Entertainment 17 Jun 2024 5 MIN

Arooj Aftab is the new poster child for sad girl music

Pop girl summer be gone, we are yearning for melancholic, introspective, emo songs this season

From a rustling meadow of acoustic guitar notes emerges Arooj Aftab’s sonorous voice. “Aey nahin abhi tak/ koi baat ho gayi,” intones the Brooklyn-via-Lahore musician in the first song from her new record, Night Reign. “Shayad unke sheher mein/ achanak raat ho gayi,” she goes on. Is it a song about the anxiety of waiting, or the eagerness to offer one’s beloved the benefit of doubt? The subtext might be open to interpretation, but the tone isn’t. ‘Aey Nahin’ takes an Instagram post by Aftab’s friend, Pakistani actor and writer Yasra Rizvi, and transforms it into a pop-jazz meditation. From its very first note, Aftab does what she does best: set that half-moon-scented-night mood. 

Like the critically acclaimed Vulture Prince, Aftab’s breakthrough album of 2021, Night Reign is yet another demonstration of the Grammy-winning musician’s complete mastery of jazz composition and music engineering, her eye for unexpected but fitting collaborators, and her world-melding vision of globally resonant music. The album is full of gorgeous, introspective verse that hops across centuries and geographical coordinates—there’s poetry from Mah Laqa Bai Chanda, one of the rare women to be published in the 18th century, as well as Rumi and 20th-century French poet Jacques Prévert. But where Vulture Prince was marked overtly by grief (the death of Aftab’s brother precipitated and shaped its songs), Night Reign is a brighter, more hopeful work. 

Vulture Prince was a sad record because I was sad,” Aftab told The New York Times. “But in the years that passed, I’ve had this joy inside of me. It would be unfair if it didn’t translate in my music.” And it does, to the extent that a mash of jazz and ghazals (both forms given to melancholy) can do. Which is to say, if ‘sad girl music’ is your jam, Aftab’s new record, indeed her whole body of work, would fit easily on your playlists.  

Like many artists, Aftab resists labels. What creative person would like to be reduced to a single type, a genre, representative of one ‘exotic’ culture, to cater to one imaginary market? If nomenclatures like world music and fusion have had the global South up in arms for decades, the subgenre of sad girl music has seen growing criticism as it has re-emerged in the TikTok era.  

Even before TikTok gave it a buzzy name, sad girl music (SGM) had been around us for decades really. A catchall (derisive) phrase for (mostly) guitar-toting female singer-songwriters who make emotional music, SGM’s trademark can be seen in the music of Billie Holiday in the 1950s, Nico in the 1960s, Fiona Apple in the 1990s, Lana Del Ray from the 2010s onwards, now joined by Billie Eilish, Phoebe Bridgers, and Mitski. 

Absolutely none of them appreciate being slotted into this category, but sad girl is a mood—and in the social media era, there are sad girl makeup tutorials, even a sad girl starter pack playlist on Spotify and its cousin on the spectrum of sadness, pioneered by an anime girl on YouTube called Lofi Girl

Given the rather universal nature of the ‘female condition’—indeed, of blueness borne of longing, heartbreak, and discontent—it can seem odd that a lot of the subculture is focused on white adolescent girls and young adults. This is another major criticism of mainstream SGM: for a long time, it hasn’t included the voices and faces, minds and bodies of colour. 

But consider the ghazals of Iqbal Bano and Farida Khanum, and the thumris of Shobha Gurtu, Naina Devi, and Vidya Rao and more. There are centuries of poignant Urdu and Hindustani verse about heartbreak, longing, and the vulnerability of devotion and desire, and these have also informed decades of mainstream Bollywood film and music. Listen to Begum Akhtar’s voice crack on the classic ‘Ae Mohabbat Tere Anjaam Pe Rona Aya’, but also find the lo-fi flip version (there’s a whole album of them).

Consider the more introspective storytellers among our contemporary singer-songwriters to tap into the very specific feeling of growing up as a young woman in the 21st century. Ditty, or Aditi Veena, wrestles with selfhood in ‘Home In My Skin’ from her latest EP, Skin. “For I’ve been running away/ for too long, from myself/ and I have treated her like a shell,” she recites, against a background of morose cello strains. Electronic music producer Tarana Marwah, who goes by the stage name Komorebi, takes on bullies in ‘Better Not Bitter’, the final track on her 2023 EP The Fall. “You wear your damages like armour,” she repeats, tiredness seeping through her voice that floats over Sahil Vasudeva’s gentle piano notes. 

Sikkim-bred singer-songwriter Anoushka Maskey channels her folk melodies in the subdued number ‘The Search for Wild Geese’: “Darling I fear I’ll always be alone/ I’ll never run out of lines but it just/ seems all too strung out,” she sings in a melody overwhelmed with nostalgia and loneliness. In her pandemic-era track, ‘Bored As Fuck’, Delhi’s Hanita Bhambri muses on much the same: “Thoughts flood my head/ I’m in a black hole/ anger aches my bones…”  And in her punk-esque 2021 single ‘End of the World’, Mumbai-based Alisha Batth, through jangling electric guitar, croons “I cry and I get high/ and I don’t see why that’s a terrible thing/ when my body keeps telling me it’s cold, without you to hold.”

Going back to Aftab’s Night Reign, think of Mah Laqa Chanda Bai, whom I spoke of earlier. An 18th-century courtesan from Hyderabad, she was also a noblewoman and a warrior, as well as the first woman to publish a Diwan, or collection of Urdu ghazals, in 1798. Her verse, which won her favours from nawabs centuries ago, now forms the basis of two songs in Night Reign: ‘Saaqi’ and ‘Na Gul’. Both are imbued with the sort of comfortable forlornness many of us seek in solitary moments.

In her seminal book, The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir wrote that “the drama of women” stems from the realisation “that she—a free and autonomous being like all human creatures—nevertheless finds herself living in a world where men compel her to assume the status of the Other.” Sure, to create a label might also be doing something similarly dark. But labels notwithstanding, the music will be written, produced, sung and consumed. Because, if you listen closely to these great singer-songwriters, there is solidarity in discomfort, catharsis, and even a ray of hope beaming into the void.