Nine years ago, Marie Ulven, a Norwegian suburban teenager, like most of her peers, broadcast her interests on social media. Ulven’s hobby of choice was the fingerboard, a miniaturized version of skateboarding in which people perform tricks on tiny boards just using their hands. Ulven ultimately amassed a modest following on Instagram. In real life, she participated in formal and refereed “battles”, where she faced colleagues. (In a battle, which still lives on YouTube, an anxious, fresh-faced Ulven competes with a male boarder and is met with loud cheers and punches from the crowd.) One Christmas, Grandpa Ulven gave it a more traditional outlet for the manual. dexterity: a guitar. From her childhood home in the small town of Horten, Ulven started writing jangly indie-pop songs, which she sang first in Norwegian and then in English. She uploaded them to the DIY SoundCloud streaming platform under pseudonyms like Lydia X and lyfsuxx. Ulven also promoted these songs on his sideline, hoping his fans would be interested in his newfound passion.
Gradually they did. In 2018, a popular Norwegian music website called NRK Urørt caught wind of Ulven’s music and featured a song called “I want to be your girlfriend”. Musically, the song was more subdued than the smooth, icy pop that typically migrates from Norway to the rest of the world, but it wasn’t particularly unusual. The track, a two-chord guitar piece played in 4/4, with dismal and nostalgic lyrics, sounded like an indie-rock song that could have been recorded in a number of regions and eras. More significant was the nonchalance with which Ulven sang a love affair with another young woman. Speaking to a sweetheart named Hannah, she sang, “I don’t wanna be your friend, I wanna kiss your lips.” Soon hundreds of thousands of people listened to the song on SoundCloud, and Ulven began to grab the attention of playlist programmers and record companies interested in his obvious talent and straightforwardness.
By this time, Ulven had chosen a stage name: she called herself “girl in red,” a description once used to identify a friend she was looking for in a crowd. With a new name and an influx of listeners from all over the world, Ulven released more of his diaristic music in spurts over the next two years. His first two EPs, “chapter 1”, from 2018, and “chapter 2”, from 2019, were recorded at home; the songs were lo-fi and woozy, evoking the image of the childhood bedroom as confessional. Full of clear-spoken meditations on mental health and the frustrations of teenage romance, these early EPs had a sweet simplicity and emotional sharpness that held them together. “My daughter, my daughter, my daughter,” she sang to the chorus of a singing song called “We Fell In Love In October,” from 2018. Even in a time of acceptance, Ulven speaks of the love of homosexual women. felt like an eye opener, and she was soon referred to as a strange icon. She has spent much of the past few years trying to make her point of view seem normal rather than out of the ordinary.
In interviews, Ulven has described the agonizing boredom she experienced growing up in Horten, a town of around 27,000 inhabitants. In 2018, she moved fifty kilometers away to Oslo to study music at an arts school. Her debut album, “If I Could Make It Quiet,” recorded in 2019 and 2020 and released last month, is the musical equivalent of moving from a small town to a big city. Armed with more technical prowess and confidence, Ulven has transformed his intimate indie rock into something more electrified and ambitious, and his new music sounds like it was meant to be played in arenas rather than small clubs. His emotional range has also expanded, going beyond the realm of love sickness. On the new record, she bounces between perspectives, from sexual frankness and lust to defiance or guilt. A constant theme in Ulven’s music is his struggle with his own brain chemistry. “I hate the way my brain is wired / I can’t trust my mind, he’s such a liar,” she sings, on “Rue,” a grand electro-rock song with a folk chorus . In fact, “if I could silence him” sounds like the work of someone who is reliably lucid. Ulven takes responsibility for her actions as easily as she blames others. “Let’s just look at the fact that I treated you like garbage,” she sings, on “hornylovesickmess,” a song about life on the road that captures the special thoughtfulness of being on the road.
Ulven is one of the many up-and-coming artists who cite Taylor Swift as an idol. In Ulven’s case, Swift’s influence isn’t so much stylistic as it is structural – Swift provided a blueprint for young artists to take ownership of their craft and create songs with strong bones. Ulven wrote, recorded and produced almost all of his own music; she is a solo artist who sounds like a band. But on ‘Serotonin’, the opening track from her new album, she enlisted the much-needed help from Grammy Award-winning record producer Finneas O’Connell, best known for his work with his younger sister. , Billie Eilish. O’Connell likes to use what might otherwise be termed auditory trash – the sound of a dentist’s drill, for example, or a stapler – to create textures and moods. Early versions of “Serotonin” contained a bit of babble that served as a space for words. O’Connell suggested to Ulven that, rather than exchanging actual words, she should keep the gibberish. The song, like most of the work O’Connell has done with his sister, is a hyper-modern hit – an exciting and moving pop song with jarring textural quirks, which alternates between full-throated vocals and cadences that look more like hip. -jump.
One measure of an artist’s success these days is how easily fans can encode their music with new meaning on TikTok. Musicians and labels try to play with this system, sowing songs with top-tier TikTokers or producing ready-made memes and backstage dance challenges. But the best cases of TikTok virality always involve an element of chance and fantasy. Last year, Ulven’s music project became an online shortcut for queer identification: In TikTok videos that collectively generated nearly twelve million views, the question “Are you listening to girl in red?” has been used as a springboard for all kinds of comedic riffs about admitting to the world you’ve slept with women or wondering if anyone else has. An Ohio TV news anchor posted a clip, recorded on set, in which she mischievously revealed that the underside of her blonde bob was shaved and that she was wearing chunky tennis shoes under her casual outfit. “When you are professional but want to show that you are listening to a girl in red,” she wrote. The video has 1.7 million views on TikTok.
The “Are you listening to the girl in red?” meme is the kind of promotional engine that most artists and record companies never reach. But it also represents a form of codification of gender identity that tended to worry Ulven. Last year, she suggested in an interview that she doesn’t like the word ‘lesbian’, sparking a wave of consternation among fans, who misinterpreted the bad intentions. “I feel passionate that everyone should be able to identify and identify with their sexuality in the words they feel most comfortable with,” Ulven later clarified in a lengthy statement on Twitter. She concluded, “I hope we can respect each other and always take the time to understand each other in the larger context of themselves and their lives.” On “if I could shut up,” Ulven doesn’t bother to identify himself at all, barely using language that would allow listeners to emphasize his relationships with other women. The album appears to further blur Ulven’s designation as a queer icon, instead presenting the full context of herself and her life. ♦