Fetch The Bolt Cutters Fiona Apple Epic | Clean Slate 2020

Algorithmic Aesthetics & the Sad Girl Archetype

Editorials Jan 9, 2024

by Lauren Woodzicka

In September 2022, Fiona Apple’s music was abruptly removed from TikTok. Speculation and frustration ensued regarding the intent and basis of the decision, largely focusing on how Apple’s music had come to represent the “sad girl music” archetype, along with the tracks of other female musicians like Phoebe Bridgers and Billie Eilish. Sad girl music had become an entire brand, from Spotify’s official “sad girl starter pack” playlist (with the subheading: sapphic songs that described your music taste as yearning) to Pinterest boards titled “sad girl aesthetic”. The typecasting of female artists is simultaneously seen as a method of empowerment and a trivial exercise in commodification. By creating new genre labels and associations, the music is rendered new and interesting, only to become mutated through algorithmic comfort.

The TikTok algorithm in particular “will hone in on what you search for and present more and more interesting videos on that same topic” (Phillips). It becomes easy to get trapped in the loop of similarly marketed videos, which produces a kind of flattening effect for the material as a whole. Soon users inevitably get bored of the familiar content, which leads to TikTok showing new videos, but the basis of that content will still revolve around what a user knows and has expressed appreciation for. Eventually one’s “For You” (aka recommended) page becomes an interconnected web of associations with very little genuinely “new” content.

Much of this phenomenon is not unfamiliar. Labeling oneself and creating subcultures to describe and unite around a shared experience is not new, and neither is brands capitalizing on that. “Sad girl music” is another fixture of the internet’s ever-increasing homogeneity, all swirling around in the algorithmic abyss to create the ultimate targeted ad on Instagram. By generalizing content, it becomes more marketable. There’s a reason artists get typecast. It makes them—and subsequently their managers and producers— richer. My fascination centers around the increasing expectation for every day, non-famous young people, and women in particular, to market themselves as a discernable “type” and ultimately, a commodified personality.

The Harvard Business review estimates that women controlled about 20 trillion in global consumer spending in 2009, which was estimated to increase 10 billion in just five years (Silverstein & Sayre). Much of this spending is unsurprising, as part of the domestic labor traditionally assigned to women includes grocery shopping, home furnishing, childcare, and other routine expenses. And of course, one cannot forget about the everexpanding beauty industry, which is projected to reach a revenue of 625.7 billion by the end of 2023 (Statista). Social media, to nobody’s surprise, has hastened the increase in consumer spending, especially when it comes to women. There has been no shortage of studies, think pieces, and initiatives, surrounding the harmful impact that social media has on the self-confidence, and furthermore, the self-actualization of women. It feels increasingly normal to see the effects of this in real life. Working with young girls in my previous position allowed me to see this firsthand, and yet, I was not even phased. As someone who also grew up in the age of the internet, albeit less ubiquitous, I recognized these warped ideas and desires in my own adolescence.

Most women I know have developed a method of self-surveillance in their everyday life. Women are expected to accommodate the emotions and experiences of others more than men, and this is even more true for women marginalized beyond their gender. We are forced to ask ourselves: “how am I coming across?” as a method of survival, in order not to seem too demanding, too emotional, or really, too much of anything. This type of self-surveillance has increased within the digital age, where it is truly unclear where, and by who, one is being monitored. This is not an experience limited to women: it is most harshly experienced by Black and Brown individuals who are disproportionally targeted by digital surveillance strategies (just look up Minneapolis’ “Downtown 100” program). However, the sanctioned and self-regulated surveillance of women serves as an impetus for the increased spending power of women, and particularly the type of spending that enforces the gender and social expectations.

TikTok aesthetics, like the “clean girl”, “that girl”, and “sad girl”, all reinforce the idea that womens’ identities are best understood through their physical possessions, whether it be the through their physique and form or their culmination of material possessions (of course you can’t be a “clean girl” without a ten step skincare routine). In the case of my original focus, the genre of “sad girl music”, the actual experiences and artistic emotion that these female artists express is subsumed by the cult of marketing. Many fans of Fiona Apple—who herself is an active and longstanding advocate of unmitigated artistic expression—have speculated that her music was taken down due to the way in which her music was repurposed to fetishize and flatten female pain. TikTok users glamorized her history of mental illness, sexual assault, eating disorder, and addictions, all in order to create an aesthetic. And who can blame them, when the burden of proof falls on young women when it comes to legitimizing their emotions and lived experiences? If we can’t see it advertised to us, can it ever truly be real?

Lauren Woodzicka is a Twin Cities-based writer and youth educator. Among other things, she is passionate about movies, writing obscure ramblings in her Notes app, and spoiling her cat.

fsm. is an arts review journal and publishing platform covering contemporary arts in the Greater Fox River Valley of Wisconsin.
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