The 2000s: The Decade the Sad Ladies Took Over

This week, will be counting down our 101 Best Songs of the 2000s. Before and after we publish our three-part list, some of our contributors will be offering additional thoughts on the years 2000-2009 in music.

The 2000s saw an unprecedented explosion of brooding female songwriters.

Women writing sad songs were not an entirely new phenomenon. Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You” and “Into Dust” were ’90s mixtape staples. Well before then, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell added feminine touches to sad folk. The influence of Nina Simone’s “Black is the Color of My True Loves Hair” and Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” can be heard in many 2000s brooders.

But the 2000s brought a bumper crop that felt like a breakthrough. Amy Winehouse was likely the most commercially successful (and tragic) example. But the decade features career-defining albums from numerous regions and styles: from a Canadian indie-pop scene that included Tegan & Sara, Emily Haines/Metric, and Stars, to more class-conscious and gritty alt-country bands like Lucinda Williams and The Everybodyfields. American indie-darlings Cat Power and Jenny Lewis/Rilo Kiley reached broad audiences, while plenty of dream pop bands like Trespassers William, Camera Obscura and garage rockers Those Darlins never fully broke through, but should have.

I grew up on a steady diet of ’90s grunge, bands headed mostly by sad men, with Radiohead bridging the gap from grunge to the indie rock of the early 2000s. As this new wave built, the 2000s also marked a shift such that melancholy women became the majority of the artists on my rotation.

Cat Power’s 2003 album You Are Free was my entry point. Numerous songs continually provide me with the kind of goose-bumpy shivers that some people report receiving through ASMR videos. The album works as a cohesive whole from the spare opening strings of “Good Women” to “Names,” where Chan Marshall lists the names of friends age ten to fourteen each victims of awful childhoods who she has lost touch with. Her album felt like a struggle to articulate a beauty in her depression, and having come from a troubled background. The first time I saw her on stage in 2007, she’d gotten past some of her infamous stage fright, but still could barely meet the crowd’s eyes, looking down most of the time. The crowd was supportive, and I got the sense that we were doing our clumsy best as a group to support her, or at least not make the stress of public performance worse.

My personal #1 song of the decade is You Are Free’s “Maybe Not.” Why it connects with me so deeply has always been hard to articulate. The stanza that starts “We won’t have a thing/
So we’d got nothing to lose/ We can all be free” feels like a direct echo of Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” In each, I picture in each a kind of carefree roadtrip journey, with Joplin’s being more literal and Cat Power singer Chan Marshall’s being more internal. Both describe a pair of dreamers from the female POV, and provide a bittersweet depiction of freedom through anti-materialism, lack of obligation and earnest human connection. “[F]eeling good was good enough for” for Joplin’s heroine while Marshall’s pair are “just living people.” Marshall goes on to sing that freedom is evoked “Maybe not with words/ Maybe not with a look/ But with your mind.” For me, in this place in the song, I picture two lovers trying to communicate, unite, share, and find freedom from the pain of the world in each other but finding themselves frustrated because they can’t communicate what they wish to share with words or actions, and need to have a leap of faith that by letting themselves internally feel love and something beyond what can be articulated verbally or physically, that the two can transcend. I understand that a strict textual reading of the lyrics may not bear this, so I’ll just say it’s something I draw from what her voice and tone evokes. She sounds in pain and struggling her way out of sorrow and numbness through music and her art.

Emily Haines came next for me, starting with her guest appearance on Broken Social Scene’s “Anthems for a 17yo Girl,” whose lyrics lament a former friend lost to the mean girls: “Used to be one of the rotten ones and I liked you for that. Now you’re all gone, got your makeup on and you’re not coming back.” This take on teenage angst was as powerful as anything from Nirvana’s heyday, but Haines and company were only getting started. She would release two of the decade’s best albums: 2006’s solo record Knives Don’t Have Your Back and Fantasies with her band Metric. Her dexterity navigating near pure pop songs like Fantasies’ “Gimme Sympathy” and nearly-numb brooders like Knives’ closer “Winning” is unmatched, as is her productivity. To this day, new material comes out nearly bi-annually, and it’s all been great; her second solo album Choir of the Mind is my favorite album of 2017. If that doesn’t sound remarkable, consider the fifteen-year span of quality output from “Anthems for a 17yo Girl” to Choir of the Mind was the same gap as between when The Rolling Stones’ debut and Some Girls, a span often used as a standard-bearer for classic rock’s longest streak of quality.

