I love bad art. I love it. There's nothing more enjoyable than attempting to wrap my brain around the precise ratio of confidence to talent required to put objectively terrible creations into the world.
On a related note, an important update in my life is that I have seen this music video and have been unable to process anything else since:
Sarah Brand's "Red Dress" is the kind of project that seems to have been transported to our universe from another one. It seems impossible that it should exist, and yet!
The first thing that any listener will probably notice is Sarah's vocal style. It is distinct. It's high and sharp and flat and pitchy and knows no loyalty to key or tempo. It's difficult to imagine anything other than a Phineas Gage-level accident producing such a technique. As an alto, I've always been afraid to go too high up in my voice where it becomes harder for me to support the sound, but I know that not everyone has my same fears. I'm reminded of a play I once saw that involved a scene of ad-libbing from the actors to establish a general sense of noise and chaos. One of the actors, playing a frustrated choir director in the scene, ad-libbed, "Ladies, I know you all want to be sopranos, but you can't all be sopranos," and I've thought about it ever since. Learning to sing as a young woman is a difficult exercise in navigating the extent to which one can or cannot be a soprano.
A lot of young female vocalists assume that they should be at home in the higher register, whether or not they know how to control their voices there, which Sarah takes a step further by picking an extremely high key to start in. I don't know if she could control her voice in any key, but the tightrope act of the range that she chose for herself, in writing the song, did not set her up for success. I'd wondered if there could have been some strange miscommunication in her recording session, resulting in the producer using instrumental and vocal takes that weren't intended to go together, but then I found the acoustic version and realized that she really did write the song to be sung like that. So she knows what a note is, presumably, and possibly even a key, and yet she still chose to sing like THAT on top of THOSE chords.
I'm not a good singer and the technicalities of music confuse me, so trying to analyze what Sarah does with her voice made me feel especially lost and afraid. There's so much variation in the notes of each line that it feels impossible to replicate even if you tried. So I asked an actual musician, Astronaut Club, to clarify what the fuck is happening from note to note. He responded by explaining the basics of relative pitch – the ability to carry a tune, essentially, because your brain can go from a given note up or down to the next one – which Sarah struggles with. "Even if she hit the first note correctly, she immediately gets lost and sings the next one wrong, and then the next one wrong in relation to the second one, etc," he said. "Like literally each note she sings suggests its own completely different key center AND they aren't consistent with each other, so sometimes she jumps from G to some microtone between E and F and then from there she jumps to some microtone between B and B flat etc etc etc, and it's just never internally consistent OR consistent with any actual key/scale."
Despite resembling the uneasy warbling of a volunteer cantor in an understaffed Catholic parish, "Red Dress" seems to tell the story of a proud jezebel shunned by devout churchgoers. Sarah's singing style might distract from the message of the song, but luckily she provided the lyrics in the video description. The first line, by the way, isn't "I came to church to praise the Lord," as you might hear, but "to praise all love." I assumed that this meant the love of Jesus, but the video suggests that it might mean that the narrator came to church out of obligation to her boyfriend, as "a lover’s deed." Maybe? In breaking this down, I'm realizing that Sarah might have written this from the perspective of a character. The social commentary attempted by the lyrics is so facile that I hadn't considered it was anything but autobiographical. (Have you ever realized that Christians say they're all about love but then judge people, which isn't very loving? Really makes you think, huh?) This is such a base-level critique of organized religion, baby's first analysis of slut-shaming, that it suggests only the very beginning of an uneasy relationship with religious upbringing.
But without getting too caught up in the story, I do want to discuss how it's told. The song begins with the non-rhyming couplet "I came to church to praise all love / Sittin' and comin' for someone else." The order of sitting and then coming was poorly sequenced. I must refer again to my evergreen songwriting tip: ask yourself if the word "come" is necessary at all. Regardless, Sarah says, this obligation "didn't stew well with me." IT DIDN'T STEW WELL WITH HER. The expression is "it didn't sit right with me," and it refers to a vague sense of unease, like what I feel when I hear someone say "it didn't stew well with me."
Immediately after that, Sarah begins the next verse with another gut punch. "Didn’t trust my own feels," she says, on purpose. "My feels" is an expression, unfortunately, but an odd one to use here. The chorus, however, invents a new turn of phrase completely rather than misusing or mangling one: "They see me in a red dress / Hopping on the devil fest." Hopping! On the Devil Fest! She needed to convey an accusation of impurity in a line that rhymed with "dress" and she didn't find anything that could work with "mess," "bless," "repress" or even "sinfulness." No, she conjured up imagery of jumping onto some sort of Satanic festival.
I could go line by line, but a lot of my critiques would just be "what?" or "oof, that's clunky," so I won't try to parse lyrics like "Watchin’ exclusion gettin’ its wins" or "people not like me in break or stride." Instead, I'd like to move onto the actual construction of the song on a melodic level. It is also bad, a medley of country-pop ripoffs. The verses are reminiscent of "If I Die Young" by the Band Perry before transitioning to a pre-chorus that recalls Carrie Underwood's "Before He Cheats." You might hear "Breathe" by Faith Hill, too, but the clearer reference point for most of the song is Taylor Swift. The chorus is simply the sad recorder version of Taylor Swift's "Wildest Dreams," right down to being about being seen wearing a dress, and the guitar solo that attempts a climactic moment echoes similar Swift breakdowns like "You Belong With Me."
