The Boygenius Effect: How the Supergroup Sparked the “Sad” Folk-Pop TikTok Movement
by Michelle Hyun Kim, a Third Bridge Creative contributor whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, Rolling Stone, NPR Music, Teen Vogue, and Pitchfork.
Boygenius, the indie folk supergroup of Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, and Julien Baker, already had a burgeoning following when they released their debut self-titled EP in 2018. But when they released their first full-length, The Record, this March, it was to a considerably wider audience. The trio had already landed the cover of Rolling Stone and announced a stadium tour when the new LP was met with critical acclaim, as well as a co-sign from Taylor Swift who called it “genuinely a masterpiece.” It also led to the group jumping from 67K to 3.93M Spotify monthly listeners across the year. But this time, the new material also landed in a new landscape of emerging singer-songwriters who seemed to have absorbed elements of the Boygenius sound in their own work.
Just peruse TikTok’s trending songs of the past year, or Spotify’s popular editorial playlists, like sad girl starter pack (1.3M followers) or sad indie (1.5M followers), and you’ll find a smattering of viral folk-pop hits from rising women musicians, mostly in their late teens and early 20s, who clearly have Boygenius on their sonic mood boards. The current smash “ceilings,” from the 23-year-old Lizzy McAlpine, to name one such hit, peaked at No. 54 on the Billboard Hot 100 and cracked the Top 10 in both the UK and Ireland this spring. Thanks to a TikTok challenge that involves filming yourself running through the streets melodramatically, which has seen participation from everyone from Victoria Justice to Jimmy Fallon, it’s also sparked over 691K videos on the app.
The Boygenius sound is a layered melding of its distinct members and their varied influences. Tennessee-born Baker is inspired by emo-leaning artists like Joyce Manor and Death Cab for Cutie, while Los Angeles-based Bridgers has cited the poetics of Elliott Smith and Bright Eyes as songwriting guideposts. Meanwhile, Virginia-raised Dacus has called singer-songwriter Laura Stevenson “one of [her] main and only influences,” due to her affecting songwriting that seems deceptively simple. Though the group’s music is rooted in indie rock and folk, they’re also guided by the pop melodies from the likes of Taylor Swift and Paramore.
All of these musical touchstones can be traced in the growing movement of young singer-songwriters, who pull from Boygenius’ hushed and drawn-out vocal delivery, intentionally crafted indie folk production, lyrics with extraordinary specific details, and larger themes that unpack the knotty complexities of human relationships. Below, we take a look at the artists and songs indicative of this rise in emotive folk-pop that’s been taking over TikTok and global charts.
The Breakout Bridgers’ Student: Lizzy McAlpine
While each of the Boygenius members has been operating as solo artists for years—Baker released her first album, Sprained Ankle, in 2015, followed by Dacus’ 2016 breakthrough, No Burden, and Bridgers’ 2017 debut Stranger in the Alps—the group gained newfound attention in the pandemic, when Bridgers shot to mainstream fame with her 2020 sophomore album, Punisher. The project, which garnered Bridgers four Grammy nominations, including Best New Artist, eventually led the singer to collaborate with big-name artists like The Killers, Maggie Rogers, Kid Cudi, and Taylor Swift.
Around the same time that Bridgers’ Punisher was first making a splash, a young singer-songwriter named Lizzy McAlpine was starting to make the rounds on TikTok for her original song, “You Ruined The 1975.” Now boasting 9.9M views on the app, the 32-second clip features the Berklee dropout singing on her bathroom floor, gently plucking an acoustic guitar, and softly singing about an ex who has made listening to her favorite band impossible.
Lizzy McAlpine's Career Trends
As everyone, but especially Gen Z users, flocked to TikTok to cope with lockdown boredom, McAlpine emerged as an overnight star, whose hyperpersonal music inspired parasocial intimacy. “This feels like talking to ur bestie on the phone like damn bitch I can’t even listen to my favorite music anymore bc of this dumb mf,” goes on top comment on the viral clip, written by TikTok star Brittany Broski.
After McAlpine released her August 2020 debut album Give Me a Minute, it got noticed by Bridgers, who DMed the rising artist to say, ‘I love the record, I’m a big fan,’ she told Spin. So, when she went to make her sophomore effort, five seconds flat, the singer-songwriter says she heavily referenced Punisher and Ethan Grushka’s eerie, folk-inspired production.
The record’s influence can be heard in the slightly surrealist lyricism and somber vocal delivery of “ceilings,” whose sped-up version soundtracks the ongoing TikTok challenge of people running frantically as if they’re in their own coming-of-age film. It’s proof that the emotional intensity of this Boygenius-inspired sound has spurred listeners to express their own burning feelings with cinematic dramatism and fulfill their desires to become “the main character.”
