“Red Dress” is incredible, people are toxic

Recently there’s been a music meme going around, “Red Dress” by Sarah Brand:

It sounds to me that the singer has some variety of tone deafness, causing her pitch to be consistently off, sometimes by more than 50 cents. It should be said that many singers bend their pitch slightly, still feeling like the correct note but adding texture and heightening emotional expression. To my ears, Sarah Brand is doing something similar, but in a much broader range such that to many listeners it sounds like it’s no longer the correct note.

And I love it. It’s fun and catchy, and I would listen to more. I’m not even joking.

I know most people won’t like it, or may even find it painful to listen to. That’s alright. There’s already a lot of music that many people hate. This need not be any different.

What makes this different is that it exemplifies so-called naïve art. It does not, so far as we know, spring from a place of skill or training. That is not to say that she lacks skill in general, but rather that the most striking aspect of her singing is an apparent inability to sing in tune. So it’s not merely that people hate the music, but that they perceive a severe deficiency. And that’s something people like to make fun of.

((But isn’t that… kind of… making fun of disability?))

Another reaction that I’ve seen–even from mainstream news sources like Newsweek–is theorizing that she did it deliberately, a master troll move.  I really don’t find this plausible. Sarah Brand has two youtube channels, with a handful of music videos between them, all of which exhibit the same singing style. Among these is what looks like an ordinary performance at an open mic night, which seems sincere enough. None of them previously went viral, so there’s no reason she might have expected the next one to do so.

And just because she studies sociology doesn’t make it a sociological experiment. Like, do you all understand how higher education works?

What I find telling, is that the “troll” theory seems like the primary way people can think to defend the video or the artist. I just find that hypothesis unnecessary. If the song brought you joy, even as an object of laughter, does it matter whether it was deliberate? When a performer is particularly good, we might ascribe it to “musical talent”, which is supposedly innate, and therefore also not deliberate, and yet an object of praise. As I see it, she’s got talent.

It’s not necessarily a rare talent. Tone-deafness (if that is what it is) is said to affect 4% of the population, which is enough people that it most certainly includes some of my readers.  I think what’s rare here is that it comes alongside decent songwriting, decent vocal timbre, and charisma.

Among people musically trained in the western tradition, singing out of tune is very challenging. And it is indeed something that some artists do deliberately, such as in xenharmonic music. The quality that people find so awful about “Red Dress” is not wholly unlike something I truly and honestly seek out in music. In fact, I first heard about “Red Dress” through xenharmonic circles, because Stephen Weigel made a microtonal transcription.  Xen folks won’t necessarily like the song, but I think there’s more appreciation of what it is. “She has escaped the jail that is the chromatic scale,” as one person put it.  She’s definitely coming from a different place than xen music, but it’s impressive all the same.

I thought to share the music, but it felt wrong to do so without providing context. I saw the Youtube comments, and a lot of people were being fairly nasty. Knowing the internet, she probably has suffered harassment. Many commenters were comparing her to Rebecca Black’s “Friday”, with the idea that we should give it a similar derisive treatment. But It’s incredible that people look back at the toxic reaction to “Friday” and think, “we should do that again.” Also, Rebecca Black became a conventionally good pop singer?

Whatever your reaction–whether you hated it, found it fascinating but unlistenable, enjoyed it on a “so bad it’s good” level, or loved its boldness–I can’t take that away from you. But people need to separate their reaction to the art from their treatment of the artist.


  1. Rob Grigjanis says

    Definitely ‘off’ in a conventional sense, but not in the least off-putting to me, and more interesting than most stuff one hears floating around.

  2. says

    It’s possible! If you have the time, you can take a test to find out.

    I have pretty good pitch discrimination and ear training, so I could tell what was “off” about her singing. But I think a lot of people can only tell that it sounds bad, without understanding what’s bad about it.

  3. says

    I didn’t hear anything wrong with the song. Then again, at school my music teachers always kept telling me that I am terrible at singing, so I probably also cannot evaluate music either.

  4. Bruce says

    I’m amazed that anyone would criticize this in a world in which rap and hip hop have been accepted as music for decades. Also, I agree that any music composed on the basis of a twelve tone scale would get similar ridicule from most people, who haven’t heard that.
    An Australian comedy band, “The Axis of Awesome”, wrote a “Four Chord Song”, in which they show that, musically, many of the most popular songs are really the SAME song. So maybe it’s just that some people can’t handle hearing a second song, because they’re so used to the only song they know.

  5. StonedRanger says

    I made it 21 seconds. I dont hate it, but off key singing drives me up a wall in the same way that some people dont like fingernails on a blackboard, or rubbing a balloon, neither one of which bother me in the least.

