kahan was the best-kept secret in the indie world. (In fact, I had the pleasure of accidentally meeting him after his small, one-night stint at the Commodore Ballroom in 2021, when he nonchalantly waltzed up to the bar for a post-show beer, no security present. Just two years later, this casual encounter would be near impossible.) With 1.8 million followers on TikTok, Kahan never strays far from heartbreak, existentialism, or depression in his music—yet he’s dominating Spotify playlists and selling out arenas worldwide.

      As for what sparked this sad-kid movement in music, I must turn to my generation. In 2023, all three of these artists skyrocketed in fame thanks to the powers of social media. And who makes up the biggest market of these platforms? Gen Z. 

      As a member of Gen Z, I will be the first to admit that sometimes we’re gluttons for punishment, proactively looking for music that will make us sad. But there’s more to it than that.

      On first listen, these types of songs can be interpreted as pessimistic or downright depressing—what they’re really offering, however, is understanding, and even community. Music is a form of expression; oftentimes, especially when we’re down, we look to music to validate our own feelings and experiences.

      These days, pretty much everyone my age starts the day by logging onto social media, where we can’t avoid the onslaught of bad news—whether it’s a GoFundMe for someone who lost their home; a new report on the rise of anti-trans hate; or another round of depressing stats about the climate, our digital consumption is dominated by destruction. There is no staying blissfully ignorant—we must be engaged. So cue the sad music. It’s the first step towards reconciling our reality. 

      We so often regard feelings of sadness as inherently bad. But I would argue that the most good is seen when we’re our most vulnerable. How are we supposed to connect if we can’t understand each other? And when you don’t have the words to face your own reality, what better way to process it than through music? 

      In periods of division and devastation, Gen Zers are changing our tune, translating our existentialism into empowered emotion. The soundtrack to our lives might be sad, but at least it’s real.