& I'll Cry If I Want To: A Selection of the Sad Girl in Music

Sometime in the 1800s, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, “every man has his secret sorrows which the world knows not.” A few years later, in 2012, Elizabeth “Lana Del Rey” Grant sang, “I got that summertime / I got that summertime / summertime sadness…”

First put forth by the artist Audrey Wollen, Sad Girl Theory argues that the sadness of a woman is not just a pesky stereotype she must overcome to present herself as a serious artist, but rather an emotion deep-seated and valuable enough to form the entire focus of her art. In an interview with Nylon, Wollen says,

Sad Girl Theory is the proposal that the sadness of girls should be witnessed and re-historicized as an act of resistance, of political protest.

From Lesley to Lana to Lorde, I believe that women in pop music have been on the front lines of this protest—and so, as a retrospective, as a thank you, as a history, as a selection, here are my top six Sad Girl theses: 

“It’s My Party” by Lesley Gore 

it's my party and I'll cry if I want to
cry if I want to, cry if I want to
you would cry too if it happened to you

Lesley Gore made this tragic party anthem her own in 1963. Although the song had been recorded by many different artists throughout the years, it was this unlikely teen pop star who brought “It’s My Party” and the Sad Girl perspective to the forefront of American pop culture. Throughout the 60s and beyond, Lesley would croon on radios nationwide about cheating boyfriends, high school humiliation, and crying alone in the bathroom at your own birthday party.

“Primadonna” by Marina and the Diamonds

and I'm sad to the core, core, core
every day is a chore, chore, chore
when you give, I want more, more, more
I wanna be adored

Flash forward to 2012: the Electra Heart album has just hit the internet and teen girls everywhere are dancing alone in pink bedrooms, scrolling through Tumblr while Marina and the Diamonds blasts in their headphones. With all her talk of diamond rings and beauty queens, the Primadonna Girl is in on the joke, actively complicating the image of Lesley Gore’s silly-minded bouffaunted blonde. The Primadonna Girl knows you are laughing at her. She’s fully aware that she’s a Sad Girl in the most clichéd sense of the term—but even with that knowledge, her sorrow is here to stay. 

“Summertime Sadness” by Lana Del Rey

oh my God, I feel it in the air
telephone wires above
are sizzling like a snare
honey, I'm on fire, I feel it everywhere
nothing scares me anymore

Joining Marina as an alumna of the 2012 Class of Sad Girl Scholars is Lana Del Rey, the valedictorian of female self-destruction. “Summertime Sadness” was one of Lana’s first breakout hits from the Born to Die album, famous for its vision of red dresses and hard kisses, humid highways and cars careening off of cliffs. Together, the song and music video demonstrate to the world something Lesley, Marina, and all former and future Sad Girls have always known: you can’t experience beauty without pain.  

“Everything Is Embarrassing” by Sky Ferreira 

hurts so bad, I don't know what you want from me
you know I'm trying, you know I'm trying
and now we're hanging on by a heartbeat
you know I'm trying, I was always trying      

Unrequited love may be the inspiration for Sky Ferreira’s 2013 hit, but at the heart of the song is a gnawing sense of shame. The protagonist, painfully contorting herself to please an imagined lover, conjures images of wax strips and popped blisters and the tops of ears clipped by hair straighteners, hitting deep into the core of every girl who has ever tried and failed and tried again to impress the bathroom mirror. 

“Liability” by Lorde

baby really hurt me
crying in the taxi
he don't wanna know me
says he made the big mistake of dancing in my storm
says it was poison
so I guess I'll go home

Just as the wave of sad girl pop began to crash in the later 2010s, Lorde’s Melodrama swam onto the scene. Failed love haunts the lyrics of the album’s second single, “Liability,” but more than anything, this Sad Girl anthem twists the concept of heartbreak inward. Stripped of any romance to throw oneself into, both the song’s protagonist and its listener are forced to confront their own gaping loneliness, impossible to cure even with another warm body near.

“Drew Barrymore” by SZA

I'm so ashamed of myself think I need therapy
I'm sorry I'm not more attractive
I'm sorry I'm not more ladylike
I'm sorry I don't shave my legs at night

54 years after Lesley Gore sang us the story of being cheated on at one’s own birthday party, SZA reinvents the tale. Jilted by a lover at a house party, the protagonist of “Drew Barrymore” spirals, imagining the inside of her body as being too cold for her lover—her legs too hairy, her face too ugly. If Lesley painted us the external portrait of the girl crying, alone, in the bathroom, SZA shows us the inside of her mind, swirling with self-hatred. 

The point to all of this theorizing and music-making is to form connection: to talk openly about what it means to be a girl and to suffer alone. Although Audrey Wollen’s work deals primarily in the visual, with Instagram being the go-to medium for her art and activism, I believe that Sad Girl Theory can’t be fully encompassed in the image. Rather, it’s in the written word and in music where the concept really comes alive. We write alone, read alone, and listen to music alone, earbuds constantly jammed deep into our ears, blocking out the rest of the world. And so, it only makes sense that these mediums have become the conduits for Sad Girls to tell their stories of quiet pain.

As Donna Tartt once wrote, the reason why anyone falls in love with a piece of art—be it a nineteenth-century Longfellow poem or a Lana del Rey song they discovered on Spotify’s Discover Weekly—isn’t because the piece possesses some magical, ubiquitous quality that speaks to the overarching human condition. It’s because that piece feels like “a secret whisper from an alleyway” calling out: psst, you. Hey, kid. Yes, you. This is the beauty of the Sad Girl Theory.

We all have our Sad Girl songs. These are the ones that hit right at the center of our biggest shames, our runny mascara nights. These are our whispers from the alleyway. Sad Girl Theory in pop music says, okay. I’m going to sing about my heartbreak over a dance beat, and everyone can dance along, no questions asked. But if you look hard enough—no one else, you, just you—you might see yourself reflected back. And if you can see reflections of yourself in art, of your own heartbreaks and bellyaches and ravenous sadness and stretching want, then you can, as the theory goes, change your world.