How the nineties made the aesthetic what it is today
Charlotte Grimwade
15:25 26th September 2022

More about:

As the days gradually get shorter, there’s a new indie aesthetic to fixate on. That’s right, sad girl autumn is upon us. It might seem that this emotionally fraught time of year was spurred on by Taylor Swift’s release of the ‘Sad Girl Autumn’ version of ‘All Too Well’, back in November 2021. However, the genre has a history that goes right back to the 90s, with new artists and recent TikTok trends only heightening interest in this sub-culture of alternative music.

So, what actually is sad girl autumn? Think melancholic, lyric-heavy tracks, oversized flannel shirts, thick knitted cardigan sleeves perfect to cry into, and the dreariness of a grey autumn day. It juxtaposes the warm and comforting portrayals of the autumnal period seen in shows like Gilmore Girls, which instead romanticises the back-to-school season. Sad girl autumn embraces pumpkin-spiced lattes, embraces internalisation and embraces emotion to emphasise the days becoming progressively darker and shorter, as crisp leaves turn into pulp on the monotonous walk to the library. 


i love it and hate it

♬ original sound - _nabio ★

Just as there are sub-sections of autumnal aesthetics, such as dark academia, there are also different niches of music required to accompany the emotions of sad girl autumn. Nostalgia, female angst and a sense of ambivalence towards the start of a new academic year all combine to construct a simultaneously mellow yet emotionally intense soundtrack. The season therefore isn’t solely about sadness and doesn't require a slow, sombre sound – it’s simply about engaging with deep-seated emotions and memories. 

Mazzy Star epitomises the potential dreaminess of sad girl autumn. Their most famous song, ‘Fade Into You’, was released in 1994 and established a recurring engagement with nostalgia and heartbreak that can be seen in more recent music associated with the aesthetic. The track is hazy, timeless and deeply touching. It makes you feel like you’re in a coming-of-age movie, but the despondent kind. “I think it’s strange you never knew”, sings Hope Sandoval, reminding the listener of their own lost relationships. 

The original 90s icons of sad girl autumn have to be Mazzy Star and Fiona Apple. You only had to scroll on indie TikTok for a few minutes this time last year to find extracts from ‘Fade Into You’ and ‘Paper Bag’, acting as the backing tracks to perfectly edited video collages. ‘Paper Bag’ particularly encapsulates an additional obsession with Fleabag, Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation, and the emerging concept of “dissociative feminism”. In short, we’re witnessing a generation raised on Lorde’s ‘Liability’ rediscovering the iconic sad indie girl musings of the 90s. 

Fiona Apple is a prime example of the 90s countermovement against male gaze infused reality star, girl group, supermodel culture. Her music is the definition of raw, female angst and emotion. Apple’s debut album, Tidal, came out in 1996, followed by When the Pawn… in 1999. In contrast to the ethereal vocals of Mazzy Star, Apple’s voice is intentionally grating, with brash piano accompanying her slam-poetry-esque lyrics. 

Apple’s 1997 MTV Video Music Awards acceptance speech became an iconic moment for the star. “This world is bullshit”, proclaimed Apple, utterly disregarding celebrity culture in favour of her art’s own integrity. Cementing her reputation as one of the searingly sensitive women of alternative music, Apple’s work and relationship with fame undeniably influenced how feminism, mental health and aesthetic are all contended with in the Gen-Z sad girl autumn strain we see today. 

Other artists who reflect Apple’s intense musical reckoning with femininity and emotional openness include Indigo de Souza and Sidney Gish. The latter clearly incorporates the sometimes-jarring slam poetry style adopted by Apple, most apparent in tracks such as ‘Imposter Syndrome’, ‘Rat Of The City’ and ‘Presumably Dead Arm’. Like Apple’s stripped back instrumentation, Gish simply uses a guitar and her powerful lyrics to tell a personal yet universal tale of growing up and reckoning with past experiences. As with a confessional monologue, listeners are exposed to the innermost feelings of the artist. Indigo de Souza replicates these intense emotions through a more rock-inspired sound. In the screaming chorus of ‘Take Off Ur Pants’, the sense of catharsis is overwhelming. It’s definitely a sharp contrast to the more manicured and comparatively held back musings of artists like Taylor Swift. 

It's clear that the 90s were pivotal in establishing the core principals of sad girl music. As alternative women artists began to access a growing platform, exemplified by the creation of the music festival Lilith Fair in 1997 by singer-songwriter Sarah McLachlan, they became the antithesis of the global pop charts that revolved around sex appeal and stereotypical notions of ‘femininity’. 

Although it’s easy to reduce sad girl autumn to purely an aesthetic, something arguably propagated by Tumblr and now TikTok, it’s music is inherently political. Though sad girl music is for everyone and explores universal emotions, its origins in the 90s were about subverting the male gaze, embracing personal flaws, and contending with all-too-prevalent internalised misogyny.  

Recently, the sad girl autumn soundtrack has taken a range of different stylistic routes, from mellow jazz to folk-inspired indie pop. Mazzy Star, specifically Sandoval’s hauntingly beautiful vocals, definitely laid the groundwork for wistful, alternative indie music. Today, Faye Webster, Phoebe Bridgers and Japanese Breakfast take to the fore, creating deeply personal music that speaks to a broader coming-of-age experience. Anger and ambivalence fight it out throughout the genre. Whilst the bridges of ‘All Too Well’ and Lucy Dacus’ ‘Night Shift’ speak to a sense of internalised shame and bitterness towards past relationships, other artists embrace a quieter acceptance of the pent-up emotions that can foster during this colder and drearier time of year. Bedouine, Lunar Vacation and Alice Phoebe Lou all highlight the more ambiguous and complex nature of loneliness and nostalgia, demonstrating the varied routes sad girl autumn can take. 

Beyond the aesthetic pictures of black coffee, knitwear and barren trees, sad girl autumn suggests a time of reflection and contention with feelings of regret and nostalgia. It’s a genre very much founded in the 90s, as a genuine acceptance of angst and imperfection propelled the likes of Fiona Apple to the fore of what it means to be a woman in the alternative music industry. It’s surely an aesthetic that isn’t going to disappear anytime soon.

Listen to our Sad Girl Autumn essential tracks here:

Grab your copy of the Gigwise print magazine here.

More about:

Photo: -