  6. says

    I checked out Roseanne’s performance of the Star Spangled Banner, and the musical characteristics are distinct. Roseanne is in tune at least some of the time, but there are quite a few off notes, that sound like a result of rushing through it, or straining against her vocal range. I also think that what’s most grating about it is actually the timbre rather than the tuning. In contrast, Sarah Brand has a fairly conventional vocal timbre.

    Another recent example, was the Star Spangled Banner performed at the 2021 CPAC. In that case, there seem to be two problems. First, there are few notes that stick out, as if she had internalized the wrong melody. Second, she suddenly modulates keys a few times, as if in an effort to keep it within her vocal range. I think there’s something to this one as well.

    There are really a lot of distinct ways that a musical performance can sound wrong. I think “Red Dress” appeals to me more than the others do, but of course other listeners might feel differently.

  7. says

    I can stand listening to it, though I don’t like it.

    I can’t stand watching the video. I loathe the video. I’m not even going to watch a little bit of the video again to make make sure I’m remembering the video accurately before critiquing it. I hated the video the first time I watched it most of the way through & I’m never subjecting myself to that again.

    That said, I felt zero inclination to insult Brand or anyone else involved in making it. Rather, it reminds me of what Dave Letterman said is responsible for the wild success of the Blair Witch movie:

    It taps into our primal fear of student film projects.

    Yeah. That.

  8. says

    Oooh, btw: the one thing that I’m surprised didn’t get mentioned in your original post is that visual illusion from a couple years back of the two colored dress, and how many people could only see it one way, but some could perceive it both ways.

    The “Red Dress” song & video invites comparison to that prior dress controversy not only because the video’s protagonist was depicted as wearing two different dresses during it, but also because there are wild disagreements over how the video should be perceived, with far too many people insisting that there is only one “correct” way to perceive it and far too few able to see the video has different (and all still valid on current evidence) possible interpretations.

    None of the interpretations will get me to watch the video again, but my pleasure or displeasure while watching doesn’t make any particular interpretation accurate or inaccurate.

  9. says

    I didn’t think much about the video (as in, I don’t even remember what was in it), although the Newsweek article suggests that the project was as much an exercise in directing a short film as it was an exercise in music.

  10. says

    As I once heard Ozzy Osbourne’s described, “He’s so out of tune that’s he *in* tune”.

    “Red Dress” is disturbing, like it’s all suspended fourths and diminished chords. We’re trained to want resolution in music, and this doesn’t have it.

    “This Exists” (a now dormant youtube channel) covered microtonal music a few years ago. The narrator wrong about one thing in the video – you don’t need to spend tousands to play microtonal music. Just play guitar with a slide, a trombone, or the four small slides on a trumpet.

  11. robert79 says

    I’m quite sure this is intentional.

    A video like this requires a bunch of people to make, you’d think someone would at some point say “this is really out of tune!”

    The out of tune-ness is actually fairly consistent. Someone who is tone deaf or bad at singing would have more variation in how ‘off’ they were.

    The first two seconds of the song start with a dissonant church bell.

    The whole theme of the song is about feeling out of place (dissonant).

  12. says

    Did you see the microtonal transcription? There’s a lot of variation in how “off” she is. That’s what’s neat about it.

    Plus the Newsweek article which interviewed someone who was involved in the filming.

    And like I said in the post, I listen to a lot of music where it actually is intentional. It doesn’t sound the same. If it’s intentional, that’s cool, but that’s not where the evidence points.

  13. Marja Erwin says

    I have a lot of trouble with the zooming video, but no trouble with the music. I usually get migraines from music, and intense pain from loud or sharp noises.

  14. kestrel says

    Personally I can not bear to listen to it and have only heard a small bit of it. If this were a live performance, I am afraid I’d get up and leave. I also can’t stand hearing a live band that does not have their guitars tuned, so at least I’m consistent. If you like this, good for you. It is most decidedly not for me.

  15. says

    Hey! Been a long time, I know. I really should put up another blog… (or maybe actually participate in the back channel… sorry… life is… finally just starting to get better)


    So I have a slightly different take on this song. First things first… I couldn’t listen to it. It grated… badly. But it was just the singing. In fact, I want to say something perhaps a tad controversial… Sarah Brand has a good voice! Her voice alone doesn’t grate at all. She can clearly hold notes and has the potential to actually sound really pleasant. With vocal training, I think she could actually be really good. Because that’s what she’s missing. She has a good voice, she just doesn’t have any training in singing at all. And she may be tone deaf, sure, but even that can be compensated for with proper training (I actually know some very good singers who sing in key all the time who are also tone deaf… it’s through extensive training that they can do it).

