Do you listen to girl in red? To most adults, that’s a simple inquiry, but for teenage girls on social media, it means “are you a lesbian?” Even before releasing her debut album “if I could make it go quiet,” 21-year-old Norwegian singer/songwriter Marie Ulven (aka girl in red) has become an icon. This album’s first single, “Serotonin,” is also her first radio hit, but “We Fell In Love in October” and “I Wanna Be Your Girlfriend,” released in 2017 and 2018, have already gone gold. She has had all this success without the backing of a major label, instead deciding to release “if I could make it go quiet” on her own with distribution through AWAL.
Girl in red’s album also marks a coming out for the Internet-born genre of bedroom pop. Artists like Clairo and mxmtoon reached a wide audience, mostly made of teenage girls, by releasing roughly recorded tracks on YouTube, SoundCloud and Bandcamp. Like girl in red, Clairo and mxmtoon are both queer. Clairo’s current hit “Sofia” is a love song addressed to a woman. While Billie Eilish has been signed to Interscope since 2015, she took an aesthetic adjacent to bedroom pop to an even larger audience. (Her brother Finneas, who co-writes and produces all of Eilish’s music, also produced “Serotonin.”) After releasing two eps, girl in red made the move to recording her debut album in a professional studio.
The intimacy of bedroom pop was one of its biggest draws. Its circulation through YouTube paralleled the popularity of vlogs on the platform, and the notion of strength through exposing vulnerability owes something both to Tumblr and emo. Girl in red recorded “if I could make it go quiet” in Bergen, eight hours from her home in Oslo, and figured out her plans for its songwriting and production by listening to her demos on repeat for hours during that long drive.
If “Serotonin” is a calling card to an audience beyond girl in red’s core base, its frankness about mental health issues has a lot of company in the past decade’s music, from Soccer Mommy’s “circle the drain” to the late Lil Peep and Juice WLRD’s many songs linking their drug use as to severe anxiety and depression. Like “circle the drain,” “serotonin” starts with a guitar riff evoking ‘90s indie rock, but its brightness is ironic. The song’s chorus sounds upbeat musically, but the lyrics are less hopeful. The verses get grimmer as the song switches genres. Over a distorted, near-dubstep beat, she raps “I get intrusive thoughts/like burning my hair off/like hurting someone I love.” Without coming to a conclusion, “Serotonin” ends with an oddly distant sample of an orchestra and a few sentences in Norwegian.
Girl in red’s blunt attitude towards sex, love, and mental health is apparent simply from surveying this album’s song titles: “Did You Come?,” “Body and Mind,” “hornylovesickmess,” and “You Stupid Bitch.” The album covers an emotional range that acknowledges passion doesn’t always spring from the healthiest attitudes. Lyrics like “you stupid bitch/can’t you see?/the perfect one for you is me” do not sound any less ugly when addressed by a woman to another woman. But particularly on the album’s second half, she shows off a greater vulnerability, with “I’ll Call You Mine” accepting the risk of getting hurt in a relationship. As she accepts her life’s messiness, her song structures reflect this. Like “Serotonin,” “hornylovesickmess” drains its energy out over a long coda — this one consisting of mumbled, barely audible vocals and helicopter sound effects — rather than following a conventional structure.
If girl in red’s aesthetic reflects an agnosticism towards genre, she’s also basically making rock music. Most of the drums sound programmed, but the album is full of her guitar playing. “Kate’s Not Here,” recorded for last year’s soundtrack to the film “The Turning,” could’ve passed for a ‘90s alt-rock hit, and several other songs continue in that direction. Her cover of the Weeknd’s “Save Your Tears” changes its mood from a coked-up Miami nightclub in 1984 to CBGB’s in 1978. She’s also adept at piano-based ballads, like “Midnight Love.”
The album sounds big in a way that girl in red’s first two eps never did, taking musical inspiration from the melodrama of its lyrics. “If I could make it go quiet” is her equivalent of Eilish’s “When We All Fall Asleep, Where Do We Go?” because it is self-conscious about the prospect of reaching arenas. If she had something to prove, she fortunately brought her A-game as a songwriter.
GIRL IN RED | “if I could make it go quiet” | AWAL | Released April 30th
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