The Clear-Eyed Songs of Girl in Red
Nine years ago, Marie Ulven, a teen-ager from suburban Norway, was, like most of her
Nine years ago, Marie Ulven, a teen-ager from suburban Norway, was, like most of her peers, broadcasting her interests on social media. Ulven’s hobby of choice was fingerboarding, a miniaturized version of skateboarding in which people perform tricks on tiny boards using just their hands. Ulven eventually amassed a modest following on Instagram. In real life, she participated in formal, refereed “battles,” where she would square off against fellow-fingerboarders. (In one battle, which still lives on YouTube, an antsy, fresh-faced Ulven competes against a male boarder and is met with raucous cheers and fist bumps from the crowd.) One Christmas, Ulven’s grandfather gave her a more traditional outlet for manual dexterity: a guitar. From her childhood home, in the small town of Horten, Ulven began writing jangly indie-pop songs, which she first sang in Norwegian, and later in English. She uploaded them to the D.I.Y. streaming platform SoundCloud under pseudonyms like Lydia X and lyfsuxx. Ulven also promoted these songs on her fingerboarding page, hoping that her followers would take an interest in her new passion.
Gradually, they did. In 2018, a popular Norwegian music Web site called NRK Urørt caught wind of Ulven’s music, and featured a song called “i wanna be your girlfriend.” Musically, the song was more understated than the slick, icy pop that usually migrates from Norway to the rest of the world, but it was otherwise not especially unusual. The track, a two-chord guitar tune played in 4/4, with mournful, yearning lyrics, sounded like an indie-rock song that could have been recorded in any number of regions and eras. More significant was the nonchalance with which Ulven sang about romance with another young woman. Addressing a love interest named Hannah, she sang, “I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your lips.” Soon, hundreds of thousands of people had listened to the song on SoundCloud, and Ulven began drawing the attention of playlist programmers and record labels interested in her obvious talent and candor.
By then, Ulven had settled on a stage name: she called herself “girl in red,” a description once used to identify a friend she was searching for in a crowd. With a new name and a rush of listeners from around the world, Ulven released more of her diaristic music in spurts over the next couple of years. Her first two EPs, “chapter 1,” from 2018, and “chapter 2,” from 2019, were recorded at home; the songs were lo-fi and woozy, evoking the image of the childhood bedroom as confessional. Full of plainspoken meditations on mental health and on the frustrations of adolescent romance, these early EPs had a gentle simplicity and an emotional sharpness that made them stick. “My girl, my girl, my girl,” she sang on the chorus of a lilting song called “we fell in love in october,” from 2018. Even in an age of acceptance, Ulven’s matter-of-factness about gay female love felt like a revelation, and she was soon labelled a queer icon. She has spent much of the past few years trying to make her perspective seem normal rather than extraordinary.
In interviews, Ulven has described the agonizing boredom she experienced growing up in Horten, a town with a population of about twenty-seven thousand. In 2018, she moved fifty miles away, to Oslo, to study music at an arts college. Her début full-length album, “if i could make it go quiet,” which was recorded in 2019 and 2020 and released last month, is the musical equivalent of going from a small town to a major city. Bolstered by greater technical prowess and confidence, Ulven has transformed her intimate indie rock into something more electrified and ambitious, and her new music sounds as if it were designed to be performed in arenas rather than in small clubs. Her emotional range has expanded, too, moving beyond the realm of the lovesick. On the new record, she bounces among perspectives, from sexual frankness and lust to defiance or guilt. One consistent theme in Ulven’s music is her struggle against her own brain chemistry. “I hate the way my brain is wired / Can’t trust my mind, it’s such a liar,” she sings, on “Rue,” a grandiose electro-rock song with a folksy refrain. In fact, “if i could make it go quiet” sounds like the work of someone who is reliably lucid. Ulven assumes responsibility for her actions as readily as she blames others. “Let’s just face the fact I treated you like trash,” she sings, on “hornylovesickmess,” a song about life on tour which captures the particular reflectiveness brought on by being on the road.
Ulven is one of the many burgeoning artists who cite Taylor Swift as an idol. In Ulven’s case, Swift’s influence is not so much stylistic as it is structural—Swift has provided a blueprint for young artists to take ownership of their craft, and to make songs with solid bones. Ulven has written, recorded, and produced nearly all her own music; she is a solo artist who sounds like a band. But on “Serotonin,” the opening track of her new album, she enlisted the much sought-after assistance of Finneas O’Connell, the Grammy-winning record producer known primarily for his work with his younger sister, Billie Eilish. O’Connell enjoys using what might otherwise be classified as auditory detritus—the sound of a dentist’s drill, say, or of a staple gun—to create textures and moods. Early versions of “Serotonin” contained a stretch of babbling that served as a placeholder for lyrics. O’Connell suggested to Ulven that, rather than swap in actual lyrics, she should keep the gibberish. The song, like most of the work that O’Connell has done with his sister, is a hyper-modern hit—a sweeping, emotional pop track with jarring textural oddities, which switches between full-throated singing and cadences that sound more like hip-hop.
One measure of an artist’s success these days is how readily fans can encode her music with new meaning on TikTok. Musicians and labels try to game this system, seeding songs with prominent TikTokers or producing ready-made memes and dance challenges behind the scenes. But the best cases of TikTok virality still involve some element of serendipity and whimsy. Last year, Ulven’s musical project became an online shorthand for queer identification: in TikTok videos that have collectively generated almost twelve million views, the question “Do you listen to girl in red?” was used as a springboard for all kinds of comic riffing about admitting to the world that you slept with women, or wondering whether someone else did. A female news anchor at an Ohio television station posted a clip, recorded on set, in which she mischievously revealed that the underside of her blond bob was shaved, and that she was wearing chunky tennis shoes under her staid outfit. “When you’re professional but wanna show you listen to girl in red,” she wrote. The video has 1.7 million views on TikTok.
The “Do you listen to girl in red?” meme is the sort of promotional engine that most artists and record labels never achieve. But it also represents a form of sexual-identity codification that has tended to make Ulven uneasy. Last year, she suggested in an interview that she doesn’t like the word “lesbian,” prompting a flood of consternation from fans, who misread bad intentions. “I feel passionate in that everyone should be able to identify themselves and their sexuality with the words they feel most comfortable with,” Ulven later clarified in a lengthy statement on Twitter. She concluded, “I hope we can respect and always take the time to understand each other within the whole context of themselves and their lives.” On “if i could make it go quiet,” Ulven doesn’t bother to identify herself at all, barely using language that would allow listeners to emphasize her relationships with other women. The album seems to further blur Ulven’s designation as a queer icon, instead presenting the whole context of herself and her life. ♦