Growing up in Horten, a small seaside town in Norway with only 26,000 people, girl in red, real name Marie Ulven, was born to be a star.
“If I was never bored growing up or felt like I had any real, deep and true friendships, I would probably never have started making music,” she tells Girlfriend. “If I was hanging out with people all the time, I would probably not feel like I had to find some other type of meaning in life.”
Surrounded by nobody like her and with no real LGBTQIA+ representation as a kid, she, like many rural queer Aussie teens, turned to YouTube personalities and the internet to be inspired and find a community.
But now, she *is* the queer voice that people younger than her turn to. Back in World War II, queer men would use the term “friend of Dorothy” as a euphemism for being gay to allow themselves to freely find each other and exist in an age of queer oppression. Girl in red’s name carries a similar legacy: now, teens on TikTok jokingly ask, “do you listen to girl in red?” as a way to tell if someone identifies as queer.
“I think it’s really cool,” she says about becoming a TikTok meme. “I feel like so many artists want to have that level of cultural impact, and it’s really hard to even make a dent in that cultural sort of metal box that we all live in.”
“It’s so rare… I'm just thinking about anyone who's ever gonna use it or have used it. I'm like, ‘good for you! You go.’”
And, really, it isn’t hard to see how she became a signifier for queer teen identity and young first love when you look at her music.
Songs like we fell in love in october, and i wanna be your girlfriend, have been streamed on Spotify nearly 400 million times. Her repertoire of sounds is, much like the tracks on the Life is Strange soundtrack, defined by dreamy acoustic guitar chords that sonically hug you like a giant cushion, and vocals that are almost whiney and moanful with lyrics about short love affairs, intrusive thoughts, pining over another girl, and the impulsiveness of being in your teens.
But, at the beginning of 2020, something changed. As the world began to tackle a global health crisis, Marie was dealing with a “health anxiety” of her own. The Serotonin singer was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD).
OCD is an anxiety disorder that manifests as an excessive amount of thoughts that can lead to repetitive behaviours. It’s a condition that according to Sane Australia, around two per cent of Australians have, but is so often misunderstood as a character trait that comes from being a clean freak or something someone can easily get over.
For girl in red, her OCD manifests as an “insane obsession with not wanting to die.” What starts as a sinus problem is soon registered as something more life-threatening like a tumor. And, regardless of what she tries to do, she can’t shake the fear these small health hiccups are a sign of something worse.
“It’s a lot,” she admits. “I wouldn’t wish this s**t on anyone.”
Knowing that, the songs on her new album read like diary entries of her deepest desires and darkest fears. In Body And Mind, she describes the dissonance between her mental health and physical body; “practising self-love is something I don’t really know,” she hums. On another, simply titled . about being “lost for words” when you see your ex-partner with someone new.
Much like the other young artists of our times - think your Beabadoobees and Phoebe Bridgers - girl in red’s music is a reaction to the artificial emotions found in the pop music they grew up on.
“People are f***ing tired of meaningless lyrics,” she explained. “For so many years, we’ve been fed the glammy pop type of music. It’s been so polished and so vague that it doesn’t really mean anything.”
“I don’t feel like I can go back to 2015 and be like, ‘yeah, I remember this song so well, it meant so much to me.’ No one ever says that.”
When Taylor Swift dropped her indie-folk debut folklore last year, girl in red says it allowed that kind of music to be popular.
“She is allowing this to be pop music right now, and setting the bar.”
Even someone like Justin Bieber, she adds, “his lyrics now are so much better than, like, let's say ten years ago. And that's really interesting. He’s actually tired of the lovey baby girl lyrics and thought, ‘hey, let’s do something else.’”
Girl in red’s new album if i could make it go quiet is available to stream on Spotify and Apple Music from today.
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