"Serotonin" by Girl In Red is the Unglamorous Look At Living With Mental Illness We Need


Today's review is a bit different because I'm reviewing someone I'm not already a fan of. Usually, I stick to talking about an artist I already know inside and out, but today, I'm focusing on Girl In Red instead. She's previously toured with Conan Gray, and I have plenty of friends who like her music already, so she's been on my radar for a while. She's not a complete departure from my usual musical loop. I even had "Midnight Love" on a playlist over the summer. But I'm coming into this without a ton of context. 

I saw everyone talking about "Serotonin"'s release and noticed that Finneas produced it, so I decided I would check out the first single of her debut album era. While the album isn't set to drop till April 30th, there are already a handful of songs out in anticipation of if I could make it go quiet. I went in tentatively, but the candor in the lyrics immediately hooked me in. Girl In Red takes on the ugly, unglamorous side of mental illness. The other side of the awful manic pixie dream girl coin. Intrusive thoughts. 

While this is a topic that's definitely been danced around in plenty of major pop songs, it's refreshing and a bit jarring to listen to Girl In Red so bluntly spell out something I experience daily. An issue that is so fundamentally misunderstood. The production itself adds to that feeling of chaos. It's cohesive only in the sense that it aligns with the style that comes through in other Girl In Red songs. I'm not a huge fan of the way that her vocals tend to be presented, and the double tracked melodic talking in the middle of this track threw me off on my initial listen. The sonic elements are easy to warm up to, though, and even on just my second listen, I was already more comfortable. Her music has a rough edge and definitely finds a unique place in the sometimes carefully polished world of indie pop music. Interestingly, Finneas's signature production quirks are nowhere to be found on this record, which is honestly a strength of his as a producer. 

I do really love how the chorus opens up and gets dreamy as she soars through looking for serotonin, and I think it's smart to open with that chorus instead of the more sonically unapproachable verses. She starts by lamenting her brain chemistry in a highly relatable way, "I'm running low on serotonin/Chemical imbalance got me twisting things/Stabilize with medicine/There's no depth to these feelings". I connect with the way she acknowledges that the chemical imbalance twists her perception because there are plenty of discussions about what chemical imbalances are but not about the direct effect that it has on your life and your worldview. Also, the assertion that there's no depth to the feelings is so important because living with mental illness, it's sometimes hard to know what you're actually feeling and thinking vs what your depression or intrusive thoughts are wanting you to feel. She finishes the chorus with, "Dig deep, can't hide/From the corners of my mind/I'm terrified of what's inside". It's the painful, eternal truth of what makes any kind of illness so troubling. It's fundamentally tied to you, and you're carrying it around regardless of what it does to you. 

The verses focus on detailing the specifics of what this lack of serotonin is doing to her and more details about what form exactly her intrusive thoughts take. "I get/Intrusive thoughts like cutting my hands off/Like jumping in front of a bus/Like how do I make this stop," she laments. The bus line is definitely relatable. It's like the magnetic pull when you're on the roof of the building. The feeling that you'll fall over the side. Or when you wonder what it would be like to stick your finger into a candle. I drive as little as possible because the entire time, I have intrusive thoughts about swerving into other lanes or accidentally hitting someone. They're just thoughts that I don't control or act on, but they're still terrifying. 

She continues, "When it feels like my therapist hates me/Please don't let me go crazy". Here, she's touching on maybe the most popular intrusive thought "everybody hates me" but specifying it to her therapist, the person who should be helping her as a safe space, shows just how far the irrational thoughts extend. How they directly work against you helping yourself. "Put me in a field with daisies/Might not work but I'll take a maybe/Oh, been breaking daily/But only me can save me/So I'm capitulating/Crying like a fucking baby". Capitulating is a word that should be used in songs more often because it just sounds good. These lyrics scrape at a desperation to feel better and the constant nature of dealing with mental health before coming to the ultimate realization. The most frustrating part of dealing with mental illness is that even when you feel out of control, you're the only person who can take that back and course correct. No one else can do it for you. It's both an empowering and isolating reality depending on the day.

There's a brief break of screaming or yelping before looping into the more etherial chorus. Then she gets into the longest verse. This song is interesting in structure because it's chorus forward, only has two verses, and doesn't have a lyrical bridge. But it's built that way to serve the song's central message that is best delivered through the thesis of the chorus and the extreme detail of the verses. 

This second collection of details starts in the same format as before, accounting for a few intrusive thoughts, "I get/Intrusive thoughts/Like burning my hair off/Like hurting somebody I love/Like does it ever really stop?". That last line resonates deeply because living with those constant, violent thoughts is exhausting. I like how colloquial and raw sprinkling in filler words like "ever" and "really" into that strong of a declarative statement is. It makes the song more accessible. 

"When there's control I lose it/Incredibly impulsive/So scared I'm gonna end up doing something stupid/But I try to contain it/On it gets draining/It's like my heart is failing". It's interesting to go for a simile in the last line instead of the bluntness of saying declaratively that her heart is failing. It has that doubtfulness and removed impression that works to make it more relatable. She's the author, and she's not even sure. "Every night I'm contemplating/My inner voices saying "tough"/So I try to brush it off/Yeah, try to brush it off". The song isn't offering a solution. There's just picking yourself up when you fall down and continuing on, which is the unfortunate reality. She demonstrates a significant amount of strength, both being vulnerable about her pain and ultimately brushing it off to keep going. 

The final chorus wraps with, "I'm terrified of what's inside", which seems like an apt conclusion for a song as revealing as this one. Written solely by Girl In Red and co-produced with Finneas and Matias Tellez, the song is allowed to find its emotional wings in its honesty. The sometimes crushing production style ultimately feels like a weaving pathway through the scary corners of her brain. Though, maybe they aren't scary. Maybe they're illuminating or comforting if you're someone like me who intrinsically understands what she's saying before she's even fully articulated the thought. 

As discussing mental health is getting more and more accepted in society, people still shy away from discussing the dark, icky parts of mental illness that isn't as cute on the outside as lining everything up or as sanitary as scrubbing down a bathroom. Even in those behaviors, no one wants to address the way that soap eats away at people's skin or what's happening in your mind as the spiral intensifies. If you want more reading on the topic of intrusive thoughts, John Green's book Turtles All The Way Down excellently handles the subject. I'm glad Girl In Red is giving a voice to her intrusive thoughts in a way that hopefully offers her a bit more agency over them. For her fanbase of primarily young teens and women, I think it's important for music to continue normalizing realities they're probably all too familiar with but maybe haven't heard discussed so publicly- if at all. 

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