The Earnest TikTok Ingénue: Katherine Li
Last year, another emerging artist named Katherine Li took up the “sad girl” torch with her breakout hits “We Didn’t Even Date” and “Never Had a Chance,” which both see the 20-year-old lamenting teenage unrequited love with lyrics that are honestly self-effacing, set to tender melodies. While her pop-leaning songwriting style skews more like the work of Olivia Rodrigo, and in turn, Bridgers, her vocal style is more plainspoken, like that of Dacus.
Beginning to find her audience in 2021 by sharing snippets of songs that she would write about heartache and brutal crushes, she racked up serious attention with a preview of her debut single “We Didn’t Even Date,” which now has 1.6M views. She captioned the clip, “hi this is a song that I wrote about not being able to get over someone, but plot twist, you guys didn’t even date,” and the story seemed to resonate with fellow teenage girls who had also fantasized about relationships that never came to fruition, or what Gen Z TikTokers are now referring to as #imaginationships. After officially releasing the song in February 2022, it has since gained 5.9M Spotify streams.
Yet Li’s big hit came a few months later with “Never Had a Chance,” whose teaser has now garnered 2.8M TikTok views. The purposefully unguarded clip, which sees her sullenly playing the song on a keyboard while wearing no makeup and sitting on the floor in sweatpants, makes her confessional lyrics seem even more personal to viewers. Since the track came out in April 2022, it’s collected 22.6M Spotify streams, resulted in 1.4M TikTok videos, and got a placement in Spotify’s “Songs That Made Us Cry in 2022” playlist (165K followers). Since then, she shared her debut EP, crush(ed), in October and another recent single. In just a year with no label, she’s gained 1.4M Spotify monthly listeners and a slot opening for Hayley Kiyoko this spring.
A Growing Movement of Indie-Pop Dabblers
While McAlpine and Li have scored the biggest folk-pop smashes through TikTok, there are a host of other emerging artists who have dabbled in the Boygenius sound and are bubbling up on the app. There’s the Dublin-based 19-year-old Lucy Blue (50.6K TikTok followers), whose recent folk-pop single “I Left My Heart,” on which she reminisces about her “dirty old town” over acoustic guitar and piano, has gained 142K Spotify streams in a month.
Similarly, 19-year-old Nell Mescal (45.3K TikTok followers), the sister of Hollywood Irish It-boy Paul Mescal, has gained attention for her wistful folk songs that sometimes resemble the work of his ex, Bridgers. Another emerging face is 21-year-old Californian Nicole Han (11.7K TikTok followers), whose indie-pop songs like “people grow apart, people let me down,” veer more on the angsty and cathartic side, like the lyricism of Baker. Then there’s 21-year-old New York-born Ella Jane (45.3K TikTok followers) who broke out on TikTok for her upbeat indie-pop but has recently dabbled in folk-pop for the recent deluxe release of her 2022 sophomore album, Marginalia.
While this explosion of hyper-specific songwriting has also been forged by the continued popularity of the likes of Swift and Mitski, as well as the emergence of confessional teenage pop like Olivia Rodrigo and Gracie Abrams, the incorporation of folk instrumentation and more sullen vocals seems to point to Boygenius carving out their specific brand of folk-pop in the indie sphere.
The Double-Edged Sword of “Sad Girl” Music
The increased popularity of this emotional folk-pop music has been easily siloed into Spotify’s many “sad” branded playlists, which resulted in the perception that many of these female singer-songwriters are “sad girl” musicians. Likely due to the fact that the playlists help to give these artists considerable reach, some of the emerging players have embraced the label. “I mean, it is sad—I write sad music,” McAlpine told Billboard early this year. “I don’t see that as a bad thing. I think that’s a powerful thing.” Li also admitted that her sound “definitely lives in the ‘sad girl’ space, but it’s also spiced up with cool instrumentals and other elements.”
However, Boygenius themselves are a little more cynical of the marketing term, with Dacus recently telling Pitchfork, “I just don’t want to mix up emotionality and sadness.” She elaborated further, “As far as ‘sad girl’ indie rock, I’ll just say that it’s a big emotion that people can take in and relate to, but it’s also powerless, so it’s palatable. Anger would be more powerful, but ‘angry girl’ music kind of gets cast as corny.”
Though “sad girl” music is on the rise, the label itself doesn’t encompass the full breadth of complex emotion that these young female singer-songwriters have blown up for. Yet, to many of their fans on TikTok—who often offer comments like, “How did u manage to put my hurt into words omg”—the terminology could matter less, as the lyrics hit close to the chest.
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