Ethel Cain, Persona Theater, and the Tragic Allure of White Working-Class Femininity

By Saffron Forsberg

Editor-in-Chief


CW: brief mention of eating disorders, physical abuse

Illustration by Saffron Forsberg, Editor-in-Chief

She may not like me saying so, but it seems Ethel Cain may be the Southern Baptist equivalent to Lana Del Rey’s rose-adorned, California-brand Catholicism. Ethel Cain is the stage name of 24-year-old Hayden Silas Anhedönia. If you’ve heard of her, you’ve probably heard quite a lot; she’s the next big thing in sullen indie dream pop. In 2020, she released her first official EP, Inbred. In 2022, her debut album, Preacher’s Daughter.

There are many differences, of course, between Ethel Cain and Lana Del Rey, the biggest of which being (at least relative) sincerity; Ethel Cain is actually a preacher’s daughter from the rural South. She's still based in small-town Tennessee. Despite what Emily St. James wrote for Vox, that “the story within the album [Preacher’s Daughter] is a heavily fictionalized depiction of the world in which Cain was raised” offering the “rich characterization of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or the works of Flannery O’Connor”, too much of Cain’s projected identity checks out to claim any true fabrication. Ethel Cain knows what she’s talking about. She has her finger pressed to something honest and acute. The same cannot always be said of Lana Del Rey. And it shows in the conceptual quality of her work.

There, too, is the nature of Cain and Del Rey’s particular brands of femininity: Cain is an out trans woman for whom femininity is something articulated with freshness and complexity in her work. In her lyricism, religion looms with the harrowing frankness of someone who has encountered it in all its beauty and pain – “these crosses all over my body remind me of who I used to be” – The same cannot be said of Lana Del Rey. And again, it shows.

But there are similarities that make one want to place Cain and Del Rey shoulder to shoulder. They've both donned heavy-handed stage names, exaggerated personas with an attention to a murky and old-fashioned femininity. Their voices are smokey, simultaneously breathy and thick-as-molasses. And they’ve cultivated a fan base of alternative-culture-identifying, (often white) women who came of age on the internet. They attract these particular fans because of an existing phenomenon proliferated, in the last decade at least, by cult internet spaces. But I'll speak on that later. Let's turn now to Cain's music.

Plainly put, I want to like it more than I do. I want it to be everything that I keep reading about in big music publications – “sublime” (NPR) melds of pop, rock, noise, country. I want her vocals to sound “remarkable” and “lurid” to me, as Pitchfork and Vox tell me they should. I want there to be a beautiful cohesion between her raw and boundary-pushing image and her just-ok, studio-clean, reverb pop – but it’s just not happening for me. Admittedly, I must agree with Pitchfork here: “There’s a disconnect between Cain’s provocative public image and the rigid composure of these songs.” Where is this beautiful anguish I keep hearing about?

I thought I wasn’t getting something until I suggested to a friend that we go to a show of hers in Detroit this past summer, as something to do. Ethel Cain’s Freezer Bride tour had inundated my Instagram feed by that point, and I thought seeing her live might finally get her under my skin. My friend told me they hadn’t sat down and really listened to Cain’s music, so they would and get back to me. Later that night, I found them leaning against my door frame, one earbud in, furrowed at the brow. “This is just…regular?” They said, “I’m confused. This is not what I was expecting based on what I keep seeing about her.” It was almost comforting to hear.

Because the thing is, it really feels as though I am supposed to enjoy Cain's sound – there is a reason that I feel almost faulty at my lack of appreciation for the dour, gloomy-sweet tracks that make up Preacher's Daughter. And beyond being a “music geek” (groan) who is constantly searching for the newest genre to subject myself to, I grew up a white girl in the uber-Christian working-class South. I’m a fool for her imagery, for her questionable caucasian nostalgia, for her embrace of things my upper-class, not-Southern peers view as those belonging to hicks. I’m a fool for the New York Times excitedly deeming her “The Most Famous Girl at the Waffle House '' in the headline for the expansive piece she’s covered in. Her music videos, too, in which she hobbles over black tar streets, smoking a cigarette in a bikini top and curlers, feet bare, crooning about her crush on a boy who brought a gun to school, works with his hands, and smells like Marlboro reds, calls to mind the older girls of my youth the way Justine Kurland’s “Girl Pictures” do. Like me and all others strangely soft on the hardness of the working-class, bible belt South, Cain has a fondness for “nowhere places'” and for those who reside there. It seems I am, in many ways, a member of her prime demographic.

