For readers unaware of girl in red, it’s difficult to capture just what a cultural phenomenon she is within the young queer community, separate from the splash she’s made in the music world. She has amassed 1.7 million followers on TikTok, Gen Z’s social media platform of choice, especially appealing to queer people with her frank discussion of sapphic desire. #girlinred has a staggering one billion views on TikTok, and just in case you think maybe that number has to do with users’ fashion choices, the more specific #doyoulistentogirlinred boasts 11.4 million views. Having her among your Spotify most-listened artists has become a signifier of sorts, a way of expressing queer identity.
But why exactly do young lesbians and other members of the LGBTQ+ community love girl in red, born Marie Ulven, so much? Some could claim adoration for Ulven comes from a lack of prominent queer musical acts, but honestly, that reasoning doesn’t stack up anymore, considering the rise of talented musicians like King Princess and Kehlani, as well as beloved legacy acts like Tegan and Sara.
Ulven’s allure instead comes from the directness of her lyrics—whether she’s singing about orgasms or mental health—coupled with her pop-leaning but still genre-bending sound. She rarely resorts to euphemisms or metaphor, and her bluntness has a certain poetry to it, considering that for centuries queer people have had to rely on allusion to keep self-expression from compromising our safety. Her debut album, if i could make it go quiet, delivers on both authenticity and earworms.
Most of the record manages to hit that sweet spot of lyrical vulnerability and sonic euphoria, even if they don’t quite reach the high of album showstopper “You Stupid Bitch.” Opener “Serotonin” speaks to the darker side of anxiety, while Ulven also tries out rapping: “I get intrusive thoughts / Like cutting my hands off / Like jumping in front of a bus / Like how do I make this stop,” she confesses over a buzzing, distorted synth. Ulven is radically vulnerable, discussing “things I haven’t been comfortable talking about, or admitting to myself, or even things to tell my closest friends and family,” as she says in a press release, and that will surely resonate with listeners.
The melody on the chorus of “Did You Come?” sounds eerily similar to that of “Serotonin,” but it’s a choice that feels intentional. “Did You Come?” is about “being really mad and angry and furious with someone that you have trusted and loved who has, in a way, betrayed you,” Ulven explains, and it makes sense that the same anger stoked by this betrayal would mirror the feeling of “running low on serotonin” portrayed on the previous track. Ulven is a self-confessed lover of film scores, and it’s exciting to see her employing musical motifs.
“You Stupid Bitch” is the album’s pinnacle and a perfect example of why Ulven’s music speaks to so many. The song serves up pure, unadulterated catharsis as Ulven curses out a girl who’ll never see her as more than a friend. Insistent kick drum and guitar reverb conjure up their own gravitational force, pulling you onto the dancefloor. The track has edges of emo to it, and feels like a sister song to “Drunk II” by Mannequin Pussy. Ulven jokingly said of the track: “When live shows are back, I don’t think I’m going to make it out of that mosh pit alive!” It’s hard not to feel that way listening to “You Stupid Bitch.” This is that “throw your hands in the air” moment, the culmination of Ulven’s efforts on the album.
With her undeniable talent and the immediacy of her lyrics, Ulven obviously has already garnered mainstream recognition. Despite her early success, she takes risks on the album that show she’s not one for complacency. That’s not to say there aren’t tracks that disappoint slightly. “Apartment 402,” despite working lyrically, is rather forgettable in a sonic sense. Somber piano, rattling percussion and near-sterile production make the song feel like it could easily belong to another chart-topping artist.
Ulven is an artist with so much to say. Love, pain and mental health are by no means new songwriting subjects, but her unwavering candor with which she discusses them makes it difficult to turn away. On the final track “it would feel like this,” Ulven succeeds in making it go quiet with an entirely instrumental track of spare piano and dramatic strings. These daring instincts are what elevate girl in red’s music beyond her status as the wunderkind of the moment. If Ulven continues to match the bravery of her lyrics with aural courage, then there’s no telling how far she’ll go.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast, hibernophile and contributing writer for Paste’s music and comedy sections. She also exercises her love for reality TV at HelloGiggles every now and then. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.