Arts and Entertainment

Falling For Sad Girl Autumn

You are not the only one who feels down when the leaves start to fall; Sad Girl Autumn is an emerging cultural phenomenon.

Reading Time: 5 minutes

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By Chuer Zhong

It is that time of year. The leaves turn vibrant shades of red, orange, yellow, and brown, only to soon wither away, drifting helplessly toward the unforgiving pavement. Café windows cloud with frost and framed chalkboards advertise pumpkin spice lattes and steamy hot chocolate. The sky darkens in the early evening, bringing chilly nights with the setting sun. Cable knit sweaters, Uggs, beanies, and turtlenecks replace gauzy sundresses, and the effortless fun of Hot Girl Summer fades to a hazy memory as hibernation season descends. Heartbreak ballads rule the radio; “Sad Girl Autumn” has arrived.

“Sad Girl Autumn” is a relatively new phrase for the indescribable melancholy associated with fall and the mass cultural phenomena it inspires. The trend has been promoted largely by social media platforms like TikTok, with #sadgirlautumn and #sadgirlfall becoming increasingly popular throughout the season. However, this fad is rooted in science: fall signals the onset of seasonal affective disorder—depression and fatigue in response to the decreased sunlight during the fall and winter months—in 0.5 to three percent of the general population. The Environmental Security Hypothesis proposes that the looming threat of winter causes people to seek material meaning in their external environment and find consistency as they mourn the changing seasons.

During this transition, music serves as a comfort for many, inexplicably linking it to Sad Girl Autumn. A psychological study investigating the relationship between the Environmental Security Hypothesis and seasonal music preferences found that in the fall and winter, people prefer to listen to “reflexive and complex” music such as classical, blues, folk, and jazz. The researchers then speculated that slow, romantic ballads may be consumed more readily in the fall and winter months as opposed to dance pop, which thrives in the summertime.

Perhaps the most famous example of Sad Girl Autumn music is Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” (2021). Its nostalgic, acoustic backing is punctuated by sorrowful electric guitar plucking as Swift sings grievously about young heartbreak: “Autumn leaves falling down like pieces into place / And I can picture it after all these days.” The pensive remembrance that defines the song is ever-present in autumn, the season characterized by yearning, sunshine-seeking, and reminiscing. Taylor Swift thinks so too—she even released an alternate version of the heartbreaking hit in 2021 titled “All Too Well (Sad Girl Autumn Version).” Other artists who have notably captured the melancholy of Sad Girl Autumn include Adele (“Easy On Me” (2021)), Lana Del Rey (“How to disappear” (2019)), Birdy (“Skinny Love” (2011)), and Gracie Abrams (“Rockland” (2021)). Though Sad Girl Autumn is largely a 21st century phenomenon, it is also embodied by older artists like Joni Mitchell (“River” (1971)), Carole King (“So Far Away” (1971)), and Alanis Morissette (“Ironic” (1995)).

However, unlike Taylor Swift, not all artists embrace the “sad girl” label. Indie rock superstar Phoebe Bridgers, known for deeply meaningful ballads like “Motion Sickness” (2017), finds the label restrictive. In a 2018 interview with Exclaim! Magazine, Bridgers explained, “I don’t think of myself as a sad person necessarily.” While she understands why people find her music sad, she also rejects the “sad girl” trend because “it’s so romanticized and so kitschy.” She has a point—the presence of “girl” in the phrase “Sad Girl Autumn” is indicative of society’s tendency to minimize and invalidate female emotional expression. The word “girl” insinuates that there is an unfounded, hormonal teenage angst to “Sad Girl Autumn,” when it is actually the healthy release of a year’s worth of pent-up dejection, disappointment, and anger before the fresh slate of the new year.

Larger questions are posed by the seasonal relevance of “Sad Girl Pop.” The genre has been scrutinized in the past for its glamorization of darker themes, such as depression and abuse, with much of the criticism being directed towards iconic sad girl Lana Del Rey. Del Rey claimed she was being “crucified” by critics in 2020, who accused her of glamorizing abusive relationships. The controversy was largely sparked by a lyrical reference to The Crystals’s “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)” (1962) in Del Rey’s song “Ultraviolence” (2014). Throughout her music, romantic descriptions of possessive boyfriends, rock-bottom depression, and Hollywood suicides are passed off as the great American love story. Del Rey’s and the sad girl pop genre’s influence are extremely evident in the music being produced by Gen-Z, from Billie Eilish’s “listen before i go” (2019)—a song that essentially serves as a suicide note—to Grace VanderWaal’s “Moonlight” (2017), in which she watches her friend slip away due to depression.

This has massive implications for a generation whose depression rates have roughly doubled in young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only about 20 percent of children with mental, emotional, or behavioral disorders are treated by a mental health provider. The issue with the music industry’s glamorization of being sad is not that it romanticizes depression, but that it does not provide the necessary context and resources for people who are actually suffering from mental illness. The mainstream success of “Sad Girl Pop” necessitates that the artists at the forefront of this movement use their platforms not just to share their own experiences, but also to take on the role of mental health advocates, normalizing mental health issues while also encouraging their fans to seek professional help if themes of suicidality, depression, or abuse deeply resonate with them.

On the flip side, movies and television are used as a source of escapism during the period of unsureness ushered in by autumn. The Twilight Saga (2008-2012), centered around the forbidden romance of mortal Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and vampire Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), is a popular fall watch that is known for having a particularly autumnal energy. The TV show Gilmore Girls (2000-2007), which follows the lives of young single mother Lorelei Gilmore and her teenage daughter Rory, is also another perfect “Sad Girl Autumn” watch, as approximately half of the drama’s 153 episodes take place during the fall. And, if you are looking to curl up with a good book in true Rory Gilmore fashion, the “Sad Girl Autumn” library has quite the catalog. From Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar (1963) to Otessa Moshfegh’s My Year of Rest and Relaxation (2018), popular fall reads deal with themes of self-isolation, depression, and pivotal change.

Though the phrase “Sad Girl Autumn” itself symbolizes women’s internalization of emotional invalidation, Sad Girl Autumn as an aesthetic and lifestyle represents the opposite. It is about mourning endings and contemplating new beginnings and being vulnerable to the winds of change. It is a reminder that women have no obligation to constantly justify their feelings; they have the right to wallow. Though this aspect of Sad Girl Autumn is particularly empowering for women due its underlying feminist message, Sad Girl Autumn is for everyone who has ever nursed a broken heart. So play Taylor Swift’s crestfallen crooning on repeat and grab a tall mug of spiced apple cider. As the cinnamon stings your lips like a last kiss, fantasize about what should have been.