    For me, it’s the combo of her voice with the instruments. I think this might be why some people clock it as intentional. The music itself isn’t very good. The instruments sound like they’re out of tune, and while there does seem to be an *attempt* at keeping time, it doesn’t seem to be consistent. This has very The Shaggs quality to it (for those who don’t know: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Shaggs), and while that admittedly likely wasn’t a troll when it came out, many groups and musicians have gone that route on purpose either for experimental reasons or troll reasons or both. So I think the people saying it’s a troll are saying that because the music itself is bad.

    Now, if you isolated her vocals, or even got good musicians who were able to modulate themselves to her singing, this would probably sound at least fine, if not good. Like I said… Sarah herself doesn’t really have a bad voice at all. It’s a combination of everything going on. I’m not suggesting it’s a troll at all. But hearing what I hear, I can completely understand why some people see it that way.

  16. says

    Dammit… the sentence “But it was just the singing.” should say “but it WASN’T just the singing.”

    Now that’s gonna bother me because I can’t edit it… 🙁

  17. says

    As far as I can tell, the instruments are in tune and in time. (Well, the chime at the start sounds strange, but I think that’s up to the choice of chord.) I think it only sounds out of tune relative to the vocals. If we had stems we could know for sure, but I predict that the guitar stems would sound fine, and the vocals would still sound off.

    I wouldn’t rule out that part of the reason the vocals sound off, is that she didn’t have the instrumental track to sing over, and thus didn’t have a good reference pitch. On the other hand, there’s another video where she plays guitar at the same time.

  18. Marja Erwin says

    Musical scales are arbitrary, so how can something “in tune” sound better than something “out of tune” anyway?

    I get how individual sounds can be more or less painful to me, depending whether they have a narrower or wider range. But that’s about it.

  19. says

    Musical scales are arbitrary, so how can something “in tune” sound better than something “out of tune” anyway?

    As you say, the scales are arbitrary. There’s no reason an A can’t be 414 cycles per second. Or 437.2. Or 448.9

    But once you designate the A at 440, then you can end up with the situation where musical instruments are tuned to that scale and the voice (which might sound fine a cappella) which can’t be simply and mechanically “set” to the “correct” tuning, creates dissonance with the music produced by the instruments.

    It’s this dissonance which causes the voice that’s “out of tune” to sound worse than a voice that’s “in tune”. And. of course, if an instrument is set incorrectly, that instrument might sound fine played in isolation, but it, too, will create dissonance and unpleasant sounds when combined with “in tune” instruments.

    If you’re not clear how dissonance can create unpleasant sounds, experiment with a keyboard. Pressing some keys at the same time sound fine together. Other keys pressed at the same time sound much less pleasant. Because the keys are all in **relative** tune, pressing only 2 keys at a time is not likely to produce something that sounds horrible to you (even if some combinations are more pleasant than others), but once you get to 3 or 4 notes at the same time, one can quickly go from “less pleasant” to “downright awful”.

    Since the guitars are playing whole chords of 3 to 6 notes already, it’s not weird that “out of tune” vocals can clash badly.

  20. Ketil Tveiten says

    For something that (by all accounts) doesn’t appear to be intentionally bad, that was impressively bad. I could only do about a third before tapping out.

    For those who offer the “surely someone would have said something” defense of unintentional garbagitude, remember that (particularly in the US) money can make people look the other way. That, after all, is how Rebecca Black (with rich parents) happened.

  21. says

    @Marja Erwin #21,
    I’ve written a bit about dissonance here. One hypothesis is that the root cause is that when two pitches are off by a certain amount, it causes a “roughness” sensation. And since most instruments include higher harmonics at integer multiples of the fundamental frequency, one way to avoid roughness between two notes is to have near-fractional ratios between their frequencies (such as 2:1, 3:2 or 5:4).

    But a lot of what is considered pleasant or unpleasant, consonant or dissonant, comes from musical norms. Some cultures consider roughness pleasant, and include it in their musical traditions. In 12TET, some consonant intervals are only approximated, and other consonant intervals are excluded entirely.

  22. mailliw says

    @24 Siggy

    Thank you, an interesting explanation.

    I’ve noticed that playing dissonant intervals on instrument with a “harsh” tone like oboes or a distorted electric guitar sound more dissonant than intervals played on a “soft” toned instrument – like flutes or an acoustic guitar. So timbre and harmony appear to be closely related to each other.