But her music doesn’t do the things that I want it to do – it’s mediocre: more reverby, thickly-produced dreampop than anything else. And yeah, I do, admittedly, follow Ethel Cain and her journey through mainstream indie on multiple social media platforms, but mostly because I find her industry-smart and frankly, adorable with her lank Manson Girl hair and face tattoos, and not because I’m listening to her music. I like her; she’s very likable. But is her music anything special? Not really, not yet.

Perhaps I am unfazed, too, because I came-of-age not only on Tumblr, but perpendicular to a crevice of Tumblr that’s been curating something reminiscent of what Cain is personifying since around 2012. This part of Tumblr goes by many names and is, in broadest terms, associated with “aesthetic blogging”, though instead of art-directing a portfolio of tabi-boot-clad, Beatnik-invoking French girls, as many other aesthetic blogs of the era were doing, this part of Tumblr sought to express a dark, frail, fucked-up sort of girlhood and womanhood – that relegated to abandoned houses containing mold-drooped ceilings, cracked dolls, and scarred knees.

The images posted here, depending on the blogs one encountered, sometimes lapsed into abject gore and body horror – bloodied baby teeth and two-headed lambs – as well as the romanticization of eating disorders, suicide and (arguably) child sexual abuse. Mostly though, users toyed with the tired irony of everything sugary about idealized girlhood made dirty and blood-matted. It's a rosary-toting, Courtney Love-ian, Eugenides-toothed realm of bloodied lace and serrated Hello Kitty. It is a part of the internet in which Americana is shown tarnished by moral filth – it’s ruled both by young women who come from such backgrounds of abuse, and those who pretend to.

As one might expect, Lana Del Rey was a favorite among this crowd. Many of the young women belonging to this cult community identify with the sometimes-hysterical femininity and sense of aimlessness Del Rey preached, at least early on. This community – sometimes grouped together as “traumacore”, "coquette", “angelcore”, or "morute" but otherwise relatively nebulous – was one to slap together Lana Del Rey’s “‘Ride’ monologue” (the restless expression of crazed femininity Del Rey performs in her momentous 2012 music video) in baby pink Gothic font over, say, a photo of an empty room, and post it for thousands of notes and almost as many hashtags.

In her article for NPR, Meghan Garvey writes of "the grim Bonnie and Clyde-isms of 'Western Nights,' or the sublime 10-minute fireside jam that is 'Thoroughfare'" on Ethel Cain's Preacher's Daughter as "where the Lana Del Rey comparisons creep in: the all-American tales of a distinctly feminine auteur with 'an obsession for freedom that terrified me to the point that I couldn't even talk about it and pushed me to a nomadic point of madness,' as Del Rey says in the video for her Tumblr girl classic 'Ride'." Here one sees white womanhood as something divorced from the experiences of the elite or even the domestic, that belonging to young beauties who've seen too much and want to see even more.

The character who is Lana Del Rey, she at once completely divorced from, and wholly entwined with, her creator, Elizabeth Grant, is from many places. She’s a Californian Manson groupie, a dreamy-eyed, Veronica Lake-ian Hollywood femme fatale, a “Brooklyn Baby”, a Floridian addict, an “open-road” biker chick (in cut-offs and a Native American headdress, lest we forget), a Venice Beach witch, a blithe, sucker-mouthed, and overgrown Lolita, and a disillusioned Vegas lounge singer. Indeed, over the last decade, Grant has had no trouble constructing a character who occupies all avenues of tragic, white American womanhood – Del Rey is sometimes rich, other times poor. She is sometimes “white trash” and other times the tennis-skirted product of old money. She’s been the first lady and she’s been the drawling mistress. She’s swayed agelessly through the twenties, the thirties, the fifties, the sixties, the seventies. Sometimes she is an impassioned and sincere lover who would die for her man, and other times she is a hollowed shell willing to “fuck [her] way up to the top”. Lana Del Rey, especially in her early years, was a character belonging to no coherent narrative. She is many women from many backgrounds, ripped from every page of the Mad Men book of mistresses, but she is always one thing – beautiful, often to a fault.



