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.