Sarah has, in fact, covered that song, which provides another fascinating point of analysis. She wrote "Red Dress" from scratch, so it's hard to tell if what she sang matches with what she heard in her head. But she has presumably heard "You Belong With Me" many times. She learned the guitar part for this performance, but she did not think to sing in the same key that her hands were playing.
The clip reveals another flaw in her musicianship: she really struggles with keeping time. Sometimes she speeds up, but other times she starts meandering. This shows up in her songwriting as well, as she doesn't have a clear concept of the time signature of her own song. Astronaut Club sent me a video to demonstrate why the pre-chorus might not stew well with you, even if you might not be able to articulate why.
Also, there's the song's music video!!!!!!!!!!! We haven't even discussed the music video!!!!!
The costume design is obviously important here, as the central metaphor is a dress. The titular red dress is fine. I was more thrown by her white lace dress, which was obviously chosen to indicate purity but which immediately reads as a casual wedding dress. I think the concept of the video is that White Dress Sarah is viewed as a strumpet by judgey churchgoers "thinking of lust" and Red Dress Sarah is a fantasy of embracing her sexuality. Red Dress Sarah still wears big silver crosses as earrings, though, which sends a mixed message. Is the video saying you should embrace your sexuality while staying staunchly Christian? Or is it supposed to be a cheeky ironic use of the cross as an accessory, à la 80s Madonna? If so, could she have picked a more aesthetically pleasing accessory than some minimalist sterling silver crosses?
This video involves dancing and acting. These elements are also not well-executed. Sarah obviously idolizes Taylor Swift, but Taylor had the good sense to not attempt dance choreography when she was in her wide-eyed country songwriter phase. (I've seen many comparisons to Rebecca Black, which doesn't feel fair to me – Rebecca Black was a child making a video with her friends for fun, and Sarah is an adult pursuing a master's degree and a music career – but I do think the scenes of confused backup dancers gamely attempting to be good sports is reminiscent of "Friday.")
When I was about 14, my friends and I decided to do a "photoshoot" inspired by a dramatic black-and-white fashion campaign. We picked out "edgy" outfits and caked on makeup and had my mom take pictures of us in front of a wall because we didn't have a backdrop, and we assumed that the photos would look incredible when printed in black and white. They did not look incredible, because fashion shoots have professional lighting and makeup artists and stylists and they're shot by real photographers and not someone's helpful mother and the models know how to model and aren't just exiting puberty. That experience is what I think of when I watch this video, with its shaky camera work, shoddy editing, listless choreo, and awkward stars. You can envision a scene like this:
But without set design, stylists, lighting, a trained cinematographer, and post-production work, it will look like this:
Much like you can tell yourself that you should belt out a note because other singers do stuff like that without questioning how one might actually pull that off.
I've also been thinking about the science teacher in my high school who told me in the hallway, unprompted, that she saw me in the school musical and thought I was terrible. She thought she was being helpful by advising me to never sing again. I've written about this before because it really scarred me. I was mortified and my confidence was shattered, and I didn't sing again for ten years. I didn't pursue theatre in college. I'm still self-conscious about singing.
Singing is hard! Making any art is hard! And yet, Sarah Brand did it. It's the opposite of imposter syndrome. It's fascinating. She chose to ignore any barrier to entry, and people are certainly not being very kind about it. (Select YouTube comments include "I attempted to run this through Antares Auto-Tune on Pro Tools and now my computer is on fire and my wife left me" and "When I was little I accidentally drank milk from a very sick cows udder. The sound I had in my head afterwards was exactly the same.")
Because Sarah's pursuing a master's degree in sociology, people have speculated that this was all a social experiment. That doesn't make sense to me. Kristen Bell, an early champion of Tommy Wiseau's anti-film The Room, once gushed, "If you were to ask the five best filmmakers in the world right now to make a movie like this, it wouldn't even be in the same universe." Not to toot my own off-tune horn, but I know a lot about bad art. I still don't think that I could come up with such a strange way of singing, such off-kilter lyrics, or such an unfunny ending as the "goofy" dance Sarah does at the end of the video. Nor does it seem likely that the song is a novelty meant to go viral as publicity for better music to come, as there is already another song of a similar caliber on her channel. Sarah isn't laughing all the way to the bank, because she hasn't monetized the video. (Despite the VEVO branding on her channel, it's actually not affiliated with VEVO.) I hope that she's able to laugh this experience off and continue confidently picking up hobbies until she finds one that really works for her.
I love art! Really good art moves me and really bad art moves me in a different way. I have spent so many hours this past week thinking about Sarah Brand's process. It is a feat. Like Tom Hooper's Cats, "Red Dress" raises questions like "What is art?" and "Should anyone make it?" And I think that the answer is yes! Shoot for the moon, children. Even if you miss, you might fall into a black hole that produces a bizarre spectacle like this one.