In an article about the singer-songwriter Ethel Cain, a frame from her music video "American Teenager" featuring the singer in a cheerleading outfit.

Ethel Cain Is the Gen-Z Voice of Southern Gothic

The singer-songwriter expresses today's youthful frustrations through her literary musical style.
April 27, 2023
9 mins read

Ethel Cain was born in Shady Grove, Alabama. It’s the type of place with a one-room church or a liquor store on every corner. Her father, Joseph, was a preacher and a devout man of God. He raised his daughter to follow in his footsteps, but as she grew older, high-collared dresses suffocated her, and the Bible verses she knew by heart felt heavy on her tongue. As a teenager, Cain fled to Nebraska to escape her strict upbringing. There, she met the love of her life, Willoughby Tucker. But that went sour. Devastated, Cain succumbed to the crushing violence of a man named Isaiah. He ate away at her until her lifeless body was found in California, buzzing with flies and gnawed to the bone. She leaves behind her white-hot spirit, which lives on in a preacher’s daughter from Perry, Florida.

Ethel Cain is the brainchild of 25-year-old singer-songwriter Hayden Anhedönia. On her 20th birthday, she came out as a transgender woman. Shortly after, Ethel came to her. “I saw [in my mind] this woman standing in a field with her hair pulled back in a little bun and her little school teacher prairie outfit, and I was like, “Who is that?” Cain is half-fact, half-fiction — her story is Anhedönia’s invention, but her spirit represents real experiences. In 2019, Anhedönia released “Carpet Bed,” her first EP under the Ethel Cain persona. It was quickly followed by “Golden Age” and then “Inbred.” In May 2022, Anhedönia released Ethel’s full story in “Preacher’s Daughter,” her first album. (This article will refer to the artist as Ethel Cain, who is credited as the writer and producer of the albums and EPs.)

Inspired by everything from alternative rock to Gregorian chants, Cain’s music paints a sublime image of Americana. Stark piano chords echo in a bleak soundscape. Gauzy synths wallow under the weight of brutal guitar riffs and rattling bass lines. At the core of it all is Cain’s full voice, which muses on lost love, religious trauma and misogynistic violence. “[The music] was inspired by my kind of 180 back to the South, and falling in love with the old barns … and the mythology and the mystery of the pictures under your grandmother’s bed,” she says. Shady Grove’s prodigal daughter finds the beauty and terror in rural life. She conjures images of once-flowering fields, now deserted and left for dead.

Ethel Cain joins a rich heritage of Southern Gothic art. An offshoot of American Gothic, Southern Gothic is a literary movement that explores the mysticality and decay of Southern identity. Common themes include social tension, substance abuse, alienation, and violence. Historically, works in this sub-genre emphasize the hopelessness that plagued white Southerners after the Civil War. The defeated Confederacy faced rapid social change. As African Americans gained economic independence, white Southerners became unsure of their place in an integrated society. The plantation life they once glorified was now pointless, and they were left with crippling debts. They weaponized this fear, targeting Black Southerners through racist legislation and outright violence. Several notable 20th-century authors in the Southern Gothic genre include William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor.

Cain draws on this same feeling — the broken promise of the American dream — with a more inclusive slant. Her music examines the present-day frustrations of Generation Z. American teens and young adults are coming of age in a time marked by political turmoil. Regressive laws are sweeping across the country, ranging from the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade to states banning drag performances. In the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, most major cities have callously increased funding for police departments. On the economic front, young people Are struggling to find jobs and pay off student loan debt amid the skyrocketing cost of living.

Across the board, Gen Z is tired. The America we grew up in promised that hope was on the horizon: the country was recovering from the 2008 recession, and Obama’s second term indicated shifting social tides. But that myopic millennial optimism seems unrealistic now in the wake of heightened political polarization and the COVID-19 pandemic. Ethel Cain’s music highlights this feeling of social corrosion. As we learn the character’s story, we learn the story of a generation. Over 13 tracks, “Preacher’s Daughter” crescendos from a sermon to a banshee scream. It’s the cry of a lost woman—a devout daughter who trusted faith, family and love, and ended up dead.

Most of Cain’s songs tackle the corruption of social institutions, such as government, education and religion. “American Teenager,” her breakout song, is a searing indictment of the American military, which targets low-income high school students and encourages them to enlist in combat positions. “The neighbor’s brother came home in a box / But he wanted to go so maybe it was his fault / Another red heart taken by the American dream,” Cain sings. The song continues: “But say it like you mean it with your fists for once / A long, cold war with your kids at the front.”

She also addresses abusive relationships, social ostracization, self-harm, drug use and school shootings in “Head in the Wall.” Songs like “Sunday Morning” and “Ptolemaea” reference a loss of faith as well as gendered violence. “House in Nebraska” encapsulates the undercurrent of nostalgia that buoys up Cain’s songs: “And I still call home that house in Nebraska…Where you came and I laughed, and you left and I cried.” Even her happy moments are bittersweet because they are long-past memories. Ethel Cain echoes the sentiments of American youth who feel that, if things were ever good, those days are long gone.

The content of Cain’s music isn’t the only reason she appeals to Gen Z. Like most young people, she’s active on social media (she’s @mothercain on Tumblr and Twitter). Cain often raises awareness about social issues online, often defending women who have faced misogynistic violence. She’s also reminiscent of the 2010s alternative pop singers who also embodied personas, like Lana del Rey, Marina and the Diamonds and Melanie Martinez. By merging contemporary ideas with old-fashioned aesthetics, Cain highlights the timelessness of struggle. Ultimately, she reminds her fans that they aren’t the first generation to face difficulties. If they can keep that in mind, maybe there’s hope. Maybe Ethel won’t have died in vain.

Elizabeth Fulton, Emory University

Writer Profile

Elizabeth Fulton

Emory University
Film and Media Studies, English and Creative Writing

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