    Of course dissonance isn’t a bad thing – it creates tension – for example in the resolution between the (discordant) dominant 7th and the tonic. Adding more notes to the dominant 7th (flat 5th or 9th, sharp 5th or 9th) creates greater discord and more tension.

  23. says

    As a musician who’s done a fair amount of vocal production, it sounds plausible that Brand simply can’t sing in tune. Her voice is thin, which is consistent with not supporting the sound with her diaphragm; and singing out of tune with without diaphragmatic support is a breeze. But it’s equally plausible that she’s intentionally out of tune.

    What is beyond any possible doubt is that the finished product is intentionally out of tune. Modern audio software makes it incredibly easy to tune voices, and the producer has consciously chosen not to do so.

    The reason for this is obvious but nevertheless brilliantly bold: There are thousands of new songs released every day, and being out of tune is an easy (although risky) way to make your work stand out. Modern pop singers sing in tune, in large part BECAUSE audio software makes it so easy to do so. If Brand sang in tune, what are the odds that we’d be having this discussion?

  24. says

    @Mark Arnest,
    *sigh* I continue to strongly disagree with any sort of intentional theory here. Modern audio software may make it easy for you, but that doesn’t mean everyone knows about it, has access to it, knows how to use it, and has the will to use it. I’m very puzzled by people who seem to imagine that any music with a music video is a professional production. I’ve spent enough time scrolling through rando bands on Bandcamp with ten total album sales to know that a lot of music isn’t well produced. And no it does not, in general, make a song stand out.

  25. says


    Of course there are thousands upon thousands of badly produced songs online. But “Red Dress” is not one of them. The video production is obviously high quality, with multiple takes and perfect synchonisation. As for the audio, the tracks were all recorded separately and mixed later (the most obvious clues are the clarity of the stereo imaging and the virtually anechoic bass guitar and kick drum); everything is perfectly synchonized – in fact, probably quantized – and the backup vocals, which sound like Brand multitracked, are less out of tune than the lead vocals. The mix is detailed: for instance, there’s a sudden bloom of reverb on the vocals at 2:34 that’s quickly brought down. (This effect requires more skill from the engineer than simple tuning of vocals.) The production isn’t sumptuous, but it’s appropriate for this song and completely professional. There’s no comparison to the Shaggs: The ONLY thing off here is the Brand’s intonation.

    And it’s not as if pitch correction software is expensive. It ships native with most DAWS (the software programs on which music is produced), and if you want really high-quality pitch correction, you can wait for a sale of Melodyne and have near-Photoshop-like control of your audio for under $250.

  26. says

    @Mark Arnest #29,
    Thanks for the music production insight. I still don’t think it’s a matter of deliberately skipping autotune in order to stand out.

    By now there are some interviews with Sarah Brand, and she says that the singing style is in line with… whatever she’s saying in the lyrics about religion. If we take her at her word, that suggests that it was intentional, but the intention was to underscore the message in the lyrics. But contrary to her belief that it fulfilled its intentions, I feel like the style actually distracted from the message. There can, I suppose, be multiple levels of intent, both fulfilled and frustrated. Whatever the case, I hope she doesn’t get pressured into autotuning herself.

  27. mailliw says

    @29 Mark Arnest

    The ONLY thing off here is the Brand’s intonation.

    I use the cheapest version of Cubase and it has pitch correct.

    It would take a very highly trained singer (which Brand is clearly not) to deliberately sing this song the way Brand sings it, but I am not convinced that someone can accidently be that out of tune. I’m not trained singer but usually I notice I am bit flat when there’s a big jump to a higher note but nothing as extreme as the singing in this video.

    Perhaps Brand can sing in tune, but her vocals were modified electronically afterwards?

  28. says

    @mailliw #32
    I know of singers who would be able to sing it that way deliberately–Stephen Weigel, who did the microtonal transcription can, and indeed did, sing it that way. I believe the most common technique is to generate a demo track, and match your voice to the tuning of the demo track. I suppose people must also electronically modify their vocals as well.

    The thing is, the tuning of her voice varies so wildly, and in a way that strikes me as expressive rather than random. Plus she has an acoustic version which is in the same style but not precisely the same sequence of pitches. Independent of how difficult it would be to sing it that way deliberately, I think it would also take quite the artistic imagination to write out the tune in the first place.

    So the voice feels most assuredly authentic–and I suspect that if we lived in a culture where karaoke were normalized, we wouldn’t even find it particularly unusual. Mark Arnest’s hypothesis that there was a deliberate choice not to electronically correct her voice strikes me as more plausible.

  29. mailliw says

    @33 Siggy,

    Thanks for the link to the Stephen Weigel interpretation – extraordinary!