Chart of 2000s Sad Lady Bands
Graphic designed by Colin Beckman; content by Timothy DeLizza

Through the 2000s, Tegan & Sara perfected the art of describing lovers who were emotionally withholding and needy, often simultaneously, and feeling bad about it. Without leaving these themes, they transitioned from quirky Canadian indie darlings to pop stars who seemed to pop up everywhere, from collaborating with EDM godfather Tiësto (Emily Haines also appeared on that album) to having punk legends NOFX write a song about them entitled “Creeping Out Sara” (the band’s playful response when asked to comment: “Sara was creeped out”). The twin sisters were never closeted, per se, and sometimes openly referenced this fact in songs. 2007’s “I Was Married” included the lyrics: “They seem so very scared of us/ I look into the mirror/ For evil that just does not exist/ I don’t see what they see/ Try to control the pull of one/ Magnet to another magnet to another.” But post-2010 they sounded more comfortable foregrounding their lesbian identity. This happened both inside their art and outside, including vocally fighting Prop 8 in California while featuring numerous queer couples in their music video for “Closer.”

While I’ve always listened to bands more for atmosphere than, say, deep lyrics, I’ve still been able to appreciate watching these female artists that emerged in the 2000s evolve with more mature lyrics that expand what rock and roll can do and whose stories are included. Jenny Lewis’s recent “Just One of the Guys” tackled judgmental expectations of women in their thirties and forties who opt not to have children. Choir of the Mind addresses femininity, depression, materialism, and modernity. Even tracks that trace familiar topics like middle class ennui — as when Haines simply repeats “All the things you own, they own you” over and over — sound fresh, and unlike anything I’ve heard before. The record serves as a meditation on the absurdity of modern life and how our reliance on technology disconnects us in ways similar to peak Radiohead.

Talented female musicians who sing, in some fashion, about their brokenness, appeal to some primitive straight male instinct of mine. Men (myself included) often perceive themselves as protectors. This self-perception, however mistaken, is frequently reflected in our movies, novels and personal narratives, endlessly punching bad guys in dark alleys, stopping ticking bombs or literal trains from barreling down, just before a woman is about to come to harm. All these sad songs evoke that sorrow while providing a trace of hope, the latter often implied by the beauty of the song itself. There’s a sense of pain, and also a brief illusion that male listeners might somehow comfort the singer, starting with their listening, offering their understanding, and going from there.

Yet this image is an outdated one, if it ever made sense at all. There is the ugly fact that most of the violence committed against women is done by men, from basic street harassment to creating societal structures that undervalue caretaking work while pushing women towards that work. Further, in modern Western society at least, the way to protect loved ones as often means providing an emotional shelter as providing a physical one – something men are much less equipped to provide.

I’d like to believe that if I dedicated all of my power and energy then I could accomplish safety and security for those I love. This may not be easy or even possible, but when the threat is tangible and external, at least the ways of addressing it appear clearer. Take 1968 classic Russian film Solaris (and the underrated 2002 remake). The male protagonist comes across his late wife in deep space. Much of the film has him watching her commit suicide again and again, only to reform as he stands by helpless to prevent the past, helpless to understand her, helpless to punch anything that might solve her pain, that might stop her from taking her own life again.

The impossibility of healing a girlfriend, family member or friend heal of an unseen, invisible wound is among the most helpless of emotions. This is true whether the wound is depression, relived trauma, mental illness, or ennui. The appeal of these traits in romantic partners is complex and sometimes uncomfortable to examine. In the end, genders and sexual orientations of the parties and the roles they play probably aren’t crucial to what I’m describing. When men with a protector/nurturer instinct they are said to have some kind of rescue, white-knight complex; but that instinct isn’t all that separate from straight women who find themselves drawn to underachievers, bad boys or “projects.” It’s all variations on themes. Indeed, most people can easily think of cases where both halves of a relationship were drawn together by some form of rescue impulse, each believing themselves the primary rescuer and both being wrong.

Being with such troubled, brooding partners can feel exciting, especially if they’re particularly smart or talented; we can feel secure and useful in providing stability. An internal voice says that someone with perfect life without you doesn’t need you. Early in the relationship you do feel like you’re having a powerful positive impact, and maybe you do. They’re worthy efforts to have, and worth attempting for many reasons. But like any difficult partners, over time you find that you can’t fix their issues, and may sometimes make them worse. This is particularly true if, like me, you have plenty of your own broken parts to struggle with, that partners can’t heal either.

For me, each of these sad lady singers I’ve described have a similar yet individually distinct allure of the troubled romantic partners that draw me in, and the tragedy and emotion their songs evoke similar responses. We can’t fix each others invisible wounds. We can’t become free by connecting with something beyond our words and looks. Instead, all we can do for each other is listen to each other’s songs for a while, and see the beauty.

Tim made a playlist of his favorite sad lady singers of the 2000s to accompany this essay.

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