Illustration by Saffron Forsberg, Editor-in-Chief

Because of her sprawling pop ethos, Lana Del Rey is often credited with many aspects of 2010s pop culture, especially among young white women. Sure, she’s famous now, but at her cult peak her following was a legion of sad-eyed, red lipstick-ed, flower crown-ed screenagers who believed, with chest-clutching sincerity, in her creative genius. And, sure, one can argue with little contest that she impacted Western pop culture, at her peak at least. But I am of the opinion that Lana Del Rey unveiled her persona at the perfect time, reception-wise. She rose to fame during Tumblr’s heyday, when a generation of socially isolated young women were growing more and more addicted to the web and its aesthetics. At the time, Tumblr, where Lana Del Rey’s sepia pout was once unescapable, was more widely-used as a curation-based platform rather than an introspective, queer blogging outlet; it functioned more like, say, an anything-goes Pinterest than its current iteration. And it was unlike Instagram of the era because it attempted to encapsulate an alternative or counter-culture, which, in most cases, translated to users performing a sad sort of feminine beauty rather than a happy sort of feminine beauty. So, rather than the mythologized beauty of Instagram wherein one accumulates likes by posting their crystalline poolside outings surrounded by adoring friends, the mythology of Tumblr could be conveyed through the romance of tragedy – anemic bruises, streaked mascara, and so many cigarettes. It was the sickly counterpart to Instagram’s cult of wellness – catnip for the disillusioned teenager. Thus the answer to the age-old question “who made who: Lana or the Tumblr girl?” is….neither. Theirs was the perfect collision at the perfect cultural moment.

In writing this piece, I attempted to visit the aforementioned "traumacore" realm of the internet again for the first time in maybe five years. Since coming out as a hairy, soft-armed, and meal-enjoying lesbian, I'd felt increasingly (beautifully) more alienated from such a place – those fuzzy feminine aesthetics which once towered in my mind had become…sad, oppressive. And though, probably because of Tumblr’s new content filtering system (no porn, no gore, no thinspo or pro-ana…theoretically), this “community” seems less immediately disturbing, more sanitized, it’s still holding tight to a similar, out-dated feminine ethos. Now, instead of things being tagged with “traumacore” or whatever else, things are tagged “trad”, “waif”, “the virgin suicides”, “BPD” and – with hilarious obtuseness, I think – “my year of rest and relaxation”. It seems any literary irony one might offer to the works of Moshfegh or Eugenides do not translate here. In fact, I doubt anyone could find a way to make this sallow corner of the internet come across even remotely feminist. It would be a tall order for any community dwelling so whole-heartedly, and with so little depth, on aesthetics…it’s nearly impossible when those aesthetics are so devoted to a white-washed ideal of submissive womanhood. To this day, lending the community any nuance feels generous because of just how stagnant it is. While the rest of the internet seems to shift constantly, for better or worse, this corner of it seems to simmer in its own syrup of tradition. Where 2012 traumacore tumblrinas slapped a photo of Lily Rose Depp, there may now exist, in 2022, a ribby photo of Dasha Nekrascova – but what kind of evolution is that? The only thing that’s notably different between “traumacore” of 2015 and “traumacore” of 2022 is the prominence their biggest indie darling: Nicole Dollanganger.

Canadian singer-songwriter Nicole Dollanganger was never as big as Cain or Del Rey, but she became a cult icon starting in 2012, when she released her first gothic indie pop album Curdled Milk. Dollanganger was a hit for a few reasons. First, there was her voice: a medicinely-sweet and jarringly childlike sound that I frankly cannot bear to this day, but which was beloved by many. Then there was her subject matter – which I think can be adequately represented in mere song titles: “Please Eat”, “Angels of Porn”, “White Trashing”, “Tammy Faye”, the adorably naughty “He Hit Me (And It Felt Like a Kiss)”. Finally, there’s her persona, cultivated on a Tumblr blog situated in the “traumacore” realm even before the release of her music. Nicole Dollangager, plainly put, presented herself as a traumatized and overgrown child, round-eyed and dainty in pink gauze. Her femininity oozed with a sickly and youthful sort of sexuality that simultaneously delved into BDSM. To me, Dollanganger is the product of “traumacore” cult culture at its peak; she's the personification of a small movement propelled to the (relative) mainstream at a time when Lana Del Rey was also an up-and-coming indie darling. Her – at the time, very active and popular – Tumblr blog was a heavily-curated showcase of everything cute and scary, milk-breathed and boney.

