Music Analysis

Phoebe Bridgers and the Commodification of Depression

In 2020, Phoebe Bridgers released her second album Punisher to widespread critical acclaim. It was instantly my favourite record of the year and I was happy to see Phoebe reach a larger audience due to the record’s success. Across its eleven tracks are songs like “Kyoto”, an upbeat, breezy ballad about an unsatisfactory trip to Kyoto and her, understatedly, complicated relationship with her father. 

“Kyoto (Official Video)” by Phoebe Bridgers

There is also the somber title track where she muses about her relationship to celebrity and the strain of the obligation she feels to her fans. She also leans into existential longings on “Chinese Satellite” before narrating the end of the world on the stunning “I Know The End”. It’s a fantastic record that primarily explores the various difficulties and desires in her life. Her debut also dealt with similar themes and concepts, such as the breathtakingly beautiful “Motion Sickness” which is the song that made me a Phoebe fan.

“Motion Sickness (Official Video)” by Phoebe Bridgers

In a 2018 interview, Phoebe described what she refers to as “the commodification of depression”:

‘”Forever 21 probably has a shirt this year that says ‘SAD GIRL.’ It’s so romanticized and so kitschy,” Bridgers says. She can handle her music being called sad, but she doesn’t want it to seem like a gimmick. “I didn’t want it to come across as lazy songwriting, listening to me be like, ‘I’m soooo sad, blah blah blah.'”’

– Phoebe Bridgers / Source: (Murphy)

When I heard about this, I thought it was really interesting. Phoebe’s branding definitely leans into self-deprecating humour and nihilist tendencies but there is no doubt a difficult balance to strike when one sings so openly about mental health and trauma. For instance, a few months ago, Phoebe Bridgers fans (known colloquially as “Pharbz”) started the “phoebe bridgers is taylor swift for girls…” meme. This implied that, while both artists write heart-wrenching ballads and confessionals, Phoebe’s are often darker and make up more of her catalogue. An example of these tweets can be seen below. 

These two artists actually collaborated on a “From The Vault” track on Taylor Swift’s recent Red re-release and it is the perfect aural expression of this meme. Nonetheless, Phoebe’s Twitter is full of tweets and retweets of this nature. In December, she tweeted “my [Spotify] wrapped is just music for drowning to and silk chiffon” the latter referring to a collaboration she did in 2021 (traitor joe). Once again, this dark humour is inherently ingrained in her public image.

In the same interview referenced before, Phoebe explained how it can be difficult to be continually vulnerable with her fans. In connecting with music about difficult topics, fans find solace in the words and then look to Phoebe for answers or just help in general (Murphy). She said that she still has to figure out how best to console these fans while not coming off as dismissive (Murphy). Right now, she just tries to listen and be honest (Murphy). After all, she isn’t a trained mental health councillor or therapist and these situations can be extremely personal and sensitive. It’s, admittedly, a difficult line to walk.

Phoebe is also in a group with two other singers who may fall in this category: Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker. Under the name boygenius, they have only released an EP but they each often provide background vocals to one another’s records. Singer-songwriters Clario, Mitski, and Soccer Mommy have also gained a following in the last five years and are often grouped into this “sad girl indie” genre. While each of these artists do touch on heavy topics, Lucy Dacus was quick to point out on Twitter that not all of their music is sad and that it is dangerous to label them this way:

For proof, listen to one of her latest singles “Brando” below:

“Brando (Official Video) by Lucy Dacus

This raises a very interesting point that is thoroughly explored in the cited article by Natalie Geisel. The sudden popularity and interest in these singers, if solely branded as “sad girl indie”, can lead to a demand in the industry for this “commodification of depression” but specifically female trauma and pain (Geisel). Not only is this reductive, but it’s also extremely problematic. The work of male singer-songwriters like Elliot Smith or Jeff Buckley (major influences on the aforementioned artists), is often labelled as genius or talented (Geisel; Murphy). Meanwhile, the conversation around these “sad girl indie” artists can quickly devolve into quips about their continual sad content without acknowledging the talent of the individuals and the fact that they actually have fairly sonic and emotionally diverse catalogues (Geisel).

“rom com 2004 (Official Video)” – Soccer Mommy

Phoebe recently supported these sentiments by retweeting a tweet from “sad girl indie” artist Sloppy Jane which read:

If nothing else, this discussion should be a reminder that the music from these artists is incredibly nuanced and the product of unbelievable talent, not continual sadness. These are honest and raw confessionals and sure, some can be sad, but not exclusively. Now, as discussed before, Phoebe often pokes fun at these stereotypes, creating an online persona revolving around self-deprecation. This definitely plays into that dynamic but perhaps it’s a reframing of her categorization. She’s wearing it like a badge of honour while continuing to create a body of moving work.

And now… here is one of my favourite live performances of recent memory of a song that is already one of my favourites of the decade. And take notice of that big smile!

“I Know The End (SNL Performance)” by Phoebe Bridgers

Works Cited:

Geisel, Natalie. “Stop Expecting “Sad Indie Girls” to Be Sad All the Time.” Lithium Magazine, 2 Apr. 2021,

Murphy, Sarah. “Phoebe Bridgers Is Not Your Trendy “Sad Girl”. Exclaim!, 21 Feb 2018,

Sloppy Jane [@sloppyjanemusic]. “ppl on here are obsessed w equating liking sad music w being deeply twisted and dark as if sadness is not 1 of 3 basic human emotions.” Twitter, 3 Dec. 2021, 11:51 a.m.,

traitor joe [@phoebe_bridgers]. “my wrapped is just music for drowning to and silk chiffon.” Twitter, 5 Dec. 2021, 7:13 a.m.,

Completed as part of my Business of Music II course at Toronto Metropolitan University in the winter 2022 semester.

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