Why Does Everything Look Like a High School Burn Book?
The cover for Sour made me spiral. I’ll say it. I loved it, and it made me spiral. I’m a millennial approaching 29, who is still dissecting the emo-pop-punk hole of my youth and living for the repressed 16-year-old I once was, who drew on her pants and made a collage out of Tina Fey to spell out my own manifestation –“the first Latina to win an Oscar!” I know all the words to Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge. I would let Hayley Williams run me over with a truck. And yet there’s something about the meticulously placed stickers on the Sour album covering Olivia Rodrigo’s face—her arms crossed and tongue out with uneven lettering akin to a ransom note, spelling the word sour, stuck to it—that makes me wince.
There’s also something off about the art on the back of the album, where a hand decorated with black nail polish and silver rings threatens a balloon with a safety pin. Stickers in the shapes of a heart smiley face, flowers, and butterflies are randomly affixed around the balloon; it’s as if there were no thought or gigantic budget attached to it at all. At first glance, the design can be seen as just another cover from the latest teen icon who, to many, is redefining young heartache, but look closer and the DNA strands of a long-used, and mostly re-appropriated, fashion leak through. This is something I’ll call sleepovercore, or the sleepover aesthetic, a fashion that, while crystalizing the teenage-girl experience and the eternal teenage space, can also rob girls of their agency.
Imagination goes stale if somebody else is making it for you.
Sleepovercore is an amalgamation of stickers, pastel walls, girls looking out of their windows, soft lighting, balloons purposefully abandoned on the floor. You can find traces of sleepovercore in photographs by Petra Collins, whose portraits of teen girls in their bedrooms were popular on Tumblr; you can see it in the now-folded Rookie magazine, a publication made by and for teenage girls; it’s in a lack of punctuation and upper-case lettering, nostalgia, and, of course, collage, a dimension created from the remnants of what might have gone ignored had it not caught the gaze of a young girl, screaming out to her saying, “Take me out of this scene and make me yours!”
Moxie, Amy Poehler’s feminist, coming-of-age film on Netflix, uses the collage corner of the sleepover aesthetic to tell a story of a teenager who creates a zine dedicated to combatting sexual harassment at her high school. This collage moment is directly taken from the riot grrrl movement, during which bands like Bikini Kill incorporated zine making into their music scene. Stapled together and featuring text scribbled in Sharpie and images hastily cut out with scissors, these zines with names like “Germ Girl” showcased young women making loud, anti-capitalist statements and declaring agency for themselves in an industry ruled by men. But unlike the zine counter culture that it borrows its aesthetic from, Moxie is a film on a streaming platform with a $25 million budget, starring a thin, able-bodied white girl living in the suburbs. Sleepovercore combines a nostalgia for millennials, as well as a visual culture for people who are currently teen girls, to get a rise out of us, to make us jump up and down and feel like we just lost our virginity. This is a huge part of Rodrigo’s success; her use of this aesthetic gives us the immediate romance of teenage-hood and a yearning for a simpler time. Is it truly embodying DIY if somebody else is doing it for you? Imagination goes stale if somebody else is making it for you.
Above all, sleepovercore values the underdog, a concept that implies a lack of privilege and access to resources; an emergence from the bottom that brings about a need for a DIY aesthetic. You want to root for them, because they are scrappy, because they have been wronged, whether by society or by an ex. Rodrigo’s Sour soars, because she has been slighted, been the subject of gossip, and it’s finally her turn to make a name for herself. But there is nothing DIY about having a production team and a large budget and being, well, a Disney star. Sleepovercore stops being about being seen, and becomes more about how to sell being relatable. The edginess that the sleepover aesthetic gives—this pushing against the innocent constraints of girlhood—also implies a presumed innocence of white teenage girlhood. It assumes whiteness, and it also assumes a certain class privilege: You live in the suburbs; you have a room to yourself to set on fire. Women of color of different class backgrounds invented punk, but many presume riot grrrl to be a movement for wealthy white women with baby bangs. Hilton Als once described the white girl as a person who is “visible and marginalized at the same time.” We are seeing only a certain kind of teenager feel a certain kind of pang. But also, this pang is all we were expecting from her anyway.
