Female Songwriters Who Re-Popularized an Old Folk Style: Stream of Consciousness Lyrics

In the last five years, female singer-songwriters, primarily in folk/rock, have driven the popularity of “stream-of-consciousness" lyricism. Led by the likes of Phoebe Bridgers and her contemporaries, these writers construct their works through deconstructing traditional lyrical tropes.

While much of popular music is defined by clichéd phraseology and lazy metaphors, these fresh faces are redefining the ways we talk about our most popular themes. However, they are not the first to ever employ this sort of writing style.

The folk and folk/rock music we enjoy today stems from a long tradition. American folk is perhaps the nation’s most encompassing genre of all, ultimately giving birth to other American genres such as country, blue grass, blues, rock, R&B, gospel, and more. It began with simple, uneducated players of all races and creeds, sitting on the front porch with a guitar or various makeshift instruments, telling stories to each other through song.

In this respect, folk has not changed. Much of it is defined not only by its instrumentation, but also by its rugged and simplistic lyrics, often used economically to tell stories. Considered traditionally to be an unsophisticated genre, pioneering artists in the 1960s-1970s like Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Simon & Garfunkel took the working-class genre and revived it to a Pulitzer-worthy status.

For example, Simon & Garfunkel’s “America” (1968) employed the power of folk’s storytelling lyrics and combined it with one of the first hints of the stream-of-consciousness writing seen from (mostly) female artists today. The stream-of-consciousness style is often defined by its lack of consistent rhyme and its ad-libbed feel. This is captured in “America” through the following lines:  

“Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces
She said the man in the gabardine suit was a spy
I said, be careful, his bowtie is really a camera”

These lyrics are full of hyper-specific, presumably real-life situations which are told with a shocking candor. What makes this device so impactful for this style is its outright rebellion from grandiose metaphors. Stream-of-consciousness songwriting is the rejection of romanticism, providing a bare canvas for the listener to project their own reactions onto without being dictated how to feel by the writer.

Today, artists, like the aforementioned Bridgers, have mastered this art set forth by previous folk legends and started a trend for the latter 2010s. While it is not only women who have adopted this style, some of its greatest promoters are powerful women, including Bridgers’ friends - Julien Baker and Lucy Daucus - along with newcomers like NoSo.

In her song, “Smoke Signals,” Bridgers seems casual, as if the listener is an intimate friend of hers, invited to hear how it really all went down. Instead of the typical disconnect between listener and singer, stream-of-consciousness writers hold out a hand to invite you into the scene directly. It challenges the belief that being too personal could cause a song to not connect universally.

These folk/rock artists employing the stream-of-consciousness style have managed to inspire other genres, seeping into bedroom and dream pop with rising artist, Clairo, as well as indie rock with Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail, and even rappers like Hobo Johnson. While it may seem too jarring and off-the-cuff to some, the style has altered the landscape of female songwriting and certainly will continue to inspire more writers in the coming years.

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