    I found another Sarah Brand song here: https://youtu.be/jrepS4a7Dgs

    As pianist Kenny Werner said – if you play the wrong notes with sufficient confidence then people will think they are the new right notes.

  30. says


    If you like Stephen Weigel’s version, you might also appreciate this synth reharmonization. I was going to put that in my link roundup later.

    “Fantasy” is also pretty good IMO. Supposedly Sarah Brand is working on a whole album, I hope that happens.

  31. consciousness razor says

    The idea that she’s got a great voice (other than the awful intonation) just comes off as bizarre apologetics to me. Her voice is weak and fluttery, and her pronunciation is very unclear. Any self-respecting vocal teacher would want to work hard on things like that, because it does take work and isn’t written into your genes or whatever the hell some people must be thinking…. And yes, of course you can say similar things about some other pop singers, and that’s what I would say about them too. If that’s their “style,” then so much the worse for their style.

    Mark Arnest, #26:

    What is beyond any possible doubt is that the finished product is intentionally out of tune. Modern audio software makes it incredibly easy to tune voices, and the producer has consciously chosen not to do so.

    From the video description:

    Directed, Produced, Choreographed & Edited by Sarah Brand

    It doesn’t mention anyone else involved in producing, mixing or mastering. It looks like it’s all her. If she can’t hear the problem, she’s got no reason to use pitch correction (or to simply use other takes, if any existed).

    The mix is detailed: for instance, there’s a sudden bloom of reverb on the vocals at 2:34 that’s quickly brought down. (This effect requires more skill from the engineer than simple tuning of vocals.)

    If you ask me, it was cut off very abruptly and awkwardly – timed with the change in video clips you’ll notice, but before the word “red dress” in the phrase.

    All you need to do for that is apply the reverb to that one little clip and not apply it to the other vocal clips. It’s not like they bothered to gradually fade the effect in or out – nor did they bother to time it thoughtfully or reasonably. I call that sloppy and unimpressive work, whether it was Brand who did it (which seems to be the case since nobody else was credited, as I pointed out above) or not.

    The production isn’t sumptuous, but it’s appropriate for this song and completely professional.

    None of that suggests somebody else (with a better ear) did any of this, intentionally or otherwise.

    mailliw, #32:

    It would take a very highly trained singer (which Brand is clearly not) to deliberately sing this song the way Brand sings it, but I am not convinced that someone can accidently be that out of tune. I’m not trained singer but usually I notice I am bit flat when there’s a big jump to a higher note but nothing as extreme as the singing in this video.

    It’s not hard for that to happen, and I’m not surprised….

    I might have heard worse in my life, though not from any professional musicians. (Even Wesley Willis was better, mostly.)

    The thing you notice, when you’re singing out of tune, are the intervals between notes you sing and notes others are singing/playing. So think about how the process could work:

    — You record yourself singing. You may be happy with the results, so you keep them and move on to do some of the other work…. In this case, that also includes video production/editing, choreography, and so forth. There’s a lot of work to do, even with just the music side of things, so at some point you may just decide to call it “good enough.”

    — Other instrumental parts are recorded, not necessarily at the same time or place. A studio recording, not a live performance, is almost never recorded all at once.

    It’s almost guaranteed that the singer doesn’t have the kind of feedback you’re accustomed to and basing this reasoning on, unless instrumental parts are made (and at least partly mixed) first. But who knows when any of it was made? She could for example just use drums to get the right tempo and worry about the other bits later, but that would not help her with her intonation.

    Of course, if she just can’t hear, then it doesn’t exactly matter when it was that she just couldn’t hear. But at any rate, there are ways to isolate the other musicians from the process, so they can’t give their input on it. And it will make it a little easier for some to accept the results, if they’ve already sunk lots of time into it. It’s not really how I work, but I know some wouldn’t want want to bother with trying out more takes or with getting feedback from another set of ears.

  32. says

    @siggy #31

    “If we take her at her word, that suggests that it was intentional, but the intention was to underscore the message in the lyrics.”

    This is a valid aesthetic choice, and it’s consistent with the discordant bell at the very beginning.

    @mailliw #32

    “I am not convinced that someone can accidently be that out of tune.”

    I am recently retired as a choir director, and believe me, it is more common than you would like to believe. 🙂

    “Perhaps Brand can sing in tune, but her vocals were modified electronically afterwards?”

    This thought had occurred to me too.

  33. Rob Grigjanis says

    Mark Arnest @37:

    This is a valid aesthetic choice

    How would you decide that an aesthetic choice is invalid?

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