Sleepovercore stops being about being seen, and becomes more about how to sell being relatable.
Not too long ago another celebrity used sleepovercore while undergoing public scrutiny after a breakup. The cover art for Ariana Grande’s single “Thank U, Next,” uses the same collage-style lettering, but against a pinky-purple background with a randomly placed lipstick kiss mark instead of stickers. Looking at it, you picture a girl holding up a piece of pastel cardboard paper and stamping it with her own pout—you don’t imagine a designer on Photoshop using the stamp tool. Grande’s accompanying music video nostalgically draws from rom-coms of the early 2000s in the same way that Rodrigo’s “Good 4 U” draws from cult coming-of-age films of the same era. The use of nostalgia combined with the collage design, backed by a production team, gives us the impression that stars are just like us.
So what does sleepovercore look like with an artist who does not have a major label and is less visible? Mia Berrin of Pom Pom Squad, an indie-pop punk band that often uses teenage iconography in their music videos, says that she was drawn to the social status and strength she saw in the cheerleaders of her high school. “What if I decided that was me now?” she says. “What if I put that uniform on and now it’s a punk band?” Having been sexualized from an early age as a woman of color, she also says, “When I saw this gaze that was by teenage girls for teenage girls, it felt safer for me. It created a more alternative space where I could be young that wasn’t defined by being skinny and hot.” Berrin took the prized image of the cheerleader and redefined it in her own alternative space, creating a gaze on her own terms. It’s important to note that Berrin is in her early 20s, far enough away from the trauma of high school to have perspective and make art about it.
Berrin took the prized image of the cheerleader and redefined it in her own alternative space
In her fantastic essay on the Britney Spears documentary, Tavi Gevinson argues that it’s impossible to have agency in an industry ruled by men. The much-analyzed Rolling Stone cover, featuring Spears in tiny pajama shorts and a bra, splayed out suggestively on a bed, snuggling a Teletubby in one arm and holding a corded phone to her ear with the other, reads, “Inside the Heart, Mind & Bedroom of a Teen Dream.” Looking at this image decades later, it’s clear the way executives used and sexualized the raw feelings of a teenager. But we are still romanticizing the ephemeral teenage space today and paying to be inside the heart, mind, and bedroom of a teen dream. I love how confessional Rodrigo is, how her lyrics seem to be almost ripped out of a composition notebook. I’m touched by the scrappiness of The Linda Lindas, the teenage all-girl band that started singing in a public library and gained fame from Moxie.
Sleepovercore has adult fans nostalgic for a long-gone time in their lives; place the teenage girl in the liminal space of her bedroom or a high school gymnasium or at her kitchen table, and ask her to stay there. In this space, desire and angst pumps through the teenage girl’s veins. We categorize this yearning into the bedazzled heart-shaped box of a teenage girl, and for that reason, it’s often seen as less: a silly emotion she should grow out of once she graduates, and not a universal one that is inherent in every person with a pulse.
“It’s brutal out there,” Rodrigo almost screams without leaving her sugary-pop register. We hear her wanting to get out of this teenage space where she isn’t loved the way she wants to be, driving her car through the suburbs with only her desire as a GPS, because she doesn’t actually have a destination. I’ve always thought that this desire was powerful. I’ve carried it with me through my teenage years and into my adulthood. It’s the only way I believe I can still be an artist: by keeping this undefinable want that started to sprout within in me when I was 15, drawing on my jeans in Sharpie and outlining my hand on scrap paper, waiting for somebody to love me.
A sleepover doesn’t last. The sun, despite everything, comes up. Your fit-filled dream ends just as your crush is about to kiss you. This teenage space is eternal until your body doesn’t let you be in it anymore. It isn’t enough to constantly redefine or reclaim an aesthetic that doesn’t have us in mind. What defines girlhood isn’t a sleepover or a kiss on cardboard paper, etchings over somebody’s face in a yearbook. What defines girlhood is the simple, universal desire of wanting more than this, and teenage girls do deserve more.
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