Now don’t take any of this the wrong way; I don’t think Ethel Cain is necessarily romanticizing that which should not be, as this corner of the internet has done for years. On Ethel Cain’s own Tumblr, where she is still active on the daily, reblogging photos of rural America, cheerfully answering fan questions, and salivating bicuriously over Susan Sarandon, there is no gore nor thinspo nor chilling babyishness. It’s really all good clean fun. She’s no Nicole Dollanganger just as she’s no Lana Del Rey. If I were younger and more pop-oriented in my taste, perhaps Ethel Cain would be a much healthier woman musician to fawn over than who I did fawn over as a hungry teenage girl – Del Rey in all her assorted artificial flavors.

But there is something to be said here about personas – what they do, where they come from, and who they’re for. What is it that’s so tantalizing, even sexy, about not only sad women, but sad women from the darkest places? It’s like asking why people take photos of their own bruises. It’s like trying to psychoanalyze the Gen Z cry-selfie. Why not just escape into the Candyland of the rich and happy? If both pop songs, dire and upbeat, are equally catchy, why choose the dire one? Lana Del Rey and her sex kitten suicide songs rose to fame in the wake of 2010s party anthems, in which everything was fine if you were wearing something tight in a club somewhere, blowing fat paychecks and fucking other beautiful happy people with the freedom of carelessness. Lana Del Rey, dressed like a photograph of your striking young grandmother, seemed to say “hey wait a minute, I’m not happy. There is so much that’s wrong with me still.” Her massive hit “Summertime Sadness” topped the charts in 2012, the same year as Nicki Minaj’s party hit “Starships” and the Top 50 reign of sweethearts like fun. and Carly Rae Jepson. Even if so much of Lana’s persona was fake…it was almost refreshing.

So I guess the easiest answer here is something like: sad girls like sad songs about other sad girls. Right? Maybe. But I think it’s more than that; Lana Del Rey isn’t just for sad girls, she’s for those who think there’s something exciting about sad girls – specifically white, working-class ones wrapped in American flags. In Lana Del Rey’s “Ride” music video, she isn’t just a freedom-seeking young woman on the “open road”, she’s a scantily-dressed one leaned suggestively over a pinball machine by a much older man in a sleazy bar; she’s holding tight to another on the back of his bike; she’s holding a thumb out in front of a gas station for any willing stranger. Sure, she’s “free”, I guess, but she’s more so frail and broke. Her safety is dependent on rough-around-the-edges, working-class men who seem to be taking advantage of her vulnerability. And Elizabeth Grant, the soul behind the pout, grew up wealthy in New York – and never in Brooklyn. Her attention to the theater of cultural geography seems more influenced by old American movies than by her own experiences as an American woman – hers is too vast a persona to perpetuate with any true nuance.

And it's this ambitious persona which put her famously at odds with Kim Gordon in 2015, who wrote in an early draft of her memoir: "Today we have someone like Lana Del Rey, who doesn’t even know what feminism is, who believes women can do whatever they want, which, in her world, tilts toward self-destruction, whether it’s sleeping with gross old men or getting gang raped by bikers." The statement was withdrawn before publication, but still a nerve was touched, a persona was prodded at.

The simultaneous incongruence and congruence between Grant and Del Rey is perhaps the reason those young woman internet users belonging to “traumacore” so adore her; she’s the perfect idol for everything beautiful and tragic, and she’s so much a persona that she’s hardly human. It’s not a novel thing to say, especially five or ten years ago: “who the hell is Lizzy Grant?”

And the thing is: so many of the critics who adore Anhedönia’s Jesus Camp-esque working-class narratives are those who, in actuality, have no idea what she’s talking about. They’ve never lived among poor whites and religious fundamentalists in the deep South, yet are breathless with praise of her exaggerated, dark Americana authenticity. There’s something romantic about the tortured blue collar aesthetic she pours into every track in both EP and album. Subsequently, in all the establishment praise, there’s a strange condescension. It’s not Anhedönia’s fault; her music, at least somewhat, reflects her actual experiences. But it is a fascinating lens through which to view class, race, and femininity in America. And there’s no doubt that it’s this schtick which has made Anhedönia and Cain so beloved so fast. I only hope her sound wooes me, too, some time soon.