What happens when our sad girls get happy?

A look at the biggest "sad girl" musicians of the Tumblr Era, Lana Del Ray and Grimes.

Art by Oda Sofia

Story by Morayo Ogunbayo

It was the early 2010s, and teen angst had found a new home—Tumblr. Essentially a combination of Myspace and the early 2000s blogs, Tumblr quickly became a refuge for these teens, where they would spend multiple hours a day taking pity on their unfulfilling youths and obsessing over the artists that helped them cope with these emotions. Fans would attach themselves to their favorite artists perceived mutual self-loathing, and often saw them as a physical manifestation of their own sadness. However, as their fans soon found out, there was no guarantee that this sadness would last.

There were hundreds of artists who found their most impassioned fanbases in the annals of Tumblr, and then there were Lana Del Rey and Grimes. Similar to the modern day phenomenon of new artists living and dying by their TikTok streams, Tumblr fanbases became the lifeblood of these artists, and appealing to their sensibilities became a key part of their careers.  

Obsession does not begin to cover the mania surrounding Lana Del Rey on Tumblr, even in her pre-“Born to Die” days. Her melodic voice and melancholic sound transported listeners to a universe outside of their own, while also being more relatable than most other artists at that time. Her songs only worked to confuse the narrative surrounding her. On her debut single, “Video Games,” she sings of being the taken-for-granted lover of an old-fashioned, East Coast high roller. On the same album the single was featured on, “Born to Die,” she also sang “Off to the Races,” which tells the story of a troubled young woman in love with an evil man from the West Coast. However, the opposing worlds she built in her music somehow always fit into her “past.” She sang of rich men, fast cars and the American dream with all of its failings. Her public persona was even more entrancing, with long, dark hair that seemed to engulf her, and a mysterious past with no clear explanation. Was she a former meth dealer? Was she kicked out of her expensive Manhattan boarding school? Did she really have a West Coast sugar daddy?

When she first began to experience criticism from the public, first spurred by a far less than stellar Saturday Night Live appearance, this only fueled her admiration from fans. ‘She’s not like any other artist,’ they thought. ‘She’s not of this world.’

The most relatable thing about Lana was not her shady mystique or her unkempt performances. What drew fans—and kept drawing more fans—was that she was unrelentingly sad. She was openly sad. She would weep during performances. Even her singing voice often included a signature quiver during emotional lines. She was sad about what was happening in the world around her and she would be sad about the fictional worlds she created in her song. To her mostly teen fanbase, who were promised the world and had just learned that the world they were promised was gone, Lana’s sadness felt just right.

She also represented a rejection of the “pop-star.” She would wear long dresses and stand almost completely still through entire concerts. She was outspokenly political, which was a huge break from the stars that were filling the airwaves. While her musical identity was unflinchingly white, she collaborated with underground rappers and expressed a general admiration for Black culture. While no one could describe Lana as “woke,” she was almost post-woke. 

Around the same time as Lana’s rise, a new sad girl joined the music scene. Grimes, who also fostered a rise through Tumblr, represented a clear rejection of what was the modern music industry. Unlike Lana’s music, there was almost nothing melodic about her sound. One of her most popular songs, “Oblivion,” can be described as an incomprehensible, falsetto voice with two-bit video game music backing it. However, in this often confronting song, she sang of loneliness, and fear, and most importantly, sadness. While creating the song, Grimes claimed that she blacked out and relied on amphetamines. To her Tumblr-based fans, if you didn’t like Grimes, you didn’t get Grimes. 

Grimes’ music also featured fantasy worlds, and analysis of songs often required multiple articles and interviews to truly get. Grimes’ persona was openly chaotic and counterculture. She talked about doing hard drugs and, famously, had “anti-imperialist” in her Twitter bio. She didn’t have the look of other pop stars, with an appearance that she has called “weird.” Being a fan of Grimes was like being in on an ever-growing secret. 

There was never a set date when fans realized that Lana was not exactly who everyone thought she was. It was more like an amalgamation of unfortunate occurrences. Early in Lana’s career in 2012, it came out from many sources that she did not consider herself to be a feminist. While in 2021 there are nuances around that label that would explain why a civil rights-minded person may not consider themselves to be one, in 2012 claiming to not be a feminist was like a complete rejection of women’s rights. While she was an outspoken Trump critic throughout his tenure, her critiques often fell flat for someone who was once the voice of a generation of angsty teens. In 2019, it became public that she was dating Sean Larkin, a cop who was featured on “Live PD,” a show that followed police as they carried out live arrests. The show was later canceled after the June 2020 protests surrounding the Death of George Floyd. It later came out that the show destroyed video footage of the killing of a Black suspect. 

Controversies surrounding Lana did not end there. In May of 2020, she released an Instagram essay criticizing her treatment by the media throughout her career and highlighted other female artists who she believed were treated better. Almost all of these artists were Black. In October of 2020, at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in California, she was seen wearing a mask made of mesh to a LA meet-and-greet. With every new day, it seemed Lana had stuck her foot in her mouth once again as she would mess up, and try to defend herself, and then mess up in her defense. 

The end of Grimes as we knew her came much more abruptly. This anti-imperialist, industrial, radical artist began to date Elon Musk, the Tesla billionaire who can be seen as a rejection of all of those things. Their relationship seemed absurd and disorienting. After she became pregnant with their baby, many memes were created around the possibilities of this combination. However, when it was announced to the world that she had done the most Grimes thing ever, and named the baby “X Æ A-12,” it just seemed corny. It felt as though she was doing a parody of who she used to be, winking to her fans that the former version of her was gone, just like the “anti-imperialist” from her Twitter bio. 

However, these women were not to blame for their fans’ losses. Their fans were to blame for creating narratives that were never truly there. 

Lana Del Rey, born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant in New York City, never promised to be a counterculture hero. She grew up in Upstate New York and went to Fordham University. Grant did not instantaneously appear onto the scene as many had thought, but was signed to a label soon after her first performance. However, she had never lied about who she truly was; people just assumed.

Grimes, born Claire Elise Boucher in Vancouver, Canada, grew up in a stable and well-off home, and later attended McGill University. While her public persona seemed like a techno-pop alien, she was a smart, young woman from an affluent background. Boucher and Musk make a lot more sense within that framework. 

Grant and Boucher were a kind of escape for their teen fans. People used their music to escape to new worlds and feel all the emotions they wanted to feel without facing the emotions they were avoiding. However, when the real world caved in, it seemed as though these once sad girls had sold out everything they once stood for. When the hordes of angsty fans look deeper, though, they can realize that they never lost their sad girls, because the sad girls they had created were never really there.