Girl in Red Just Wants Millennials to Get on TikTok

Girl in Red wears a Balenciaga turtleneck; all other clothing and accessories her own.  Photographed...
Girl in Red wears a Balenciaga turtleneck; all other clothing and accessories her own. Photographed in Oslo, Norway, in March 2021. Creative director: Clare Gillen.

A few weeks before the release of her debut album If I Could Make It Go Quiet, Marie Ulven, the 22-year-old musician known as Girl in Red, told us that both her biggest inspiration and her dream collaborator was Taylor Swift. When the album came out in late April, Swift told her Instagram followers to “Drop everything now and support, stream, & buy this album, because it is spectacular.” Music critics largely agreed, with The Quietus writing, “Complex and sophisticated, If I Could Make It Go Quiet is one of the most enticing new albums I have heard in a long time.”

While Girl in Red’s success may seem sudden to some, the Oslo, Norway-based musician has been establishing herself as a favored singer-songwriter and something of a queer icon to Gen Z listeners. Two songs she had uploaded to YouTube and SoundCloud, “Summer Depression” and “Girls,” went viral. They established Ulven as an artist with a deft touch for putting blunt lyrics about mental health and sexuality to catchy DIY tracks. As part of a larger exploration of Spotify’s emerging Lorem playlist, we spoke with Ulven about genre, Judy Garland, Ariana Grande and, of course, TikTok.

How did you start learning music? Are you taking lessons or are you looking up stuff on YouTube?

I was self-taught on pretty much everything, even when it came to producing. I kind of avoided YouTube videos just because I felt like every video was like 10 minutes long. My questions needed a thirty-second answer. So I usually just came up with homemade solutions to certain things. I’m self-taught on guitar and piano. I have an untouched cello and an untouched saxophone that I'm probably never going to learn, but we’ll see.

Who are some of your biggest influences?

Taylor Swift. She’s just a queen. She writes all of her own music, she has evolved over so many years. Her music is innate. It’s innately Taylor Swift. So I think that’s really inspiring, and I want to do the same thing.

You sort of went viral on TikTok last summer with the phrase “Do you listen to girl in red?” which girls were using to signify that they were interested in other girls. Did that take you by surprise?

I thought it was cool. You never know when things are going to go viral. To some extent I was a little bit surprised, but I think it's really cool to be able to have that kind of cultural impact.

In America in the fifties and sixties, there was a phrase gay men used in a similar way “Friend of Dorothy,” referring to Judy Garland’s character in The Wizard of Oz. So in some ways, you're like the new Judy Garland.

Ok, that’s iconic.

So when I heard kids started using that phrase, that’s immediately where my mind went.

Wait, “Kids?” How old are you?

Well, I’m in my 30s.

Ok, so you’re like a good millennial.

Yeah, I’m definitely a millennial. Do you have any thoughts on the differences between Gen Z and millennials?

A lot of my friends in the music industry are millennials, and I’m noticing some things. Mostly though the only difference is whether you’re on TikTok or not. If they’re not on TikTok, I feel like it’s very noticeable. That's where pop culture and memes mostly occur nowadays. So if you’re not there, you’re falling behind on modern references.

Right, that became apparent even as I was researching this article about Gen Z musicians.

People who are like, “Oh, I don’t want to get to TikTok. It's just so loud and I don't understand that.” It's like, “Girl, you sound like my grandma who doesn't want an iPhone. Girl, you’re falling behind so fast.” Learning new shit is uncomfortable, I feel like you’ve gotta stay on top of things and join TikTok.

There’s a lot more on it than people realize. You sign up and it’s just a bunch of dancing videos, but there’s a lot more to it.

As soon as that algorithm starts messing with your brain, you get personalized things and it just feeds into the echo chamber of your life. It’s fun, but you can also learn things there.

Do you have any favorite TikToks?

Anything that’s just fun. Maybe Daily Scream. I love a good Daily Scream.

I don’t think I know that one. Does it involve actual screaming?

Yeah, Daily Scream is a lot of screaming.

Girl in Red wears a Balenciaga turtleneck; all other clothing and accessories her own. Photographed in Oslo, Norway, in March 2021. Creative director: Clare Gillen.

You’ve come up in the world of streaming, and you’ve put out singles and EPs before, but you’ve just put together your first album. Did putting out a bigger project feel like much of a difference?

Honestly, this might just be my perception, but based on my little bubble, at least, I feel like people are ready for more albums. I feel like people don't respond as well to singles anymore. Every time I see artists drop like ten songs before the album comes out and then there’s like one new single, everyone’s like, “Yo just drop the album. We just want to hear the album. We don't want to hear every single song before you drop it.” I feel like that we might have come to a turning point.

In terms of genre, to me your music would be “indie rock,” but do you think in those terms?

I think my music is like pop music, and I really like saying “pop” because pop is such an umbrella term.

It might be another generational shift because when millennials were in their prime music discovery years, genre labels were so important.

When I was younger, I used to not acknowledge pop music as great music. It was very important to me to listen to things I thought were really niche. But now, there’s so much more to my identity than the music I listened to. So, it’s like, “Hell yeah, I fuck with Ariana Grande so hard.” I don't think it's cool to be anti-popular.